Thursday, 30 June 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 1

29 December 2015...

As we drove further into the city, we couldn't believe what we were seeing.

What's with all these signs saying "Don't Mess with Melaka?"

I didn't think much of it when Melody and I spotted the first few signs, but as we approached the city centre of Melaka, they kept popping up.

Browsing her smartphone, Melody learnt through social media about the similarities between this "campaign" and "Don't mess with Texas". The designs for each sign were identical, from the slogan to the state flag and silhouette of the state at the bottom.

Melody winced at the blatant copying. "It's practically the same."

Perhaps, as I discovered belatedly, because it is the same.

Earlier in 2015, Melody, Sam and Wendy had talked about taking a road trip to some place in Malaysia; I just went along with whatever they decided on. We picked the historical state of Melaka, since Sam and Wendy rarely went there. The last time Melody and I were there was in ... 2007, I think.

Was it so long ago?

Yes, Melaka it was, despite my memories of it being this Disneyfied tourist attraction for rubes who I felt were there more for the novelty of being in a historical city rather than the history of the city itself.

When I was a kid in school, I'd read that the kingdom of Melaka was founded by a prince from Palembang (somewhere in Sumatra in present-day Indonesia) in 1402, and that he'd killed the ruler of Temasek (modern-day Singapore) at the time. These days, some believe he was a legit ruler of Temasek until he was driven away by the Majapahit empire around 1398. Others have theorised that the name he was known by, "Parameswara", was a title, and that he may have been a jumped-up pirate with no royal blood.

However, what is universally agreed upon was that, while exploring a spot in the Malay peninsula, he was inspired to name his new digs after the tree he was resting on: Phyllanthus emblica, otherwise known as the Malacca tree or Indian gooseberry. Seems he had witnessed a mouse deer kick his hunting dogs into a nearby river and thought, "This will be my new digs - even the mouse deer here are bad-ass!" Today, the tiny ungulate and the tree are immortalised on the state's coat of arms.

This kingdom became an empire, which would soon be known for legendary figures such as Tun Perak the prime minister, the warriors Hang Tuah and company, and some Chinese princess whose retainers are said to be ancestors of Melaka's Chinese. The seafaring Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He stopped there often in his trips to the western edges of Asia.

Melaka thrived until the Portuguese invaded in 1511, seeking control over the spice trade. The Dutch came by over a century later (in 1641), followed by the British (in 1824). The foreign visitors left behind a wealth of traditions and heritage, as well as whole communities, in Melaka, which is now the focus of throngs of domestic and international visitors each year.

The state's government has tried to capitalise on this, though some attempts at development have been criticised for allegedly endangering some aspects of Melaka's rich history. One particular scheme was heavily decried. I also learnt that some remnants of the state's former colonial eras were uncovered by development projects, though the related online articles seemed to have gone 404.

The lobby of the Swiss Heritage Boutique Hotel, a blend of old and new

For KL-ites like ourselves, it was far enough from the capital to qualify as a bona fide getaway. In spite of myself, I was looking forward to the road trip. Partly because I didn't have to wake up at 6am or something like that. Plus, the old Chinese quarter of Melaka is very much like parts of my birthplace, Penang - perhaps more so.

As the date approached, Melody set our imaginations and tongues afire with accounts of wholesome Melakan Nyonya cuisine. "You MUST try the ayam garam cili from So-and-So Place! The flavours, OMG Is. To. Die. For. Then there's this place some blogger recommended; she went there TWICE, which she never does unless it's GOOD..."

Little did we know we'd be stalking this blogger's trail once we were there. Right, like we knew where all the good stuff was.

Because she was loaded with work, Melody handed the task of securing accommodations to Wendy and Sam. A place Melody had checked out several months ago was vetoed because of a suspected bedbug infestation. But what to do? Sam and Wendy (whom I shall collectively refer to as The Ladies) were scarred by a previous encounter with the little terrors and were adamant.

Lulled by the pictures and copy online, we settled on the Swiss Heritage Boutique Hotel along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (formerly Heeren Street), known for its collection of such hotels and guesthouses, along with the odd café.

Uncharacteristically, Melody and I arrived first. The Ladies' ETA was stretched by a coffee break in Seremban. The hotel's own parking lots were all occupied, so we were given directions to another lot a bit farther down the road, which also hosted a car wash and an old mansion that served as a tea shop. Someone was playing a Chinese musical instrument at the balcony when we parked.

The dining hall of the Swiss Heritage Boutique Hotel

We waited for The Ladies at the lobby, which was the main hall of the repurposed home of, I reckoned, some Chinese tycoon. Old-looking wood carvings and furniture retained some of the charm from those years. Guests were allowed to lounge on single-seat chairs or one imposing ornately carved three-seater. Reminders of a modern age included a pair of modern electric massage chairs and Christmas decorations.

Browsing the papers, we also learnt more about the "Don't mess with Melaka" campaign, which, among other things, promised a war against litterbugs and humiliation for repeat offenders. Bold moves by the current state government, which I think has to struggle to break out of the shadow of the previous administration and its famous leader.

"Don't mess with Melaka", explained in The Star

The Ladies finally arrived. Perhaps it's my old age or their personalities, but I seem to effervesce whenever they're around. Fun is sure to be had in their company. Sam is the more gregarious of the two, and readily spouts aphorisms and homespun wisdom borne of years in customer service. Wendy's the more reticent one, but speaks pithily with purpose.

We left out bags at the counter and wandered off to dip our toes into the ambience of Jonker Walk, a prelude to the full-body immersion we'd have on the next day.

That is, if a "dip" were possible in a city that swallows you whole into a merry-go-round of the old, refurbished and brand-new the moment you step onto its streets.

The heat. G*ds, the heat.

Thank goodness for air-conditioned spaces.

But it seemed as though such places have multiplied since my last visit. Driving into the city, I was struck by how little sky there was in the view compared to ... well, eight years is a long time.

After decades, Melaka was being invaded again: by progress. More cars, more people, more freaking tour buses. And more storeys. I had not seen those high-rises there before. We'd end up checking those later in the night but first, lunch.

Melody, Sam and Wendy hadn't eaten much before hopping into the cars (Sam's and mine). I had just enough foresight to eat a full breakfast, so I wasn't perturbed by the crowds at The Melting Pot, a family restaurant along Jonker Walk that served - what else? - Nyonya cuisine.

The Melting Pot along Jonker Street

This was where Melody had the "OMG you gotta try this" ayam garam cili on her last visit, a few months earlier. We also opted for a cencaluk omelette, fried with onions and a unique concoction made with brined tiny shrimp or krill; and a kangkung belacan: water spinach stir-fried with a paste of fermented shrimp. We all ordered the "small" portions, in anticipation of snacking on other stuff later on.

After a while, though, I was puzzled by the delay. Shouldn't at least one of the dishes be scooped from a pot? Who makes small batches of rendang or curry to order?

The wait. G*ds, the wait.

It didn't take long for all four of us to get hungry. To pass the time, we made a sport of guessing which orders went to which table, while cracking light jokes at the faces of disappointment from those who got passed over.

When our orders finally arrived, I was surprised that we had just enough energy to capture the moment on our smartphones before we fell upon our dishes, plus rice, with groans of relief. These days, quipped a social media maven, the cameras eat first.

At left: cencaluk omelette and ayam pongteh. The latter was the
best version of the dish we'd had on this trip.

The cencaluk barely registered in the omelette, which was fine, because it went well with the spicy (and salty) ayam garam cili. The chicken was more of a really dry rendang, with seemingly less coconut milk.

I had little comment on the other dishes apart from "How tasty!", "This works well", and "Nobody's having this, right?" I was also glad I couldn't see any whole cencaluk shrimp. One version of this condiment was a pile of bent white-pink creatures whose black pinhead-sized eyes stare into your soul and potentially rob you of your appetite.

Ayam garam cili, and it was good

We were hungry, but that's not why the meal was satisfying. Melody's recommendation was spot on.

So it was that, flushed from the afterglow of a sated hunger, we reluctantly picked ourselves out of our seats and went back into the white-hot afternoon and packed pavements.

I didn't set out on this trip to write a travelogue, which explains the dearth of pictures of the usual: crowded streets, refurbished buildings, the tourist attractions and must-go spots. Yet, after two weeks and some feverish typing later, the first draft was hammered out. I suppose I wanted to squeeze out what I could from the holiday, and perhaps I've let a lot of memories of my travels rust away. Oh, what I could've told you about my work stints at Jakarta and Bangkok...

Since I'm not expecting a whole lot from a bunch of travel diaries of a trip that's gone stale (this happened before the New Year), I'm reproducing it with whatever photos that were taken. As for the contents, my travelling companions agreed that it's quite accurate.

Proceed to part 2.


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