We were not sure whether to make the trip down to Melaka at first. What a mistake it would have been to miss it! Luckily, a local we met in KL assured us that if we went over a weekend, we would definitely not be disappointed, and this was great advice, as the city really does seem to kick into gear from Friday afternoon onwards.
We arrived on Thursday and easily found our way from the striking red colonial facades of the town square to Discovery Cafe and Backpackers (about the only budget accommodation option that didn’t come with huge bed-bug warnings), where our room was everything we always thought a South East Asian backpackers would be; up an intimidatingly steep staircase, bright yellow in colour, a little musty, with a humming ceiling fan, big shuttered windows and doors opening out onto a narrow concrete balcony that overlooked a chaotic street of small shops and vendors. Our shared bathrooms were found on the adjacent (larger) balcony which meant great views over the river and town while we were brushing our teeth.
No matter what day of the week you’re there, the old town square will always be humming with tourists, so we got settled, found a map and headed straight out again to take in some of the town’s rich heritage. Because of its significance as a trading stronghold and a meeting point between East and West for over 500 years, Melaka (along with Georgetown)was named a ‘World Heritage City’ by UNESCO in 2008 so there really is plenty to see. We narrowed our focus to the comprehensive displays of the the old Dutch ‘Stadthuys’ Museum, which chronicles the history of Melaka, St. Paul’s Hill (and church), and the the remains of the Portuguese’s A Formosa.
After losing each other in the Stadthuys, I (Hails) was alarmed to see them locking up before Joff had resurfaced from its depths. Frantically trying to keep the austere looking guard from locking my boyfriend in a rather creepy museum for the night, I was reassured that there was nobody left inside so I began searching, only to find Joff down on the square below, enthralled by a Japanese busking duo.
Haiwairia is made up of Ayako and Shoji who hail from “near Fukushima” and “near Hiroshima” respectively. Against the backdrop of the Victorian Era fountain, the surrounding trees and sunset, their simple, soulful sounds kept us captivated till the end of their set, when we were able to chat for a while. They were such rad people and we really wanted to get to know them a little better so we agreed to meet up the next day so Joff could do some filming and maybe do a music video for them. This is the result.
We’re really hoping to meet up with them along the way again.
Friday morning woke us with a buzz in the air, and as soon as we presented ourselves for breakfast, one of the bubbly ladies at the reception/bar rattled off a quick list of attractions that we should see and excitedly mentioned a ‘festival’ that we shouldn’t miss. We misunderstood, thinking that she was talking about the famed Jonker Street Weekend market that runs on Friday and Saturday evenings, so we headed over there to find a rather quiet, very un-marketlike shopping street. It was still a good walk and we made sure to weave our way around all the the historical Chinatown buildings as we went along.
Before coming to Melaka we had read about Selvam Restaurant and their 12 dish vegetarian ‘banana leaf’ Friday lunch special, so we made our way over as soon as the clock struck a decent lunch hour. The place was humming and before even opening our mouths we were ushered to a table and gruffly asked one thing: “Banana Leaf?!” From then on, it became a matter of either nodding or shaking one’s head as a steady flow of waitrons passed by with bowls, buckets, ladels, packets and tins of some of the most delicious food imaginable, barely stopping as they spooned the dishes onto our ample beds of rice and moved on. We just lapped it all up; the food, the mango lassi, the atmosphere. It was a definitive eating experience.
Leaving Selvam we were so totally satisfied, full and lazy that further sightseeing in the afternoon sun just seemed like a terrible idea. We had spied a public swimming pool the previous day, and not having swum since our stay in Koh Lanta, an arvie’s worth of intermittent reading and dipping was exactly what we were up for. Imagine our heartbreak, then, when we were refused entry by the pool’s grunting gatemaster. Heartbreak soon dissolved into disbelief and sheer frustration as he revealed the reason we were not allowed to enjoy the cool respite we had be dreaming of. It was Joff’s boardshorts, which are apparently deemed ‘inappropriate swimming attire.’ Melaka’s public swimming pool is a speedo only zone: that’s right, men may only make use of the facility if they are happily sporting a banana hammock. So women may wear whatever they desire, skimpy bikinis included, but men who wish to cover more (let’s be honest, what does a Speedo really cover?) than their bare essentials are ‘indecent.’ Ridiculous. Defeated, we drowned our sorrows in Melaka’s well air-conditioned Maritime Museum which definitely wasn’t a bad way to spend the afternoon, especially since part of it is set up in a life-size replica of the Portuguese ship “Flora De La Mar” which sank off the straights carrying half of Melaka’s wealth after the first invasion.
After our time with our lovely Haiwaraia friends, we headed back to the hostel, only to find them preparing for what looked to be like a serious celebration. When we enquired at the bar/reception, the response was an emphatic “yes, big party, free food, we celebrate Hungry Ghost, you must join us, it’s for everyone!” A bit hesitant at first, we went back down after 7pm as instructed and joined a long table of equally confused foreigners. Before long, we were all handed wads of multi-coloured ‘money’ in all different shapes and sizes, and herded around to a bonfire that had been lit in the street behind the hostel. Once there, everyone started burning the money, which we then noticed was emblazoned with the title “BANK OF HELL.” Thoroughly intrigued by what it all stood for, we eventually learned that in Chinese culture (both Buddhists and Taoists celebrate a form of the Ghost festival at the same time every year) the seventh lunar month of each year is ‘Ghost month’ where the divide between Earth and the ‘lower realm’ (Hell) dissolves and the ghosts of their ancestors can roam the Earth looking for nourishment and entertainment. Hence, various forms of ‘currency’ are burned, and food offerings are made as gifts for the ancestors to ease their sufferings.
After we burned the notes, it was time to feast, and there was so much food – people were invited off the street to join in the festivities, regardless of their nationality, culture, age, or religious affiliations. It seemed like the more people came, the more food there was, and this carried on until the early hours.
After politely declining numerous offers for second, third and forth helpings, we thanked our host heartily and excused ourselves so that we could catch the real Jonker Street Market (the one we had been 10 hours early for that morning), which was very festive. The stalls were much more of the same hawker style things we had seen in most towns, but the great exception was the food. Chinese Nonya cuisine is famous in Melaka, and for good reason. Our favourite discovery was Nonya Pineapple tarts: gorgeous buttery biscuit pastry balls filled with sweet, chewy pineapple jam. They are dangerously more-ish, and before we knew it, we had polished off a pack of twelve before we’d even reached the end of the street.
With stomachs full to the point of bursting, we relished our beautiful walk back along the lamp-lit river and marvelled that we had ever considered skipping this wonderful city. All that was left for us to do was thank the wandering spirits for guiding us to Melaka!