Saturday, February 22, 2014

Around Malacca

Tuesday, November 5th

Our guesthouse didn't provide breakfast but we found a stall just across the street that seemed popular with the locals. Here we were served excellent coffee accompanied by toast with a kind of sweet coconut spread on it by a very grumpy woman who slammed the cups down so that the contents spilled into the saucers. Maybe she'd had some bad experiences with other foreigners, although on this morning and those following we were the only ones there.

Having read that the best way to orient oneself to the layout of the old town was to take a river cruise, we made our way to the landing stage and boarded a boat. The half-hour trip was interesting and gave us good views of the buildings and old houses lining the banks, although we were disappointed that it didn't include reaching the mouth of the river and the sea.

We had planned to find a particular satay place for lunch, but lost our way and struggled for some time through heavy traffic in streets with no sidewalks before coming across an old Dutch cemetery in the shade of a huge gnarled tree.

When we finally found the satay place it was closed, but on the next corner we were lucky to find the Madras Cafe, where we sat under huge ceiling fans and had an excellent meal of martabak (vegetable pancakes) and mee goreng (fried noodles) prepared fresh on a hot griddle.

 We got back to our room just in time to escape the afternoon deluge. Looking down from our windows, we could see water pouring into the basin and pool below.

When the rain eased after a couple of hours, we went looking for the local art museum, which contained some very ordinary works on a floor above an exhibit praising assorted nationalist youth organizations like boy scouts and guides. I liked the beautiful herringbone wood floor better than most of the paintings.

 Only one painting stood out for me, an interpretation of the famous Hokusai wave clearly relating to the recent tsunami in Japan. It was titled "Wave of Wrath."

By contrast as we strolled the streets afterwards, we came to a gallery showing very large brush-and-ink paintings on rice paper by a talented Chinese artist. The paintings were too large and the space too narrow to photograph them successfully, but I thought the artist's tools were interesting too.

Wednesday, November 6th

We had a good night's sleep in the lovely white cotton sheets of our guesthouse. The little cafe across the street was closed so we headed across the river and back to the Madras cafe for breakfast. this time we were able to get seats closer to the kitchen are and could watch the cook making roti on the heavy iron hotplate.


Naturally, that's what we ate. It was delicious, but quite filling so it seemed a good idea to follow with a walk along the river, following the same route we'd traversed by boat. Overnight rain had turned the water muddy and it was full of detritus: twigs and leaves, various plastics, dead fish. We marvelled that the iguanas swimming by could survive in such an environment.

As we walked, we admired the lushly planted containers along the path,

 while boatloads of cheery tourists and schoolchildren waved at us from the river.

After some time we came to Kampung Morten, a kind of model village in the traditional style dating from the 1920s.

New construction across the river, looming behind the village, provided quite the contrast,
especially with its protective wrap of brilliant green netting. Below it, along the river bank is a non-working monorail, an expensive and ugly failed experiment to attract more tourists. All that the authorities have succeeded in doing, as the following photo shows, is marring the beauty of their riverside.

When our path eventually came to an end, we crossed a bridge to the other side of the river, where we came across this sign:

It congratulated us on walking 3 km and advised that we had burnt off enough calories to compensate for 1 bottle of pop, 1 hotdog or 1 banana popsicle.

As we continued our journey back under the pillars of the monorail, we came across a last remnant of the local architecture n the shadow of the monstrous highrise.

Beyond this point, the construction of the highrise blocked our route and we had to branch off from the river through narrow streets lined with shops. Outside one of them, I admired a display of traditional women's fashions, carefully enveloped in plastic to protect them from the rain.

For lunch we found a tiny cafe, Kedai Zul, on a parallel street to the more touristy Jonker St., where we had fresh-squeezed orange juice and a delicious laksa. Then it was back to our room for a cooling shower before launching out again into the draining heat and humidity. This time we crossed through the main square where the historic buildings were being restored behind more swathes of green netting,

 and climbed St. Paul's Hill just behind them, where we had a distant view of the Straits of Malacca.

The remains of the old church on top of the hill were impressive, their walls lined with old headstones.

It seemed an odd place for wedding photos but there was a very handsome Indian bride and groom posing for their photographer (and incidentally a group of us tourists) without any concern for either the setting or the crowd of observers.

As we descended the hill and walked back towards the town, we were continually passed by pedicab owners in the most elaborate contraptions we were to see anywhere during our holiday, decorated with great fans of artificial flowers and feathers, and large hearts studded with more flowers and often with a stuffed animal or a Hello Kitty doll in the centre. Some play blaring music and all of them sparkle after dark with strings of LED lights outlining the decor.

In the evening we went next door to Honky Tonk Haven, following an invitation from a woman we had met in the guesthouse. This little place was having their once-a-month evening of jazz with a sort of potluck meal included for 12 RM.

The band consisted of a saxophonist, the New Zealand owner on keyboards, and his Malaysian wife (who had invited us) on vocals. The music was largely old Nat King Cole standards, everyone was very welcoming, the highlight of the food was some spicy chicken dish, and the whole evening was fun.

Thursday, November 7

Breakfast across the road again, basic but good. Our hosts at the guesthouse thought us very adventurous to eat there, and to have found the Madras Cafe. Apparently most of their foreign guests stuck to Jonker St. restaurants. How much those people missed!

We went next to the architecture museum (free) which had many explanatory panels about the local building styles and the successive British, Dutch and Portuguese influences. There were also a few of the exquisitely-detailed scale models we'd seen in Kuala Lumpur, this one showing the old KL railway station.

Then on to the Sultan's Palace, burnt to the ground in a fire, but then carefully reconstructed. It is an elegant dark brown building with high-peaked roofs and shuttered verandahs, supposedly built without nails although I noticed that the shutters were attached with modern hinges and screws.

Inside were displays recreating scenes of palace life, such as the sultan 's court and the women's quarters. Gaggles of noisy high school girls running around taking selfies spoilt the ambience a little.

Outside we walked through the "forbidden garden" which had elaborate parterres

as well as stands of colourful bamboo and some flowering trees alive with yellow, red and white butterflies.

It was a morning for museums. We continued on to a Baba and Nyonya House, showing how a wealthy Chinese/Malay family would have lived.

It was another very hot and humid day so we were glad that evening to find a riverside bar where we could have drinks and watch as hundreds of little birds made their way along the river to the trees where they nested overnight. We followed this serene interlude with another great meal at Madras Cafe, and went to a book launch we had seen advertised at another house on our street. The book was "East Indies", written by an Australian who gave a powerpoint lecture in an upstairs room with long casement doors opening to the river. That and ceiling fans kept us moderately cool. The talk was well-done with old illustrations and maps, and questions from the audience of about 15 people indicated that they were perhaps members of a local historical society.

The next morning, we left Malacca to return to Kuala Lumpur for our last day in Malaysia

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