First Impressions-Georgetown, MalaysiaReading Time: 6 minutes
When speaking to my friend about my upcoming trip to Penang, she insisted I stop through George Town. Without any further research, this drove my decision to base myself there during my visit to the region. On arriving at Penang airport, I followed the instructions I had received from the Magpie Residence (hostel), and took a bus to Komtar, a mall in the town centre. I later discovered that Komtar is a symbolic building in Penang. A bit of a white elephant, as the tallest skyscraper built in 1986 as part of a revitalisation project and consists of retail outlets, a transportation hub and admin offices for the Penang state government, however does not generate as much for the economy as it eats up in maintenance costs. Komtar felt to me, like any the centre of a modern city due to the various shops and the cabs on the side of the road. Well, so I thought.
I took a cab to the hostel and, as we drove, I looked out of the window in wonder, hoping not to miss anything that could be of interest in this place I would be staying for the next few days. Initially, I thought it interesting that the buildings were a bit old and rustic however, driving further into George Town, I realised that some of the buildings were not just rustic, but grungy looking and at times dilapidated.
It was definitely not where I wanted to stay. I froze, when the taxi driver eventually stopped in front of the hostel. The hostel itself looked alright, but stood facing a carpark that looked like the remains of a battered and unloved existence.
Prior to this trip, I took pride in my desire and ability to flex into any environment, yet in that moment every cell in my body wanted to leave. I wanted to cry, ‘How on earth can I stay here! This is not the lesson I want to learn from my travels’. The internet connection was so poor that I could not even go online and try to book different accommodation for the evening.
I needed to change my money to pay for the hostel, therefore received directions to the ‘bank’. As I walked and saw houses with cracked windows, clutter and dirt on the road, I felt terribly uneasy. It felt like I was in an ‘unsafe’ part of town. There weren’t many people around, and when I saw the occasional person, my imagination ran wild and I scrambled as far as I could to the other side of the road.
The ‘bank’ was what we, Zimbabweans, would call a tuck shop. I stood outside a shop separated from the merchant, who changed my USD to Malaysian Ringitts, by what looked like iron burglar bars. This did nothing to ease my nerves. What if someone saw me, and they knew I had money because I had just gone there? Was it safe to walk back on my own?
I used a different route to walk back to the hostel, which was much cleaner and looked relatively more modern, and was very relieved when I finally arrived back at the hostel. I told myself that, the following morning, I would make it a point to go and find an internet café so that I could find alternate accommodation in another suburb of Penang.
Magpie Residence was a qwerky hostel, with capsule rooms which made me feel like was in my own space.
As I unpacked my bag, a few other travellers, who were also staying there, returned from their day of exploration. We spoke about their travels and they shared what they were doing in Malaysia. I made sure to ask them specifically about their experience in George Town and what to expect, after which I mentioned my first impressions of my journey which they empathised with. I had clearly not done much research, which was not frowned upon with this crowd as backpackers are known to get on a bus to go to a different city because someone mentioned something ‘interesting’ about it which they just had to see for themselves.
It turns out that George Town is the capital of the state of Penang, and the second biggest city in Malaysia. It was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status together with Malacca, further South of Malaysia, in 2008. George Town’s UNESCO status is because it was noted to have ‘unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia‘. There is a buffer zone, in the oldest part of the city, another area where I was staying, which has many restrictions including some development bans that prevent construction of structures in excess of 18m high and special permissions are required for any development in the area. In this part of town, one can find hindu temples, old shophouses, indian muslim mosques and the city’s oldest wet markets. One can find shop houses that still manufacture shoes, build furniture, or even bakeries operating as they did over 30 years ago! This can be quite cool to observe as we hardly get to see the manufacturing of goods on a regular basis.
It may have looked a little dirty and grungy, but it was not because it was in a ‘rough’ area but more because it was a buffer zone with natural deterioration on the existing structures. Once I understood this, it was much easier to relax and explore the city for what it was, with its eclectic street art around every corner, which could keep one entertained for days.
I was able to explore different parts of the city, giving me a little more of an appreciation of the different people that inhabited it and where they had come from. There was a China Town as well as Little India, each serving treats and goods from the respective countries and cultures.
In the end, it turned out to be quite an enjoyable stay, and I had the advantage of being able to explore George Town, daytime provisions and nightlife, without having to leave to go elsewhere to sleep.
My experience of staying in George Town can be summarised by the words of Wayne Dyer- ‘If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change’.
Have you every arrived to a new place where you were supposed to be staying for a few nights, but found yourself wanting to check out instead?