Miles and Malls

Trip Start Nov 13, 2006
Trip End May 13, 2007

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Thursday, January 25, 2007

We left Singapore early the next morning to start the long journey to our next destination, Melaka on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.  The express bus took us from central Singapore to the border with Malaysia via a long causeway linking the island to the mainland. Crossing the border was an arduous process involving getting off the bus complete with all our luggage twice before catching a different bus for the onward leg, once to leave Singapore and finally to enter Malaysia.  An hour or so after we set off, we had finally made it across the border and been stamped into Malaysia for 90 days.  Our first stop was the industrial town of Johor Bahru, a shabby looking place with little in the way of tourist entertainment or attractions. Here we had to change buses yet again, the fourth of the day, to travel along the North-South Highway towards Melaka. Johor Bahru bus station was a busy, bustling place but we were soon spotted by a couple of bus touts who directed us to the windows of their bus companies.  By this time it was 11.30 in the morning and we soon discovered that the only buses available where at 3pm or one just about to leave in 2 minutes.  Panicked by the thought of having to spend the next 3 and a half hours in the bus station, we quickly paid our 20 ringgit fare and jumped on the departing bus.  It was only 10 minutes later that we realised that we had a 3 hour journey ahead of us with no drinks or snacks to keep us going.  The bus itself was more like a traveling living room than the sort of bus you see in England.  With three seats across the width of the bus, each huge and as comfortably padded as an armchair and reclining to almost horizontal, it was certainly a comfortable journey.  I passed the time mostly gazing out of the window.  The view along the highway consisted of miles and miles of palm tree plantations, with the occasional tantalising glimpse of some real countryside and rolling hills in the distance.  It was mid afternoon when we arrived at the Melaka bus terminal on the north edge of the city.  Descending the stairs of the bus we were immediately greeted by two accommodation reps, keen for us to stay at their guesthouses.  We took the proffered leaflets and headed off to find some drinks as by this time we were thoroughly parched.  Ten minutes and a couple of bottles of coke later we were feeling much better and had settled on the Shirah Guesthouse on Jalan Melaka Raya.  A friendly local taxi driver came over to see if we wanted a ride into town, we accepted but when we told him were we were going, he insisted we go to the other guesthouse that we had a leaflet for, the Traveler's Lodge, we wondered if he was making a commission from them.  In any case the two guesthouses were next door, so it made little difference. Once in the taxi we journeyed through the historic centre of the city.  The buildings themselves where undoubtedly scenic, but unfortunately the town council had decided to paint them all with a thick dark red paint, presumably in an attempt to tidy things up and make the building distinctive to visiting tourists, but only succeeding in destroying some of the natural charm and character of the place.  Arriving on Jelan Melaka Raya in the new bit of town situated on some reclaimed land, we stalled until the taxi driver drove off before heading up the narrow stairs to check out both the Traveler's Inn and the Shirah Guesthouse.  The Traveler's Inn was fully booked, so we took a large double room at the Shirah instead which seemed to be equally as nice but 20 ringgit cheaper. Settled into our room we decided to visit the local malls just down the road, one of which was still under construction. They were impressive places with a huge variety of shops and I was quickly attracted to the bargainous clothes on offer. Paul on the other hand was of course looking at gadgets, this time mobile phones selling for rock bottom prices.  We looked around for a couple of hours and had some iced coffee and cake at the Starbucks in one of the malls, this was a strange experience with prices almost at the level you would find at home and the place empty apart from a few western and Japanese tourists. It was nearly evening so we decided to look for one of the restaurants that had been recommended by the guide book.  We set off in the direction of the historic centre being careful to avoid the busy traffic keen to knock us off our feet at the side of the road.  Zigzagging back and forth across the roads in search of decent pavements on which to walk, we found only an uneven shop front or two on which to escape the mad motorcyclists.  Eventually we located the street on which the restaurant was meant to be situated .Wandering along looking slightly lost, much to the amusement of the locals eating their food from the street side tables who pointed us out to their children, it soon became clear that the restaurant didn't exist any more so we retraced our steps to the Discovery Cafe which we had passed on the way through.  Here we had an excellent meal of Devilled Chicken Curry, Chili Beef and Rice washed down with some local cheap beer.  The regional food was excellent and extremely spicy and as we sat in the garden we were fascinated by a stall nearby selling what looked like herbal tea to passers by.  It was obviously good stuff as queues of locals formed to get a bowl of the piping hot liquid, which was downed in seconds before they were off again in their car or on their moped. We were tempted to try some but given that weather was so hot and humid already our bucket of cool beer was more appealing.

We had decided to spend one more day in Melaka to visit the historic centre before moving further north. We started in the south of the city first visiting Bukit St Paul, a grassy mound dominated by the ruins of St Paul's Church built by the Portuguese in 1521 and adopted by the Dutch and British successors.  Next to the church were the ruins of part of old Portuguese fort Porta de Santiago completed with cannon and further along the Istana Ke Sultanan, an imposing dark timber palace which is a 19th century reconstruction of the original15th century sultans palace and administrative centre.  In the Malay architectural tradition the entire building was constructed without the use of nails including the multi-layered sharply sloping roofs.  We took a walk through the accompanying gardens which were filled with trickling waterfalls and tropical flora. Afterwards we removed our shoes and entered the palace which today houses a cultural museum.  The building itself was of more interest than the displays themselves, with intricate carvings and a wide staircase to the verandaed first floor, everything constructed from the same dark wood.  Next stop was the slightly twee Dutch Square, one of the oldest surviving parts of Melaka and filled with the aforementioned red-washed buildings and also a recently installed miniature windmill.  We spent a few minutes here, watching the hoards of tricycle drivers, each trying to outdo each other with their cycles covered in decorations and lights and music systems blaring out, rather than looking at the buildings themselves.  We continued north crossing the river into Chinatown to see some of the Baba-Nonya mansions, once elegant townhouses which were the homes of the original Chinese pioneers who married Malay women.  These have unfortunately mostly fallen into disrepair apart from one good example housing the Baba-Nonya Heritage Museum, which was covered in ornate tiles and elaborate carvings.  We stopped for a while in a local bar and soon got chatting to the waiter Hans, a local who told us all about the area and Malay life.  Several beers later we headed off to sample some of the Nonya cuisine, with dishes using sour sauces and coconut milk. We chose a restaurant on Jalan Taman Melaka Raya near to the guesthouse where we had some excellent, if spicy, Beef Rendang amongst other dishes. Back at the guesthouse we packed up our things ready to head north the next day to Kuala Lumpur.
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