04-Oct-2015

Malacca




Malacca has been on our radar almost from the time we moved to Singapore, three years ago. Yet, it is only now that we got around to making the trip. For one, one can only drive or take the bus to Malacca. There is no airport. The train from Singapore takes a long time and involves a long taxi ride once you get off.

We had to wait for Bobo to grow old enough to be able to handle a four-hour bus journey before making the trip. He behaved magnificently in the bus and it helped that we timed the bus journey to coincide with his nap times.

The bus made two stops, one each at the Singapore and Malaysia border. Otherwise, the only time it stopped was when passengers requested a pit stop. There were no stops for food and having been alerted by a friend about this, we carried a packed lunch along which we ate with great gusto, completely ignoring the ‘no food on the bus’ sign. But then, so did the other passengers and going by the snack packets we found under our seats on the return bus journey, eating on the bus seemed par for course. Perhaps the one thing we could have avoided was taking along Indian food. Who would have guessed that roasted potatoes could smell this strong in a closed air-conditioned bus (Yes, I totally understand the killer glances we got in the brief five minutes that we managed to shovel in all the food)

Malacca was considered a ‘sleepy hollow’ which is enjoying a second go at fame and buzz thanks to the World Heritage Site status bestowed on it. Back in the 1500s, under the local Sultanate, it had had magnificent innings as the port of call in Asia, with traders from China, India, Sumatra et al seeking its well-located straits to conduct trading. This attracted the Portuguese who wasted no time in conquering it. Then the Dutch came along and imposed high taxes on traders, thus making it more their personal port than a bustling trading centre. Eventually the British came along, hammering the last nail in its coffin by promoting Singapore and Penang at the cost of Malacca. Not to mention, the river began to silt up, thus making life more difficult for water traffic. In the end, like all good things, Malacca’s trading history too came to an end. Then back in the noughties someone woke up and decided to make money off the old and varied buildings in the city and managed to bag the UNESCO status. To give the citizens full credit, the old city is very well kept and the sights and sounds are well preserved. There is a lot of history in the town and there is no shortage of places to see.

Having economised enormously on travel (23 sing dollars a head for 707 Express buses), we splurged on the stay and ended up in Malacca’s most glamourous hotel, the Casa Del Rio. The hotel is conveniently situated, close to both Jonker Street and the other historical places. It also has a nice-enough lobby with water fountains and cabanas liberally strewn around it. Nice pool, nice spa and nice rooms completed the picture. But for the amount we had to pay, I would have expected just a little something more.

We began to make our way through the key points on the tourist trail by starting off with Jonker Street on the evening of our arrival. Saturday nights are market nights and by early evening, the locals were already setting up stalls to sell food and cheap trinkets. Jonker Street is also reputed as a great spot for antique-hunting but most of these shops close by 6 p.m. We walked around, taking the sights and sounds, finally settling for dinner at the Eleven Bistro. Food was middling, and as luck would have it, the haze that had been plaguing Singapore reared its ugly head in Malacca as well. We retreated back to our room and after putting Bobo to sleep, watched from our balcony as the town’s citizens continued their Saturday night merriment undeterred by the haze. It looked really lively by the river side, and I would not have minded staying out longer.

The next day we began our day at the Dutch Square and went to the Stadburys which houses an average-ish museum and offers a so-so guided tour. Then it was onto St Paul’s Church, whose ruins look magnificent. Bobo was impressed by the ruins and even more so by a terrible singer who was making his living by singing along to his guitar. We sat and heard him, making the man’s day and even managing to attract a small audience for him.
From there, we headed over for lunch to the Geographer’s CafĂ© on Jonker Street. It is a cheerful little place, which manages to get its vibe just right. Though they had run out of their most popular dishes by the time we got there at 1 p.m., what they had on offer was pretty nice too.

The plan for the evening had included a river cruise, followed by a ride in one of the glammed-up trishaws that troll the streets. However, we ended up staying indoors thanks to the haze.

This meant that on the last morning of our stay, we still had many things to do. We began with the river cruise, and watched the world go by. The river is clean and does not smell. The long promenade on both sides are dotted with little cafes and interesting murals. It is actually a pretty nice way to spend time. From this, we hopped onto the trishaw. The trishaws were all mostly done up in the ‘Frozen’-theme and all kids, including Bobo, wanted to go on one. The trishaws also had huge music systems tied to them from which they blared really loud music. With much care, we selected a Frozen-themed trishaw that did not have any music system and Bobo mournfully asked us why we had no music.

I suppose I should be glad the kid loves music, even if it means terrible singers or dink-chak speakers.

Our trishaw ride took us to the maritime museum, which we did not explore due to a paucity of time and a friend making a passing remark about it not being worth it. Next, we went to the Taming Seri tower. An enclosed viewing lift took up 110 meters and then spun around helpfully for us to get a view of the city. It was quite a nice experience, beyond what I had expected. From the revolving tower, we went to a park which had a couple of train carriages and a small plane. I am not quite sure why this is on the tourist list, but I had great fun pretending to be Tom Cruise in the latest Mission Impossible and making the spouse take pictures that would make me look like I was hanging onto the wheels of a plane taking off (the trees in the background rather spoilt the effect). Bobo followed his mother in these silly acts and by the time we got back to our trishaw, we found a thunderous driver pointing out that our time was up. So we could not go by to the Sultanate’s palace. Nevertheless, we also had other things lined up and with a bus to catch that afternoon, decided to part ways with thunderous-Trishaw-man.

Our final stop was at the Baba and Nonya heritage museum. Like any respectable trading centre, Malacca boasts of mixed communities. Here they are known as Peranakans. There are Malay-Chinese combos (the men known as Babas and the women as Nonyas), there are Tamil-Malay combinations and there are Portuguese-Malay combinations, among possibly others. The Baba and Nonya museum is a house that has been preserved and converted into a museum. The free guided tour was excellent and so was the museum. It was worth the visit and we were quite ready to head to a Peranakan lunch at the much-recommended Nancy’s Kitchen. Alas, the haze was back and we decided it would probably be better to head back to the hotel to eat and pack.

The return journey seemed a lot slower and the haze surrounded us, even as we sat in our air-conditioned cocoons. By the time we reached Singapore, traffic was at its peak and it had begun to rain. Instead of staying on in the bus, we took a taxi once we crossed the border and managed to cut down some of the travel time.

It was good to have finally made that trip to Malacca. While it offers a lot by way of diversity and heritage, it is by no means an Egypt or even India where things can be magnificent or really old and sometimes both. Infact, I cannot think of any single thing that struck me as brilliant but I did come back with an overall nice feeling. Living as we do in Singapore, it would have been rather a pity had we missed it.

10-Aug-2015

Yogyakarta

This was a short holiday break, last just one and a half days. Our flight got in around lunch time on Friday and took off at dawn on Sunday. It turned out that this was quite enough to catch the key sights and sounds of the place.

Yogyakarta (or ‘Jogja’ as the locals call it) has a tiny airport with a confusing visa payment queue.  Landing from the cool, calm efficiency that Singapore is all about, this can cause some flutter. But the minute we slipped into our pre-paid taxi and started towards the hotel, I remembered why I love travel. There is quite nothing like seeing a new place, especially one so different from where you live. Also, it helps that Indonesia always looks like a cleaner, wealthier India and it fulfils the subconscious cravings I apparently have for India.

We checked into a local hotel, Gallery Prawirotaman, breaking from the tradition of staying in one of the dull but reliable hotel chains. Trip advisor had given it good reviews, and for a day and a half its location suited us well. We had chosen to stay in the main city itself in order to be close to both the key sites.

After possibly the briefest rest in our recent holiday history, we set off to see Prambanam temples, Hindu temples built in the 9th century, destroyed by a massive earthquake, lost in time and then rediscovered in the 19th century. Since then, it has been pieced back together, reinforced by concrete and its historical origins have been established. The restoration work is still ongoing, occasionally interrupted by the reoccurring earthquakes and volcano eruptions.

We reached after an hour’s drive, paid for the foreigners tickets (with a 90% markup – ah, so much like India) and hired ourselves a guide. The complex is dominated by three temples built in honour of the trinity, with the Shiva temple taking the place of pride and flanked on either side by temples for Brahma and Vishnu. There are several small temples, each added by successive rulers. With only the Shiva and Vishnu temples currently open to the public, we had only a bite-sized temple to see, which was just as well. Months of having eschewed exercise in any form meant that I was rather unfit. Moreover, we also had a 2.5-year old to contend with. How was he going to react to spending our time wandering up and down historical monuments?

Not too bad, as it turned out. Bobo was more than happy to hear our guide spin stories about the temples and then walk up and down the steep steps looking for elephant god, bull god etc. The guide told us that the temples were similar to Kajuraho (not having been there yet, I could not compare) but the carvings looked a lot like the ones in the South of India, albeit with slightly Indonesian faces. The temple apparently marked the shift in power from Buddhist to Hindu rule. The guide regaled us with the story of gods in whose honour the temple had been built – stories we had heard all our lives and hence could easily verify if they were told in a similar manner this far off as well (they were). After an hour, we were done and so the three of us wandered about, going for a jolly ride around the complex in a toy train-truck, feeding some deer and rattling the doors of the closed museum. By 6.30 we were seated for dinner, at the highly recommended Kali Opak restaurant and tucked in a lovely Indonesian meal.  

At 7.30 we were to catch a dance-drama about one of the episodes from the Ramayana. The open-air theatre had the well-lit temples as a backdrop and would have been a lovely venue but for the uncomfortable stone seats. We sat in the premium category which had cushions to ease the discomfort. I wish we had bought the VIP tickets which eschewed stone seating altogether for comfortable sofas.

Bobo’s bedtime was upon us and he looked tired. We urged him to sleep on our laps and settled down for the play to start. I gathered cushions from the various empty seats around us and made a comfortable bed. Then the play started, and Bobo sat upright, watching the whole thing from start to finish, without even blinking. This was entirely surprising. Even more surprising was that I fell fast asleep after half an hour and woke up only right towards the end. Clearly associating with Bobo has pushed up my already early bedtime even earlier. On the other hand, lack of TV has probably made Bobo appreciate any sort of entertainment that comes his way. From the bits I managed to watch, I gathered that the initial bunch of supporting dancers were a bit off the mark but the quality of the solo dancers was significantly better. There were a lot of children as well and they did a much better job than some adults.

The next morning, we were off to Borobdur. These Buddhist temples are said to have been built around the same time, or perhaps slightly earlier than the Prambanan temples. Like their neighbour, they had also been lost in time and rediscovered by the Dutch (who unfortunately savaged it slightly) and the British.

The first sight of it was impressive. There was a mountain of stupas from what we could see at sea level. Our jovial guide for the morning (hired at the complex) gleefully informed us that we had to climb 150 steps. In the heat it felt much more than that. The bottom layers had carvings from the life of Buddha. Had we examined each carving, identifying the stories, apparently we would have taken a week. We contended ourselves with the select few the guide pointed out. His theory was that the whole edifice depicts life – we begin with dreams, then harsh reality hits us and the wise man attains nirvana when he realises the illusory nature of life. So the panels would have so-so carvings in the bottom and middle and then the faces would look better (I somehow suspect that the three-tier theory could not have been applied to each individual panel, but who knows?). In any case, the workmanship did seem to get better as we ascended. The topmost layers had multiple stupas and a giant one greeted us right at the top. It was simply breathtaking.

The day was hot and so as soon as we were done, we began to check out other places. We serendipitously ended up watching some elephants having a noon-time soak. Then we wandered off to the museum, whose most impressive content was a wooden ship that had been rebuilt based on the carvings in the temple. It had actually made a trip to Ghana and established that even back then Indonesians had been seafaring. The rest of the museum was mostly stone pieces waiting to be restored and pieced together. The remnants of the youthful dreams I had about becoming an archaeologist was dashed immediately. The thought of fitting all those jigsaw pieces together seemed truly daunting.

From here, it was onto lunch at another Indonesian restaurant and then back to the hotel for some R&R.

In the evening, we decided to take in the tourist shopping area. The road was called Malioboro (after Malborough. A fitting nod, I would say, to Indonesia’s heavy smoking culture). When we got there, it was packed and stuffed with shops which all seemed to be selling the same trinkets. So we jettisoned the shopping idea for a 15-minute ride in a horse-drawn carriage. This turned out to be a good experience and we caught sight of what a lively town Jogja itself was, with the locals enjoying themselves immensely on a sultry Saturday evening.

The next morning, we were back on a flight to Singapore. Contrary to being a tiring outing, it was actually invigorating. Post-Bobo we have barely done any trips that have included monuments. D and I both love visiting these. I had not realised that to visit one was like coming up for air for me. And having established his credentials as a reasonably-good traveller for a toddler, Bobo has paved the way for many more.

Where is that planning diary…?

18-Apr-2015

Langkawi Misadventure


On the 4th day of our extended Easter break that had hitherto comprised hanging out by the pool in the mornings and walking by the beach in the evenings, we signed up for a mangrove boat tour. All that lolling around had begun to get on my nerves. I wanted a bit of action.

The boat ride was to start at 2.45 p.m., which came hot and blazing. We were on a small speedboat that looked cool in Bond movies but was actually very hot to sit in given the lack of shelter. I was impressed by the other family on the boat. The dad, mom and two well-behaved kids – girl (6) & boy (4) - from Kuwait, all sat quietly at the prow. It was even hotter in the front, without the tiny shade that the steering wheel and control panel gave us.

We spent the next hour seeing the most inane sights ‘Look a crocodile’. ‘Where where?’ I would ask eagerly and he would point at a rock shaped like one. The only real things we saw were Brahmini kites swooping into the water to grab chicken skins that the tourist boats had no business throwing to them in the first place.

When we finally stopped at a floating restaurant cum fishery farm, I was relieved. The next stop was at a bat cave, that looked rather creepy. For some reason a nugget of information I had read somewhere about bats causing rabies kept floating through my head.

The last stop looked the most promising. It was a secluded beach with only one other tourist boat. The kids had fun splashing in the water while the dads kept an eye on them. I walked by the shore, fascinated by the number and variety of shells and scored a few good ones. Nothing like free trip souvenirs.

By this point, the weather was nice and cool, my headache had disappeared and I was feeling pretty happy. We got back on the boat and I enjoyed the cool spray of water on my face.
After a while I realized that the cool spray of water was becoming a rather strongish spray. After five minutes, the Kuwaiti family gave a scream and scrambled to the back of the boat. I watched with disbelief as water began to flood the boat and carried away a couple of shoes belonging to the other family. The boatman was struggling at the wheels.

Within seconds, we all tightened our life jackets. I looked around for something to start bailing out the water with and spotted the plastic trays containing our packed sandwiches which we had not yet had. Emptying them and handing one to the Kuwaiti mom, I began to bail out the water. So did she while furiously chanting Islamic prayers. The dads were holding onto the kids and urging the boatman to do something.

The boatman was a rotund, young man with a lopsided grin and clearly not capable of handling any sort of crisis. He turned to us and announced ‘Relax. Relax’ in a manner than suggested he needed to hear the words himself.

Infact as a group we were behaving rather well. No one was crying or wailing.  All of us were wearing our lifejackets. We were quietly waiting for instructions, albeit with furious bailing out of water. For one, we could not yet believe that there was actually a problem. For another, we were in a busy tourist route and it would be a matter of time before someone came to our help. We just needed to get the message across to that someone that we needed to be rescued.

The boatman then gave his next instruction ‘can you call?’

Er.. call who? Maybe this was again an instruction to himself. In any case, all of us realized that our phones had been soaked and were no longer working.

‘It is ok. I will call’ the boatman said. Presumably, it was time to activate the advanced wireless system the boat was fitted with.

We watched as he pulled out a dinky Nokia from the 2000s, gave an anguished cry, tossed his head back and cried ‘It is not working’

I could hear myself think - This was Plan A? Calling up people on his phone ? Was he shocked that it was wet?

The Kuwaiti mom had a similar look of disbelief on her face. ‘OK, what is the mechanism to empty the water in the boat?’

‘Do you have any emergency flares?’ I added

Obviously we knew all the questions but no one knew the answers.

The boat had stopped by now. The sea was pretty calm, so no further water seemed to be coming in. Still, the two of us kept draining out the water.

The Kuwaiti dad spotted another boat. He barked at the boatman to wave to the boat. The boatman looked a bit hesitant, like he was worried about losing his job if things got to a point where we had to be rescued. ‘Was there still a way to restart the boat?’, he seemed to be thinking. The Kuwaiti dad grabbed a beach towel and began to wave it furiously. The boatman reluctantly joined him and took the towel and waved it.

The other boat began to make its way to ours. Thankfully it was completely empty and we could all fit inside, along with whatever of our possessions we could grab on the way (I smugly noticed that in our case we had all our belongings packed into a single easy-to-grab bag. Ha)  

The boatman was left behind with the boat though, much to my surprise. Presumably they knew that there was not much danger.

Infact, many hours later when the moms and kids had been dispatched to the hotels and the dads were still hanging around to discuss compensation, the boatman made an appearance smiling sheepishly. He had conscientiously gotten along whatever stuff had remained behind on the boat, including the single (and hence useless) shoes that had not floated into the sea. If only he had been this conscientious when he had attended his boatman training.

The tour operator refused to assign blame to the boatman and instead told us the engines had been hit hard by the waves and failed. Whether the boatman had caused the accident or not (which I rather suspected he did), he did not have an idea of how to manage after that. It turned out the boat did have ways to empty extra water and they had emergency flares on board.

Since it was a large outfit with a reputation to lose, the general manager flew down the next morning from KL and replaced our camera and paid us for the phones. So in the end, apart from a slight shock and some lost phone data, it turned out OK.

That night, several thoughts flashed through my head - 

What in case we had capsized into the sea. Our lifejackets were in good condition but it would have been a lot tougher to rescue us if we had drifted apart, as we would have

How did the Kuwaiti mom's make up stay intact through the episode? When we had hugged and parted in the end, I noticed that she looked exactly as she had several hours earlier. 

Would Bobo be psychologically impacted and never want to travel again in a boat? Hopefully not. 

I had spent an entire five minutes bailing out water from the boat without pause and not felt the strain on my arms and backs. The Kuwaiti mom, probably my age, had given up after a while. Clearly, I was fitter than I thought.