Road tip

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.