Tuesday 2 June 2015 – Singapore to Malacca, Malaysia
I have decided that this trip will be a fully digital one, without reliance on travel agents (at least in person). I bought a return flight online with Singapore Airlines, with my return to Australia booked from Singapore at the end of June and a one-week food tour booked with Intrepid Travel which will begin in Bangkok on June 20 and finish in Chiang Mai a week later.
While on the road I have both an iPhone and iPad and WIFI is available pretty much everywhere (in Singapore it is ubiquitous, although I’ve been unable to access the general public WIFI as I don’t have a local SIM card. However, the hotel and many cafes and other hotspots mean it’s rare to be offline for long).
I have traveled this part of the world previously, so in many ways I am retracing my steps of 2001. I want to revisit both Malacca and George Town, Penang, both of which have been declared World Heritage Sites since my last visit. At this time, I work with the Port Arthur Historic Sites in Tasmania, which were added to the World Heritage register in 2010, and I am fascinated to see what, if any, changes the listings have wrought on these Malaysian cities.
I’m also keen to revisit some of the parts of Southern Thailand I have visited, packing in a bit of a beach break before heading north to Bangkok and my organised tour.
During breaks and evenings and early mornings at the hotel I have begun planning the next stages of my trip, which I had left very open. Getting to my first destination, Malacca (or Melaka, to spell it as Malaysians currently do) is a simple bus ride from Singapore, a ticket for which I purchased online, and I had booked a couple of nights in a place on Airbnb.
I was up early to pack, check out of the Seacare Hotel and into a taxi to the Golden Mile on Beach Road (aka ‘Little Thailand’). Naturally the taxi was prompt and had me there just after 7am! Found a Thai café open and ordered a fried rice and lime juice to start the day. The bus left at 8am (scheduled departure was 8.15) with just 3 passengers. It wound its way along the PIE to Jurong (Boon Lay), where an Irishman boarded, taking the headcount to four.
There was a long queue, first of busses then in the departure hall on the Singapore side for passport formalities. The Malaysian side was completed in a matter of moments, but the first few kilometres of this approx. 300km trip took nearly two hours!
Once across the causeway, which didn’t look familiar, I saw no sign of Johor Bahru. Only later when I checked the map did I realise we had actually crossed over from Jurong via a newer causeway on the western end of the Straits of Johor.
I started chatting with the Irishman, who is named Bill and is a doctor who has been doing volunteer training work in Cambodia. He’s doing some sight-seeing before returning home.
Southern Malaysia is thick with palm oil plantations. After 90 minutes or so, we stopped at a roadside service centre. Not having any Ringgit on me, I looked for an ATM, but to no avail. Why would you have you have one of these at the first stop (for many) across a border? Lah, welcome to Malaysia!
We arrived in Malacca about 1.30pm. The bus stopped opposite the Holiday Inn; fortunately, I had spotted my hotel (ND Hotel) in a block of the Plaza Mahkota complex opposite, so walked the 200 metres or so. Jason, the enterprising proprietor who had put the place on Airbnb was there to meet & greet, optimistically making the most of my windowless accommodation by saying he’d given me a ‘quiet’ room, as I would be tired from my journey. Later it turned out this wan not entirely true – the noisy fellow guests, especially the children making an unholy racket in the hallways as they came and went.
Refreshed, I set out to find my bearings again, along with lunch. The latter was a good find – Far East Café on Jonkers Walk – a delicious black pepper chicken, proper Nonya food and inexpensive. The proprietor was playing early Beatles tunes and it was pleasant to hear these afresh with time to appreciate the complexity of the melodies and harmonics over the simplicity of their arrangements. And lunch was delicious.
World Heritage status was bestowed on Malacca and Georgetown on the island state of Penang in July 2008. The trishaws I remembered from 2001 were even louder and gaudier, thanks to cheap LED lights to enhance the colourful decorations. The bazaar along the base of the listed Stadhuys had grown – indeed there were stalls flogging the same tatt everywhere, at every turn.
The Padang, the open green space has been covered over with a vast, mostly subterranean shopping centre. As well as the usual shops there was another whole bazaar selling ‘crafts’ down there. Above this was an ‘observation wheel’, different from most Ferris wheels in that an enclosed circular platform was hoisted vertically up a 100m pole, rotating all the while. The occasional river cruise boats of my previous visit had multiplied, roaring incessantly up and down the narrow Malacca River.
Still feeling the heat, I retired for a siesta before heading out for dinner at the Geographer Café on the corner opposite the Far East Café. A pleasant spot, aimed at tourists, of whom Asians from Malaysia, Singapore & China outnumbered westerners 20:1. Meal pleasant but inoffensive in terms of flavour and spice. Most of the menu was western – pasta, pizza, fish and chips. But the environment was pleasant and the staff friendly.