The thing I hated the most about Malaysia was the prices of alcohol. Coughing up 35 Ringgits for a couple of bottles of beer was something I hated with a passion. But I have got to admit, an evening of people watching in China Market (Kuala Lumpur) while having some exotic sea food and big bottles Tiger beer is a lot of fun.
The evenings at the China Town market can get a little crazy. You would see people carrying big shopping bags, trying their best not to step on one another, while dodging the overly enthusiastic street side vendors, selling everything from counterfeit watches to expensive leather handbags.
I was on a backpacking across South East Asia, a thing that I have been craving to do ever since I watched “The Beach”. I was staying in a hostel just outside the China Town market that catered mainly to those travelling on a budget. Visiting The Roland’s after a day out in the warm Malaysian sun had become my daily evening ritual.
There were around eight round tables, all covered in pink semi-clean table cloths, right outside The Roland’s. Three of them were right in front of the main door. My usual seat was the one in the middle of these three. There were a few more tables inside, but nobody ever sat there. I guess everyone preferred to occupy the tables on the outside because they had a better view of the market, and more importantly of its people. There was a glass enclosure to the right of the main door, which showcased a few live prawns and lobsters, for those who preferred to see their food breathing before they order their killing.
After a few evenings at The Roland’s, I had realized that I was not the only one frequenting the place, browsing through its menu, tasting their delicious sea food and cursing at its overpriced beers.
Every evening at around 7.30pm, a tall white Australian came who would order the chicken fried rice and a beer. I could tell that he had been in Malaysia for a while because he spoke the local language and interacted a lot with the manager. They spoke a mixture of Malay and English, and through a lot of eavesdropping, I found out that he was a freelance journalist. He would talk about the daily news, places he visited that day and the stories that he was working on. During the conversation, the manager would nod a lot. And it was not a healthy slow nod. It was more of a “sprain your neck” nod.
The table to my left always hosted two or three big black men with very heavy African accents. There was always a guy sporting a brown Turkish hat, and a couple of his buddies. His buddies kept changing every day. The guy with the hat always placed the orders and paid the bills. He ordered a lot of food and only had Guinness, which was the most expensive beer on the menu. Amongst each other, they spoke in some weird African language, and whenever they spoke I heard a lot of “clicks”. They were the loudest table at the Roland’s and easily the most entertaining to watch.
There was another group of regulars at The Roland’s, and they were my favourite ones. They would be there when I came and would still be there when I left. Their table would always have a lot of beer bottles, most of them empty, signifying that they had been there for a while. They would always be laughing and they looked like the ones who were having the most amount of fun in China Town. They were three middle aged guys, always smiling, and by the looks of it, always talking about interesting things. I could bet that they were long term travellers and being abroad was not new to them. Secretly, I wanted to be like them.
The most interesting thing about these guys was that they never bought any food. Just beer. They would bring small packets of potato chips from outside and munch on them while drinking. Once I met one of them while I was on the KL-Monorail. We got to talking and he told me that they were from Texas and had been travelling around Asia for over 6 months.
That night when I went to the Roland’s, sure enough they were already there. They smiled and nodded at me as I passed them and took my seat. An interesting thing happened that evening. The waiter brought me beer and chicken satays, my usual starters, before I even ordered them. He gave me a wide smile as he served me. I felt extra happy that evening. It was not the music, nor was it the people around me. It was business as usual at the China Town Market. The only thing that was different was the fact that for the first time, I felt at home at the Roland’s.
Over the next few days, things kept getting better. The waiters were a lot more informal with me. The manager and the other regulars would acknowledge me with a smile when I entered, and I always returned the favour. The smiles and nods soon turned into enjoyable conversations. It felt just like my neighbourhood bar where I knew most of the people and they knew me. Maybe even a home away from home, as the cliché goes.
Soon, The Roland’s became a haven for me in an otherwise foreign Malaysia. I almost started looking forward to the evenings. I looked forward to the great food and the familiar faces. Hell, I looked forward to their silly music (Chicken dance, seriously?) and the overpriced beers.
It is amazing how we seek out the feeling of being at home when travelling, when this was the exact thing that we wanted escape when we packed our bags and ventured out on our own. I remember the time when one of my colleagues back home asked me why I was going on this trip. I told him I wanted to experience something new. Meet new people. See new places.
But here I was, going to the same place, sitting on the same seat, meeting the same people and eating the same food, every evening. And surprisingly, I did not mind the fact that, in many ways, doing all this beats the purpose of this trip. I did not mind because I was happy.
On my last evening in Kuala Lumpur, I brought my camera there with me. I planned on clicking pictures with all of them to capture the essence of the time I spent there. But when I entered The Roland’s that evening, I realised I did not want pictures or an emotional sob fest. I wanted just one more night of “the usuals”. The conversations, the smiles, the satays and fried rice, spicy crabs and beers, the silly music. I wanted them all, just one more time.
I thought that I would feel sad about leaving Kuala Lumpur, not knowing when I would return again. I thought I would hate the fact that I will probably never see these people again.
But I did not.
I guess that’s what backpacking can do to you. When you are travelling you meet a lot of people, visit a lot of places and sometimes you get emotionally attached to some of them. But since you are always on the move, you learn to let go of those things. You get immuned to the emotions of leaving behind the people, the places and the things that you love.