Southeast Asia 2010 Part Three: Oh My, That Looks Like Some Pretty Fly Satay, Mind if I Try?


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December 24th 2010
Published: December 24th 2010
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“You go wait downstairs” said the customs official, offering nothing in the way of an explanation as to why Mehraneh had been led away to some inaccessible place elsewhere in the building.
I was livid. I was worried. But, we’ll get to that later…

The sun was low in the sky by the time we reached Melaka. We had breakfasted in Mersing after getting off the boat and later paused for a coconut and some other fresh fruit at the JB bus terminal. Three short jumps and some waiting around had made it another fairly long day of travel. Ravenous again by the time we reached the city’s main bus terminal, we resisted the urge to grab the first meal we could find and wisely waited until we actually got into town. A dirt cheap ride on a dirty local bus dropped us in the dead center of the interesting part of Melaka, right next to the river.

A man wrapping a very large snake around a young woman to take the type of photograph that I’ll never understand the appeal of was the first thing we saw. Moments later, postcard vendors approached us offering us memories of historical buildings and other local sights that we had not yet had the chance to see firsthand. Bicycle rickshaws decked out like flashy Las Vegas dancers queued up for our business. We fought away the urge to get right back on the first bus out of town to escape what appeared to be a shamelessly touristy hellscape; a McDisney-laysia, if you will, crammed full of 24 hour trinket shops, half-hourly tours, and one-hour photo developing…

Still, there was no monorail in sight (though, we did see a duck bus the next day, hahahahahaha), and we were really looking forward to dinner, so, taking a deep breath, we decided to cross the river and head deeper into town.

The EOL guidebook wasn’t exaggerating the quality of the Pak Putra Restoran, which we ran to (as quickly as we could with our backpacks), resisting any urges of first checking into a hotel or catching a glimpse of nearby Chinatown. Piping hot garlic naans popped out of one of the two large tandoori ovens in front the restaurant, pausing only briefly on our plates before scooping up generous portions of glorious curries and delivering them straight to our mouths. Lentils cooked to perfection, chicken curry you wouldn’t believe, and chutneys that my belly is still rumbling for. Wash it all down with a cool, fresh mango lassi, and you have a very happy Jim and Mehraneh. One of the finest meals of 2010, and I assure you that it’s faced some steep competition.

Fed to the point that we felt like rounded cartoon caricatures of our real selves, we slowly rolled away from the Pak Putra.

Gluttonous ecstasy...

Gastrointestinal nirvana…

Good grief, that was some great grub!

Now, to find a hotel. But, who could be bothered to do anything in such a state? We decided that we had to “come back to ourselves,” as we say in Turkish (something like “snap out of it” perhaps), and assess the situation. Hotel, yes, hotel. Overfed or not, we could suck it up and manage this one small responsibility.

First few choices – full or lacking the right location or lacking something else. Lazy and picky – great job, us. Had I not been stuffed to the point of delirium, I might’ve started to worry.

Then we stumbled into Ringo’s Foyer Guest House, which was devoid of
Down the tube to smash bricks and collect coins...Down the tube to smash bricks and collect coins...Down the tube to smash bricks and collect coins...

Mehraneh took this right before I did some wicked Super Mario stuff. You should've seen it!
any Beatles reference or any explanation of its name. We never bothered to ask. A guest at Ringo’s let us in as the owner was on the roof playing drinking games with the other guests. Hmmm, this could be a bad sign.

No en suite toilets. Strike # 2.

Still, the reception/lounge area had a certain charm to it. After a half hour or so, we realized that we happened to still be there, chatting with people wandering in and out of the lounge, and that we felt quite comfortable. So, for the next three nights, Ringo’s it was. We ended up really loving the place and the people in it.

And the price was right.

We took a bit of a stroll through lively Chinatown that first night, which was less than a five minute walk away. The next day we wandered all over on foot, barely glancing at the historical buildings that are captured on all the postcards. The city has a rich history, including (among other periods) stretches of Portuguese and Dutch colonization evidenced by countless structures –many of them pink – that we honestly weren’t really that interested in seeing on a site-by-site basis. Most of them were charming, handsome, and unquestionably added to the overall dignity of the urban space. Still, lacking an insatiable curiosity about the events that played out during those colonial times, we had very little desire to do our jobs as sightseers. Museums? Yawn.

It was more something about the overall mood of the town. Yes, there was the über-touristy – let’s call it “tüberisty” – side to Melaka, which started to lose the plot a wee bit after UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site a few years back, and the locals welcomed, with open arms, as many tourists (like us…) as they could cram into their little city. Still, in my opinion, it certainly hasn’t been completely ruined. Perhaps Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang, other Southeast Asian cities that couldn’t possibly be more ON the beaten path while somehow maintaining their dignity and charisma, might be reasonable regional comparisons. Melaka still hasn’t lost “it,” though it may be hard to truly define what “it” is that makes the place special.

Mehraneh liked the shops, the temples bursting with dragons, and the polite reception we were met with everywhere we went. She really liked the shopping part, though. I enjoyed the super-pedestrian-friendly layout of the city (such a departure from traffic-clogged İstanbul or sprawling petroleumhandicapped America), the proud manner in which it displays its many centuries, and the nearly constant culinary safari that we eagerly plunged into.

This brings us to Capitol Satay, which was a delightful and entertaining treat; nowhere else on earth have I found a dining experience like this. Right on the edge of Little India, this truly Malaysian restaurant had a queue spilling out onto the street - always a good sign. We watched the tables nearby as we waited nearly an hour to be seated, still not exactly sure what we were in for. A flock of busy waitresses buzzed around the restaurant placing a vat of boiling water at the center of each table. Shortly after, copious amounts of spices were ladled into the water, creating a brown mud-like broth. Patrons then dunked their selected skewers (mostly meat options) or poured their bowls of raw fishy stuff into the scalding swamp, and cooked them to their liking.

Still, watching this process was not the same as actually executing it successfully. After choosing an ambitious amount of raw skewers, a waitress came by and gave us the briefest of instructions: “cheeken two minute, swimp one minute, this three minute…” and we quickly got the hang of it. Fresh, hot, a little bit tangy, a little bit salty, good and messy, and absolutely delicious! I was in heaven and Mehraneh really seemed to like it too. She put up no argument when I suggested coming back again the next night, though she did mention that everything sort of came out the same after it was boiled: shrimp, chicken, tofu, fish balls, etc. And she was right, it did all sort of taste about the same in the end. But it was a really good the same.

We lunched around the corner on one of our days there at a brilliant South Indian restaurant. See photo.

Rented bicycles, did some sightseeing, and stuff. Honestly, all I really remember about Melaka was food and trying to walk it off. You’ll have to ask Mehraneh what else we did there.

We woke up on the 24th, a month ago today (how’s that for prompt blogging?), and hopped a bus back to JB (for the third time) so we
At the Geographer's CafeAt the Geographer's CafeAt the Geographer's Cafe

real Belgian beer! and some girly drink
could get back to Singapore. We ate at the Larkin bus terminal again, but no Golden Arches – Mehraneh was far less queasy about the local food this time, yay! We also bought a bag of mangosteens, one of my all-time favorite fruits. They’re purple on the outside and have what look like slimy garlic cloves on the inside, but they’re rather sweet. I’ve never seen them in the States, where they were apparently outlawed until 2007, though they might be easier to find there now.

Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize the word “mangosteen.”

Anyway, back on the city bus and out of Malaysia without any hassles.

The Singapore side wouldn’t prove so easy though. Annoying border number 3 (again).

The immigration official only let us approach the desk one at a time, even though we were traveling together. Mehraneh went first, and it took a long time, some scanning, some typing, and some phone calls, and some waiting until a man with a walkie-talkie came, took her passport, and led her off somewhere out of sight!

Why can’t I go with her? What if we can’t find each other? - we don’t have cell phones that work in Singapore. How long until she can enter the country? What do you mean I have to wait outside? Unsatisfied with the short answers I was receiving, I was growing closer and closer to losing the calm, patient, and polite demeanor that I try to maintain when crossing borders.

It was a long, long hour or so of a wait. Mehraneh finally emerged, angry and frustrated. She said that everyone had been polite as they fingerprinted and questioned her, but still, they had fingerprinted and questioned her. If only the world didn’t judge a passport by its cover…

We reminded ourselves that it could’ve been worse. A few sighs, and we got back on a bus, trying to shake off the experience.

The sun had set, we were back in Singapore, and the evening was about to improve.


Additional photos below
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Banana leaf curry!Banana leaf curry!
Banana leaf curry!

One of the owners told me that her family is from Kerala, if you go back a few generations. We love South Indian food!
SpicesSpices
Spices

The one-size-fits-all approach to seasoning your food at Capitol Satay
It's beginning to look a lot like WTF?!It's beginning to look a lot like WTF?!
It's beginning to look a lot like WTF?!

3 times fast: she sells seahorse Santas by the shopping mall...
Malaysian Architecture MuseumMalaysian Architecture Museum
Malaysian Architecture Museum

I think this is the only museum that we actually entered.


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