My journey began with a phone call from India. My parents had just given me permission to take a solo trip over the weekend to Penang while I was staying with my uncle in Kuala Lumpur. I was ecstatic. I spent the longest week of my life waiting for Friday to arrive, I’d done my hostel booking, read up on the place and made a long list of things I wanted to cover and yet Friday just didn’t seem to arrive. However, when it did, a crippling fear suddenly seemed to have set in. I’d never really traveled alone, let alone in a foreign country where people spoke in a different language. There were a bunch of hypothetical situations whizzing around in my head all of which seemed to end with me messing up. Add to that the fear of finding no one to talk to all day. Thankfully I didn’t let these feelings fester and decided to board the bus anyway. I had not managed to sleep for the last two nights because of all the excitement and it had taken a toll on me. I slept like a baby during the eight hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. Opting for a comfortable but a slightly more expensive “Nice” bus seemed to have paid off.
Taxi Fare from bus stand to Chulia Street: Rs. 300
I reached my destination around 12:30 A.M. and was suddenly wide awake. It was too late to knock things off my well researched list, like heading out to the art filled streets of Georgetown or hitting the beach. It did however seem like the perfect time to get a flavour of the nightlife. So I quickly dumped my bags in Siok Hostel, a vey cosy hostel on Chulia Street (I’d recommend this place if you are ever headed that side), and decided to head out to the first club I saw.
It was this funky place called the “Reggae Mansion”. Being a shy Indian kid it took quite a few beers for me to move out of my comfort zone. When the beers did finally take effect I found myself trying to initiate conversation with other people who seemed to be alone, having realised that the scene in the Reggae Mansion was almost dead I decided to walk further. A few more pints later and further down this backpackers street in Penang I met a sweet Australian couple in their mid 30s, they were sitting outside a small pub singing and playing the guitar. They seemed friendly so we got to talking, they told me that they’d been travelling across South East Asia during the summer trying to pay for rent and booze through the musical gigs that they managed to get while I told them about my internship in Kuala Lumpur and what being a student in India was like. They sang their rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” on my request before I decided to call it a night and headed back for my hostel. It was a surreal feeling, in retrospect I wish I’d taken their numbers or at least had their names penned down (a mistake that I have been guilty of making quite a few times). I’d just spent a lovely evening with absolute strangers and it made for a beautifully bizarre memory. It didn’t hit me right then, but I was hooked. Over the course of my short stay in Penang my focus seemed to have shifted from covering the maximum number of destinations to actively seeking out people to share experiences with. On a lighter note I guess I learned having a few pints inside always helps.
Cost of a pint of tiger beer: ~Rs. 150
The next morning I woke up with a terrible hangover (which I am sure you would have figured by now). I went down to the reception where this really cute receptionist handed me a map and marked out the route that I should walk on. So I walked a few blocks ahead and when I was sure that I was out of her sight I started looking for cabs, but a quick look at my wallet had me realise that the opportunity cost of taking cabs was booze, a trade off which I wasn’t willing to make. This is where Irfan bhai came into the picture, I was trying to enquire how much it would cost to rent a scooty and the man on the counter had a tough time understanding what I was saying in English (My Malay was limited to Tandas which means toilet and Susu which means milk). Irfan bhai, the owner of the rental shop, quickly stepped in and seeing that I was a lost brown kid enquired if I spoke Hindi. He was a Bangladeshi man who also realised that he didn’t want to go through the trouble of haggling with an Indian kid and immediately decided to lower the rent by 5 ringgits.
Per day rent of scooty: ~Rs. 500
I spent the day biking through Georgetown, admiring the gorgeous street art. I experimented with the street food which included trying the super stinky but delicious fruit Durian, some Malay chicken rice, sampling different types of meats on sticks from this small vendor close to my hostel (you just pick up what you want, boil it on the stick and eat it) and having the tastiest tiramisu of my life in this chic café called China House.
Tip: You must take stroll around George Town, the street art is very interesting and unique, not an experience you want to be missing out on.
Cost of a meal: Rs. 200 - 600
I also took a long drive to Batu Ferrenghi, the part of Penang that boasted of having amazing beaches. While the drive was interesting the beach I went to wasn’t. It was the supposedly famous monkey beach, which was completely deserted possibly because I went there in June, not really very picturesque and had me shell out a good sum of money for a boat ride which seemed like a complete waste (to add to my woes I was the closest being to a monkey there).
Tip: Instead of taking a boat ride to the beach you can also take trek to beach, shelling out cash for the 10 minute boat ride is really not worth it.
I got back to my hostel around 10:30 P.M. and immediately headed out for the Reggae Mansion again. It was Karaoke night and I found myself singing Status Quo’s “In the Army Now” with a few Australian army men (Penang seems to be filled with Australians). After the song we all bought a round of beers and I got to talking to this sergeant and one of the men (My dad being in the forces meant I was already well versed with good conservation points) and we quickly hit it off. The army man told me about his training regimen and showed me photos of his wife back home and I told him about my desire to catch an India vs Australia match in the Melbourne Cricket Ground. When the time came for us to head out I volunteered to drop the soldier to his hotel on my scooty (19 year old drunk me was just looking to make dumb decisions). We got on the scooty, navigated our way through the empty streets using his phone, since mine had no battery, keeping a keen eye for the cops and somehow reached his hotel. This is where things took an interesting turn, just as he was leaving it hit me that I had no way of knowing how to get back to my hostel. The poor chap came back and we again navigated our way back to the Reggae Mansion. The ride ended up being a lot of fun, gallivanting around in the streets of Georgetown at god knows what hour, discussing random stuff with a complete stranger is not an experience everyone can boast of having. Having had more than my fill of adventure I went back to my hostel and he headed out for another pint.
I woke up next afternoon just in time to catch a bus back to Kuala Lumpur.
Through all the dumb decisions this trip made me appreciate the world of a solo traveler. Meeting new people and sharing experiences well beyond my wildest imagination made me realise that in order to really enjoy myself I has to venture out of my comfort zone. Here’s to spending many more nights in streets much like Chulia Street with people very unlike myself.