A Travellerspoint blog

July 2014

Central Java

Indonesia photos
Before leaving, someone asked me incredulously, “You’re spending one WHOLE month in Indonesia?” as if they thought I would run out of things to do. That was a totally nonsensical idea when you analyse the reality of this extraordinary country. As an archipelago nation of more than 17,000 islands straddling both sides of the equator for 5000km, Indonesia possesses surely the most complex geography of any nation on Earth. When you consider how tremendously fragmented Indonesia’s huge landmass is, you begin to appreciate how ethnically and culturally diverse the population is; how extensive the coastline is (with warm tropical waters); and how difficult travelling between regions is likely to be. One month is barely sufficient to explore just a small portion of Indonesia and deciding which islands to visit is quite challenging (should I travel to the second largest island in the world, or perhaps the third or fourth largest? Or do I want to visit the most populous island in the world, or the historic “Spice Islands”, or visit a cluster of isolated islands to see dragons, or a group of islands boasting the best dive sites in the world…).

Indonesia as a sovereign entity is a relatively recent concept and a colonial construct, formed under the hegemonic rule of the Dutch. Prior to European interest in the region, the archipelago was politically separated by its natural borders, with each island or cluster of small islands forming independent identities. Historically, even the larger islands like Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi were usually divided into rival kingdoms. The Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit state was the only empire that established brief control over most of the archipelago, in the 13th and 14th centuries. Islam gradually spread throughout the archipelago in the 13th to 15th centuries, destroying the Majapahits and isolating Hindu-Buddhists to the small island of Bali. The Portuguese (as usual) were the first Europeans to arrive in the region, enticed by the lucrative trade in spices (specifically clove, nutmeg and mace) grown on a small group of islands near New Guinea. In 1595, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established at Banten (Jakarta) on Java to conduct all Dutch business in the East Indies (the corporation is often evaluated as the wealthiest corporation to have existed in Western history). The VOC ambitiously attempted to monopolise the spice trade by forcing European rivals out of the region. They seized control of the Spice Islands and numerous ports throughout the archipelago. The corporation was bankrupt and corrupt by 1800, and consequently its territories passed to the Crown of the Netherlands. The archipelago was thus transformed from a trading empire into the colonial Dutch East Indies, with the Netherlands claiming and conquering everything between Australia and British-controlled Malaya and northern Borneo over the next century, excluding Portuguese East Timor. The Japanese “liberated” the archipelago from European colonial rule in World War II and the Dutch failed to reconquer the islands thereafter. The fourth most populous independent nation on Earth was thus born. Nearly half a century of virtual dictatorships ended in 1998, when Suharto resigned and the first democratic presidential election was held. Indonesia is now a fully democratised republic with a predominantly moderate Muslim population, and is home to 250 million residents.

While Kayla would have happily spent her entire Indonesian vacation on Bali as basically every Australian does, I unilaterally decided that we needed to be slightly more adventurous. I selected Java as our target island for exploration, and what an outstanding choice I made. Java, with its evocative name, has always fascinated me. How can a landmass that is less than a third the size of Victoria support 145 million people?! How can Australians (including myself) know so little about such an improbable island, since it is located so close to our continent? Java represented an exotic destination awaiting discovery, the perfect place to visit for this trip. We spent one action-packed week travelling in Central and East Java.

Most foreigners enter Indonesia through the capital Jakarta or the tourist mecca Bali, but Kayla and I dared to be different and initiated our Javanese adventure in the “small” city of Solo (Surakarta). On our bus journey from the airport to the central area, I was immediately struck by how clean, organised and affluent the city appeared relative to Asia. The city’s streets are uniformly paved, decorated with orderly rows of trees and absent of any rubbish. While the traffic is incessant, road rules exist and are obeyed, creating an unusually pleasant and safe urban experience (for Asia). The city’s infrastructure seems modern or adequately preserved (for Asia), while the people themselves appear to live a “comfortable” existence (for Asia). This description may sound rather mundane, but it came as a real surprise to me. I expected Java’s extreme population density would condemn the island to the horrendous traffic, overcrowding and noticeable poverty that are synonymous with other countries in Asia. But Solo exhibited none of these characteristics, which challenged my preconceived understanding of Indonesia’s fortunes.

Solo was the perfect destination to commence our travels in Indonesia from. The city does not feature on the mass tourist trail and consequently we encountered relatively few Westerners. Solo therefore provides an authentic insight into the reality of Javanese cities, free from the commercialisation and exploitative characters that plague tourist hotspots. The central area of Solo exhibits two aspects that are also fundamental to inner Melbourne’s layout: the grid-like division of space by arterial roads and the presence of atmospheric lanes between them. Kayla and I revelled in ambling through these peaceful havens of tropical colour, decay and manicured vegetation, where we met many local families. The friendliness of the local residents overwhelmed us, as people were eager to hail the Great White Bearded Gentleman and his secretary bird. It was quite a profound experience to be welcomed with genuine enthusiasm and warmth. We visited Solo’s kraton (Javanese name for royal residence), which is still the abode of the city’s Sultan. The complex is dominated by a vast, teal-coloured pavilion that exhibits traditional Javanese architecture with its open-air design and pointed-roof composition. Solo is apparently a “city that never sleeps”, so Kayla and I opted to sample the nightlife by attending a traditional gamelan performance. While Kayla demonstrated her lack of cultural appreciation by sleeping through the entire show, I watched a most unusual dance routine that was characterised by slow and excessive hand movements.

Borobudur is among the most iconic sites on Earth and was therefore a “must-see” for our journey through Indonesia. We decided to stay locally in Borobudur village to visit the temple, rather than join a lengthy tour from a nearby city. Our friendly English-speaking tuk-tuk driver directed us to an excellent homestay with a very hospitable family. They live in a moderately sized modern house with a central courtyard and two spacious guestrooms. They provided us with delicious snacks (crisp savoury biscuits with anchovies) and refreshing drinks (sweet jasmine tea) every time we walked through the door. Unfortunately on one occasion, the father enthusiastically offered us repulsively sweet drinks of coconut water and red (?) syrup. I graciously sculled my drink, while my rude companion, Ms Walker, poured the contents of her glass down the toilet (potentially clogging it with coconut shavings). The homestay was located among a cluster of dwellings surrounded by palm trees, thick vegetation and pockets of agriculture. In the early evening, we ventured to a tranquil landscape of vivid green rice-fields to watch the sun set gloriously over the tip of Borobudur temple in the distance. We also climbed a hill to observe the sun rise over Borobudur, but the scene was less spectacular and the atmosphere tainted by the presence of other tourists. Nonchalant toward the foggy view, we entertained ourselves with a most enthralling game of guessing the nationalities of our fellow foreigners based on appearances only. After submitting our answers, we would casually gravitate toward the target foreigners to hear their accent or first language. Needless to say, I was the champion of this riveting activity.

Borobudur Temple is the world’s largest Buddhist structure. Completed approximately 1,200 years ago, Borobudur consists of more than two million stone blocks formed into a colossal and symmetrical stupa. The 118m by 118m base supports six square terraces and three circular terraces, which are connected by four staircases that lead to the apex of the structure. The temple is intended to portray the everyday world spiralling up to the Buddhist heaven, nirvana. Visitors are supposed to walk around each terrace (although Kayla lazily skipped a few) in a clockwise manner. Circumambulation subsequently became a defining theme of our trip, as we circumambulated anything worth circumambulating. I participated in this routine to pay respect to the Buddhist faith, while Kayla was merely mocking it. I found it difficult to appreciate the immensity and thus uniqueness of Borobudur, probably because the temple is best viewed from the air. The terraces are decorated with exquisite sculptural works that depict Buddhist doctrine and Javanese culture from more than millennia ago. Small stupas resembling giant bells are planted on the upper levels. Somewhat ironically, this extraordinary edifice to Buddhism, the most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, generates substantial income for the predominately Islamic local community.

The city often touted as the epicentre of traditional Javanese culture and history is not the national capital and megalopolis Jakarta, but another city with a reputation for many names. Yogyakarta, Jogjakarta, Yogjakarta, Yogya, Jogja, Djogdja… they all apparently refer to the same place. Yogyakarta is my personal favourite, so I’ll be sticking with that name. We stayed in a relatively pleasant tourist zone in the city, which featured traffic-free lanes decorated with tropical motifs. This area branches off Yogyakarta’s primary thoroughfare, Jalan Malioboro, which is lined with a seemingly endless sequence of shops selling trashy merchandise and rip-off batik. While not particularly interesting to intrepid travels like myself and Kayla, Jalan Malioboro was nevertheless rather charming with its decaying and multi-coloured edifices and designated lanes for the exclusive use of tuk-tuks and horse-drawn carriages. We walked the two kilometre length of Jalan Malioboro to a vast and dusty square, which we assumed to mark the edge of the central area and our tour of the city. We were thus somewhat underwhelmed by Yogyakarta.

That was until a 63 year old pocket-rocket named Dibio jumped out of a bush and suddenly became our very excitable guide for the next couple of hours. I’m naturally suspicious when locals show excessive enthusiasm toward foreigners, but Dibio quickly won me over when he started joking about the “Batik mafia” that plague Jalan Malioboro. To our surprise, Dibio revealed that we had yet to even reach the heart of Yogyakarta, the city’s immense kraton. The kraton is more than just the home of Yogyakarta’s sultan; it is a vast fortified palatial city with nearly 25,000 residents. The area is divided into orthogonal streets with relatively placid traffic, low-rise buildings and tropical landscaping. The kraton thus exudes the ambiance of a typical suburban neighbourhood, which is unusual for the centre of a large city. The kraton predominately consists of solid stone buildings and walls with white colouration or vernacular wooden structures with terracotta roofs. Dibio led us through untouristed lanes that were reminiscent of Solo’s. He passionately explained the customs of the kraton’s residents, including a neighbourhood-watch system. The local men of the kraton rotate duty to patrol the streets of their respective zones each night. Wooden instruments are hung beside gates that divide the zones, and the men bang on them to indicate that all is safe. At least I think that’s what Dibio was saying, he was rather difficult to follow. Kayla didn’t make much effort to understand and tuned out completely when the conversation turned to the apparently “boring” topic of politics. I surprisingly took some interest in the paraphernalia that draped virtually every building promoting the two contenders in the Presidential election, the third biggest exercise in democracy on Earth. Dibio identified that the eventual winner Jokowi was strongly preferred in Yogyakarta.

While ambling through the kraton the subsequent morning, Kayla and I stumbled across a “nifty” café operated by friendly locals (this event has since been referred to as the “coffee encounter”). The café specialised in serving coffee luwak, a luxury drink produced in Sumatra. A small arboreal creature named the civet digests coffee beans plucked directly from coffee trees. The beans are recovered from the creature’s excrement and processed into fine coffee without the usual bitterness. The inefficiency of this process logically results in high prices for coffee luwak, so Kayla stingily ordered a regular brew. We had a pleasant conversation with the café owners about coffee, food and lifestyle in Java; an experience that Kayla cited as one of the highlights of her trip. As a Melbournian however, chatting over coffee was not exactly an exotic ritual for me. I therefore find it somewhat perplexing why Kayla remains so enthralled by this event, but perhaps her origins from the lesser half of Melbourne (south side of the Yarra of course) partly explains it.

We made a half-day trip to the World Heritage listed Hindu temples at Prambanan, near Yogyakarta. The complex was constructed in the same century as Borobudur, but its architecture and dedication is completely different. This represents the duopoly in power in ninth century Java, the Buddhist Sailendras and Hindu Old Mataram. The main temple compound originally consisted of 240 temples arranged in a square plan, but most of these structures have since been destroyed by earthquakes. The six largest and most important temples in the central part of the precinct still exist after reconstructions. The architecture is characterised by tall and pointed design, which give the temples the appearance of giant bulky spires. The constituent temple, dedicated to Shiva, stands at 47m high and features the most impressive carvings of Hindu iconography.

For those not interested in food, look away now! Java boasts perhaps the most vibrant street-food culture of any place I have travelled to. Small carts and vast market stalls cater particularly to the fervent obsession Indonesians have with deep-fried offerings. Health conscience Kayla usually goaded me into purchasing outrageously cheap bags of fried goodies, so she could try everything discreetly while foregoing the appearance of a glutinous person eating food from every cart passed. Fried banana (not sweet enough- better in Bali), fried cassava (too dry), fried vegetable fritters (sensational- by far my favourite), fried giant spring rolls (vegetarian and delicious), fried dough (too plain), fried tofu stuffed with vegetables (moist and delectable), fried parcels of clear noodles enclosed in a bean curd skin, fried chicken (slightly better than KFC) and fried sesame balls with a peanut filling (Kayla’s favourite) were all sampled. Sate, grilled over hot coals, is another ubiquitous street-food option in Indonesia and every region is renowned for a specific variety. Kayla and I perhaps irresponsibly tried Sate Padang from Sumatra, rather than the local speciality, but it was delicious nonetheless. Skewers of bite-sized pieces of beef were served in a pool of spicy and thick peanut sauce. In Solo we ate a delicious local street-food favourite called serabi, which are thin pancakes filled with coconut milk custard and topped with tropical fruit or chocolate. As a fruit fanatic, Kayla made liberal use of our presence in the tropics by stuffing her gob (in a most uncouth manner) with unusual fruits that are rarely, if ever, sighted at home. Sirsak, or “snakeskin” fruit, was the most commonly available fruit and became a particular favourite for both of us. A Sirsak is the size of a small apple and features an unappealing dark brown outer layer that resembles snakeskin. The skin is peeled off to reveal a crunchy and relatively dry white flesh, which tastes quite similar to pineapple. For sit-down meals, Indonesians often eat at a small “warungs” that specialise in specific dishes. In Solo, Kayla and I wandered into a very local warung (and had many strange looks directed our way) and ordered nasi liwet, a delicious meal of coconut rice, unripe papaya, tofu and curry chicken. Arguably the dish of the trip was a sensational soup we slurped up in Yogyakarta. Soto consists of a rich beef and vegetable broth with rice and slices of beef or chicken. Soto is found throughout Indonesia and is usually quite insipid, but this particular edition was a corker. We tried Yogyakarta’s famed jackfruit curry (cooked slowly for hours and is very dry) known as gudeg and determined that although the flavour is reasonably nice, its reputation and work required are unjustified.

I didn’t know what to expect from Java, mainly because I heard so few anecdotal stories. The world’s most populated island sits right on our continent’s doorstep, yet Australians seem to totally lack any curiousity whatsoever for this extraordinary sliver of volcano-strewn land. After spending an enthralling four days in Central Java, I became increasingly puzzled as to why Australian tourists generally ignore visiting this region. Australians hardly lack adventurism when it comes to international travel, since few touristic places exist where the Australian accent is seldom heard. Likewise, Central Java hardly lacks tourists, as we were swamped by French and Dutch travellers. Yet for whatever reason, Java remains a blind spot on Australia’s travel radar. Hopefully this entry will inspire a wave of Australians to visit Java!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 06:27 Archived in Indonesia Comments (1)

Northeast Malaysia

With effectively five weeks between university semesters (due to some shrewd timetabling), I decided to exploit cheap AirAsia deals to travel to Indonesia in June and July. I vacationed in Bali in 1999 for Mum’s 40th birthday, yet I have always been reluctant to “count” Indonesia as a country visited. Bali’s microscopic size and culture contrast with the vastness of the predominantly Muslim but ethnically diverse Indonesian archipelago. Consequently, Indonesia and specifically the world’s most populous island of Java were key travel targets of mine (plus Indonesia represented the cheapest overseas destination that was unlikely to be under martial law during my stay). This (comparatively) short journey has provoked a deluge of memories from that vacation in Bali, most notably the fascination locals had with Peter’s facial hair. “Like father, like son” is probably an apt saying for this trip, because the locals now are equally mesmerised/repulsed by my glorious/grotesque beard.

Flight arrangements and visa restrictions compelled me to spend six days in Malaysia prior to entering Indonesia (hardly an inconvenience). Malaysia felt like an appropriate destination to recommence my travels, since I ended “Globo Trip” in Kuala Lumpur. The monsoon season quashed my previous efforts in December to visit the East Coast of Malaysia, so this was the obvious region to travel to this time around. Immediately after arriving in downtown Kuala Lumpur, I caught an overnight bus to the Perhentian Islands in the far northeast of the country. I subsequently visited the Malay city of Kota Bharu and then returned to Kuala Lumpur to meet Australian Kayla.

The Perhentian Islands are two small, idyllic, tropical islands situated just off the Malayan Peninsula (opposite side to Penang). After a bumpy fast-boat ride to Perhentian Kecil, I was quickly reminded that small, idyllic, tropical islands are not really my thing. At eight o’clock in the morning I arrived at the main beach, which is lined with dozens of guesthouses and restaurants. The only sign of activity was an old German guy taking a yoga class. Since I was in Asia, I surmised that the conspicuous absence of practical or worthwhile forms of morning activity was surely indicative that either tourism had destroyed the authenticity of this destination or no local culture existed in the first place. I was hardly gobsmacked by the appearance of the main beach (I suppose Australians rarely are when overseas) and was disappointed in the management of the island’s environment, as rubbish and grey-water pollute the no-longer pristine rainforest. Within short-time, I asked myself the question I always seem to pose when I arrive on an island (and fail to remember later), “What the hell am I going to do here?” I concluded that staying on tropical islands can be enjoyable if you’re with other people, but I was all alone on Kecil and with little to do, I certainly felt the isolation! I went snorkelling in the warm waters, tried to trap a large monitor lizard and read an obscure book (recommended by an equally obscure person) about Elizabeth I attending a chess tournament in sixteenth century Constantinople as a child. I stayed in a primitive bungalow for the night, which seemed satisfactory until I was bitten hundreds of times as I attempted to sleep and arose in the morning with a puffed-up face (I still have marks around my elbows from the ordeal!). Needless to say, one night on the Perhentian Islands was more than enough for me!

Since Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Georgetown (Penang) are the three cities tourists usually visit in Malaysia, few foreigners see a traditional Malay city. These three cities feature culturally diverse and wealthy populations, which is not necessarily reflective of all cities in Malaysia. I decided to visit the ethnically homogenous and “traditional Malay” city of Kota Bharu (as described by the travel bible, Lonely Planet), located in Kelantan State near the Thai border, to deepen my understanding of Malaysian society. When I wrote about Malaysia seven months ago, I described the country as a nearly “developed” society. This seemed like an appropriate comment after visiting the clean, organised, multicultural and either ultra-modern or well-preserved urban cores of Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Georgetown. However, it has become apparent from visiting Kota Bharu how patently naïve that label was. The economic disparity between Kota Bharu and the capital is quite extreme and perhaps akin to the contrast between Naples and Northern Italian cities like Turin and Florence. The residents of Kota Bharu are hardly destitute, but the difference in opportunities the locals have and what I have was certainly palpable; as is often the case in developing countries. To me, Kota Bharu exemplifies the unevenness and complexity of Malaysian society.

While Kota Bharu lacked the aesthetics and vibrant culture I had hoped for, it did at least provide an educational experience into the reality of Malay communities. The central area of Kota Bharu is situated beside a wide river near the Pacific coastline. The city’s primary attractions are clustered into a riverside zone and include the sultan’s palace, several museums and the principal mosque. These buildings all feature characteristic Malay architecture, but are not really grandiose or noteworthy. Most of Kota Bharu’s buildings are either unassuming and slender or megalithic concrete blocks, which creates an incongruent and ultimately ugly urban landscape. Most buildings are severely dilapidated, the central area is congested and disorderly and the gutters are piled with rubbish and stink of wastewater. The traditional Malay handicrafts Kota Bharu is apparently renowned for are not easily detectable, as most shops are brimming with tacky merchandise.

Kota Bharu’s wonderful central market is the most intriguing precinct in the city. The indoor market is multi-level and designed around a large atrium space. The ground level surrounding the atrium is dominated by fishmongers and butchers, who use the same concrete benches throughout. The second and third levels stock spices, kitchen wares and other dry goods. Fruit and vegetable produce is sold in the atrium space by Muslim women that wear vibrant traditional garb. The colourful scene can be viewed from the upper levels.

Never before have I spotted so many rats – half a dozen – as I did in Kota Bharu. They were not just any rats, but very BIG rats. Now I can appreciate the oft used description of a rat being “as big as a cat”. One particular rodent was so gargantuan that it had the temerity to nip at the body of a cat. This permitted me the rare opportunity to make a direct comparison between the two creatures. I observed “that rat is literally as big as that [albeit small] cat!” In a city bereft of interesting attractions, perhaps the reason why tourists flock here is the excellent chance of spotting mega-fauna.
Prior to departing Kota Bharu, I watched a Malaysian television program parodying Australian dining norms. The Malaysians apparently find our palate hilariously bland and think our usage of knives to eat rice with is quite bizarre. Well knives may not be entirely practical, but it certainly is more sophisticated than eating rice with one’s hands! Now, I can appreciate the virtuosity of the practise in Laos, because the rice is very sticky and eaten with intentionally dry side dishes. However, the Malays eat not-so-sticky rice with curries and wet sauces and the resultant eating process is a very messy affair (proof that practice does not equal perfection if the wrong technique is employed). But as the most adventurous diner I know, I had to have a crack at eating sloppy-jalopy food with my hands. From Kota Bharu’s central market, I bought a serving of nasi kerabu wrapped in banana leaf. Nasi kerabu is Kota Bharu’s signature dish, consisting of coconut rice with a spicy fish mixture. I returned to the privacy of my empty hostel dormitory and shoved my hands into the glug. With rice and curry sauce dripping down my arm and festering in my beard, I was most embarrassed when a Japanese guest entered the room. I should clarify that Chinese Malays do not partake in this abominable practice, preferring to use chopsticks instead.

My sudden idea of travelling to Southeast Asia in the winter holidays inevitably spruiked envy in some people and perhaps exposed the exploitative nature of others. Part-bogan Australian Kayla (from the Africa tour) recognised opportunistically that if she gate-crashed my trip, she would effectively acquire the services of a tour guide and someone to take care of all travel arrangements for free. Kayla employed the skill that teachers particularly excel at, manipulation, to coerce an invitation from me. Without subtlety, she feigned surprise and gleefully signed on. Teaching commitments, however, limited Kayla’s hijacking to less than half the length of my trip, which I decided was a tolerable outcome. Indeed, as I write this entry near the warm and pristine waters of tropical Lombok with a mixed juice at hand, I imagine she’s disciplining rascals in cold and bleak Melbourne.
I spent two days in Kuala Lumpur prior to flying to Java, with Kayla arriving partway through. I visited the national mosque (renowned for its modernist and tropical inspired architecture) and the city’s museum of Islamic arts (famed for its assemblage of art and examples of architecture from throughout the Islamic world) before Kayla touched-down, in case she lacked my enthusiasm for architecture. Our itinerary in Kuala Lumpur centralised around food, as I introduced Kayla to the wonders of Malaysian cuisine. We ate roti canai at a Mamlak (Indian-Muslim) canteen, attended a somewhat disappointing Malay night-market, ate noodles and popiah from hawker stalls at a Chinese-Malay morning market and enjoyed a banana leaf meal at a South Indian restaurant for dinner. We also visited the Batu Caves north of the city, which are large caverns with whimsical Hindu temples inside.

I suspect Malaysia will be a country I continue to travel back to, because AirAsia’s connecting flights through Kuala Lumpur are so ridiculously cheap. I feel satisfied though with my exploration of the Peninsula, so Georgetown (Penang) will be my destination next time I return.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 02:45 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Straits Settlements

Photos of Malaysia

My habitual procrastination in writing last year usually resulted in significant delays in visiting destinations and publishing their corresponding blog entries. However, the interval between travelling to the Malaysian “Straits Settlements” of Melaka and Penang and producing the relevant discussion represents a particularly excessive incidence of idleness. My hope of “completing” the blog upon returning to Melbourne quickly fizzled away as my burn-out from writing exhaustive self-glorifying pieces appeared incurable and perpetual. Now that I have temporarily departed the country once more, my interest in documenting my travels has spiked yet again. I have decided to exploit this sudden surge of enthusiasm to finish the last entry addressing the previous trip, before commencing the evaluation of this one.

As previously discussed, Malaysia features a culturally diverse composition with three major ethnic groups: Malay (Muslims; control the political power), Chinese (control the economy) and Indian (Hindus or Muslims, often marginalised). This multiculturalism is best exemplified in the “Straits Settlements” on the west coast of the Malayan Peninsula. The “Straits Settlements” is a British colonial reference to three strategically important cities situated on the Straits of Malacca (one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, linking China to India and the West): Singapore, Melaka and Penang. Between visits to Kuala Lumpur and the Cameron Highlands during my fortnight in Malaysia last December, I stayed in the World Heritage listed old towns of Melaka and Georgetown (on the island of Penang). The rich heritage and eclectic architecture of both cities were certainly intriguing. However, like all other visitors I was encapsulated by just one aspect of the “Straits Settlements”: the food.

The political and economic significance of Melaka has become negligible, but the city was formerly the most important in Southeast Asia. With the Melaka River dispersing into the Strait of Malacca halfway down the Malayan Peninsula, the area represented an idyllic location for maritime trade to be conducted between Eastern and Western civilisations. When Islam spread to the region in the fourteenth century, the Sultanate of Malacca was established around the river-mouth. Prospering from an alliance with the all-powerful Ming dynasty of China, the Sultanate grew to encompass the entire Peninsula, parts of Sumatra and therefore the entire Strait. The incredibly valuable location of Melaka inevitably made it a target of European colonisers. The Portuguese were the first to seize control of the city in the early 1500s, followed by the Dutch and then the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Under British rule, Melaka’s importance waned as the British East India Company (which administered the Straits Settlements) favoured Singapore and Georgetown. Melaka became somewhat of a backwater, until it was revived in the name of tourism in recent decades. Throughout the colonial era and before, thousands of Chinese migrated to Melaka for trade, while Indians migrated for work.

Each occupying power and ethnic group has left an indelible mark on Melaka. The historic core of Melaka is Chinatown, an area dominated, as the name connotes, by the Chinese (and “Nonya” people: descendants of marriages between male Chinese migrants and local Malay women in the sixteenth century). The narrow streets of Chinatown are composed of rows of colourful and intricately decorated two-storey townhouses built by Chinese merchants over the centuries. The architecture of the townhouses is a blend of European Classical elements with Chinese decorative motifs (curved roofs are especially prevalent). The townhouses are now used for boutique hotels, quaint little hostels, Chinese-Nonya restaurants, museums and shops selling Chinese paraphernalia. Several highly ornamental and quintessentially Chinese temples, devoted to different faiths (some simultaneously), are also scattered throughout the area. On the other side of the Melaka River is the area used by the Dutch and British colonial authorities for administration. The town square consists of a maroon windmill, town hall and European-style shopping arcade that look decidedly out-of-place in Malaysia and rather kitsch regardless of the locality. A magnificent replica of the palace occupied by the Sultans of Malacca is situated nearby. The wooden structure showcases traditional Malay design, which is quite vernacular and conducive to tropical conditions. The building is raised above the ground to reduce decay and the interior quite open for the circulation of air. Stereotypical “Asian” motifs are evident (the roof), but are more refined than in Chinese architecture. Little India is characterized by gaudy decoration and banana leaf restaurants, but it is much less dramatic than its equivalent in Georgetown. A small Portuguese enclave exists in the suburbs of Melaka, where the mixed-race locals are Roman Catholic and speak a remote dialect of Portuguese.

Melaka’s culinary scene reflects its multicultural population, with excellent Chinese, Nonya and Indian food available. Malaysia is a country that doesn’t bother with ostentatious restaurants or tourist traps, so travellers eat amazing meals for less than $3 with the locals. In Little India, I encountered the wonderful concept of banana leaf meals. Upon sitting down to a shared table, a waiter placed a banana leaf in front of me (to act as a plate) and piled on the rice. Another waiter then poured dhal or curry sauce over the rice and another dolloped three vegetarian dishes (curries, pickles or salads) on the leaf. This is enough for a meal, but you can also select small servings of meat curries for additional cost. Chinese food in Melaka predominately consists of dishes from the Southern kitchen. Delectable dim sum for breakfast, spicy and wet noodle dishes and Hainese chicken are thus ubiquitous. Melaka is renowned for Nonya cuisine, which is characterised by using Chinese cooking techniques with Malay ingredients. Curry laksa is probably the cuisine’s most internationally recognisable dish, consisting of chicken or seafood with vegetables and noodles in a rich coconut milk broth. The giant spring rolls known as popiah feature pancakes wrapped around stewed turnip (sweet and surprisingly delicious), fried lard, fried bean curd, lettuce, coriander and a dark soy sauce. The Melaka specialty of rojak is a crunchy salad of turnip, cucumber, croutons, peanuts, shrimp paste, palm sugar and lime juice. I went to a night market on the main street and ate “satay” from one of the stalls. This involved selecting skewers of food (beancurd, seafood, fish balls and unidentifiable meat products), boiling them in steaming water and eating them with peanut sauce. Cendol is the repulsive dessert of choice for Chinese Malays. A giant ball of shaved ice is smothered in ultra-sweet durian (a spikey fruit) syrup and palm sugar syrup and sits above a bizarre mixture of red beans and jellies.

Penang Island is situated near the Thai border on the western side of the Malayan Peninsula. The British East India Company acquired the island from the local sultan by providing defence guarantees against the approaching Siamese. Georgetown was established as a key trading post on the Straits of Malacca and has since flourished into one of Malaysia biggest and wealthiest cities. Georgetown’s historic core sprawls over a vast area and consists of an orthogonal layout of wide streets. It thus lacks the small-town vibe of Melaka. The Old Town is divided into two primary areas, Chinatown and Little India.

Chinatown consists of merchant townhouses and large temple-compounds owned by Chinese clans. Nineteenth-century Chinese migrants established “clan-houses”, with each representing a different ancestral family or village. Fierce rivalry developed between the clan-houses and their temple-compounds became increasingly more opulent. I visited the Khoo Kongsai “clan-house”, the largest and most impressive in Georgetown. The clan-house is administered by a group of elders. One of its key purposes is to provide financial support for clan members to study at university (either in Malaysia or abroad). Inside the main temple hall, golden plaques representing the tertiary degrees completed by clan members take pride of place. The veneration of education appears to be prioritised ahead of the appeasement of their gods. The existence of the clan-houses has certainly perpetuated strong and independent traditions of Chinese culture in Georgetown.

Little India is the most atmospheric area of the city. The structural composition is relatively similar to Chinatown and other districts, but of Little India exudes a permanent sense of festivity. Hindu iconography, flower bangles, colourful saris and blaring Bollywood music are bountiful in this crowded area. It is a slice of India, though cleaner and more orderly than what I imagine the real thing is like.

Does anyone want a Qu'ran for Christmas? I was given one by an imam after our discussion about Islam, filmed by a Malaysian Islamic Network! I thought he would just explain the architecture of the mosque I visited, but unfortunately it turned into a session of preaching and lecturing. I can never concentrate when people babble on about how individually great and righteous their religion is in comparison to others (I was more focused on avoiding eye contact with the camera). "May Allah find you in life!" That won't be necessary, Malaysian food is enough to keep me happy.

Let’s face it, the only reason why people travel to Penang is to gorge on incredible street food. If heaven exists, then a foodie would perceive it as resembling Georgetown. The island is utterly obsessed by food, with delectable dishes prepared in every direction one looks (or smells). Tourists partake in the local tradition of attempting to fit as many meals into a day as possible (I suppose meal proportions and costs are conducive to this). I don’t quite understand how the residents of Georgetown maintain relatively slender figures, since all they seem to do is consume. Georgetown is the only place in the world I have been to where the regulation question between travellers is not, “Have you seen [tourist attraction] yet?” but instead ask, “Have you tried [unimaginably tasty street food dish] yet?” Visitors are provided with two maps at their hotels: a normal tourist map, which everyone discards of, and a street food map, which functions as the Holy Bible to visitors. If vegetarianism festers in your family, then Penang is certainly the place to cure those affected.

Chinese hawker-stall culture dominates the culinary scene in Georgetown. Hawker stalls are found in in “food courts” (exceptionally busy venues where dozens of stalls surround seating areas), night markets and seemingly random locations on the streets. Each hawker stall specialises in one Chinese-Malay (lighter and spicier than Chinese food in China) dish, which usually involves noodles. The following list ranks my favourite noodle hawker dishes in Georgetown:
1. Char kway teow: flat noodles fried with prawns, cockles, beansprouts, Chinese sausage and soy sauce and stir-fried quickly over exceptionally high heat
2. Chee cheong fun: steamed and rolled rice noodle served with sweet sauce, mixture of shrimp paste and chilli sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds
3. Char koay kak: cube noodles made from parsnips and fried with beansprouts, shallots, chilli
4. Assam laksa: noodles in a rich fish and tamarind broth with vegetables, mint and shrimp paste (very different to curry laksa; quite sour)
5. Hokkien mee: noodles served in a thick prawn and pork broth, garnished with boiled egg, sliced pork, fried shallots and chilli paste
6. Wan tan mee: noodle soup with wantons, sliced BBQ pork and greens

Indian food is delicious in Georgetown, with thali sets, banana leaf meals, fried snacks such as samosas and onion bhajias (for 20 cents each!) and Indian sweets abundantly available. The Indian-Muslim community have adopted Indian spices with the cooking techniques of Malays and Chinese to develop a cuisine unique to Penang (Mamak). The hawker-stall noodle dish of mee goreng is the classic example of Mamak fare. Yellow noodles are fried with chicken, boiled potatoes, fried soya bean cake cubes, flour fritters and gravy made from tomatoes and chili and lime. Mamak canteens selling roti canai are found throughout Penang and Malaysia. It is a typical breakfast dish. Roti bread is cooked on a flat plate with copious amounts of oil and often an egg. It is served with rich curries (for the record, my side dish of curry featured chicken!). Nasi kandar is a popular meal for later in the day. Rice is served usually with a piece of chicken and ladles of different sauces are theatrical poured onto the rice from big cauldrons of curry. The dishes are all sloped together, creating what I thought was a rather confusing meal.

The Straits Settlements of Melaka and Penang offer relatively similar experiences: colonial history, old world atmosphere, cultural diversity and sensational food. The flabbergasting range of Penang’s lip-smacking street food certainly positions Georgetown as one of my favourite cities in the world. No doubt my beloved readers will conclude disapprovingly that I consumed an extravagant quantity of food in Melaka and Penang, but rest assured I returned home at an appropriate time to detox: Christmas Day!

The blog for Globo Trip 1 is finally done!

Liam

Posted by Liamps 18:56 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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