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Published: August 11th 2019
Oasis in the Heart of the City
Melaka River flowing through the centre of town
After five mostly sunny days in Penang, Linda and I awoke to the sound of pouring rain on Thursday (August 1st
) to face the eight-hour bus ride to Melaka. With the forest-clad spine of mountains in Penang's interior buried under a thick blanket of clouds, we crossed back over to the mainland via the 24km Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge – which has a name almost as long as the bridge itself!
As the only passengers left on the bus (which was actually more like a luxury coach, with fully-reclining seats that enabled Linda to sleep comfortably for most of the journey) we then spent our forty-minute stopover in Kuala Lumpur at an outdoor canteen beside the intercity bus terminal, where we were the only non-Malaysians (and Linda the only female!) amongst the motley crew of forty-odd bus drivers! Needless to say, we attracted the odd curious glance from our companions...
With a history stretching back much further than either Kuala Lumpur or George Town, Melaka has seen about as many changes of ownership as Australia has seen prime ministers in recent years! Founded (at least according to legend) by a Hindu prince from Sumatra named Parameswara in
the fourteenth century, Melaka's location – halfway between India and China, with easy access to the spice islands that now belong to Indonesia – soon attracted merchants from far and wide, and the former fishing village rose to prominence as a trading port.
Courted by the Ming dynasty in the early 15th
century, the city attracted thousands of Chinese settlers who then intermarried with the local Malay population to become known as the Straits Chinese (or Peranakan) community – a section of society that still prospers in Melaka to this day. A hundred years later the Portuguese arrived, taking the city by force in 1511 and claiming it as a foreign colony for the next 130 years. But while the Portuguese were able to conquer Melaka, they could not force traders to use it's port, and the city soon fell into decline... until the Dutch took it after an eight-month siege in 1641, after which Melaka returned to prominence.
A further 150 years later, with Holland being occupied by France, Britain took over temporary administration of the Dutch colony, before officially claiming it as their own in 1824. Together with Penang and Singapore, Melaka formed part of the
Straits Settlements (referring to the Straits of Melaka, which separate the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra), though in time Singapore would come to eclipse both of it's northern counterparts – each of which would decline in importance as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wore on.
Finally, in 1957, Melaka – along with the other Straits settlements – was included in the new independent country of Malaya (which would be renamed Malaysia in 1963) and over 450 years of foreign occupation at the hands of Europeans would come to an end. Having long since declined from a trading port of international significance to a sleepy rural backwater, Melaka then largely escaped the ugly industrial transformation (and accompanying over-population) of so many of the country's other modern cities, allowing it to re-emerge towards the end of the twentieth century as a tourist destination, flaunting it's rich multicultural legacy to such an extent that it attained Unesco World Heritage-listing (along with George Town in Penang) in 2008. Not bad for a city that was named after the tree under which it's founder had been resting, as he watched a small mouse deer fight off an attack from a pack
Harmony Street House of Worship #3
Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple
of hunting dogs – but every great city started from humble beginnings, I suppose.
Arriving in Melaka after our long coach ride, it was immediately apparent that things were a little bit different to what we had come to expect, as we strolled along the beautiful riverside walkway lined with bars, cafes and restaurants – apart from a short section of river in Kuala Lumpur, this was the first time we had seen a river treated as anything but a sewage canal; and while the water didn't look or smell particularly inviting during daylight hours, the lights illuminating both sides of the river – together with the many nightlife-oriented businesses lining it's banks – produced an undeniably romantic atmosphere.
As we sat down to dinner at one of the countless restaurants facing the Melaka River, with boats full of waving tourists passing by every few minutes, there was no doubt that tourists have long-since replaced traders as the city's preferred clientele... though even the twinkling lights of the riverside couldn't compete with the extraordinary blinged-up trishaws winding their way noisily through the city centre's streets, neon-lit in every colour of the rainbow and with their on-board sound systems
permanently turned up to full volume! What the locals make of all this is anyone's guess, but it certainly makes the city anything but dull!
Well rested from our day of bus travel, Linda and I headed out on Friday morning to check out the sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown (basically the whole of the city centre to the west of the Melaka River), starting with a visit to the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (a Chinese Buddhist temple adorned with the usual array of rooftop dragons and golden Buddha statues, accompanied by the ever-present smell of burning joss sticks) before checking out the architecturally-eclectic Masjid Kampung Kling, a mosque that features a Balinese Pagoda-style minaret amongst numerous other unusual design features. And while weren't able to enter the Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple, it was pretty clear why the street upon which we had passed all of these temples of various faiths was popularly referred to as 'Harmony Street'. Once again, the Malaysian penchant for racial and religious tolerance was on show for all to see...
A couple of blocks over lay Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, known in Dutch times as Heeren (Gentlemen's) Street –
it was here that the more prosperous families had built their houses in times past, which we would learn during our guided tour of one of the finest among them at the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum. Belonging to a wealthy family of Straits Chinese (of whom the men are referred to as 'Baba' and the women as 'Nyonya'), the building was somewhat similar in scope and detail to the Blue Mansion that we had toured in George Town, though in this case the guide who led our tour made a much greater impression with his knowledge, enthusiasm and cheeky sense of humour.
Later in the day we headed across the river to check out the Maritime Museum, before heading up to the hilltop ruins of the Church of St. Paul - where not much is left from the era of Dutch occupation other than four walls and an adjoining tower. We then sought out an even higher vantage point by taking the seven-minute ride on the revolving observation deck of Menara Taming Sari – which reminded me of the Euroscoop tower in Rotterdam, though thankfully without the vertigo-inducing shudders that sent shivers down my spine in the Netherlands
Jonker Going Bonkers
Jonker Walk on a Saturday night
back in 2008!
After heading back to our hostel for a break, there was really only one way to spend our Friday evening – with a visit to the famous Jonker Walk Night Market, right in the centre of Chinatown! With stalls selling everything from food to textiles to toys to tattoos to shower heads lining the entire kilometre-plus length of Jelan Hang Jebat, there seemed to be something for everyone... which is just as well, since there were a LOT of people crammed into the narrow thoroughfare between the stalls. Think of a conga line crossed with a moshpit (or maybe a slow motion Running of the Bulls?) and you get some sort of idea how crowded it gets! But with a karaoke stage at one end and a purveyor of (allegedly) the world's tallest ice cream cones towards the other end, it was pretty easy to get sucked into the maelstrom and enjoy it... though we made a point of avoiding the market on each of the following two nights (it only runs from Friday to Sunday nights), as we were in agreement that once is definitely enough when it comes to the Jonker Walk Night Market!
Winding through the neighbourhoods on our cycling tour
By Saturday we were well and truly feeling the heat – which is not to say the weather was necessarily any hotter than it had been for the previous two weeks, but with the air conditioner in our hostel room struggling to cope with the workload (we had it running non-stop, set to 16 degrees, for the entire four days we spent in Melaka – yet still I slept with nothing over me!) we were never able to really cool down properly and refresh our bodies in between sun-baked outdoor onslaughts. So while Linda ventured out briefly for a vegetarian meal (she had found Malaysia to at times be unexpectedly incompatible with her vegan diet – particularly in Chinese restaurants where even vegetarian meals tend to be drenched in shrimp paste) I contented myself with lying around in our room, which is usually the last thing I would ever do on holidays.
Nevertheless we ventured forth late in the afternoon, with about fifteen other guests from the hostel, for a guided bicycle tour timed to coincide with the sunset – which in Melaka occurs when the sun sinks behind a band of low-lying smog, about half-an-hour before it
Don't try this at home...
Local version of volleyball - using only your head and feet!
drops unseen below the actual horizon. Riding through the quieter neighbourhoods surrounding the city centre proved to be suitably relaxing – even if the lack of either a helmet or working brakes meant that I had to be slightly more cautious than I would otherwise be... especially given the typically-manic Malaysian traffic, where drivers are far more likely to use their horns than their indicators!
After stopping along the way to watch a few local guys engaged in a competitive game of what I can only describe as 'foot volleyball' (where the 'bicycle kick' spikes required a fair degree of both flexibility and courage – given the game was being played on a concrete driveway!) we nervously crossed a couple of main roads – on each occasion drawing a mixture of admiring waves and angry horn-tooting from the nearest motorists – before ending up at the seaside, just in time to watch the sun sink from view behind the sleek modern lines of the beautiful new Masjid Selat Malacca (Melaka Straits Mosque). With the waters of the strait gently lapping against the shore, and the strains of the Saturday evening call to prayer issuing forth from the mosque's futuristic-looking
Masjid Selat Malacca (Melaka Straits Mosque)
minaret being carried away on the breeze, we couldn't help but admire the beauty of the scene – even more so once the so-called 'Floating Mosque' started lighting up at night.
Now with Linda being vegan, it's a fairly unusual occurrence for us to eat the same meal when we go out (which on this holiday has been for every single meal, apart from the occasional free breakfast laid on by our hostel), but having both enjoyed a delicious vegan coconut-based noodle soup on our last night in Penang, we once again found ourselves ordering the same meal at a bar/restaurant just off the Jonker Walk on our third night in Melaka. Only much later would it become apparent how big a mistake this was, as I had to get up at least half-a-dozen times throughout the night to empty the contents of my badly-upset stomach! Yet each time I had gotten up, I noticed Linda still sleeping soundly beside me, so it was with great surprise that when I woke for the final time on Sunday morning and enquired as to Linda's sleep, she moaned that she'd had an awful night as she'd also repeatedly had to race
Catching the Setting Sun
Melaka Straits Mosque in the late afternoon sunlight
to the bathroom! So both of us had endured a fitful night of stomach cramps (and worse) from food poisoning, without either of us having any idea that the other was also suffering! Passing each other like ships in the night...
Needless to say, Sunday proved to be a self-imposed rest day for both of us... and for our stomachs, as Linda barely ate anything at all, while I shamefully opted for a burger and chips (my first proper 'western' meal of the holiday) at a local cafe. In my defence though, I did manage to at least make it to the History & Ethnography Museum in the old Dutch-built Stadthaus (City Hall) later in the day, though my visit was cut short by a security guard who had presumably decided that he couldn't be bothered waiting for the scheduled closing time before he started going around locking all of the doors! And though Linda had still not yet fully recovered from her ordeal of the previous night, we couldn't resist the temptation to hop in a Grab car (the Malaysian equivalent of Uber) for a trip to the other side of town for dinner at a highly-recommended Pakistani
Melaka Straits Mosque at dusk
restaurant named Pak Putra – where in typical Malaysian fashion a large proportion of the car park had been set aside to accommodate the crowd of (mostly local) diners!
After a leisurely stroll back into the city centre – punctuated as usual by a prolonged post-dinner cat-petting session for Linda – there was only one thing left for us to do in Melaka... and so we paid our thirty ringgits and took one of the ubiquitous (yet enjoyable) tourist boats that we had seen constantly passing by every evening, on a thirty-minute cruise up the Melaka River – beneath a vast array of colourfully-lit footbridges, including a replica of the Ponte Rialto in Venice – before returning to the hostel to pack for our bus back to Kuala Lumpur and subsequent flight to Kuching the next day. Borneo, here we come...
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