Malaysia

Notes from Melaka

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“Melakka (Its also written as Malacca) is a historical place”, they said. At numerous coffee shops and other places. Being this romantic sucker for history and the stories that it tells, it was only a natural that the car found itself making an unplanned detour to ‘check out Melaka’.  Actually, we were famished. I could have given my right hand for some food. That famished.

There is something distinctive to every city. Even the most nondescript ones. Sometimes it hits you in the face. At other times, it envelopes you in a seamless trance. Yet other times, it surprises you.  Here we were, looking forward to set our foot and have some food in a city with history and character. And the first sign board that we saw was this: ‘Dont mess with Melaka’.  Mess with Melaka sounded rhythmic, but also caused the eyebrow to arch.

Dont mess with Texas” was a similar campaign that ran in far away Texas. How a campaign that started out as a campaign against litter turned out to give a deeper cultural meaning to Texas and Texans is stuff that advertising legends are made of. That phrase went on to become a federally registered trademark and later on the motto of a nuclear Submarine : USS Texas!

“Dont Mess with Melaka”, is a similar campaign against litter, “robbers, snatch thieves”. To promote a clean environment. All this information came after a frantic searching the web. Truth be tolda, “Dont Mess with Melaka” caused some consternation. Albeit, a mild one at that.

Now, Melaka has some history to it.  A cursory glance scramble of the fingers on the Malacca’s wikipedia page, will lead you to some interesting facts. It has a Malay-Portuguese-Dutch-English rule to it. A history that dates back 13th century. A diverse population. A size that is less than three times the size of Mumbai. It has the Malaccan straits names after it. But what seemed bigger than all of that to the famished me was this : Melaka city had Restoran Selvam.

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It was Deepavali day and all shops were shut. Restoran Selvam was however open and we had a melange of tourists eating out of banana leaves. I was famished and the sight of the spectrum that seemed to be mind numbingly focused on the food increased the hunger quotient by a large number. Taste buds seemed to erupt in some tantric dance as they stayed stimulated by this gastronomic delight. Food that we were used to, but having a different etching to it.

After the food, I wandered the road with the camera in hand and got a few shots of a small sleepy city, caught deep in festive slumber.  Melaka seemed to invite everyone. The ancient seamlessly invited the new. And the new, respects the ancient, not deferentially but taking its place in the modern scheme of things, rather gracefully.

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Across the road from Restoran Selvam, is Discovery Cafe.  It teemed with people who seemed to be visiting Melaka but sporting an air as though they belonged there. Backpackers with beer, languidly conversing is a pretty sight to watch. I made a mental note. Melaka was a place to visit again. With a backpack. Tasty food, history, culture and an opportunity to trade your story for another’s. Thats Melaka.  What more is there to life?

Ofcourse here is a lot more to life, if there are kids with you who are keen to keep you busy. The daughter is one such. We soon drove out of Melaka. Missing the River Cruise, the Dutch & Portugese forts and several other aspects of the architecture that teeming travelers and their accounts on the internet point us to bear in mind while planning the next visit. Melaka City’s city centre got its ‘UNESCO Heritage’ tag in 2008 and that means something.

Thats that Melaka. Or atleast, that was my short visit to Melaka. Ah, there is one more aspect that I accidentally bumped into. The ‘Chitty People’.  People who migrated from Tamil Nadu in the 15th Century and made Melaka their home. Mingling with the Malays, Chinese and the Javanese folks, this is a set of people who have assimilated from every culture, while retaining aspects of their roots. Wikipedia announces that there are 2000 people left of them. That number doesnt add up in my mind.  That is one more reason, I want to go back. Soon.

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore by road

“You mean we can actually drive? From KL all the way to Singapore? With two kids in the car? You’ve got to be joking”. That was the missus speaking. In all earnestness. Hands on the hips. Head tilted. The kind of look that communicates ‘excuse-me-but-I-don’t-tolerate-nonsense-beyond-a-point’.

At the end of the road trip, I couldn’t help but notice the surprise that twitched on the bridge of her nose, that we had driven all the way to Singapore and headed back without much of a strain of a muscle. I could have done a victory jig just to prove a point. An elaborate victory jig that she was proven wrong. Maybe even do a spinning the T-shirt that was on me till then, atop my head!

Of course, I didn’t.

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore is about four hours by road. There are those that claim that it takes lesser. One man said he does it in three. I think a minimum of four hours, in sane speeds, is needed. That is if you don’t stop anywhere and are grimly focused on reaching Singapore as quickly as you can. It is about 350 Kilometers. Depending on your dexterity with math you can calculate the exact speed. But if you want to leave math alone and just flow with me for now, I can safely say, that its a pretty fast drive!

After driving up and down the highway, if there is one conclusion that I could reach with reasonable surety, it is this : The plan for the E2 highway, that runs between KL and Singapore was drawn with a conscientious kid in class two, who was asked to connect these two cities on map. Perhaps as part of her geography assignment. It is that simple and straight a road

When the GPS in the car spews stuff like ‘go straight for 150 Kilometers’ you can help but wonder how! Not as straight as what you would find in the US or the expressways of Europe. It occasionally has a curve here. And a turn there. But in a mild and well mannered casual sort of a way, that you wont notice it in the first place.

Driving on this highway is an experience that gets you off the ‘ever on’ mode that you have to be on, while navigating Indian highways. Touching a speed of 100 KM per hour, in India often gives me the jitters for you don’t know what level of challenge the road is going to throw at you when. Maybe a speed breaker, that you would swear was constructed to prevent enemy troop movement : hidden, sudden and throws you a mile into mid air. Sometimes its just a languorous buffalo, who on a whim decides to take a closer look at your iris. Most often of course, is the driver of the car just ahead of you, who likes the colour of the house he passed by, and chooses to take a second look by braking without announcement.

I mean, anything is possible.

For people who love the adrenalin rush of any of the above, driving the road from KL to Singapore by road can be a dead bore. But if you are tired of it all, and want some quiet conversation, speed, and the allure of taking to the road, well this is the road to take.

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Not a single pothole in the entire 350 Kilometers, Not one honk. Well mannered drivers who move aside judging your speed on the rear view mirror. As if by some magic. Or who will mildly tailgate you if they are speeding up, for you to move to your left. It was like First level of a simple video game with a backdrop of well lined teak trees for four hours!

Green in the middle. Green on the sides. Occasional showers. Signboards galore. For kilometers and kilometers. And is if to wake up the senses a bit, there was blinding rain for a bit. Just a little bit of a tease. And then, dry parched roads. Even rain seemed simulated that it seemed picture perfect.

You pass through Malacca and Johor before reaching Singapore. If you are as impulsive as us, you will halt. We walked about Malacca and stayed in Johor Baru. Johor is the state of Malaysia that shares a border with Singapore.

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Malaysian immigration folks stamp you out. Sitting in small cabins, scanning passports, asking the windows to be lowered, taking a long hard look and stamp passports with a flourish.  The cost of living at Singapore has left many thousands living in Johor and working in Singapore. The long line of cars at the border crossing is only matched by the billion bikes that traverse the distance. Maybe not a billion, but you know, there well could be. That many. They cross over and come back, every day!

There are two ways to get to Singapore by road from Johor.  The Tuas causeway (otherwise called the Malaysia-Singapore second link) and Woodlands ( Johor Singapore Causeway). We drove in via Tuas. We were told at a gas station that lesser people frequent it. We were game for every stray piece of advice, on the ground, that came our way.

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The causeway in its sepulchral elegance seemed to stare at us, as we crossed the sea, and Singapore was crisp in its welcome signboard. I realise it is like any other road there. But the fact that it is international border, does something to the mind, for it to be accorded such a status.

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There are different segregated lanes for immigration processing for buses, cars and bikes.  The last thing we wanted was to be prosecuted in Singapore and stuck to our lanes. “They wield the cane here it seems”, the missus quipped. We drove in silence. In a distance, as silence continued to engulf the car, “I read in Wikipedia”, she said to add a indomitable ring of authenticity to her profound knowledge. A visage of a wince passed through my imagination before I steadied myself.

We had valid visas for Singapore but no filled in immigration forms. The lady at the Singapore Immigration counter, asked us to pull over. I feared the worst, but when we stopped, there were a few others like us. Standing in a queue.

Every passenger had to alight, fill in the forms, get passports stamped. Plus there was an autopass to get for the car and move to customs clearance. Top Ups on the card weren’t available at the Immigration counter and we were advised to reach the nearest 7/11 store to get one.

If there was one paragraph that conceals far more than what it reveals, it is the one that you just read. With two kids in tow, paperwork to be done, pens going missing, and passports falling off our hands with alacrity, it was one heck of a time. You can imagine it took us more than an hour but seemed forever. Dealing with our kids, (One of whom chose to fling a toy at the Immigration officer. The good Lord was in a benign mood that day for the toy landed a meter short of the officer) and all the paperwork was quite something.

The officers were polite. Perhaps a trifle stretched, but polite nevertheless. In a very restrained yet pronounced order. A picture that introduces you to the rules that the city state expects its visitors to play by.

Singapore customs officers, give another long hard look at all passengers, check the boot and you are flagged in. On the way back, we exited Singapore through the Woodlands bridge. We didn’t have to alight. The same procedure. Roll down the windows. Long hard look. Customs check and keep going.

That is Kuala Lumpur to Singapore by road. Oh, by the way, there are buses and trains as well. Very comfortable, we were told. Unfortunately they don’t give the wheel to passengers. For that reason, I would drive again, if chance presents itself.

Malaysian Diaries

It is something to travel. To travel across borders is something else. But going over there and seeing that more the things seem different, more they are the same, has held firm.  Every single journey that I have undertaken. It didn’t disappoint this time either. We went to Malaysia for a certain number of days that can be aptly described as ‘few’.

The big difference this trip, was we were going ‘agenda-less’. We didn’t have places to see or items to tick off a checklist. No Lonely Planet. No fervent reading of bloggers who had traveled there. We landed there, and eased ourselves into the home of our friends who live there. The idea was to catch up with our lives. That it was a ‘phoren’ was incidental.  Well, almost. By the way, I had a deal with the missus.  This holiday was also meant to be a holiday from the internet.  I was apprehensive but not as bad as I had feared it to be. That story for another time.

The immigration official at the KL airport extended a grimace at our long names South Indian tongue twister of names. But a polite grimace that almost went unnoticed. In quick time, with a laborious movement of the hand, landed the seals on the passport and let us into the country.  A board screamed in small letters :”Salamat Datang”. “That must be ‘welcome'” hissed the missus.  I nodded in quiet agreement. Seemed like it. And disagreements at the border are not wise.

From that time on, till the time we said “terima kasih” (Thank you) a good ten days later, we were completely taken by the inviting beauty of the land and its people, the rich tropical climes, the surfeit of connected history and of course, the many culinary delights that shook up our taste buds. We took to the roads and drove to Southern Malaysia in one of the most inviting roads that I have ever driven on, made a dash to Singapore and then settled to discover unfamiliar nooks of a familiar culture in KL. It was one hell of a trip and I am furrowing my brow to remember all that I wanted to write about. Perhaps over the next couple of weeks a few posts from my Malaysian Diaries would unfold here.

Malaysia catches multiple cultural winds. One that flows in from India, another aggregation that comes from many lands that are collectively (and often unfairly ) bunched together as ‘ASEAN countries’, not to forget stiff whiff from China. Indian and Chinese traders set up shop in the first century AD. So there!  The unfortunate and traumatic tragedies of Malaysian Airlines would have acquainted the world with more of Malaysia than it would have otherwise known. But what seems a rather small land mass in the map has a striking, profound and rich stuff to offer. Far more to offer than what the maps and tourist brochures indicate.

Malaysia has got a population of about 30 million people ( Mumbai has a population of 12 million, to give you a sense of scale) but large tracts are still forests.  There is rain almost everyday. There are Sultans and kings and a confederated way of working that seems to be working! Daily life has options that are both modern and traditional to choose from. Modernity doesn’t come in the way of tradition. Nor does tradition come in the way of progress. There seems to be a peaceful embracing of each other. A joint flowering of sorts. Like the flowering of the lamps.  Lamp post designs that I found rather striking.

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The roads are clean. The buildings are good. The cars are modern. There is no honking. The fuel is cheap. The wildlife is pretty. The food is awesome (and not expensive).  But above all this, people are warm and very inviting. A way of living that is inviting, not mandating a ‘fit in’, but rather letting the person be and kind of envelope them with charm.  A culture that seemed relaxed and at peace with everything around.  For that last reason, if all the previous reasons don’t resonate with you, its a must visit place.

As we boarded the flight back home, I didn’t feel a sense of loss that our holiday was done and we were to start for home as is the case normally.  “I think we will be returning here”, the missus said. I stared out through the airplane window looking into the Malaysian skies. ‘But of course’, I thought. Our reasons were different. But thats besides the point.

Going beyond boundaries

The airport offers a myriad melange. A melting pot of sorts where boundaries whittle down to the colour of the passports you carry with you and what identity rules your mind. People of different nationalities freely walk about with aplomb. Here, there and everywhere. Languages, currencies, passports and duty free shops all freely mingle.

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The Mumbai airport, with its fanciful art installations provides an artful facade to a multitude of emotions. We sit there waiting for the announcement for our flights and trying to make sense of all the art installations. Its late in the night we have no obvious clue on what some of the art installations mean, leaving us to make our own meanings. We clutch our passports with some freshly inked pages in them. Stamped with vigour and aimless energy by people doing their duty.

The next few listless hours are spent inside an aircraft. Trying to induce sleep, sitting upright with dim lights that are bright enough to ruin your sleep is cruel enough. This done to a background score of a steady drone of big aircraft engines, a few feet away can be bloody cruel. And it is.

A few hours later dawn breaks through the window. A fascinating bed of clouds show up as I peer with sincerity. The pilot announces we are flying over Malaysia. The expanse offers its own beauty of the bed of clouds with the Sun throwing its seductive might from a far off place, in incognito mode. Sans boundaries. Sans limits. Just merging into the horizon with effortless ease.

In sometime we descend amidst neat arrays of palm trees. The expanse of the KL airport is balanced with the calm presence of the immigration official who adds some more ink to our passports. Malaysian Ink. Maybe Chinese ink. Or Indian or Malaysian for that matter. The symbol is that of Malaysia with a date on it. Trade builds bridges across boundaries.

Kuala Lumpur singularly strikes me to at the artful middle. At the intersection of modernity, tradition, urban sophistication and nature. Warm, friendly and very helpful people, to match the bright sunshine and massive rains that most evenings steady company. Our eyes constantly go wide as we consume the startlingly sumptuous beauty that the city offers.

Our hosts in KL, very dear friends they are, decide to drive us around showing the sights. First off, they take us to a place called Little India. Blogger friends have nudged me here. Speaking of Blogger friends, sometimes I wonder what I would ever do without the love of scores of people the internet has offered. People who have opened their homes to wanderers like me with aplomb. An offer thats done without pompous might of marketing muscle.

Years ago, amongst the first URLs that was part of my regular feed was Human Universe . The blog was based out of Malaysia. It was a big black page with with white fonts. For years I knew him as ‘Ghost Particle’, his digital name, before discovering Siva. His blog left a lasting deep impression on me. Unfortunately, he isn’t around first hand to show me the sights in KL today. He sits in far away California to guide me through messages and mails. He provides perspectives that provide context and meaning to the sights, smells and love the place offers.

At Masjid India, lunch happens at a restaurant called Betel leaf. The fare is as rich as it can be and rekindles taste buds that have remained dormant for long enough that ‘camatose’ would be an apt description for them. Usually, such delectable fare quickly sinks down the throat, in more than necessary quantities and today is no exception. I look around the hotel. Bobbing heads that are gorging on the food amidst conversation. Indians. Malays. Europeans. Chinese. Some of them turning pink beyond recognition as they try a few traditional curries. Food breaks boundaries.

Siva pings me on messenger and points me in the direction of the Tamil that is spoken in Malaysia. “the core culture of malaysian tamils has always been ‘tamil’ itself” he writes. Its a different, distinct tamil. Even as we chat on what I should look for beyond what I see here, his own passion for the land, the language and our friendship shows. I look into the Malaysian skies and think how much technology has rendered boundaries meaningless.

Years ago, he put together an assortment of bloggers from across the world. It was called the 2005-2050 project. The idea was to blog about and give independent voices to incidents around the world from 2005 onwards to 2050 and onwards. I was one of them. Those were the wonder years. Today, he sits in distant California and guides me around.

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A leisure stroll across the streets follows. Deepawali lightings and greetings adorn all shops. The tamil radio bubbles with a celebratory tone. Blaring music on a multitude of speakers fills the air. The sights, smells, the passing comments, all remind me of an ancient Tamil Nadu as it was in the 1980s, but in a modern setting. Almost like in a time wrap, allowing modernity to seep in for just as much as required, but keeping the language and cultural nuances as pristine as ever. That to me, is magical.

Yet, I notice, the ‘language’ and ‘culture’ envelopes you by just letting you be. Peaceful coexistence with a sense of mutual pride and not one that aggressively has to assert its presence, demanding recognition, status and the truculent likes, as is the case back home.

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A box full of murukku, with an ‘imported from India’ label stares at me invitingly as my friend holds a Jangiri up. That this dish that originated in the Mughal kitchens, traveled to South India and then took the hop across the oceans to settle in Malaysia is proof enough that boundaries are man made notions in our head. Those artfully connected whorls seem to have a multitude of stories in each whorl. But when the taste buds take over, everything else melts away. That is immeasurably more priceless than the most expensive collection of royal baubles.

In a few minutes, as we walk towards our car, I notice a lady who is sitting under a tree. A distinctly tamil lady. An elderly lady. She gives me searching look. She clearly is looking for something. I don’t know what it is. I smile. She smiles too. A frail weak smile. I cross her, and after crossing her I pause to take one more look at the lady.

I see a Malay looking man walk by. She holds out her hand almost like asking for alms. A surprise filled curiosity knocks at my brain. The man respectfully hands her a carefully folded newspaper that has been read. From a distance I think I hear a ‘thank you’. I stand there for a couple of minutes, as she devours the newspaper. He walks on. It is momentary. But it is telling. That when people live and let other people live as well, we create space, meaning in each other’s lives. In a very present sort of a way. Where boundaries don’t just break away, but fail to exist in the first place.

Trade breaks boundaries. Food breaks boundaries. Love breaks boundaries. What after all is a boundary but a notion in our minds?

Written in the middle of travel in Malaysia. To bid for an opportunity to be part of INK 2014, through Blogadda. Going beyond borders has gotten a new meaning. Sitting in a far away land and viewing it through the eyes of a son of the soil, who himself sits beyond boundaries. What more proof do I need that borders and boundaries are notions in our minds. Nothing else.

Its a flat world !

Prices of apartments and land have sky rocketed in every Indian city i know ! Well, sky rocketed is a very modest term at that. With every inch of land being occupied, disputed, bought, rented or invested in. The latest in the series being, ‘taken over by the government’ !!
I remember doing an in depth analysis of Kenichi Ohmae’s book “A borderless world” as a management grad. One of those themes, back then, that used to occupy my mind was a truly borderless world. We seem to be getting there !

“In the last two years around 500 Indians, a number of whom are said to be agriculturalists from Chandigarh and the northern region, have registered themselves for the ‘Malaysia, My Second Home’ ( MM2H in short) venture that is being sponsored by the Malaysian Tourism Board.

Under the scheme, the Malaysian government allows tourists to invest into the country’s real estate market. It’s simple, just pick a home ( either in the heart of the city or an island), pick your price ( in upwards of Rs.18 lakh) and voila ! You have a home for yourself….” Times of India. Bangalore, May 1st, ’07.


The logic seems to be that people who settle will invariably visit the country. Thrown in are a 5 year visa and such other benefits. I am sure the Malaysian government has got its calculations right, given our battalion of relatives & friends !

The concept seems alluring isn’t it. Some of my friends who wanted to invest in a second home found it a struggle to find a decent apartment under Rs. 40 lacs, in Bangalore. But hey, now there is Malaysia !

I was all set to close this post, when my wife chipped in with this news. Dubai beckons too. Giving you a permanent residential visa on buying a flat over there. ( Coupled with interest free loans et al ) !

When it comes to flats, i guess the world is turning ! And getting truly flat !!

I chanced upon today’s music in You Tube. Japanese kids dancing to a Tamil film song. The synchrony kept me riveted & i had to share ! The borders just didn’t seem to exist !