The shadows of the dreary hostel entrance clung to me as I shuffled out. The town’s streets eerily silent while I walked towards the bus station. It wasn’t quite dawn.
A few hours away by bus, across Penang Bridge and onto the mainland lay Tanah Rata. A small town in the Cameron Highlands that I felt positive would be the antithesis of where I’d spent the past day.
George Town had proved taxing.
Following hot on the footsteps of the chilled out coastline of southern Thailand and the nature reserves of Langkawi, it had thrust me into an urban sprawl that I wasn’t ready for. Some streets were derelict but without charm. Its people were wary of backpackers in a way I hadn’t seen before on the journey. Every conversation felt purely transactional.
As my budget was wearing thin, I’d chosen the cheapest accomodation on Beach Street. A disintegrating colonial era building that had been built for function over aesthetic. It seemed to crumble as I creaked myself up the stairs, like a soggy biscuit succumbing to its fate in a hot cup of tea. Plaster peeled, exposed electrical cables clung to the pale walls and broken ceiling fans refused to turn a few meters overhead.
Still the large dormitory – that reminded me more of a community hall than a bedroom – had beds. On my daily budget I’d learnt not to be fussy. And money hadn’t stretched quite as far since I’d left Thailand.
As soon as I met the owner of the hostel a lot of things, including the general state of disrepair, made sense. They eye balled and snorted as if the full moon party had never finished for them. Their head rolled on their neck as if looking to escape and a grin that came in tandem exposed more gums than teeth. I tried through a mixture of memorised pleasantries and international sign language to arrange payment and paperwork but alas, it never came to pass.
I was a fool to assume that the lack of sobriety was confined to my wobbly hotelier. An evening spent wandering in search of a meal unveiled strips of bars and clubs boasting steel-chaired terraces with happy hour menus and names like Slippery Senoritas and Mois. Their signs garish after only the twinkling stars of the Andaman Sea.
By the time I stumbled on one of the best meals of my life, I’d almost given up on food completely. Sat among dating couples and families on mobile phones in Restaurant Kapitan, I polished off my bodyweight in rice and curry and instantly felt better about returning to my bed in the colonial drug den, lovingly named D-2, for what I knew would be very little sleep.
Luckily, I had always planned for my stay in Penang to be brief, as by the time I creaked back down those rotten stairs, I was exhausted. I craved the mainland and mountain air of Malaysia’s Highlands.
After a less-than-perfect 24 hours I had defaulted to British. And I knew a good cup of tea would sort me out.