Monday 19 May 2014

A Few Days In Malacca

The morning after the wedding's reception, the alarm decided to relieve me from my sleep.  The head was heavy, the half dozen glasses of red wine had seen to that, but I quickly remembered the task at hand for the early morn - find our way to TBS, the relatively new bus station in KL for our trip to Malacca. 
Always worried about being on time, my phobia forced us to leave our hotel at 6.30 for an 8 am departure.  The trip there involved changing from the LRT to another line, but with no hassles.  KL's underground rail system works very well apart from the ticket vending machines that more often than not, don't work.  The authorities recently have made an effort to make it easier to transfer from one line to another by improving the walking assess and multi-trip ticketing, far better than the somewhat disjointed arrangement a few years back. 

We arrived with plenty of time to spare and waited for our host and daughter.  This station, I must say, is nothing like your average bus station. It's large, very modern and most importantly for me, clean.  Only a few years old, it mostly replaces a facility in Chinatown for those travelling south in the country. 

The Transnational bus arrived on time.  I sat with Lili and Poh with her daughter Karin across the aisle. Word of warning here.  Never sit between good friends as you spend the time being talked across, it feels a lot like playing piggy in the middle.  I jest, of course, it was not really a problem and made the 2.5 hour trip fly by, even if both ears are still ringing.  

LiLi and Poh

Malacca lies on the West coast of Peninsular Malaysia roughly half way between KL and Singapore.  It has a long, interesting and varied history.  This is not immediately apparent, as you bus in; the outer areas have a lot of modern construction, housing as well as business.  This leaves an impression of an economically growing vibrant city. 

I have previously been here a number of years before, but recognised very little at first.  I was told a lot of people investing here are from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Tourists abound, so there is a very significant major hotel presence, very grand for a city of this size. 

We arrived at 1030 and were picked up by Poh's niece, Joyce and taken to a small Chinese restaurant on the side of the road near the coast.  The very congenial owner greeted us with a broad smile and after much chatter in Chinese, a course of food was decided on.  I'll admit now on most occasions I allow my wife to decide what to eat.  If it was left up to me, I'd eat the same old boring stuff every day.  I am not that adventurous when it comes to trying new food, but when forced to, I usually enjoy the experience.  This was no exception.  The food, apart from being inexpensive was  of high quality.  The ambiance of the surroundings and the owner's ancestry's looking forlornly down upon the diners  added to the culinary experience.

Our hosts live about 10 kilometres north of the city centre along a road full of old abandoned mansions and multi-storey high rise.  I fear the old buildings with their large grounds will in time, create a great wall of towering condominiums. They are too much to maintain for the average private owner and are only saved from demolition, if  business is interested in utilising the size for commerce.   Some of the local banks have done just that in the centre of the city, but unfortunately there are more mansions than interested parties.

Poh and her families' houses are just a street back from the sea.  The ambiance of the area is one of peace and quiet; only the occasional dog barking intruded, no cacophony here. 

After meeting the family and a quick shower, we ventured first to a coffee shop to try the local brew and watch 'kaya' being made. ( a coconut, sugar and egg yolk spread ) The golden brown treacly substance is smeared onto a piece of toasted bread or bun and served with local black coffee.  We watched it being made in a back room.  Two ladies sitting over a metal stewing pot, the ingredients heated over a low gas flame and stirred for 3 hours to get the right consistency. It is very sweet, fattening but scrumptious.  After a short walk to view the straits and its shipping, we ventured back into town.

Half way there, the traffic started to grind to a halt and it soon became apparent this was no ordinary jam.  As we crawled along at walking pace a long line of parked and par king cars snaked for a hundred metres or more in front of us.  The reason, you ask?  The world famous ( for this place at least ) Klebang coconut milk shake.  Yes, the world here was grinding to a stand still for a milkshake.  I don't know about you, but for me to line up dozens deep, it would have to be something very special.  I was to learn later that Malacca inhabitants won't give another thought to waiting in a long queue for  an indeterminate amount of time to get into their favourite chicken and rice ball or satay celup restaurant. Nothing like good food to create your routine and habits.  We did some general sightseeing and shopping, then returned for the evening Mother's Day dinner.

Malacca is steeped in history.  Going back 500 years, it was a strategic outpost, one of three ( the others being Singapore and Penang) due to its location on the Straits of Malacca.  It controlled trade that passed through the very narrow waters between Malaya and Sumatra.  This all changed in 1511 when the Portuguese arrived and overthrew the local Sultan.  The European presence in the region was increasing due to the spice trade which led to increased colonisation of the region. 
The Portuguese built A Famosa ( fort,  only the front gate exists today ) and remained for about 130 years with limited success as traders until the Dutch in cahoots with the Sultan of Johore  replaced them, though even today there is still an enclave of Portuguese descendants.

"Red" centre of town

The Dutch for their part built the " Red Stadthuys"  administration  centre of town that can be still be seen today though these days, it consists of museums and various churches.

Wikipedia History of Malacca 

The Portuguese Fort Gate today

Eventually 180 years later, the British replaced the Dutch, who had agreed to accept some land in Java in exchange. There they remained until independence in 1957. 

The eclectic blend of European and Asian buildings makes Malacca the interesting place it is.  The old part of town has very narrow honeycomb streets that were never designed to cater for motor vehicles.  Most are one way and frequent traffic jams are common.  There is a mixture of trendy modern business with traditional Chinese family homes.  The old buildings are generally narrow, deep terraces with roofs made of rows of unique corrugated clay red tiles.  In the oldest buildings, the original plain dutch facades are hard to find being replaced later by Classical, Chinese and Malay additions. 

Narrow winding oneway streets

Unique designed Mosque

The town has many churches, temples and mosques - all interesting in their own way and its diverse inhabitants complement the feeling of something unique.

The old Portuguese Fort encompassing St Paul's church - Wikipedia 

The evenings meal was in part prepared by the adult children of the family to show appreciation for their mothers' efforts. Most of the children live and work in other parts of the country or overseas and made the effort to be there for their mothers as well as for the Vesak day celebrations, the Buddha’s birthday.   

We were asked if we would like to walk in their annual parade the next evening and accepted the invitation without question. 

The proud Mothers

The following morning saw us exploring the old St Paul’s Church on top of a small steep hill in the historical centre. Upon ascent, you are greeted by St Francis Xavier himself in all his marble glory. ( he was interned here for a short period of time after his death).  Built by the Portuguese early on in its occupation for its Catholic population, only the outer walls and Apse of the church are now intact.  The interior walls support many tomb stones of the local Dutch and Portuguese dating from the 16th century, but unfortunately for me, not in English.  The Dutch converted it to Dutch Reformed where it remained as a place of worship until Christ Church was completed in 1753 in the Stadthuys. 

After investigating the tombstones behind the church from the English period, we ventured down to the remains of the Old Portuguese fort.  Not a lot to see but interesting all the same.  My attention was distracted by a group of people using what I could only describe as a golf shaft-cum-telescopic rod with a frame to hold a telephone on, so one could, by stretching the arm and rod away from the body, take the perfect self-indulging selfie.  Really, I could think of better ways of taking photos without looking ridiculous.  Anyway each to their own. 

The old fort that was unceremoniously blown up by the British is continuously being rediscovered, the foundations at least,  each time they excavate old car parks and building lots. Some of these areas are quite a distance from the remaining gate meaning this must have been an impressive structure in its time; at one stage it housed the entire Portuguese population in Malacca. 

That afternoon we prepared for the Vesak precession.  The participants wear all white, so that proved a challenge to find a clothing combination that came close.  My wife and I had a slightly offbeat look, but came close to looking the part.

We drove to Poh's uncle's place to collect a bus with 40 other devotees that took us to the site to assemble.  Due to anticipated traffic issues, we left early and arrived with plenty of time to spare.  In fact, time to try out the famous local celup satays.

The dining tables are round with a circular metal container sunk into the centre.  This pot contains a mixture of what looks like peanut sauce and oil.  Underneath the table is a gas flame to keep the contents simmering.   The idea is to go to a large bank of refrigerators and choose from an assortment of skewers with either chicken, pork products, seafood or various vegetables.  The food is then placed into the boiling sauce and cooked.  Occasionally, the staff add more sauce into the mixture and gives it a stir.  The smell of peanuts permeates through out the premises.  Simple, effective and delicious and when finished, the waiting staff just tallies up the empty skewers left and you pay for what you eat. 

After dinner, we all looked forward to our impending walk. With 42 floats in the parade, we were assigned to number 19. I assumed for some unknown reason this was just going to be a jaunt around the block.  How wrong I was. 

Beginning of the Vesak Parade

The night was hot and sultry.  I was sweating profusely before we even began.  The start was slow due to the sheer number of people involved.  I won't attempt to estimate the numbers, but it would have been in the thousands.  This stop start affair meandered through the older sectors of town with large numbers of people lining both sides of the streets to pay their respects to the Buddha.  Small gifts were handed out to the crowd with children being the main beneficiaries.  Almost all were of Chinese descent apart from a small sprinkling of overseas tourists. 

The walk lasted two and a half hours and all of us were foot weary by the end, the atmosphere - the sounds and sights and the sense of community made it a fulfilling and tranquil experience. 

One of the numerous floats

The last full day in Malacca was spend eating and talking with  our new found friends.  One last surprise awaited me though. An evening meal was arranged in a popular open air restaurant.  Our group who had been doing a little last minute window shopping were the last to arrive.  And there on the table in front of me was, to my utter surprise, a Klebang coconut milkshake. 

Everyone, by this stage, had heard I would not get into a line up for a milkshake, but someone made the effort for me. 
This simple gesture typifies the great hospitality and generosity shown to us for the few days we were in Malacca.  I extent my deep gratitude to Poh and her family members who went out of their way to make our experience an exceptional one. 

The next morning we bused it to the new KLIA2 terminal (another post) and returned to Sandakan. 

Is that milkshake worth lining up for, you ask?  
All I'll say is go to Malacca to find out.

The famous milkshake 

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