Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Melaka - I think They Need To Build Another Museum, 24 Is Simply Not Enough

The two hour bus trip down to Melaka (also known as Malacca) was very pleasant as our bus was extremely roomy, with seats that were like reclining leather armchairs. I reckon that because the competition between long-distance bus companies is so fierce, they all try to out-do each other in order to attract customers. There had to have been at least twenty companies at the KL bus station, and even the worst bus there was nicer than any bus in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The long-distance bus station in Melaka has been combined with the local bus station and a shopping mall to create one huge modern monstrosity which is called Melaka Sentral. We had some trouble finding the local bus station since it is called the 'domestic terminal' but eventually we found our bus and made our way to the centre of town.

After a few wrong turns we arrived at Tony's Guesthouse and immediately wished that we hadn't. Tired, hot, irritable and desperately needing the bathroom, imagine our frustration when we found everything locked up and a sign saying "Back at 3:30"! The front porch was pretty grimy but we tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and waited for about half an hour before Tony arrived. He turned out to be a really nice guy, very friendly and helpful. I wish that I could say that his guesthouse was just as nice, but unfortunately it turned out to be one of the worst places that we have stayed at. We stayed for four nights and did not see any evidence of cleaning in that whole time. The thick coat of grime on the floor was so bad that it turned the soles of your feet black within ten minutes of walking around on it. There was only one shower and one toilet for everyone, but we didn't find this too much of an issue, because we usually got up so late that no-one else was around when we had our showers. This was because we found it very difficult to sleep, given the lack of air-conditioning and the noise made by the rain on the tin roof. Still, at least it was pretty cheap, at less than ten dollars per night!

The next day we went to the tourist office to find a map of the sights, however it was closed until about 2:30pm, so we amused ourselves by wandering around the area, coming across a reconstructed seventeenth century Dutch fort called the Middleburgh Bastion and a replica of Malay Sultanate water wheel which didn't seem to work. We found an indoor market where we checked out the souvenir t-shirts and got some lunch at the upstairs food court.

We went back to the tourist information centre, where they had re-opened after finishing their siesta. I confidently strode up to the lady at the counter, pointed at the map that she was using to give directions and asked politely if I could please have one. I was amazed when she said that the tourist information centre did not sell them and that she had bought it from a different place for her own use. I refrained from telling her what I thought of a tourist information centre that didn't have any maps, and instead asked where I could obtain one. She gave me some names of shops that sold the map and we went on our way, down the main drag to find a map and generally get our bearings.

I got a map from a souvenir shop and we continued down the main drag, which turned out to be Jonker Street (also called the Jonker Walk or Jalan Hang Jebat), a tourist attraction in its own right. Jonker Street features some of the areas oldest houses and temples, as well as a plethora of 'antique' and souvenir shops. It didn't take us long to buy enough to fill up any remaining free space in our backpacks

Back at the start of Jonker Street was a cafe which was always busy every time we walked past. We decided to see what all the fuss was about, and found that it sold a popular local dessert called durian cendol. I ordered it and discovered that it is similar to ice-kachang, being shaved ice flavoured with durian and coconut, with jelly and red beans underneath. If it wasn't for the durian I probably would have enjoyed it, but I think that all that talk about durian smelling like hell and tasting like heaven is a load of rubbish, because I reckon it tastes just as bad as it smells.

For dinner we decided to try out a small satay joint that was only a couple of houses down from our guesthouse. The previous night there was a line to get in, so we figured that it must be good. We got lucky and didn't have to wait long for a table, just long enough for us to check out what everyone else was doing so that we didn't look too clueless when we got our turn. How it works is that you get a pot of satay sauce in the middle of the table which is heated from the bottom. Then you go to the self-service area where there are all kinds of skewers and other goodies which you pile up onto a tray and take to your table where you dunk everything into the satay sauce to cook. I'm sure that it is not particularly hygienic, but it tasted amazing. We got skewers with chicken, sausage, egg, bok choi, some kind of kidney or liver and some dumplings which all got completely drenched with satay. We also had a couple of coconuts. It was awesome.

The next day we started off with the Maritime Museum, which we were very keen on visiting, since we had seen it the previous day and thought it looked pretty cool. Part of the museum is actually inside a replica of an actual Portuguese ship called the 'Flora de la Mar', which sank off the coast of Melaka in 1512. I was very impressed with the interior of the ship, I didn't realise that Portuguese galleons of the sixteenth century came with such good air-conditioning! It was one of the best museums that we have seen on the trip, with heaps of information detailing the history of Melaka through the Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, as well as a good overview of ocean travel in general around that era.

The second part of the Maritime Museum was concerned with flora and fauna of the sea, as well as different kinds of boats used through the ages. It wasn't as interesting as the first part, plus it wasn't housed in a ship, so we didn't spend too much time here. The ticket included a visit to the Royal Malaysian Navy Museum, which had rubbish air-conditioning, so we skipped most of it. However, when we got to the outside exhibits we were surprised to see actual Navy weapons and even an actual Navy ship, where you could go into the control room and play with all of the buttons and levers. It was hilarious when Michael pressed the big red button and blew up neighbouring China... (actually that didn't really happen).

After that we had a look at the Menara Taming Sari, which is a tower where you go onto a revolving platform which lifts you up to the top of the tower for a look over the city. Kind of like a Royal Show ride but in slow motion. However, it was really expensive at about 35 ringgit (over $10) so we decided to give it a miss. This was not because we didn't have the money, it was more the principle of the thing, since it seemed like a real rip-off for only 7 minutes of entertainment.

We bypassed the tower and spotted a nearby shopping mall where we went for some lunch and air-conditioning. I was also pleased to discover a Roti Boy outlet, which is a bakery which sells this delicious sweet bun with a creamy filling that tastes like golden syrup.

After cooling off in the shopping mall, we headed back to the old town where we saw the Porta de Santiago. This is the only surviving part of the A Famosa fortress, constructed by the Portuguese in 1511. Off to the side of Porta de Santiago is the Cultural Museum. The main attraction of this museum is that it is housed inside a replica of the Istana (Sultanate Palace) of a famous sultan who ruled Melaka between 1456 and 1477. Out the front of the museum we saw an excavation team uncovering what looked like foundations of the old fort.

The Porta de Santiago and the Cultural Museum are located at the bottom of St Paul's hill, so named because of St Paul's Church which stands at the top. It was built in 1521 by the Portuguese. It was very unusual since it is filled with gravestones and has a massive lighthouse in front of it. This reflects the different uses that it was put to; a Catholic Chapel by the Portuguese, then a Protestant Church and graveyard by the Dutch and finally the British used it to store gunpowder! It was a tough walk to the top because of the heat, but it was very pleasant at the top, with a nice breeze and a local man serenading us on the guitar with Elvis songs.

That was the end of our very productive day of sightseeing, we managed to fit most of the major sights in, although we hardly got through any of the museums. Can you believe that this little town has 24 museums!? There is a Governor's Museum, Portuguese Museum, Islamic Museum, Architecture Museum, Kite Museum, Enduring Beauty Museum, Literature Museum and even a Stamps Museum! I think they should also have a museum just dedicated to detailing all of the museums!

Anyway, after our very busy day we decided to take it easy for our last day in Melaka. We walked through Little India, where we had some awesome Chicken Rice and laughed at the terrible Bollywood music and movie posters.

Then we took a different route around Chinatown (which is where Jonker Street is located), stopping to look at Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (the oldest traditional Chinese temple in Malaysia). Then we reached the top of Jonker Street, where we sampled some pineapple tarts (one of the local specialties) and bought some for our bus trip back to Kuala Lumpur. We only found out afterwards that the version that we bought is the 'tourist' version. Ours were like mini sausage rolls with pineapple inside and we thought that they tasted much nicer than the original version. We walked back down Jonker Street and stopped at the place where I had tried the durian cendol a couple of days before. Out the front they have a shop which sells fish-shaped waffles that are filled with pandan-flavoured cream. They were very similar to the tai-yaki which we had sampled in Japan.

We found ourselves back on Jonker Street later that evening for the night market. On the weekends, they block off the traffic and turn Jonker Street into a night market. We thought that the stalls would just be selling the same things as the shops lining the street, however we found many different things, such as bubble tea, icy poles, knock-off handbags, Portuguese egg tarts and beef jerky. One of the more unusual things that we saw were fried potatoes on skewers. The potato was placed on the skewer and then twirled through a machine which turned it into a spiral, which they then dipped into the deep-fryer and sprinkled with chilli flavouring. Michael got one and said that it was "really yummy".

At the end of Jonker Street we found a group of dancers, except I don't think that they were really dancers, more likely it was a community group that were putting on a display for the crowds. It was pretty funny, because a couple of the older people got up onto the stage and started dancing too. Some of them were dancing to the song, however a couple of them seemed to be dancing to some other tune that only they could hear. One guy just stood there, jumping up and down and waving his arms like he was trying to take off. But they were having fun and I guess that's all that matters.

At the end of Jonker Street we turned around to go back, but chickened out when we saw the crowd (there were a lot of people) and ended up walking back via a quiet back-street.

That was the end of our stay in Melaka, the next day we caught a bus back to Kuala Lumpur. I thought that Melaka was a very unusual town, full of contrasts like modern shopping malls, old European architecture and delicious Chinese food. I think we probably could have seen everything in two days, however it was nice to have an extra day up our sleeve so that we didn't have to rush. I don't think that I would go back to Melaka, since I have already seen most of the sights. I would definitely recommend it however, as it is one of the most unique towns that I have seen on this trip.

No comments:

Post a Comment