>Pulau Ketam and Seremban

>So its the June hols and we need to make a quick trip up north. We’ve cancelled the Sibu jaunt because (a) its too expensive and (b) KH’ s schedule is packed tight for the coming weeks for a big project he is working on.

Once again, we packed all the 5 kids, backpacks, chocs, tidbits, biscuits, cereal, cushions, towels, blankets, books into the car and off we went. Have to say that Immigration was a breeze – no queue at all and we got through it in less than 5 five minutes. Where was the jam for the Mas Selamat search? Non-existent! Malaysian Immigration was also a breeze and we sailed through quickly, no more tedious filling up of those pesky white immigration forms.

We left Singapore around 4pm and arrived in Malacca at 7.00pm. We had our usual favourite wan ton mee at the grimy hole-in-the-wall stall in Jalan Bendahara – Isaac rates it 9 out of 10 in both Singapore and Malaysia. Don’t look too closely at the eeky condition the eatery is in and you’ll enjoy the food a lot more.

We stayed a night in Malacca. The next day, we repacked our haversacks, loading it with clothes for 3 days and then left the condo in Tanjong Kling for KL.

En route, we stopped in Seremban. We’ve never been there, conveniently bypassing it to KL all the time. To satisfy our curiosity (and because we’re running out of places to go in Malaysia!) we stopped in Seremban. It looked like any other Malaysian town – with streets of faded shophouses, the ubiquitious shopping mall in the heart of town and depressingly run-down grey faceless buildings. But beyond that, its got a lovely green lung at its heart. The Lake Gardens, sounds more impressive than it looks, is really just two strips of water more pondlike in scale than ‘lake’. But it is on the fringe of some jungle, surrounded by parkland, lots of playgrounds, greenery and meandering lawns of big upscale houses.

We stopped to visit the old gothic-style Catholic Church of the Visitation. I liked the coolness of the interior and the high ceilings. The thick stone walls help to keep the place cool and hushed from street noise. Inside, an Indian woman was kneeling on a pew and her young son, obediently following suit.

Seremban didn’t seem to have much to hold our attention so we took off on route 51 to Sri Menanti. This is the old capital of the state, the seat of power of the Minangkabau people who once ruled Negri Sembilan. The drive took us through the hills, past padi fields, rivers, country schools, vegetable patches, kampung houses with the trademark minangkabau horn roof.

The road was busy and we often had to tail the convoy of cars and big trucks. But once we turned off on the tiny country road, the road was free of traffic, long and winding and I said quite happily: “This is the sort of road I like which is great for driving!” And so it was – except for the occasional, okay, many – patches and lumps of cowdung on the road. KH had to do the cowdung slalom.

Sri Menanti is off the beaten track and few tourists come here. But here stands the old palace – fittingly called Istana Lama – and the interesting thing about it is, it was built without the use of a single nail!

The palace, which does not look like one of those huge imposing castles you may imagine, is really a 4-storey extended kampung house. Built on stilts, stairs extend upwards to the formal receiving area, the ‘court’ where the king presided over with his courtiers, a formal dining room complete with elegant table set-up (included candles on an elaborate candelabra!). There are also two other private rooms here with beds, dusty and musty. Up another flight of stairs and its the royal family’s private quarters – rooms for the royal couple, their children and beds with fading yellow silk canopies that look like they have not been slept in for years. Quite eerie actually, the effect. Then up a very steep stairway to the treasury and a view of the countryside!

We were the only visitors to the place and the kids scampered about freely. Luckily there was nothing valuable or breakable that could be knocked over. Probably because we were the only ones there and because the place looked old and worn, smelling of mothballs, it had a very spooky feel to it. The old high wrought iron beds, with crumbling lace curtains, yellow silk pillows etc in darkened rooms looked particularly scary. I got the creepy feeling particularly strongly in the treasury tower. I dared Isaac $500 to spend the night alone in the treasury room or in any room in the palace. Needless to say he passed on it.

Once out of Seremban and Sri Menanti, we reached KL in quick time. Picked my sister Vivian up at Mid Valley and then headed to Mont Kiara where she very kindly lent us her apartment for our stay. That was after we traded insults in sisterly fashion about flea-infested guestrooms in her house and her ferocious dogs who could snap Trin’s head off very casually. Nevertheless, she loves me and cheerfully gave us the keys to her apartment so we could get out of her hair while we were in KL.

Mont Kiara is THE expat enclave in KL. Its filled with exclusive gated communities, towering condominiums and international schools. Its like the Holland V of KL. Everywhere we went there were angmo faces or Korean/Japanese faces. Security was tight. There were security guards at every street corner, not only at the condominiums.

Vi’s apartment was on the 15th floor and looked out over the Sungei Buloh-KL highway to the NS Highway. Far below on adjacent land was a patch of squatter housing – densely packed, dirt roads and zinc roofs. Only a canal separates the rich from the poor I realised. The contrast could not have been more obvious. In a split second, I visualised a Bastille moment.

The apartment was fully furnished (only lacking in toilet paper and Astro!!) in very hip retro style. There were 3 bedrooms but not enough beds, so the two elder kids bunked in the living room on the sofas while the rest of us took the master bedroom with the mattress protector making a comfy nest on the floor for Owain and Cait.

Dinner was at Sri Hartamas in the district next to Mont Kiara and after dinner we hit the movies! The Curve at Damansara is another upscale development, filled with upmarket shops, eateries and a spanking new Cineleisure where we caught Indy on the big screen. Driving to and from Damansara back to Mont Kiara was easy via the largely empty Penchala Link highway and its tunnels.

The next day, we headed off to Pulau Ketam. Pulau Ketam, or Crab Island, is a tiny island off the coast of the old port of Klang. From KL, we took the Federal Highway down and its just one straight road which sliced through Old Klang and then down again, ending at the water’s edge in old Port Swettenham. Hard to believe that the place, now dull and quiet, was once a bustling port about 100 years ago. The jetty to Pulau Ketam, is just a stone’s throw from the train station. So either way, getting here from KL is easy. Either drive on the Federal Highway or just take a commuter train down. We wanted to do the train option, but it would have been a hassle to take two cabs to Sentral and then take a train down. The waiting, calling for cab, etc would all add another 45min to what would be just an easy 30min drive down.

The boats leave every hour at the 40th minute. There was one waiting when we got there. Don’t expect a lot. It is a long, very long, speedboat. Airconditioned with dirt-streaked portholes and chairs with holes and collapsing backs. Strictly cattle class. The boat was packed with day-trippers and residents of Ketam.

The boat ride passed through a calm channel between two islands, fronted by mangroves. We could see eagles swooping in the sky above at times. Finally Ketam came into view – first the fish farms in open water, then a horizon of stilt houses, painted in pink, blues and the occasional yellow. Wooden planks on stilts lead out from the houses over the water. The water was greenish and clean with schools of fish and the occasional long gar fish. The breeze was stiff with gun-grey skies filled with pregnant clouds.

From the jetty to the heart of town, there was not much to see, mainly brackish muddy ground with the odd mudskipper. It was not exactly a village of stilts as I imagined it to be. In my romantic visions, I had pictured a Venice of sorts. Not so at all.

We wandered into town, past a hotel, the police station, a tiny greenhouse garden, past seafood restaurants and sundry stalls, past a furiously vibrating foosball table manned by men and boys intensely focused on their game, past friendly Ketam islanders who reminded us of the dried sea stuff that was on sale. The lane opened up into a ‘square’ with a temple, a wayang stage and mock rock grottoes that had the guanyin statue standing within. Kinda like the Catholic Lourdes grotto we see in churches!

We wandered further in, houses flanking us on both sides. KH and the older kids ran ahead to see what was there and if it was worth our while to walk so far. While they were gone, the skies burst open and let loose a torrent of rain. Owain, Trin and I took shelter in someone’s porch. Which happened to double as a storefront with a bench. They were selling (what else?) the dried seafood stuff like fish maw, dried cured cuttlefish, dried oysters, dried scallops etc.

Owain kept bugging me to buy him an ‘umbrella’ – one of those with no handles but a strap to go round the head. I refused. But because I was taking refuge in the porch area, I felt bad about not buying anything. In the end, I ended up buying a packet of fish maw, a packet of dried chilli cuttle fish and a drink!

We sat there and watched children from the next house play in the rain. No Xbox, no Gameboy, no computer, no fancy toys and what do kids do for fun? They improvise and play in the rain! They would run out with a container, fill it up with water roaring down from the rain gutters, then fling them at each other with shouts of laughter. Every once in a while, an older girl would come to the open door and yell in Mandarin: Stop playing in the rain right now! But of course, who listens to the bossy older sister?

Owain and I watched, fascinated. No doubt the thought that ran through his mind must have been and envious: sigh, mom would NEVER let me do this… lucky them…

I, on the other hand, was sitting there thinking lofty thoughts about how innocent kids are, how much fun they have, how our kids no longer play like this and how come their mom didn’t come out of the house to freak out about wet clothes and catching their death of cold!

Eventually, of course their mother comes out and chews them all out, hands them a towel and a dry set of clothes, scolding a little. Then Owain turns to me and we had this little exchange.

Owain: “They have five children too mom.”
Me: “Maybe not all of them are her children. Some could be cousins or neighbours?”
Owain: “The mummy looks old to have so many children.”
Me: “I also have five children. You mean I look old?”
Owain: “No… You look young mummy!” (and he says this very earnestly and seriously)
Me: “Why do you say so?”
Owain: “Your skin. Its so… (he wrinkles his face struggling to find the word) …straight!”

I think he meant smooth, but thats okay. I hugged and kissed him anyway and said thank you.

Soon after the rain stopped and the second half of the tribe ran back to us. We headed back down to the ‘main street’, pausing enroute to watch a Hokkien opera in full swing.

We ended up having a seafood lunch at a restaurant recommended by an islander whose porch KH and the kids took shelter in. We had chilli crabs (cooked dry with curry leaves and no tomato-based gravy – quite unlike the Singapore version), steamed clams with ginger, chili padi and garlic (yummy!), sotong with sweet sambal and mantis prawns and a plate of horfun. The bill came up to RM96 which we thought was a bit steep. They must have ‘ketok’ us a bit since it was obvious we were tourists. Still, the meal was satisfying and it was unusual but nice to have seafood in the middle of the day.

After the meal, the kids were engrossed in the nearby patch of brackish, swampy mud and enthusiastically spotted 3 sea snakes (one about 50cm long!), a mudskipper and a fat orange crab.

We had to run for the ferry back to the mainland which is a bit of a pity because I would have liked to walk around the island a bit more. Maybe next time.

The rest of our trip passed uneventfully. We spent the day at the Times Square Theme Park, then went back to Malacca where we indulged in our favourite pastimes – eating, shopping, swimming in the pool. And before you know it, we’re home…

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