I caught an Uber to the intriguingly named ‘Love Lane’ in Georgetown. The wise driver told me that the local Chinese say rich men kept their mistresses here. Upon first glance, it didn’t seem as seedy and sordid as that story sounds.
I checked into my hostel in and dropped my bag in the dorm. The last time I stayed in a dorm room I was on a Year 7 school trip! Within moments I could hear some almighty banging drums, reminiscent of a carnival. Across the road a crowd gathered at a temple to watch a giant dragon dancing. There was no way I’d be catching any zzzzz’s here.
I returned to my room to freshen up and discovered my bag was now outside. The apologetic host had placed me in the all-female dorm by mistake. Luckily I avoided a potentially awkward situation. Nevertheless, I got settled and typically I had the top bunk. I knew that after a late night, climbing this ladder will prove to be a challenge. My miserable roomies were from France and you couldn’t buy a smile from them.
I popped out to grab some food in the nearby ‘Little India’. The streets had become busier than when I arrived and you could sense a buzz about this place. The bars were heaving, the restaurants were packed and although I had to walk on the road for part of the time, I didn’t feel unsafe. There was a humidity and a strong aroma of spices in the air as I wandered along Lebuh Chulia, trying to locate a nice chill out spot.
I stumbled across Why Not? which looked pretty trendy from its decor and was one of the few places which didn’t blast really loud music. The bar was equipped with a giant plasma screen, where people were playing GTA. I got talking to the barman Sam and his friend Heather. Both are Georgetown locals, but you wouldn’t think it based on appearance. Sam was born in New Zealand but raised in Malaysia and Heather was mixed race. I tapped into their local knowledge and they described Georgetown’s unique island feel to me.
The bar had only been open a fortnight and was still trying to drum up trade. What started as a chilled out affair, became quite wild within hours when a group of ‘party hostel’ stayers arrived as part of their bar crawl. The volume had increased, the drinks were flowing and the place was getting more claustrophobic. As people started to dance on top of the bar, it was a good sign for me to vacate the scene. I needed my energy for exploring the next day.
After checking #georgetown on Instagram I came to realise that the area is a ‘Mecca’ for street art, particularly made famous by the efforts of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. I pinned my favourite pieces on my map and curiously spent the day locating them like Pokémon. Having said that, I came across families chasing Pokémon. It’s quite amusing seeing grown men and women trying to ‘catch’em all’. Each mural was impressive in its own right and there was a lot more detail involved compared to what I’d seen before in other parts of the world. Each piece had character. I’ve shared a selection below. As I continued walking I was starting to melt in the heat. The humidity and rays were affecting me more here than anywhere else in Malaysia.
I passed through the vibrant Little India in daylight. Bollywood beats blaring from each corner, some of it religious given the Hindu community. I picked up a greasy street samosa for a pittance and cooled off with a fresh coconut. I passed through Chinatown and came across intricate Chinese architecture. It felt like another town in itself. I walked and sweated into the Town Hall area. Every pillar and archway represented the hallmarks of colonies past.
I came across a park with a circle of giant ‘buddy bears’, representing all of the nations of the world. I really felt Penang Island embodied unity, a place where people of all religions and backgrounds coexist side-by-side.
Later that evening I returned to Why Not? to see Sam. I also got speaking to the Irish bar manager, Stephen. After giving GTA a go, I got their recommendation for the best Nasi Kandar, a dish synonymous with Penang. It consists of rice with a variety of curries and vegetables. I headed to Nasi Kandar Beratur – a tiny hut next to a mosque which opens from 10pm. I was warned to arrive early to beat the queues. The last time I saw a queue this large was for Oceana and I wasn’t going to leave smelling of cheap Red Bull here. My expectations grew after queuing for around 40 minutes. Perched on a stool with strangers for company, I tucked into the chicken, lamb and veg. It was delicious and easily the best dish I’d eaten in Malaysia.
Once I’d gorged down the curry I walked by a bar and heard a familiar accent inviting me in. Victoria, originally from the East End had moved to Thailand a few years ago and was here for a few weeks before returning to work in Thailand. She introduced me to two other travellers – James and Nikki, who’d both recently quit their jobs. I was fascinated by all of their stories and they’d only met the night before but already plotted a Thai adventure together. That’s the thing about travelling, your paths cross with so many people and occasionally you meet people that you really click with. James described his recent experiences in China where he barely found anyone speaking English and talked in detail about his impending trips. Like myself he’s curious about people and has a passion to see the world.
The following afternoon I sadly returned to KL. I was tired and had an early night in my dormitory. This time I was in the bottom bunk 🙂 In the morning I had breakfast at the popular Mansion Tea Stall for a cup of teh tarik and roti canai. At 9am it was filled to capacity. I think the teh here is a level above anything I’d had before and I could understand quite quickly why it was so lauded.
After a few cups, I had an unfortunate task of buying more wallets from Petaling Street market for my brother-in-law. I was in no mood for bartering. I went into ‘bastor’ mode and set my price – ‘take it or leave it’ offer. I left with four purses and two wallets, don’t ask why. But I made sure it was quick.
Back at the hostel I bumped into my roomies, quite literally. I opened the door and couldn’t see beyond and looked up and heard someone say “hi!” Gray, a giant Canadian was as tall as the door itself. He’s touring Asia with George, an Englishman. I got chatting to the lads and we all answered the typical “what brings you here?” question. The lads had arrived here after completing their agriculture work in Australia to get an extended visa. What was refreshing to hear was how much they enjoyed the work, helping the local community and getting to know people on the farm. I’d agreed to meet them later on at the rooftop bar in the hostel.
I met Myra for dinner at Jalan Alor, famous for its street stalls. It was good to see her and we both bitched about work. As you do…She introduced me to the delicious Sangkaya coconut ice cream. I think I’ve mentioned my love for coconuts before.
Before meeting Gray and George, I made a call. I noticed one of the hostel staff members’ eavesdropping when he heard me speaking Bengali. After excitedly introducing himself, he interrogated me about the UK. I sensed he was seeking an exit from Malaysia and eventually he started to ask me about visas. Sadly, I don’t sell them!
I met up with the lads on the roof. We chatted for hours, about life in Australia and particularly about Vietnam as they were heading there next. I gave them some tips, especially a good tailor in Hoi An. Some weeks later I received a picture to show off their new GQ-like clobber which made me happy. My visa ‘friend’ resurfaced and harassed us about visas in the U.K., Australia and Canada. It was quite clear that he was desperate. I think we gave him the best possible advice we could and it did earn us some free beverages in the end.
In amongst the chatter I lost track of time and you often do when you’re having a good time. I needed to be at the airport for 6am and I’d returned to my room at 4.30am. I was cutting it fine but somehow I made it. I’d completely switched off on this trip. I felt relaxed, I’d eaten well and met some really good people. Maybe our paths will cross again some day. And this adventure gave me food for the thought before I roll the dice with my next venture.