I’ve been having massive writer’s block lately.
Every word has become a chore; it’s a struggle to put anything onto paper. So I’m taking a break from my normal style of posts to reflect on possibly my favourite place: George Town, Malaysia.
Exactly why I fell in love with George Town still eludes me. I once had an argument with another traveler who shouted, “George Town is not special!” On many levels, he was right.
George Town is touristy, the air is polluted and the streets are choked with traffic. It’s on a tropical island but the beaches are disgusting, oil slicks sit on the murky water. It’s a concrete wasteland that’s always uncomfortably humid; on the rare occasions when it’s not, the sun fries your skin.
Rats jump from the open sewers, crawling through the trash dumped in alleyways. To top it off, half the buildings are derelict, while others are modern monstrosities. And don’t get me started on the abysmal nightlife. Yet, I went there four times, and each departure was harder than the one before.
I’ll never forget my first arrival, when travel still had so much mystery and allure. Getting off the ferry at dawn, the streets were empty, the tropic’s embers waiting to burst into life with the sunrise. I walked along the old streets, the crumbling facades hidden by shadow. A whole world was waiting to be discovered.
I can never recapture that innocence I had, before traveling became repetitive and my naivety was lost. But perhaps that’s what kept drawing me back to George Town. Here, I never felt jaded.
My second visit came six months later, after I’d been to Indonesia, Laos, South Korea, Japan and Thailand. My travel experience had certainly broadened by this point.
Despite this, coming back to George Town again filled me with so much joy. Thrilled, I hopped off the ferry and walked through Little India, marveling at the aromas drifting from the tandoor ovens. It felt a bit like coming home.
I spent the next six weeks here with Eva, both of us trying to get our blogs off the ground. I also thought about what I wanted from life. That remained unsolved, but at least I had a lot of fun in the meantime.
I came to know George Town’s streets by heart, savouring Lebuh Kimberley’s sizzling woks and eating mounds of nasi kandar. I drank cendol like it was water and devoured dozens of roti canai.
It was hard to believe that I’d ever leave. When I finally did, it felt like a momentous event, there was real sadness in my heart. Would I ever see this place again? I’d occasionally ponder this question as I hitchhiked around Europe, shivered in the Himalayas, and floated on the Ganges.
Two and a half years later, the question was answered. I returned to South East Asia and made George Town my first stop. Why? There was no need to do this, it wasn’t like I had unfinished business.
There were also a million other destinations waiting to be discovered. Yet, George Town drew me back, this time with my friend Selita who I’d been traveling with in India.
It was my third time crossing the strait to George Town. This made me remember when I’d still been in New Zealand and was researching Malaysia. A photo of the ferry to George Town had appeared and it had made me so nervous. Weren’t boats in South East Asia always sinking?
Clearly, I’d changed a lot since this time. But George Town was the same, down to the people working at the street stalls and restaurants. I stopped in at my favourite nasi dalca place, and the same man was still serving there. Even more surprising, he remembered me, despite all the time that had passed.
I revisited my old haunts, seeking the familiar characters and the delicacies they served. Char kway teow, curry mee, asam laksa, duck kway chap, teh tarik, hainan chicken rice, kaya toast, and nasi lemak.
I walked the streets, soaking up the atmosphere that’s impossible to describe but which I can still sense even as I write this. I’d initially worried that staying for five nights was too long. Instead, it was much too short.
This feeling grew as Selita and I drank beers outside Antarabangsa Enterprise, chatting to the assortment of locals and backpackers. I’d been a different person when I’d sat on these plastic seats all those years ago, enjoying the cheap beer in the terribly hot weather.
Again I left George Town, this time on the final night of Ramadan. As I walked past the beautiful Kapitan Keling Mosque, the sky erupted into red, as if ordained by god. I felt crushed to be leaving, for this was surely the last time that I’d be here. But I was wrong.
I went to Borneo, hitchhiked to Brunei, then crossed into Indonesia. I returned to Malaysia, flew to Vietnam, then bused to China. I visited Hong Kong and Bangkok, before heading back to China. I finished off in Beijing and went to Kuala Lumpur, where I had a week until my flight home to Auckland. What came next was an easy choice.
I decided to spend the final week of my 3.5 years of traveling in George Town. I wanted to reflect on this crazy journey in a place which had so much personal significance for me.
Selita was here again too. On the last night we went to Restoran Kapitan, having tandoori chicken and garlic naan. We sat outside and looked at the mosque nextdoor, watching people crossing the road, some to buy fruit from the street vendors. These were the moments that I craved while traveling — great food and company in a humble setting.
After this we walked through Little India to the harbour, where the sun was setting on the strait. Muslim families had come to eat dinner beside the waterfront. We left and went over to the Goddess of Mercy Temple, where incense was smouldering beside bronze lions.
Across from this was a small Hindu shrine, where an archaka was blessing people. We then ate a fried oyster omelette on Chulia Street, before walking past the backpacker bars to a shop where I bought some Chinese tea to take home.
I had so many memories locked up in George Town. Holding hands on its streets with different people, trying new food, making discoveries. Always at a different stage in my life.
George Town was my travel genesis, the first place I loved and stayed at for a long time. So it was only appropriate that it ended here too. Perhaps I don’t need to find an explanation for why George Town captivated me so much. Simply feeling it is enough.
If you would like to read more about George Town, I’ve written some other articles, click on the links below: