A Taste of the Expat Life in Penang, Malaysia

The housekeeper walks in, takes one quick glance at the living room, declares the whole apartment ‘sparkly clean’ and proceeds to unpack two bags full of groceries. Apparently, we’re cooking curry today…and who’d dare argue with that?

Sanra is not the kind of lady with whom anyone would argue. Mostly because to ‘argue’ would mean you’d have to get a word in and there’s not much chance of that happening. In our glorious Penang high-rise apartment, where we are dog-sitting for the very first time, I’ve finally met my match. Our lovely Malay-Indian housekeeper has a talking speed of roughly a gazillion words a minute and, although she keeps apologizing profusely for not being able to speak English well, has the fluency and coherence of a politician. No, not Bush or Abbott…I mean a really good one. But I still can’t keep up.


1) Penang

It’s day 10 of our house-sitting gig and I’m panicked at the thought that in only 6 more days we’ll have to leave. Leave Doug, leave the fridge, the oven, the washing machine, the L-shaped lounge, the balcony overlooking the sea, the 7 swimming pools, fully-equipped gym and the glorious gourmet deli downstairs which sells every imaginable treat under the sun – at really reasonable prices. Sob.


My fave pool…the ‘beach corner’


This one’s not too shabby either, I guess…

View to the east

View to the east

Our daily sunsets...double sigh...

Our daily sunsets…double sigh…

Anyway, back to our housekeeper: arguably the most energetic and talkative woman I’ve ever met. Doug is basically the dog version of her, only in Pug form. How nature managed to pack so much enthusiasm, character and annoyance into a creature roughly the size, shape and colour of a loaf of unsliced wholemeal-bread, I’ll never know.


Life with Doug is a constant compromise. Five minutes’ work and an hour’s play. According to him, this constitutes fairness…


…but play is pretty much me, allowing him, to nibble on my ear lobe

Both Doug and Sanra have filled our days here in Penang with laughter, enlightenment, entertainment and love. Lots of love. Mostly from Doug, who enjoys nothing more than to wake us up with a tongue-bath at 5 am. If you’ve never had this kind of alarm clock, let me tell you, you don’t know what you’re missing. Sanra is a little more reserved when it comes to showing affection (thank fark for that) but she’s equally gorgeous. Her wisdomnesses come fast and thick too. I nearly choked on my coffee when she proudly stated to be ‘not racist at all’, and that she’d work for anyone….’as long as they’re not Chinese, Malay or Indian’. Or that time she told us we are SO lucky not to have children, because children grow up to marry some rude, arrogant girl called Anika who will only want to spend weekends with her parents. Sanra has two grown sons, from what I know, and going out on a crazy limb, I’m guessing one of them is married to a girl called Anika. I haven’t asked, lest I open a can of worms I’d have no way of containing.

But behind the extroverted and very colourful façade, Sanra actually hides quite a painful past. Forced to marry a man she did not love, and after suffering two decades of domestic abuse, she finally found the courage to leave him, only to have her family and community basically chastise her for divorcing. She’s born and bred Malay but it seems that the Indian roots run very deep, even here. Sanra keeps referring to ‘her community’ and now I know she means the Indian community in Malaysia. She says she doesn’t have many friends, she spends endless days cleaning houses of well-to-do expats, and that she actually loves to ‘break bread with new friends.’ So today, we’re cooking chicken curry together.


Whoever came up with this idea for us to delve into the world of dog & house sitting, is a real genius.

Oh…hang on…

Doug waiting for lunch. Doug is always waiting for lunch...

Doug waiting for lunch. Doug is always waiting for lunch…

Slightly better than cooking on a petrol-fueled camping stove. Slightly.

Slightly better than cooking on a petrol-fueled camping stove. Slightly.

Our 'backyard'

Our ‘backyard’

The star of the past fortnight, however, has really been Doug.

This little squirt of a rascal has managed to dig a spot so deep in our hearts, that we’re both completely besotted and dreading Monday morning, when we’ll have to say goodbye. I love everything about this little guy: the way he snores when he sleeps on his back, the different ways he barks when he wants attention, or a treat or a w.a.l.k. (with Doug, one soon learns not to throw that word around too easily) and the way he compulsively licks any exposed bit of human skin with which he comes in contact. It cracks me up that to sit, he doesn’t lower the front of his body, but allows his butt to slide backwards instead. He has an inexplicable obsession with carrots and is attached to us like Velcro.

He’s an absolute hoot to take for a walk and is known and loved by all fellow dog-walking neighbours. Of course he is. Doug’s a stud muffin…




Although, there seems to be a very defined split between large dog-owners and small dog-owners, which is something I’ve never understood. My favourite neighbourhood pooch is Spot, a pointer-like stray dog whom everyone else keeps at a distance, due to his large size. No-one else seems to have ascertained that Spot is just one big, huge marshmallow. I love him to bits and he, in return, loves Doug to bits. Every morning he waits for us down at the beach for our daily swim. Which entails me hanging on tight to Doug (turns out Pugs swim as if they had concrete shoes on) and splashing about the waves with Spot.

Life these days is just wonderful.


The X-rated photoshoot…

As if that’s not enough, we’ve met some really interesting people while out with Doug and it has opened a whole new side of Malaysia to us which we would never have experienced otherwise.

Alright, not really, it’s all about his adorable face…


Doug’s humans work for the Australian Air Force and we are living in a humongous, deluxe seaside complex on the north-eastern tip of Penang Island. The complex is owned and was built by the Sultan of Brunei – and about 50% of the tenants here are foreign. The RAF has a base in Butterworth, which is over an hour’s drive away, but apparently there’s nowhere ‘half decent’ where the families could live, on the mainland. Instead, they commute to and fro this wonderful – and very secure – condominium village. We spent a night in Butterworth on our way to Penang a few weeks ago and I must say: I would commute too. Even for two hours.

We’ve met Germans, Spaniards, Norwegians, British and Chinese foreigners, as well as quite a few affluent Malay. Penang boasts the third-largest economy in Malaysia and even though we spent the first two weeks in Georgetown, the UNESCO listed historic capital of the island; it was evident that this corner of the country is an absolute melting pot of nationalities, which is a prime indication of Malaysia’s eclectic history, much of it colonial. The proficiency of English-speaking locals here is outstanding and so far we’ve found everyone we’ve come across to be extremely friendly.

But the high fences and over-abundance of security guards at our complex had me perplexed. If Penang is indeed doing great and everyone – of differing race and religion – is getting on so well….what’s with the Fort-Knox type security?

Just to take Doug for a walk I need to swipe a keycard a few times to exit the complex, although mind you I’m now walking along a seafront promenade which has security, and gates, at either end. You need to show a key-card when walking – or driving – in and out and I’m fairly certain that if you simply tried to scale the six-foot high fence at some random point, you may or may not be shot in the head by a sniper.

Well, as is usually the case, not all that glistens is gold. Or something like that.

Although the crime rate in Penang is still manageable, foreigners and cashed-up-locals are the prime targets for burglaries, which are said to have become violent in recent years. As one of Doug’s girlfriend’s owner told me, if you can afford a TV and computer at home, then you couldn’t possibly live in an independent home, unless you want to replace your valuables every few months.

It appears that the Malaysian government has introduced measures which blatantly favour Bumiputeras, or indigenous Malay, something which is not going down well with locals of Indian (like our Sanra) or Chinese origin, of which there are millions here. Tensions are high, conflicts sporadic, blah blah blah that’s pretty much the story of the world at the moment, isn’t it? Yet there are Chinese and Indian Malays whose families have been here for over a thousand years!

Although, when all is said and done, whatever crime rates Malaysia boasts, they are still an absolute fraction of what they are next door, in Thailand, and indeed in our own western countries. This place is safe, welcoming and infinitely eclectic. And we like it.

Amazing noddle dish? that'll be $1 thanks!

Amazing noddle dish? that’ll be $1 thanks!

Penang is renowned for its hawker centres

Penang is renowned for its hawker centres


Just one of many locals who stopped us on the road...

Just one of many locals who stopped us on the road…

Gorgeous Georgetwon

Gorgeous Georgetown

Rightio, our curry is ready…gotta go.

Catch you guys from the Cameron Highlands!

Sans Doug 🙁


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4 Responses to A Taste of the Expat Life in Penang, Malaysia

  1. Diana White says:

    I just found your post and re-read it for the second time. I loved your story about Doug. Even though my husband and I are basically ” big dog” people, I am in love with Doug. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your story.


    • laurapattara says:

      Oh, thanks so much, Diana. You’ve just enticed me to re-read my old blog. Gosh…so you know we STILL talk about Doug and basically call every pug we meet by his name?! We’ve now had countless housesits in so many countries, but Doug in Penang is forever imprinted in our hearts. BTW, we also thought we were committed ‘big dog people’ but turns out we just hadn’t met a pug yet :)) All the best to you and your husband and happy travels

      • Diana White says:

        Thanks for your message. I had to laugh when I read it because I also now call every pug I see a “Doug Dog” after reading your post! We have just moved to Penang and living in Batu Ferrenghi and I always think about Doug.


        • laurapattara says:

          OMG, lucky you! You’ll have to go stalk Doug to see if they’re still living there!!! Covert op and all, big sunglasses, headscarf, nonchalant… :))) ENJOY all that glorious food, what a gorgeous island that is

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