Sunday, 23 March 2014

Malacca. Presented by Mr. Potato

Our journey from KL to Malacca was punctuated by a stop at the mechanics to get our tyre fitted and an oil change done. Getting there with the tyre balanced between us was an interesting experience, but luckily we made it there in one piece and without dropping our precious cargo. Oli hates letting anyone else work on the bike, but managed to keep his nervous glances and progress checks to a respectful minimum. Once it was completed, we popped next door to the nasi kandar, scoffed down a good lunch, and hit the road.

Almost as soon as we left the city, we realised we were heading straight towards what looked like a massive rain storm. The clouds were so dark they took on an almost brown tinge. Due to the heat we have abandoned our normal motorcycle trousers (which are waterproof) in the bottom of the pannier, and have instead been wearing our Draggin jeans. Whilst these are great for beating high temperatures, they are somewhat lacking on the weather proof front. Hoping we would be lucky, we pressed on.

Miraculously we made it the majority of the way before the sky finally broke and the heavens opened. Motorway spray is no fun at the best of times, but the exciting style of Malaysian driving made it more so. The roads here are actually excellent, easily as good as what you would expect to find in Western Europe. However, the driving is pretty terrible, with many people driving thoughtlessly and selfishly – a dangerous combination when translated to high speeds. Interestingly, despite the spray rendering the visibility decidedly poor, most drivers saw no need to stick their headlights on. Thankfully we didn't have to cope for long with this, as we were soon turning off the highway and heading in to town.

The rain continued to patter down, further slowing the already busy traffic. As we approached the outskirts, we spotted a few cars stopped on the side of the road. As we passed, we noticed that they were attending to an injured man, who appeared to have come off his scooter. We stopped to see if there was anything we could do, as we are carrying a pretty hefty first aid kit. Fortunately the ambulance was already on its way, but the guy was clearly in a lot of pain. We were sure his injuries weren't life threatening, but they did look bad, and there was a lot of blood. It was a sober advert for safety equipment, as with a full-face helmet, gloves, proper shoes, knee protection and a jacket he probably wouldn't have suffered a scratch. Hopefully he will be ok. The people looking after him assured us there was nothing we could do, and as help was coming we got back on the bike and got out of the way.

After settling in to our hostel (River One Guesthouse) we decided to take advantage of the free tea and coffee on offer, as the rain had not yet abated. Eventually however our stomachs dictated that it was time to go in search of food, conveniently just as the weather dried up. The place we ate at offered incredible curries and softly delectable nan breads at a bargain cost. Oli's favourite however was the tandoori chicken, although the portion was definitely more for two people than one. Nevertheless, he bravely took one for the team and ate the lot.

Energised by our meal and needing to walk it off, we went to explore the streets. Our hostel was located in the historic old town, which made our wander very pleasant. Architecture wise Malacca is not dissimilar to Ipoh, with picturesque old Chinese style shop houses lining the narrow roads. However, Malacca is a UNESCO world heritage site, and hence has a bit more of a polished edge to it. Although it has clearly had a good lick of paint and is lovingly maintained, the place is far from sterile. Our evening walk provided a tantalising glimpse of the city, and we were very much looking forward to exploring further the next day.

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Malacca is a city with a rich history. As with many places in this part of the world, it fell under the eye of greedy Europeans eager to enrich themselves through trade. Thus, its colonial era begun in 1511, when it was captured by the Portuguese. This backfired on them somewhat, as rather than allowing them to gain the upper hand in Asian trade, it actually caused widespread disruption to existing networks. Not exactly a great result. Eventually the Dutch decided to take it for themselves in 1641, but were not particularly interested in developing it as a trade point. In 1824 they swapped it with the British, in exchange for Bencoolen in Sumatra, which seems to be the kind of high-handed deal that Europeans specialised in at the time.

Today Malacca retains a distinct Malaysian feel, but with vestiges to its past obviously apparent. We loved the quiet streets, which kept a feel of discovery despite the high numbers of tourists. We spent hours pottering around, admiring the shop fronts and noticing pretty details such as elaborate tiles everywhere. We didn't have the greatest weather for our visit, but somehow the heavy cloud added to the atmosphere, moodily setting off the colourful buildings.

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We took it slow on our first day, mainly just aimlessly but happily walking around. We also spent a fair bit of time at our hostel, which turned out to be a great place. It was run by an interesting guy (Ozzy), who we enjoyed chatting to. Whilst talking on the porch by the riverside, he pointed down through the cracks in the boards. Chilling out just a few centimetres below us was an enormous water monitor lizard. This was a particularly big one; on average they grow to around two metres, and usually weigh around 20kg. They are fairly common in Malaysia, but we weren't expecting to see them in an urban environment!

When we were done admiring large reptiles, we stood on the riverside chatting away. A local man rode past on a scooter, stopping to ask us where we were from. Ozzy replied that he was from Iceland, and Oli and I said we were English. The guy then laughed and looked confused, telling us we were all too short to be European, as he thought they were all massive. He jumped off the bike and compared his height to Oli's. Oli was about half an inch shorter, which amused him greatly. He got back on his scooter and trundled off again down the river, chuckling merrily to himself.  I've never thought of us as short enough to attract ridicule before, but there you are. We didn't mind though, as we're always happy to amuse people.

After going out for another short potter around the town, we came back to our hostel for a barely earned cup of tea. Some new guests had arrived, who turned out to be from Stevenage, not far from where my Grandma lives. We quickly got talking, and were excited to hear that they were on the first few days of a nine month trip. Mark and Emma were a lovely couple, and we ended up going out for dinner together that evening. Oli was keen to share the joy of the tandoori chicken, which seemed to go down very well indeed.

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The next morning we decided to do some proper sightseeing. Perhaps Malacca's best known landmark is the Christ Church. We couldn't really visit the town without paying it a visit. Bizarrely the square outside of it served as the base for numerous colourful tri-shaws, sort of like pedal-powered tuk-tuks. These were garishly decked out in fake flowers, set off with boom-boxes that blasted out tunes whenever they were driving customers around. We managed to fend off the many offers of tours, and went to take a closer look at the church. We were surprised to notice on the plaque outside that the name of the bishop was rather familiar, being shared with a good friend of ours from Manchester. Whilst the interior of the church is nothing special (at least to ignoramuses such as ourselves), the outside is rather iconic, so it was definitely worth dropping by.

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The weather that day was hot and humid, with the rain not quite managing to make an appearance. It was the first time for a few days that the heat had made us feel genuinely uncomfortable, and even standing still outside was enough activity to work up a pouring sweat. With this in mind we decided we had done quite enough sightseeing for one day, and instead resumed wanderings, punctuated with cendol and some excellent food.

By no means do I intend to list everything we ate (I think the only person who would find that interesting would be my dear sister, Georgina), but the banana leaf place is definitely worth a mention. Here the rice is served on an actual banana leaf, and comes with three different curries, a salad, and lots of poppadoms by way of accompaniment. The best part of this is that it is served by a team of waiters in a seamless operation. First one guy brings the empty leaf, then another serves the rice. Quickly he is joined by the man with the curries, efficiently ladling out a portion of each. Another waiter then arrives with a tub full of poppadoms, adding a generous sprinkle, before the finishing touch is provided by a final waiter, who adds a drizzle of masala sauce onto the rice. As a bonus, the food was awesome, and the cost was just under £1 each. Sadly I can't remember the name of the place, but it was just over the road from the Discovery Cafe, with a green sign. Anyone going to Malacca should go here!

It had been a lovely couple of days in Malacca, as it really is a pleasant place to spend time in. However, I feel we cannot write this post up without mentioning a major fly in the ointment. Considering that this is a UNESCO world heritage site, we were astounded to see that somebody has actually allowed Mr. Potato (a crisp company, think knock-off Pringles) to sort of sponsor it. Anyone who can allow the below (see photos) to happen to such a beautiful place surely should not be in charge of anything at all. Even the lanterns that were so atmospheric at first glance had fake tubes of crisps hanging between them. Thankfully it wasn't all over the town, but there were enough billboards, archways and posters to constitute eyesores. Our problem wasn't that they had donated money to the town, but the utterly tasteless way their name was plastered all over everything. Really, what was everyone involved thinking?

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All this aside, it is actually still a great city. Slightly annoyingly, we managed to leave a bag at the hostel, which happens to contain my phone and card reader. It's not the end of the world though, as we really enjoyed our time there, and are actually quite pleased that we have a reason to go back. We are now on Tioman island, enjoying the beach life. We will write that up as a separate post though. Stay tuned!

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