It IS 'Truly Asia"!
06.05.2009 - 06.05.2009 77 °F
You may have seen the magazine ads from the Malaysia Tourism Board with the tagline "Malaysia...Truly Asia!" As I described in my previous posting, the ethnic makeup in this part of the world is really something. Unfortunately the communities have not always gotten along - sorry, Rodney King - in the country's history, but you can't escape the fact that this is not a mono-culture (is that even a word?). Yes, Singapore has the same diversity but for one, it's a tiny country (more like a city-state) and it's also more of a melting pot. I'd call Malaysia a patchwork more than a melting pot because the various communities tend to stick to themselves.
Back to my bus journey from Singapore to Melaka. Crossing the border was an interesting experience: you have to get off the bus not once but twice, first to pass through Singapore immigration and then Malaysian immigration once you've gone over the bridge into the city of Johor Bahru. At each checkpoint the bus driver pulls up and lets everyone off - afterward he comes around and picks up the passengers again. The ride was uneventful - the Lonely Planet book said that the state of Johor is covered with palm plantations, and it was right. That's all I saw...fields and fields of palm trees that are tapped for their oil. I suppose it's prettier than looking at the cultivation of most agricultural commodities, but apparently there's been rampant deforestation in Malaysia due to the palms.
I spent part of the bus trip relearning the numbers in Malay as well as some basic phrases. I've been in this country for less than 24 hours and already I'm wondering if there's any point, since pretty much everyone (at least here in Melaka) speaks some modicum of English. Also, their English - however limited - is inevitably going to be much better than my Malay, So I already have started defaulting to English and peppering it with random Malay words, mostly to amuse myself and break the ice. Actually this is good practice for me, because Bahasa Indonesia is based on Bahasa Melayu - about as close as British and American English are to each other - and English is not as common in Indonesia from what I understand. When I go to the Gayo Highlands coffee-producing region in northern Sumatra next week, most of the people I meet will have learned Bahasa Indonesia as a second language.
I arrived at the bus station in Melaka, found a bus line for the two-hour trip to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday (again, using Chinese to buy my ticket). A nice taxi driver then took me to the Hotel Puri in the Chinatown section of the old city. It looks a lot like the Chinatown in George Town, Penang, but is more touristy with narrower streets. The architecture is pretty stunning, though: all of these two-story "shophouses" with sloping, tiled roofs and Chinese characters posted on the facades and doorways., The lobby of the Hotel Puri is spectacular (check out www.hotelpuri.com if you want to see for yourself) and there are a couple of verdant gardens in the back with swallows that fly around (they actually harvest the swallows' nests - made from their saliva, mind you - and sell them for bird's nest soup, which is a Chinese delicacy). The only drawback is that there is no elevator, and my room happens to be on the third floor (fourth floor in the U.S.). Normally I like taking the stairs, but it's really humid here so any form of exercise, however simple, is going to render you into a dripping pool of sweat.
At around 4:45pm I left the hotel intent on finding something good to eat. The Lonely Planet book (they actually came out with a special edition just for Kuala Lumpur, Melaka & Penang) recommended an Indian restaurant that offers a ten-dish vegetarian thali on Friday afternoons, and since it happened to be Friday afternoon I headed in that direction. After finding what I thought was Selvam on Jalan Temenggong (jalan means "street"), I walked in - the place was sparsely decorated, with metal tables and chairs, a TV mounted in a corner, and an open kitchen area in the back. There were about six or seven Tamil men sitting at various tables, glued to the TV that was broadcasting a show in Tamil. I strode in like I knew what I was doing, sat down, and ordered a thali and an unsweetened iced tea ("teh o ais kosong," or "tea without-milk ice zero"...the "zero" referring to no sugar). The proprietor first spread a large, freshly rinsed banana leaf in front of me and then started ladling out various dishes. Everything looked good, but for some reason I starting wondering if I was in the right place. Then he asked if I wanted chicken or mutton curry. Hmm, what happened to the all-veggie feast? I explained that I had come for the vegetarian thali and that it had been recommended. He smiled and pointed to a different restaurant down the street - he even offered to show it to me, presumably allowing me to get up from my seat, leave the food that had been served to me (I hadn't touched it yet), and walk out the door., I felt bad and said that I would stay. So after he was done covering the banana leaf with various dishes, I proceeded to dig in with my right hand (not an easy task for a southpaw like me!). This practice entailed scooping up some of the rice and then grabbing a bit from one of the piles before shoveling the whole thing into my mouth.
At first I was a bit concerned that none of the dishes was at the very least warm - the rice itself was slightly below room temperature - but I threw caution to the wind and continued feasting. The flavors were spectacular. Everything was nicely seasoned, with a couple of dishes on the spicy side without being searingly hot. The mushroom dish in the upper left hand corner of the banana leaf was amazing...I couldn't stop eating it. After clearing my plate....err, leaf...I sat back, wiped my turmeric-stained right hand, and watched the table next to me. Two older Chinese men had come in, one wearing an orange uniform of some sort and the other with the same uniform shirt in a clear plastic bag. They ordered dosai, the South Indian crepe-like pancakes served with different sauces and dips. Later two younger Malay men wearing the orange uniform shirt walked in and sat down with them. They all chatted with the proprietor in what I'm guessing was Malay. When I came to Malaysia the first time I remember finding the ethnic diversity very interesting, but I don't recall ever seeing people from different groups interact with each other - especially outside the business/commercial context. So it was interesting to watch this scene unfold.
The rest of my evening was spent at a museum built inside the Stadhuys, the original colonial administration building constructed by the Veereinische Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Company) in the mid-1600s soon after Malacca was captured from the Portuguese. The museum's exhibits seemed to be cobbled together somewhat randomly: several life-sized displays depicting the Dutch governor's office, a Malay wedding ceremony (including the matrimonial bed), an Indian used bookstore, and a Chinese satay house. Upstairs were various galleries with paintings and dioramas showing different stages of Malacca's/Melaka's history. Every single exhibit had a plaque in both Malay and English with more details than you possibly could want to know. I didn't have the patience to read all of them, plus it was still uncomfortably hot in spite of the sun having gone down.
I ended my night at a touristy cafe/restaurant not far from my hotel - again, a Lonely Planet recommendation (sorry, I'm a slave to LP!). I ordered a cendol ice breeze, which was their take on a local dessert specialty that looks frightening. The weird part is the thin green blobs that look like worms or insect larvae but are actually mung bean noodles. There also are red beans mixed in for texture and color. The base of the dessert is coconut milk, and this place blended it with ice to make a smoothie-like beverage. It was actually pretty tasty, though the texture of the noodles was slightly odd.
OK, I think I'm done blogging for now. It's 8am already and I need to start planning what I'm going to eat today. At 11am I'm meeting with Gavin Sia, whose family has a coffee roastery in the town of Muar about 45 minutes south of Melaka. Gavin participated in the three-day Diedrich advanced roasting workshop that Atlas hosts every September right before Coffee Fest/Seattle, so I reconnected with him through Facebook and told him that I would be coming to Malaysia. He's meeting me in Sumatra next week and we'll travel together to the Gayo Highlands. Today, however, I'm going to see if he wants to go to the Medan Portugis, the part of Melaka that is home to the descendants of the Portuguese colonists. It's a dying community, but those who still are here cling to their traditions, their Catholic faith, and a hybrid language called Kristang that follows Malay grammar but uses archaic Portuguese words. Fascinating stuff. Apparently they have a distinct cuisine as well that I am curious to sample. Devil curry, anyone?