Saturday, May 19, 2007


Thanks to Billy Bryson for this one - means tawdry, alluring by flashy showiness.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Melaka. Youlaka?

fountain in Dutch square
We took the bus from Mersing to Melaka, saying goodbye to the charming Dutch family that we had met on the ferry. After watching the green Malaysian scenery fly by for a few hours, we landed at the Melaka bus station, where we were immediately accosted by various point-men who thrust their flyers in our faces, entreating us to go to their motel. This was actually welcome, since we hadn't bothered to sort out lodging and we ended up at the adequate Kota Lodge, which is located behind the lustrous Baba House in Chinatown.
baba house
Off to Chinatown in the night, winding through the gilded roads and by the grand shophouses and onto the red paved plaza of Dutch Square, and then to a little alley lined with hawker stalls. Upon closer inspection, we found that one of the first few stalls was selling Indian food. When asked if he had anything vegetarian, the proprietor said "of course" and ushered us to a cracked plastic table set with an assortment of dishware. He began to make roti, working the dough balls in his hands and frying them on his portable griddle. Soon we had piping hot fresh roti and plastic bowls filled to the brim with a smooth and spicy yellow dal. I ate my fill of a bowlful of dal and a few rounds of roti; I.L. had two bowls and several rotis. Sharing our table were several other people of various ethnicities but probably the same nationality (other than us), all chowing down happily. Sated, we paid the bill of about 5 ringgit: about USD1.50, including drinks. A great introduction to Melaka. On the way back to the hotel, we were caught in a tropical downpour, torrents of rain soaking us to the point that resistance was futile. I didn't mind. I was full, happy, and in Malaysia. We ducked in and out from under the porticoes, admiring the tilework inlaid on the sidewalk and the shop fronts.
pavement inlay
The next few days were just as charming. We wandered around Chinatown and went to the museum at Studhuys in Dutch Square where adorable bats were hanging upside down, in repose, from the rafters. We explored Little India, with its profusion of sari shops and beautiful food: another vegetarian delight was my first experience at an Indian "banana leaf" restaurant (here's a good representation and explanation). The lunch special, another very reasonable deal, was scooped onto the enormous leaves that were slapped down in front of us as plates. Different puddles of delicious food, all vegetarian, were accompanied by rice and samosas and pakoras and drinks. No utensils in sight, everyone was eating with their non-poop hand (difficult for me - with naan or other bread I can manage it, but trying to eat a rice/soup mixture with fingers requires special skill). There's a sink for washing up before and boxes of tissues around to wipe up with after. When finished eating, the leaves are conveniently folded over to hide the mess. Beats paper plates any day.
We also checked out the night market on Jonker Walk (aka Jalan Hang Jebat) and then the next day checked out some of the arty stuff in Chinatown and Old Melaka. I wrote about that here. We also wandered into a coffee wholesaler run by Chinese folks. They spoke no English, and my Chinese is limited to the Mandarin xie xie. They were selling fresh ground sugared coffee very inexpensively, and I wanted to buy whole bean coffee, which was not on display anywhere. When I couldn't get the message across, I wrote the Japanese kanji for "bean" (mame: 豆) on my palm and showed it to the shopkeepers. Their faces lit up and they said, yes! yes! and they brought out a sackful, asking how much I wanted to buy. I bought a kilo, for about USD5, with many xie xies. They asked where I was from, that I was able to come up with such information but couldn't speak a word of Chinese or Malay, and I explained the Japan connection. Kanji sure is helpful sometimes.

Good times! Absolutely visit Malaysia if you can, and Melaka if you go. So far, it's been my favorite spot in Asia.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Palau Tioman

Life is slow and simple on Palau Tioman.
Thirty years on from Time magazine's naming of the isle as one of the world's top ten most beautiful, Tioman is still largely unspoiled.

Nowadays, tropical paradises with prime beachfronts are usually synonymous with resorts. Picture Hawaii, and you think of a beautiful beach with dozens of glitzy high-rise hotels cluttering up the strip. Ditto Thailand. But on Tioman, there is only one big resort, and even that is slightly more reserved than your average Hilton monolith. There's also a small airport, with a few flights a day and seeming to cater to the Berjaya resort clientele - the folks staying in the budget huts like us stuck to the cheaper ferry-and-bus route.

There are several small villages on Tioman and one larger "town" of Tekek, where the airport and some municipal buildings are located, along with a scattering of shops and guesthouses. The villages, including Air Batang, where we stayed, are little more than a cluster of huts and guesthouses grouped around the single-lane mostly dirt path, in most places wide enough only to accommodate a motor scooter, that ran alongside the beach. Some of the beach chalets, as they are called here, have open-air restaurants tacked on: a few plastic tables and chairs and a handwritten menu posted on the wall.

Huge lizards waddle along that path, darting from the jungle to the beach and back, and the horizon is empty save a few fishing boats floating in the distance. A thirty second walk to the beach, and after, cold water showers and mosquito coils on the porch as I hang out my sarong and write in my notebook. Not much to do but.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Singapore and beyond

We decided on Singapore for Golden week, mostly because we had a reasonable amount of time - just over a week - and it was the cheapest place we hadn't been yet.

Cheapness has its drawbacks, though, and one of them in travel is the preponderance of funky, badly timed redeye flights on the bargain end of the spectrum. This particular gem's itinerary was kept a secret from us until a few days before takeoff - it was then revealed that we would arrive in the wee hours of the morning, effectively rendering a good part of the next day useless in our exhausted state.

We decided to suck it up and skip sleep, opting instead to hop on the first bus to the Malaysian fishing village of Mersing at 630 a.m. After cabbing into Singapore, it was 3 a.m., and we spent a few hours wandering around the pristine empty streets with their neat rows of shops and absence of detritus. How unlike Hong Kong, Taipei, or even Tokyo it was. Our bus was to depart from the Golden Mile bus depot and food hawker center, which was adjacent to the Arab Quarter and Little India. A few bars were open, with a few lonesome revelers occasionally wandering out of the doors, but mostly it was quiet. Finally, exhausted, we stumbled into a Hotel 81, an inexpensive-ish efficiency hotel chain, and took their transit rate (a fraction of the regular rate) for a few hours' sleep. Hot and sweaty outside at 3am, freezing inside with no windows and no way to turn off the a/c.

Finally grabbed the bus to Mersing, the Malaysian fishing village that offers a ferry to Palau Tioman, location Bali Hai of South Pacific and tropical island extraordinaire. We alit at the village called Air Batang, also known as ABC beach, and chose the simple and ridiculously inexpensive beach "chalets" at Mawar Beach. Beautiful beach, friendly stray cats, simple cheap dinner at the open-air restaurant. Sleep! under mosquito netting and buffered additionally from the bugs by the fan.