During the Christmas holidays – or any other public holiday for that matter – the world and his brother-in-law will descend on Umbai for the ikan bakar. Sleepy back roads, normally the domain of a few cows and goats, take on the appearance of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman at rush hour. Compounds of nearby houses, usually vacant except for the odd underbone motorcycle or two, are miraculously transformed into temporary car parks – often without the consent of the houseowner. And the normally peaceful night is shot to pieces by the constant ringing of the ikan bakar operators’ cash registers.
Finding a nice vantage point from where I could maybe shoot a few decent photos, I see in my mind’s eye how it all started. Somewhere, earlier during the day, a bored (but well-meaning) father is hit by a brainwave. “Let’s do a day trip to Melaka and whack the ikan bakar in Umbai!” he thinks to himself. What a brilliant idea! After all, Melaka is just 2-hours away and the seafood is way cheaper than almost anywhere else except maybe Thailand. Great! This is going to be fun.
It’s time to act. So he whisks wifey and the kids into the MPV. But before that, he comes up with another brainwave. Let’s round up a few friends and relatives: that way we can form a convoy and mosey on down to Melaka. Great! This is going to be double the fun.
The trouble is 364,529 other bored fathers across Malaysia are hit by the very same brainwave. Somewhere after Sungai Besi toll plaza, all 364,529 bored fathers begin to realise why this wasn’t such a good idea after all. By that time it is, of course, too late. The PLUS highway is backed-up from Ayer Keroh all the way to Nilai.
As I watch the 3-kilometer crawl into the Umbai Ikan Bakar complex grow steadily into one that promises to be at least 6-kilometers long, I start feeling sorry for the occupants of the long line of vehicles that by now must already have stretched all the way to Teluk Mas. I begin seeing their short term future unfold.
What awaits them isn’t going to be very funny. First, there will be the free-for-all brawl for parking space. Being Malaysian, all will insist on parking no more than three steps away from an ikan bakar stall. I just have this to say, “Good luck!”
Then, because of the sheer number of patrons at the ikan bakar stalls, they’d have to wait maybe close to 2 hours before they get their food. And when they do, the chances are, the fish will be shoddily prepared. And if they are lucky, it’s going to be half-cooked. Hint: raw fish tastes better at a sushi joint.
This may sound like a xenophobic diatribe against visitors to Umbai. But it is not. Not by a longshot. I am all for people coming to Umbai and enjoying all that it has to offer. At the same time, I am also all for people who come here having a good time. Coming here during the public holidays is a bad idea. Instead, take a day or two from your annual leave and come enjoy Umbai at your leisure – and away from the maddening crowd. This way you’ll get to experience Umbai at its best. This way nobody will remember Umbai as a parking battle zone that serves bad seafood. Umbai is a really cool place. It’s important to me that visitors get a chance to experience it for what it truly is.
Now, don’t even think of getting me started on convoys.