Melaka Spice

Melaka Spice

By the time, we hit the main north-south expressway E 1 in Malaysia, my watch shows that it is already 11 o' clock in the morning. Malaysia is spread over a distance of 700 Km in north-south direction, compared to its highest east-west width of only 300 Km. This is why, its main expressway E 1, traverses a distance of almost 770 Km from the southern city of Johar Bahru, to northern town of Bukit Kayu Hitam, located almost on Malaysia-Thailand border. I had a recollection of this road in my mind as a very wide and busy artery, when I had travelled on this expressway about 8 or 10 years before. Today, Somehow, I feel that this 4 lane road is not all that great, as I always remembered it. I give a little thought to this change in my perception. The reason must have been the 6 lane expressway near my home town of Pune in India to Mumbai, which was not even ready during my last travel here on this road. I realize that I am now comparing in my mind, this road with the Pune-Mumbai expressway and that is the reason for this change in perception.
Earlier, we had crossed the border check point between Singapore and Malaysia under just 10 minutes. You do not even have to get down from the car. The road from Singapore to this border point, known as 'Second Link,' branches off into 4 or 5 lanes near the immigration check point. On the curb of each lane, a counter has been set up by Singapore immigration. Just stop the car near any of the counters, hand over your passports. You can not see what happens inside the counter, but passports are returned within few minutes. After this, you proceed ahead on a no-mans land, which is a actually a bridge. On other side or Malaysian side, again similar counters have been set up by Malaysian immigration. Repeat the passport handing over procedure and then slow down near customs counters and if they do not ask you to stop, just proceed. Perhaps, since prices of most things in Singapore are much higher than in Malaysia, customs officers are aware that people may not be be taking any contraband with them from Singapore to Malaysia and do not really bother you.
Malaysian expressway E 1, even though slightly narrower than Pune-Mumbai expressway, is now equipped with smart card sensors on each and every toll gate. You need to recharge this 'touch and go' toll card, with requisite amount in Malaysian Ringgits. Thereafter, on every toll gate, there are small machines available. The smart card is just to be touched on this machine. The machine automatically debits the toll amount from the amount stored on the card and opens the barricade in front. The entire process may take 2 or 3 seconds. In India, we have to stop the vehicle at the toll gate and give cash to a cashier, who gives a receipt and then lifts the barricade, easily wasting few minutes. Comparatively, this is a much better arrangement no doubt.
Speed limit on this highway is 110 Km per hour, but two wheelers are allowed on the expressway, which means that cars and other vehicles have to be driven much more carefully and you can seldom exceed speed of 60 or 70 Km. Surprisingly, I find that most of the drivers here tend to follow all traffic rules and drive in correct lane, which makes things easier. There are pleasant looking green stretches or lawns on both sides of the expressway, that look regularly mowed. In a few spots, I can see workers mowing the lawns with machine operated mowers. Overall, the upkeep and maintenance of the expressway appears to be of a very high order. The road side scenario appears more natural or as nature would grow it to my eyes, which are accustomed to Singapore' disciplined and orderly landscapes, where even the trees have to grow in orderly fashion like everything else. The trees, shrubs, growing here on road sides look as nature have made them: disorderly. Beyond these green lawns and few trees, I can see all along the road, miles and miles of palm trees. These trees give palm oil to Malaysia, which is exported and the farmers earn good money. These vast stretches of palm trees, somehow create a sour feeling inside me. Economically, these fields might be a boon but what about the damage to biodiversity here, when only one type of plant is allowed to grow over hundreds of kilometers.
After a pleasant journey of about 2 hours, we can see on the road side, the road sign we are waiting for: which says 'Ayer Keroh exit 1 Km.' We change the lane and the exit is right ahead. Another 2 second stop at the toll gate and I see signs, such as smaller residential buildings, traffic lights in squares, all around me, which indicate that we are in the vicinity of a medium sized town.
About a decade ago, I had visited for the first time, a restaurant named as 'Melaka Spice' in the Koregaon Park area of my home town, Pune. After that visit, I had gone there several times again to enjoy excellent Thai cuisine. Since then, this name 'Melaka' had held some kind of fascination for me. Later, some information about a narrow strip of sea between Malaysia and Indonesia called 'Melaka Straits' came into my reading. I had decided then, to make a trip to 'Melaka' sometime in future. Today, my wish was getting fulfilled.
The scenes on the road are very similar to what one can see in medium sized towns like 'Sangli' or 'Miraj' in India. Roads, squares and vehicular traffic are quite comparable. But, people appear to follow road and lane discipline well. No one seems to follow here horrible driving habits of drivers from my home town Pune, such as turning right at green signal, ahead of other vehicles, when the vehicle is standing in the left lane or suddenly turning left from right lane, when 'No left turn' board is being displayed. All 2 wheeler riders are seen riding helmets according to the rules. They do not appear to face any great hardships that 2 wheeler riders in Pune claim to face, when asked to wear a helmet. Travelling through heavy traffic for about 15 or 20 minutes, we finally succeed to reach our hotel. Our hotel has a tall 25 storey building. We ask the valet to park the car and enter the hotel. The first thing that I can see is a huge lobby with two giant sized chandeliers with hundreds of glittering lights and scores of mirrors placed at several strategic points. The first views of the hotel are no doubt impressive. 


After finishing all the formalities like check in and handing over baggage to bell boys etc. I finally reach my room. The room has an oversized glass window with a crystal clear view. I slide the window curtain aside. The view outside is absolutely stunning. I can see the beautiful Melaka river with plenty of water, bending and turning at several places. On the river banks, Malaysian flags flutter in the wind. Hidden behind the river turns and bends, are small cottages with roofs that have been painted brilliant red. All empty spaces between these little cottages are filled with green foliage and fully grown, emerald green trees that provide a strikingly attractive contrast to my eyes. Like any other tropical place, the rains shower 'Melaka' also all the year round, which means that there are no layers or traces of any dust anywhere, commonly seen in all Indian towns with possible exception of towns in southern Indian state of Kerala. This clean, dust free environment is any way a specialty of all south east Asian towns from Myanmar to Indonesia.


Melaka River


A small cottage on river bank

View from the river bank

After watching the scene outside, for at least quarter of an hour, we decide to have lunch first and then leave for sight seeing. Instead of starting a search for a good place to eat, we take easy way out and decide to eat a buffet lunch at the hotel itself. Only after finishing my meal, my thoughts return again to Melaka.
To the east of Indian peninsula and to the south of Indian state of Mizoram, a narrow peninsula spreads for thousands of kilometers to south. At the end or at the tip of this peninsula, lies the island of Singapore. This long peninsula comprises of 3 independent nations: Myanmar and Thailand in the north and Malaysia in the south. Melaka city, located on the western sea board of this peninsula at about 200 Kilometers north of Singapore, is the capital of a state with similar name, within Malaysian federation. The sea coast along this land is famous and known as 'Melaka Straits.' On the other or western side of the straits, lies the 'Sumatra' island of Indonesia. The shape of the straits between 'Sumatra' and Melaka is like a funnel. Near about the Melaka city, the straits are only 1,7 mile wide. Through this narrow strip of sea, every year, more than 50000 cargo ships sail and 15 Million barrels of crude oil passes through Melaka straits every day. Almost 70% of crude oil consumed by China moves through these straits. It is said that if due to some reason this sea lane gets closed, half the shipping of the world, would need to change their shipping routes. All these figures only show, how important are the Melaka straits to the world's commerce and trade.

I drive away all these thoughts from my mind as I have not come here to study commerce or trade and get ready to step out to the city. 

The first thing that I notice in the old parts of the Melaka city is the extreme orderliness of the traffic. This is because, except for one or two major roads, all other roads are one way streets. It becomes a lot easier for the pedestrians to walk along or cross the streets because the vehicular traffic keeps flowing only in one direction. Melaka can be even called as one way city. This traffic arrangement means that even on curvy, narrow roads in old city, one never experiences any traffic jams and traffic moves, sometimes slowly but smoothly. Besides that, I also observe the disciplined way in which all drivers drive here and follow traffic rules except for the Tricycle Rickshaws or Trishaws. I feel that this method of controlling traffic by making most of the streets as one way, might solve the congestion on streets of my home town, Pune. Few years back, traffic police in Pune, implemented one way traffic, on two major streets in the town; J M Road and Fergusson College road, after a great effort, because almost everyone staying in that area opposed the plan. But since then, the traffic congestion in that area is a thing of the past. With that experience, to implement one way traffic plans in entire city would require a Herculean effort on part of the Police, but it is well worth trying from what I see here in Melaka.
While touring the old city, I sense that the city's history and importance of it's geographical location, keeps blending with the modernity all the time. This is only a medium sized city with a population of seven or eight hundred thousand people, what my home town Pune was in 1970's decade. The older parts of this city are all located around the Melaka port, which means that the history of the city is concentrated in this area. Like the fort area, built by British, in the city of Mumbai, a fort existed here also and almost all the sites worth seeing are well within this fort walls. This makes it easier for a tourist like me to just walk around and see everything.

I have already written about the locational importance of Melaka. For this reason, from historical times, Melaka inhabitants always had sprinklings of Arab, Indian, Malay and Chinese traders, who used to camp here. Large consignments of Java spices, Chinese silk, salt, minerals, perfumes, gold, Chinese ceramics and wine were transshipped and traded at this port for many centuries. From 1450 CE Sultan of Melaka ruled over this city. In 1511, a Portuguese armada invaded Melaka port and finally Sultan had to surrender the port to them. After this, Melaka became a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese started controlling the entire trade in the region because of their control of Melaka. This could not be tolerated by other European powers. In 1641, Portuguese armada and Dutch naval ships fought many a battles off the coast of Melaka. This naval war was won by the Dutch and they took control of the port. The British, now firmly in control of India, could not accept the fact that a port of such great importance was controlled by Dutch. Naval skirmishes between British and Dutch navy continued till finally British exchanged areas of Sumatra island under their control with Dutch in 1824 and took possession of Melaka.

This 300 year occupation of Melaka fort, first by Portuguese, then Dutch and finally by British has left many ruins of buildings in the fort area of Melaka. For anyone, who loves history, Melaka fort is like a gold mine of history. UNESCO has declared Melaka as a World Heritage Site in 2008. The present Governments of Melaka as well as federal Government of Malaysia, have fully realized the tourism potential of this place and have taken up number of development projects, making Melaka an interesting place for tourists. A holiday in Melaka is considered by many a tourists as a pleasant and delightful experience no doubt. 
Town Center

Since most of the places of tourist interest in Melaka are around the town center, I start my walking tour of the city from here only. The town center consists of a a crimson coloured old structure and a nearby clock tower. This structure is known here as ' Stadthuys' and was built by the Dutch rulers in 1650 as Governor's residence. Next to this structure, an old church built in 1753, stands tall. Both these buildings have been well maintained and their crimson colour makes them look monumental and splendid. Because of this colour, this entire town center area, looks very impressive to say the least. ' Stadthuys' now houses a museum, which displays large number of artifacts and objects related to Dutch and English rulers. The exhibits include swords, period furniture, rifles, hand guns, revolvers, pistols, Gun shots, bullets, Chinese ceramics, terracotta pots, old plans and models of old fort. I sadly recollect the fact that my home town of Pune is surely much richer in history. However, except for private collection in Raja Kelkar Museum, there is no other museum that tells or describes history of Pune to new generations. We do not even know how 'Shaniwar Wada,' the grand palace built by 'Bajirao Peshawa' really looked like. I feel rather sad at this empathy of my home town people at their history, while I look at the museum here in 'Stadthuys.'

Down below, in the 'Town Center,' I can see number of Trishaws standing in a line. These Trishaws are considered as one of the special attraction of Melaka. We have Bicycle Rickshaws in Kolkata, India, but these Trishaws here, have the passenger side car attached to the side of the Bicycle, instead of at behind as done in Kolkata Rickshaws. Because of this construction, the passengers can see ahead without any hinderence and can take photographs at will. These Trishaws are all highly decorated with plastic flower garlands and electric lights and dazzle in the nights. They have built in music systems and mostly play Bolywood film songs, which are very popular, here in Malaysia. I must admit that 'Stadthuys.' looks strikingly imposing during night time with floodlights focused on the building, which bring out the crimson red colour rather well.

Guns and Gun shots
A Dutch Pistol
Part of ramparts of the Dutch fort and guns positioned on it

Around the Melaka fort, there was a fortification rampart built from stones. Soldiers with field guns, always used to be on duty on top of the rampart. A portion of the fortification wall adjoining the Melaka river has been preserved along with the Guns. I have a look at it and then carry on to climb a small hill just behind the ' Stadthuys.' On this hill a Portuguese Captain had built a church in 1521. I climb the hill and have a look at the ruins of the church, which anyway are not very important or impressive. To be frank, I am hardly interested in looking at these ruins. I have taken the trouble of climbing this hill for only one reason. I want to have a good look at the famous straits of Melaka, which can not be seen from anywhere else.

Straits of Melaka; Narrow neck of a bottle

Straits of Melaka is the only gateway available to enter South China sea from Indian Ocean and is shaped like a bottle with a narrow neck. Here in Melaka, this narrow strip of sea is only couple of Kilometers wide. I can see from the hill top, an almost continuous line of ships sailing in the straits. This is the real indicator of the volume of ships sailing through here.

On the west side of this hill, there is an old gate known as Porta d’ santiago. In 1521, after taking possession of Melaka, the Portuguese admiral of the fleet, Afonso de Albuquerque had built this majestic gate and a fortified post behind it. After 1824, during British rule, the post was demolished. When news of this demolition reached Warren hastings, then Governor gereral of British India, he ordered that demolition should be stopped and the ruins should be preserved.. The gate, saved in this way, was later preserved by the British and then by Malaysians in a very careful manner.

I have a feeling of deep appreciation for the way, this historic ruin has been preserved by the Malaysians. In India, many people think that destroying such signs of historic foreign rule is a great symbol of their patriotic feelings and nationalism and want to remove all such old monuments and structures to erase parts of unpleasant history. Nothing can be further from the truth. There is no such thing as good history or bad history. If we could preserve history, along with historic monuments, the future generations could learn about the errors and mistakes committed in the past. If we destroy all the signs and symbols of history, how do we learn about the past? What would happen then is nothing else but repetition of past follies and errors, again and again.

Porta d’ santiago

During my school days, I often walked to my school in Pune city, in the mornings and crossed a bridge known as 'Lakdi Pool.' I would see every day, a square built platform paved with stones, standing near one of the banks of the river 'Mutha.' I often used to wonder about that platform: who must have built it? and why was it built? In 1961 great floods, this platform was totally destroyed and only few paving stones could be seen lying around. Later on, I came to know from a well known historian that Narayanrao Peshwa, one of the Peshwa rulers of Pune, who was murdered at the orders of his own uncle in a palace intrigue, was cremated here. His cut limbs were brought here in gunny bags and then were cremated in a fire. A horrible story no doubt, but that platform was always the mute witness to that horror story. Now since it is gone, no one would probably know about this bad part of history ever.

There are at least 15 museums around the Town center of Melaka, which include even museums of stamps and even kites. With the limited time at my disposal, I can probably manage to visit a few at the most. I decide to start with the Palace of the Sultan and the museum it contains. 

As I have mentioned earlier, Melaka port was attacked by a Portuguese armada in the year 1511 and had defeated the Sultan ruling there. For 100 years prior to this, Melaka was a capital of a Kingdom ruled by a Sultan in the Malaysian Peninsula. In the year 1400 a Hindu king known as 'Parameshwar' was ruling over Singapore. He was dethroned and had to run away from Singapore. Eventually, he arrived at Melaka and decided to make Melaka as the new capital of his kingdom. At that time, most of the subjects of this king were also Hindus. In year 1409, king 'Parameshwar' accepted Islamic religion as a precondition to his marriage to a Muslim princess, then he accepted a new name for himself and became known as 'Iskandar Shah.' After this, most of his citizens also accepted Islamic religion. 'Iskandar Shah's' descendents ruled over Melaka until 1511 and after their defeat at the hands of the Portuguese, then ruling Sultan ran away to Bukit Bintang in Malaysia and then to Sumatra island.

Melaka Fort

The new European rulers of Melaka were not able to hold on the importance and historic glory of the Melaka Port. The trade passing through this port declined further and further. After the British took over Melaka port from Dutch, they appointed a figure head Sultan and called him 'Sultan of Johar.' He was asked to look after the affairs, particularly concerning labour strife between local Malay labour and Chinese labour brought in for working in Tin mines and rubber plantations.
The traditional palace of the sultans of Melaka from 'Iskandar Shah's dynasty was actually located near the fortified post of 'Porta d’ santiago' built by the Portuguese. After Portuguese defeated the Sultan, they destroyed this palace totally. In 1984, The Government of Melaka and the federal Government of Malaysia, rebuilt a new wooden palace, exactly as per original plans, which luckily remained conserved and housed a museum of artifacts and objects from the Sultan era in that building.
I am walking on my way towards this palace, not very far from the gate of 'Porta d’ santiago.' After seeing this great effort put in by the Governments of Melaka and Malaysia, my heart is saddened again, as I remember the empathy of the Government of Maharashtra in India, to conserve the historic heritage of the city of Pune, my home town. It is a sad reflection, that leave alone establishing museums etc; even historic structures are not being conserved and are just allowed to decay and crumble.
The villages in Malaysia are known as Kampung. The houses in these villages are built in an exquisite manner. Thick wooden poles are made to stand up in the ground by burying their ends, deep under ground. Horizontal wooden beams are tied or nailed to these poles at a height about 5 or 6 feet. A wooden hut is constructed on these horizontal beams. It is easily possible for any one, to walk below a house in a Kampung. The rebuilt Sultan palace here, looks like a long series of Kampung houses. built one after other. The central portion of the palace has a built in stair case, which can take you the second floor. Since the lowest floor itself is at a height of about 6 feet, to enter the palace, one needs to climb a flight of stairs. The palace however, appears very comfortable and suitable for the hot and sultry equatorial weather.

Sultan's palace
Bed Room
A Tea pot
Royal Jewelery

The museum exhibits include a beautiful collection of the attires and dresses, Jewelery, Ceramics, silverware of those periods. As I have mentioned above, a large number of traders from different nationalities had settled down in Melaka. Some of the exhibits show the distinguishable clothes worn by these traders along with the items they mainly traded. I have been wandering around this museum for more than one and half hour and realize that I have yet not had anything to eat since morning, and reluctantly step back from the palace.

The Royal Boat

After lunch, I decide to visit the Maritime museum, not very far away from the palace. A Portuguese man-of-war or a warship ' Flor de La Mar ' was sunk off the Melaka harbour in the naval wars between Portuguese and Dutch. In 1990, Government of Melaka built a replica of the original warship according to original plans and have housed this maritime museum in this ship standing on hard ground. In Pune, we have a club called Boat Club or in Mumbai, there is another club known as Yacht Club. In both these clubs, I have seen many items used on ships and boats. That probably is the reason for my subdued level of interest in this museum. But the warship itself is worth a visit. They also have many models showing old cargo ships and warships, which are very noteworthy.

Maritime museum
A bridge next to the Maritime Museum takes me to a narrow congested street. This street is well known and is considered as Melaka's top tourist attraction. Almost every visitor to Melaka, definitely visits this street at least once, during his visit. This street is known as 'Jonkar Street' The street, prima facie, looks like Mumbai's famous 'Luhar Chawl Street from a distance, but as I go nearer, it opens for me a gold mine of antiquities, curios and small tidbits. No one asks you about buying anything here, You can do window shopping comfortably even for 2 hours here. In the night, this street gets converted to a street food mall and is like a street banquet for foodies, who love southeast Asian food. I keep wandering on the street and indulge myself with some of the snacks and purchasing some totally unnecessary stuff. Obviously, making purchases of such things, is and essential part of any tourism. It is a great fun, I am sure.
Chinese labour started arriving in Malaya from Nineteenth century, to work in Tin mines and rubber plantations. Those arrived, naturally settled down here later and brought their own Chinese culture and food with them here. After almost two centuries, the original Chinese food and culture has got amalgamated with the Malay food and culture to produce a new food and culture for these people of Chinese origin, now settled in Malaysia. These Malay Chinese are called here as 'Nonya-Baba' or 'Baba-Nonya' and their special recipes are called as 'Nonya food.' In Melaka city, specialized restaurants have now come up, who serve 'Nonya' food. I am on my way to have my dinner in one such joint called 'Ole Sayan,' which specializes in Nonya food.

Nonya Restaurant (Specially decorated for Deepavali)

The restaurant is jam packed with a mixed crowd, mostly of Chinese origin, few Caucasians and sprinkling of other Asians like us. In Mumbai, we have Udipi restaurants, where taking of orders and delivery of food is done at super fast speed. This restaurant has a similar culture. The basic ingredients of Nonya dinner still remain as made from rice, noodles, chicken and prawns. The dishes are quite tasty and sumptuous. I order a special Nonya desert after my dinner. It is called as 'Chandol,' and is made from Noodles made from red beans flour, palm syrup and frozen coconut milk.
The Government here is making an earnest effort to create more and more attractions for the tourists to make Malaka a great tourism spot. There is a monorail now, that runs along Melaka river. Off course, one can always take a river cruse. New attractions like Butterfly park, Amusement Park, have come up. The efforts are being made to make this a recreational spot, where the whole family can spend few days of fun. Since Malaysian Ringgit is much cheaper than Singapore Dollar, Singaporeans find this spot very attractive. However, largest number of tourists that come to Melaka, appear to be Japanese. Bus loads of Japanese are seen arriving in Melaka from Japan via Kuala Lumpur.

River Cruse
Mono rail

Better the vacation spot, quicker goes the time. This is very true and time for my departure has already arrived rather hurriedly, I keep thinking. Still, I have to leave Melaka now. We are told that we can have some high tea before we leave. Actually, right now, neither I am hungry nor it is the time for my meals. But when on vacation, do we have to follow routine or rules? Off course not, then why not sit at home only? I decide to indulge myself in one of the finest cuisines that the hotel offers. As we leave Melaka, I know that I shall cherish and remember every small detail of last few days for long time to come. 

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