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

En route to Malacca (aka Melaka)

Monday, November 4th

After an early breakfast, we caught a bus to the quay and a ferry back to the mainland, where we secured tickets on the next bus leaving for Malacca. We had hoped to find some fruit to take with us, but had no luck in the little stalls lining the road beside the bus station, and had to be content with some cookies and dried bananas.
The cookies had an odd and salty combination of red-skinned peanuts and tiny fish in them, which was nicer than it sounds, while the bananas had been sliced and sautéed in palm sugar.

The bus was comfortable as usual, and one of the roomier ones with two seats on one side and only one on the other.

The trip was uneventful but long, passing through jungle, palm and pineapple plantations, gouged-out hillsides where mining of some kind was taking place, and undistinguished towns and villages. Although it was on the main highway all the way, it took 71/2 hours to reach our destination, allowing for a couple of 10-minute rest stops.

On arrival in Malacca, we took a cab across the city to our accommodation at the Wayfarers' Guest House on the river on the heart of the Old Town.

 Although we had hoped for a room overlooking the river, we booked too late and had to be content with one that opened onto an internal light well. Nevertheless, it was very comfortable, clean and attractive, and no doubt quieter than those facing the busy river. We strolled the short distance to the main tourist zone along Jonker Street for an evening meal, which was typical tourist fare and not that great. Back at the guesthouse, we killed a couple of mosquitoes and turned in for the night.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

George Town days

Thursday, October 31

We spent the morning checking out of Hotel 1926 and moving to Banana Boutique Hotel. In retrospect I preferred the former, even though it was difficult to get to and from on crowded buses. But the latter had the advantage of being right in the centre of town and it was an easy walk to most places of interest. It also had Helen, the most charming and helpful front desk clerk in existence. I'm surprised that there wasn't a line-up of local hotel management types trying to lure her away.

A major feature of the public space at Banana was its open atrium complete with fountain and pool of koi. When the afternoon rainstorms occurred, water poured into the pool from above causing the fish to thrash about in excitement.

Once we were settled again, we made our way around a couple of corners to a camera museum we had already noticed.
 A simple set of display cases held an amazing array of cameras from very early Brownies through to the present digital marvels. My favourite was an elegant 1930's Leica upholstered in snakeskin. There was a small room demonstrating how a pinhole camera worked and a tiny gift shop. We were the only vistors and were fortunate to have a very well-informed young man to show us around and point out some special features. Sadly, my photos of cameras did not work out (some kind of irony there), but I did get a nice shot of their mural.

When I googled the source of the quotation, I discovered that it is attributed to Ted Grant, described as Canada's "premier living photojournalist."
Emerging from the museum we found a posh little cafe nearby attached to a posh little hotel, and treated ourselves to a light lunch of tea and scones.

Refreshed, we made the short walk to Penang's art gallery only to find it was between exhibitions. One small room had some of the permanent collection on display, including a woodcut of chickens that appealed to me.

Another short walk brought us to Fort Cornwallis, the remnant of the old British star-shaped fort with its guns facing the Straits. The original prisoners' cells now contain a quite good history of the fort in quite bad English.
At a small stall in one corner, we bought popsicles. I played it safe with a mango one, but Michael bravely asked for durian, which he then regretted, describing the flavour as like eating a 3-day old unrefrigerated chicken. So much for the Asian delicacy!
We had hoped to catch the free shuttle bus back to our hotel, but after waiting ages, we gave up and trudged back on foot.
In the early evening we crossed the road and had drinks in the Hong Kong Bar, which we discovered was the favourite watering hole for Australian airmen attached to the Butterworth base on the mainland.

 It was not surprising then that the drinks were good. So was dinner, fried rice with chicken, at a street stall.

Friday, November 1

At breakfast we were able to observe some of our fellow guests, a rather seedy lot of expats, some with young Thai women in tow. We learned that they were in Penang on a "visa run" from Thailand, ie. their visas were running out and had to be renewed from outside the country. There is obviously a lucrative little business in shuttling them across the border in minivans, putting them up at various hotels while they apply for new papers, and then shuttling them back to Thailand. Fortunately, they were leaving later that morning.

Our event of the day was a visit to the Cheong Fat Tze heritage house, once the home of a wealthy Chinese merchant and two of his seven wives. After his death it fell into disrepair, but was bought and meticulously restored by a very determined couple. Now it's both a
museum and an upscale bed-and breakfast.

As the sign below says, Lonely Planet called it "one of the ten greatest mansions in the world."

The owners are justly proud of their restoration and we were lucky enough to have one of them conduct the tour we were given.

In the afternoon we rode the funicular up to the top of Penang Hill. It was a bit of a disappointment. The view from the top was spectacular, even though a bit cloudy,

 ...but the surroundings seemed somewhat rundown and neglected.There were a few stalls selling drinks and snacks, a have-your-photo-taken-with-a parrot-or-snake booth, and a small temple with this little piece of sculpture nearby. I liked the rat.

The return journey to our hotel took forever through very heavy traffic back to our hotel.Then the familiar lashings of rain began so that was it for the day.

Saturday, November 2

Without the visa-run guests the hotel was much quieter. After breakfast, we set out for the botanical gardens at the foot of Penang Hill. There we paid 2RM for a golf-cart ride that gave us our bearings for retracing the route on foot.

 Macaques were everywhere but seemed mostly well-fed and not too aggressive.

Among the interesting plants were a cannonball tree that was producing fruit and flowers at the same time,

...and several bat plants, with their trailing whiskers.

For the rest of the day we alternated between strolling the streets and retreating from the searing heat to the coolness of our room. Dinner at the Red Garden, a fabulous food court under canvas where dozens of food stalls offered Malay versions of cuisine from around the world.

Sunday, November 3

We went back to the National Park for a longer walk to a place called Monkey Beach. Shortly after we set out, the paved path became an unpaved trail. We persevered, scrambling over tree roots and through muddy patches, but when we eventually arrived at a sign saying we had 2 kilometres more to go, we turned back. We tried another paved path that promised a treetop walkway, but it too soon deteriorated and we were too hot and tired to continue. It might have been a better option in the dry season when the trails would be dry.

All the same, the scenery was worth the struggle.

That afternoon's rain was so torrential we had little choice but to stay indoors and get ready for our departure in the morning.

It gave me time to look over a few additional photos I'd taken during our stay that captured a little of the flavour of Penang.
These included the beautiful colonial Eastern and Oriental Hotel with its facade facing the sea

and with a lovely period washroom, which was the only room I could afford to occupy.

In the streets we saw a variety of vendors.

... and  some interesting murals, some of them installed by the city...

...and some of them not.

There were lots of lovely old Chinese shophouses,

...some of them meticulously restored,

...and some not.

And some where restoration was ongoing behind bamboo scaffolding like a work of art in itself.

So ended our last day in Penang.