Monday, May 2, 2011

Melaka - Malaysia

Put a pin in your map on top of Melaka right now!  It is a hard place to describe as it is sleepy but engaging, mature but fun, diverse yet integrated and these are but a few pleasant contrasts that come to mind.  Touristy? Very, but not in a tacky sense.  On face value it is a small and beautiful town in which you can actually feel the pride that the locals have for this place.  It doesn’t feel claustrophobic but there are mosques a stone’s throw from Chinese temples and Christian churches.  You would think that the call to mosque followed by church bells would come across as competitive and heighten frictions but contrarily it merely adds to the tolerance, except tolerance is not the word as people don’t just tolerate each other here but they integrate.  It has all the highly sought after pull factors for low budget travellers such as an abundance of competitively cheap and delicious hawker food stalls and small restaurants.  It is just about small enough to navigate the town on foot or alternatively you can rent a trishaw, which is a beautifully decorated peddle powered cart barely big enough for two.

The accommodation is cheap, but when it comes to a place to stay I don’t think we could have found anything better for our money than Ringo’s Foyer in Chinatown.  The owner is called Howard and Howard has more energy than a seven year old yet in true Melakan style he also happens to be as laid back as it gets.  When we arrived he showed us to our room followed by the roof terrace and then announced that the guests were embarking on a cycle ride that evening.  The guest house has its own bikes and at no extra cost, on Howard’s whim they are taken out and used to explore the town at a leisurely pace.  It was during this cycle ride that we saw our first monitor lizard.  Monitors are a green and scaly reptile that looks a little like a small crocodile which walks and swims around like it owns the place.  Melaka also has a distinct Riviera feel and as we cycled past the beautiful murals painted on the sides of buildings and peddled along the riverside and over bridges it was a world apart from the big city of KL.  

On this first night we stopped off at a delicious spring roll cart where much love and attention went into each hand-rolled serving by the proud chef.  Following this we visited a vegetarian restaurant.  I can’t say that I was doing backflips at the thought of this as a confirmed carnivore, yet the food was extremely cheap and delicious.  The crux of the dish was tofu, some of which was disguised to replicate pork and it really did taste like it.  I guess the appeal is that it was cheaper than pork otherwise you might as well have the real thing.  Even though the dinner wasn’t our usual cup of tea, the experience was unique and we were very happy to have been hosted and shown around in such a pleasant way.  To finish the night off we kicked back and watched Howard’s old MTV videos.  He was particularly fond of Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Kylie Minogue, but also had some vids that I watched growing up such as Weezer.

Spring rolls being made up

Our second day we decided to have a wander and after our sky high experience in KL, we had the horn for vertical pursuits and decided to get a trishaw to the ‘Eye on Malaysia’ which was supposed to be a giant Ferris wheel that spins slowly round.  The best place to get a trishaw is the Town Square which boasts the very large and very red town hall and governor’s residence buildings.  There is a museum inside but we truly had our fill of history in KL, even so, just looking at the buildings from the outside made it easy to imagine temps pass√©.  Melaka has a very rich history since the town as we know it dates back to around the 14th century when it was established by a Hindu prince from the Sumatra.  It has since been protected by the Chinese in 1405, colonised by the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1795.  All these influences lead to the formation of new subcultures such as the Peranakans (more commonly known as the Baba Nonya) who descended from original Chinese settlers but definitely distinguish themselves from the contemporary Chinese.  Also formed were the Chitties who are of mixed Malay and Indian heritage and the Eurasian folk who came about through love affairs between the locals and their colonisers.  Most importantly, new and integrated cultures lead to new culinary styles and the Portuguese influence from their love of seafood and the unique Baba Nonya cuisine here is sublime. 

Coming back to my original point, we were looking for a trishaw in this square to take us to the Ferris wheel but we were informed that this has since closed down.  We later saw a couple of smaller wheels but nothing that would have been worth dedicating a visit to on its own merit.  We met a nice lady trishaw driver called Val and requested a cursory tour around the town for an hour.  Val was very easy to talk to and told us about Bukit St Paul, a hill topped by the ruins of St. Paul’s church which overlooks the (apparently) famous Straits of Melaka built by a Portuguese sea captain.  We agreed to stop there for a visit and it was indeed a scenic and pleasant photo opportunity.  Upon return to the Trishaw, I peddled Kate and Val around the car park before Val looked a little too unnerved by my driving and we swapped places again.  Val pointed out some nice restaurants including a nice food on a stick joint where you dunk your selection into a bubbling pot of satay sauce and there and then we decided that we would definitely pay it a visit (the queues were down the pavement!).  

That evening, Howard’s agenda included taking us to the nearby Jonker’s Night Market where a group of about fifteen of us (the number of tenants had grown!) sat in the middle of a circle of different hawker stalls munching different dishes and slurping on strange drinks together.  Afterwards we had a walk up and down the market stalls which were in the most part geared for tourists but were still pleasant.  We followed this by having a few drinks in Ringo’s bar, where Howard’s old guesthouse partner Ringo (who played guitar I might add) had set up his new venture.  We had great fun chatting with others staying at the guesthouse and even crashed a dance class that was taking place in a hall just off the market street towards the end of the night.  After some tipsy attempts to learn the steps, a glance to the door established that we had become the entertainment as a flood of Malaysian people had their cameras out filming or snapping away at us silly westerners. 

Kate and our trishaw driver Val

Day three consisted of us going for a wander to the town square again on the hunt for something to see and do or simply just to relax there with an ice cream.  On the way we stopped off at a traditional Baba Nonya restaurant with a sizable queue, where we had traditional ‘Laksa’ dishes.  The Laksa can be vegetarian or with meat and seafood and can be most closely compared to a soupy Thai curry.  The sauce had a pretty big spice kick to it, but also has creamy tones and more subtle flavours from herbs and spices.  Sitting in this soup were prawns, glass noodles, half an egg and all sorts of vegetables amounting to it being completely and utterly delicious.  The dining floor was packed and you join a space at a table whenever it is free which provides a great excuse to socialise with strangers.  After much nose blowing and eye watering we continued on our short walk to the town center, which we discovered was a great place to spend a lazy day.

In front of the big red town hall on a glorious day there was live music and very competent and entertaining traditional dancing.  Standing out was an especially comical clown who engaged well with the audience and it all finished with the slightly unnerving act of audience participation...  Amidst all this there is a big bloke in a Man United shirt teaching people how to use giant wooden spinning tops.  We took turns at winding up the rope and whipping it away whilst trying to get the damn thing to land where you wanted it to and keep spinning.  There were too many variables for our liking but we had a good go at it and whilst one of Kate’s attempts nearly ended up in the river, we both had a fairly good handle on it by the third go.  Saddled next to the spinning top tent were locals playing Jonka, a board game usually played with marbles and a wooden board with fourteen pots embedded into it.  We were patiently instructed how to play by a Malay lady and were soon hooked!  We played five or six times before the market packed away, they patiently let us play out our last game and at no time did anyone try to sell us a single thing.  Needless to say we hunted around the shops looking for a suitable board to buy for ourselves but they were unfortunately too big and heavy or too small for the ergonomics of our fat fingers to scoop up the marbles.  We tried using the beads from a necklace but it was too difficult to pick them up and move them which you need to do consistently in the game.  

Some of the dancers in the town square

The spinning top man in the town square

Howard had a BBQ scheduled that evening so we made our way back but not before visiting a traditional Chinese temple, Malaysia’s oldest to be precise.  All the materials used to build it were imported from China in 1646 and it is still used actively by the community which makes it a much more interesting visit than some we had seen.  There are drums beating, robed monks and ordinary members of the public praying and lighting incense sticks in addition to all sorts of other wacky rituals taking place, one of which seemed to involve someone praying on their needs, shaking a tube of incense sticks and dropping them on the floor.  It seems as though the worshippers are making it up as they go along sometimes, some of the idols are bizarre and I really don’t profess to understand anything about it!  We went on a mission to find alcohol that we could buy from a shop and bring back to the nest.  We had to walk all the way to the other side of town until we found a convenience store where we could get some spirits (beers were just too pricey!).  When we finally arrived back the BBQ was in full swing and Howard served us up some delicious burgers and even some decent sausages, it is hard to believe how hard it is to find good sausage in Asia.  Whilst their sausages look similar they always opt to shock the palette by making them to be deceptively sweet.  It was a fun evening with plenty of chatting and guitar strumming far into the night.
                                                                                                   
Our final full day in Melaka began with quite sore heads.  I hadn’t really slept because of all the Coke I had been using to mix with my whiskey so Kate headed out for breakfast with some of the guys and left me with the ever irritating insane bird calls just outside the window.  Most of the birds in Malaysia tend not to produce the beautiful bird song we are used to back home, instead opting to make shrill incrementing calls or replicating the worst noises of humanity such as traffic, car alarms or chainsaws.  All in all birds weren’t my best friends that morning...  Kate managed to drag me out at around lunchtime for some food where we saw a couple having their wedding photos taken.  Apparently it is custom to have this done in full wedding attire before the wedding at pretty places that the happy couple probably won’t even visit on the day.   

We hung out for a bit then headed back to pack our bags and get changed for the evening where we were to go to Capitol Satay, the popular cook-it-yourself food on stick restaurant with the boiling peanut broth.  We hopped in a trishaw where the driver PUMPED out ‘Daddy Cool’ on a surprisingly capable sound system to the point that when we arrived it was quite an entrance, turning every head only to have to queue with everyone else… After not too long we joined a table with a couple of girls from England and had a good chat whilst working out how it all worked.  The restaurant gave us some giant gamba prawns for the same price as the usual food (about sixty pence per item) which made my day.  The DIY food is a great concept.  They simply serve you drinks, stir your satay then count your sticks at the end in the same manner as a sushi bar counts your plates to determine your bill.  We were very happy leaving with full bellies and the lingering taste of peanut satay.  The evening was spent having a boat tour along the rivers.  It was great being able to kick back and look at some of the beautiful architecture, wall murals and lighting along the Riviera and was a fitting end to Melaka.  Serious hats off to Howard for making our visit extra special.
  
Boat tour in Melaka

Having just figured out where Singapore is and what it is we decided after much deliberation that we would spend a short amount of time there.  Whilst it isn’t reported as the most backpacker friendly country, it was now our next stop before continuing on our journey through Malaysia.       

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