Melaka on the Potter’s Wheel

As I stroll past Melaka’s Buddhist temples, the Muslim call to prayer drones in the distance.  I push my way down the crowded, market-lined Jonker Street and cut up the second lantern-lit alleyway.  To my left, I peek into a chain of converted storefront living rooms.  Veranda walkways link former shop houses, offering a framed peephole into the bare-bellied home life of Chinatown’s denizens.  Storefronts give way to Temples and Shrines, beggars and monks, and the ceremonies of a distant religion.

The artfully preserved streets of Chinatown morph into a history book diorama.  Portuguese forts along Sungai Melaka spring into the oldest Dutch buildings in the East at Town Square.  Watching the boats float down Melaka River, I swear I am in Venice.  But this is Melaka – a time capsule caught in a web of Eastern gods and Western greed.

In the 14th century, Melaka came under the control of Parameswara, a Hindu Prince from nearby Sumatra.  A long sought after port along an ancient trade route, in came the Chinese in the 15th century, the Portuguese in the 16th, and the Dutch in the 17th.  This intricate and calculating game of chess had its end by the close of the 18th century when Melaka finally seeded to the Brits.  Each group left their ultimate mark on the city, formulating a hodgepodge of peoples, cultures, and ideas.

Downtown Melaka is a cemetery of foreign architecture.  The fractured statue of St Paul stares out over the city from its perch high upon the hill.  His forlorn eyes look away from the crumbling remains of his namesake church.  Built in 1521 by a Portuguese sea captain, St Paul’s Church grows old above the sturdy remains of a Dutch fort.  On the streets below this lone hill, modern Melaka’s mix of mosques and temples glisten with importance as its colonial history fades into artifact.

A few wizened westerners still roam the rubbled roads like wrecked relics of a failed colonialism.  Others, drawn to Southeast Asia for cheap luxuries and darker pleasures, hobble like fallen kings in their own saddening happiness.  The sudden, shocking affordability of your cost of living and necessities combined with your bad habits formulates a tendency towards invincibility.  The old, barefoot men drinking Tiger Beer at 10:00 am in the backpacker ghettos sit stunned, rambling in the fourth rumination of a long-lost fantasy.

Out of Melaka’s rich and varied history emerged the Nonya culture, comprised of Chinese/Malay, Indian/Malay (known as “the Chitties”), and babies born of European love affairs.  Returning to Chinatown’s bountiful side-streets, I find myself on J. Tokong at Woh Hop, an unassuming storefront with four tables and a corkboard full of praise.  The simple, dry erase menu hides the beauty and complexity of its food.  The predominantly Chinese/Malay culinary fusion of Nonya evolved over hundreds of years, incorporating sweet flavors of coconut, coriander, and dill form Indonesia.  It is this cuisine that Melaka is famous for and price is no judge of quality. Down the thin alleyways of Chinatown are pockets of food stalls with some of Nonya’s finest cooks.

“Come in” urges the chef at Woh Hop.  It is raining in an equatorial fury so I oblige.  Suggesting that it is cold outside and that I may need some soup to warm me up, he insists I try his Malacca Laksa.  I am wet, hot, sweating, and in no mood for soup but the ingredients sound intriguing, so I agree.  I watch as he prepares the soup in front of me:  two kinds of rice noodles, coconut milk, green curry, shrimp, fish balls, boiled eggs, and a host of mysterious spices that bring on a whole new round of sweat.  This is the best meal I have had in ages (and it cost a dollar).

Expecting another masterpiece I return the next day.  It’s sunny, so he offers traditional iced tea and Meehoon Siam, a noodle dish similar to but more complex than Pad Thai.  It does not disappoint.  To finish the meal, he suggests Melaka’s famous dessert and I come to see how it’s made.  Cendol (pronounced chen dill) begins with a mound of freshly shaved ice.  On top are red beans, a leafy green noodle, and a chunky brown sugar made only in Melaka.  This enjoyable mix of sweet and savory is topped with coconut milk and must be eaten fast as the ice melts instantly.

That night, I wind through Chinatown’s lantern-lit alleyways to Woh Hop for dinner.  The shop is closed.  I head to a similarly plain looking restaurant where the chef asks if I have made a reservation.  Unfortunately, the four fold-up tables inside are booked all night.  It seems there are a lot of not-so-secret Woh Hops in Melaka.

Melaka’s charm dwindles as the river approaches the sea.   Pushed to the outskirts to preserve its pickled perfect streets, a maze of mega malls house a majority of Melaka’s merchants.  The biggest malls in Malaysia, half bazaar and half up-market, transport me into a new realm of Asian sweets, fetishes and material desires.

Traveling towards the mouth of the Melaka River, abandoned blocks of windowless concrete and littered parking lots stretch south as fishermen cast their reels from upturned rubbish bins.  How this section of town with the most potential (along the Straights of Melaka) became its darkest shadow is perplexing.

While Western nations dreamed up a melting pot, Malaysia’s cultures grew in a separated unity.  Nowhere is this more evident than mysterious Melaka – a city of many cities.  A modern mix steeped in historical complexities.  Melaka, like a mound of clay, was passed amongst competing architects, molded to fit each taste and left forever spinning on the potter’s wheel.

The Brazen Charms of Kuala Lumpur

“KL Sentral, KL Sentral”

“You, Yes, You, KL Sentral, KL Sentral!”

“Come, Come!”

Without warning, the overwhelming cacophony of Kuala Lumpur had commenced.  Hawkers beckoned as passengers pushed and plowed their way through the antsy crowd. Moments earlier I had waited in a building I’d liken to my high school gymnasium as a family of Shi’ite Muslims had their passports checked by immigration.  How their covered faces matched a passport photo I will never know.  A moderate Muslim country, the room was an eclectic mix of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.  It was eerily quiet.  Seconds later, an unrelenting chorus of clutter bombarded my senses, ushering me forward and welcoming me to Asia.

HEAT!  It’s the first thing I noticed exiting the plane in Malaysia.  The dense, humid air like a fortress-field coated my face with a permanent glossy sheen.  The faint smell of BO remained a constant presence and I roamed around in a damp dace.  Ferocious aircon trains shocked my body awake and left it perplexed as I shivered my way back outside.  Drops of sweat slid down hills of goosebumps as my inner ice cube melted into the gutter of KL’s frenzied streets.

The one thing you can count on in KL besides a 7-11 on every corner is the juice cart.  Fresh fruit, simple syrup, ice, and the occasional gelatinous bubbles are the ingredients for pure magic on a hot, muggy morning.  In a puritanical country like Malaysia, it’s juice for happy hour and juice with dinner.

Juice in hand, I traipsed around KL – and this was no easy feat.  Massive highways circled their way through city center, intersecting and spurting off in all directions.  A simple trip from A to B involved a hairy, high-speed crossing with shared bridges and no sense of pedestrian entitlement.  Ask for directions and everyone recommended the monorail.  “How about walking?” I’d ask, to which they’d invariably reply, “No.”

Yet, walk I did and, in doing so, I was able to witness the complex social order of this equatorial city that straddles several racial and ethnic divides with remarkable ease.  Although they generally keep to their own circles in social interactions, the Chinese, Indians, and ruling Malay peacefully co-exist.  I was told by a Chinese friend that slight prejudices exist (particularly between the Chinese and Indians), but all in all, this country is a complete rarity in this part of the world.

Barely 150 years old, Kuala Lumpur sprang from the Malay Peninsula like a magic bean sprout.  Chinese shops sit below towering mosques and Hindu temples which all hide in the shadows of modern marvels.  Petronas Towers (the world’s tallest building until 2004) burst skyward as KL races towards the future.  This burgeoning city makes its ambitions blaringly clear on all of its literature.  Kuala Lumpur, “seeks to become a World Class City” as Malaysia inches closer towards a “developed nation.”  A modern train and monorail system link the city’s sprawling quadrants and free WIFI is never far away.  In many ways, it is the business center of Southeast Asia with English posted on most public signs and used in both business and casual conversation.  All educated Malaysians speak at least something resembling my mother tongue.  In short, Kuala Lumpur is a soft landing in the region and a sturdy Launchpad for further exploration.

Yet, the full-on power of KL’s streets are sure to shock and delight even the most jaded traveler.  Take a country of over 1.5 million people and put its citizens out of their homes and into the street.  Throw in some competing boom boxes, wafting fishy smells, honking, hell-bent motorbikes and blaring lights and you’ve got downtown KL.

The sun shines in a cloudy sort of smirk and rain pounds in a sinister fury, but the streets of KL steam with food nonetheless.  You hear about the night markets in Asia, but nothing can quite prepare you for their brazen charm.  Hawkers point and push, tell you to eat instead of ask, and always have something “special for you today!”  Just when you find your diamond in the rough, you lose it to the labyrinth of carts and makeshift tables.

Not for the picky or faint of heart, street food can be a comical mystery of colors and shapes.  Have you ever been in a restaurant when a group of foreign tourists came in, took pictures of the food, pointed at it, and gawked quizzically at a dish you had eaten since you had baby teeth?  Next time you do, don’t laugh.  This is me in Asia.

Although I cannot begin to describe the street dishes I consumed, most were thoroughly satisfying.  That said, my first experience with Banana Leaf Curry set off a string of embarrassing events.  On my first day in Malaysia, I went to the planetarium.  Why?  Because, it was dirt cheap and promised a full thirty minutes of air conditioning.  Five minutes into the show my stomach began rumbling and twisting in knots.  Ten minutes in, I excused myself and shuffled past a row of twenty head-scarfed schoolgirls in the starry darkness.

In stall #1 and stall #2 I found only squat toilets.  This event was not about to take place in a hole in the floor so, to my relief, I settled into stall #3 which contained a familiar piece of porcelain.  I knew diarrhea was inevitable in a trip to Southeast Asia, but I hadn’t expected it so soon.   Nonetheless, I took care of business while simultaneously noticing the lack of a toilet paper dispenser.  In its place sat a thin wirey hose.  Welcome to Asia, I thought!

Truthfully, these sit down toilets are a relatively new novelty in the region and are accompanied by diagrams instructing the user not to stand on the toilet bowl and squat.  However, what they did not have instructions for, was this bidet…


Next Week MarkontheMap heads south to the historic city of Melaka