As Amir’s Toyota pickup sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust in the late afternoon heat, I watched the sun slowly set over the calm, distant waters of the Malacca Strait. I wasn’t quite sure where on the island I was, or where one should go to find a place to sleep for the night, but seeing as the darkness had already snuck up and settled over the surrounding mountainous terrain, I paused for a moment to reflect and take everything in.
We had left the ominous storm clouds back on the mainland, which were drifting East towards the tea plantations that blanketed the hillsides of the Cameron Highlands, leaving us with only the warmth of the tropical afternoon sun. The coffee that Amir had treated me to at the rest station, despite being some form of instant coffee, probably the ‘3-in-1’ packages that had been seemingly ubiquitous in the Philippines and popular here in Malaysia as well, was actually surprisingly good and had just begun to take effect. Bit where to go? In front of me, a wide road with whizzing traffic stretched North along the coast. Behind me, a group of local men had stepped outside of their ramshackle houses and formed a circle, preparing to kill several chicken as their wives carried rice to a small, wooden table by the street and the children climbed a nearby tree. Somewhere, there should have been a bus stop, yet none of the buses in the flood of headlights seemed to be slowing down.
Balancing along the thin strip of concrete between the wire fence and the steep, rocky slope that bordered the road, I traversed about 150 meters to a circular opening in the wire. Crawling through, I continued along the tarmac, debating whether to stick my thumb out or just walk for a bit longer. Then, I came to a rectangular, dirt clearing in the grass, roughly 5 meters long and 3 meters wide, with deep tire tracks, tons of rubbish, and splattered drops of dry, purple paint. I wondered if this was the bus stop near which Amir had intended on dropping me off, if anyone could even reasonably call this a bus stop. But I wasn’t left in the dark for too long, as the rubbish flew out in a million different directions from under the massive tires of a newly arriving bus, deepening the tracks that served as the only indication of the stop’s existence. Packed like sardines, the locals on the bus begrudgingly shuffled in no particular direction in an effort to open up a spot, and as I squeezed in and enjoyed the surprising whiff of air conditioning, I wondered where the bus was going.
At the last stop of that relatively quick bus ride, I discovered something unexpected. It was almost as if we had gone through a wormhole, completely transforming the surroundings. The wide roads had narrowed into a network of much smaller, more compact streets. Bus stops materialized, accompanied by clean sidewalks. Noodle soup stands crowded the street corners, catering to dozens of small tables with even smaller plastic stools, filling the air with a captivating, savory aroma. And with the sunrise the following morning, ornate buildings of colonial-era architecture revealed themselves, a foreign sight to Southeast Asia-accustomed eyes. A European feel transcended the neighborhood, heightened by the occasional sighting of a double decker bus. Accompanied by a unique diversity, a colorful, cultural blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian, complimented by a diverse religious canvas and a wealth of proper ethnic cuisine, the city bustled in it’s unparalleled, harmonious ebb and flow. At that last stop, I discovered a neighborhood that would welcome me for the ensuing week…I discovered a city full of beauty and surprises…at that last stop, I discovered George Town.
Turning the corner from the Kapitan Keling Mosque, which happens to be located on the intersection of Buckingham and Pitt street, one is quickly surrounded by door front Chinese offering and prayer altars, as well as decorations for the upcoming Spring Festival, on the quick walk to the local Burmese Buddhist temple.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, George Town also offers cleverly integrated and creatively presented street art, tucked away in odd corners and small alleys, presenting a worthwhile scavenger hunt in the midday heat.
“Part of the beauty of spontaneous traveling is uncovered upon arriving somewhere, having never heard of the area prior to that moment, lacking any knowledge whatsoever about the surroundings, the history, the culture, etc., and then being pleasantly surprised, educated and humbled.” – the sentence I originally intended to begin this post with, finding a better home at the end.