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Published: September 8th 2006
Malaysia of the Netherlands ?
The centre of Melaka looks confusingly European. In the central square you can see the old Dutch Stadthuys side by side with a Church renamed "Christ Church" by the Brits who bought Melaka from the Dutch in exchange for the Sumatran port of Bengkulu. Do you think the government might try trading London for Paris with Monsieur Chirac ?
We step off a terrifyingly bumpy flight from Kota Bharu (nearest mainland airport to the Perhentian Islands) into Kuala Lumpur's huge international airport. We are actually in a brand new terminal called the LCCT - Low Cost Carrier Terminal ! It's nice to know where you stand I guess. Air Asia is such a huge player in the airline market here that the company has its own mini-airport within an airport !
It's late when we arrive and the usual logjam in trying to get out of the plane means we only manage to get on a city centre-bound bus at 8pm or so, and the journey to the centre takes a whopping hour and a half. The authorities here decided to build the city's main airport some 80km away from the city itself, making for a tiring late journey in. But there you go.
Too tired to make any effort to choose a hotel, we end up in a mucky, yucky, dingy hole in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown. It stinks and the place has only revolting shared bathrooms. It's more like a grubby youth hostel ! Rather disgusted, the next morning we decamp to a place just down the
This pretty church was built by the Dutch and later renamed by the British colonial powers.
road that's much nicer (and it's got HBO...).
KL (as everybody calls Kuala Lumpur here) is a bit of a funny fish. On one hand, it's cleaner, quieter and much more organised than other Asian cities we've seen, but on the other, it's a bit of a soulless place, a concrete landscape of flyovers and elevated tracks without the colourful mayhem that makes Bangkok such an extraordinary city. What KL is, however, is cosmopolitan. The most welcome consequence of this is that nobody
stares at you. It's quite nice to walk into a local restaurant and not
hear all conversation stop as everybody takes a good look at you ! Indeed Malaysia is a thoroughly multicultural place, and although much is made of the limited integration between the varied ethnic groups that make up its population, you don't feel like an outsider as much as you might in Viet Nam for example.
KL doesn't have an awful lot of sights worth seeing or things worth doing. We had planned on getting to the top of the famous Petronas Towers, but KL is very hazy so you can hardly see the top floors from the ground, so it doesn't
A small tribute to the VOC, the Netherlands' answer to the East India Company, in a wall surrouding the Stadthuys complex. The VOC operated during a period in history when the distinctions between governments and companies was not quite as clear-cut as it is nowadays.
make much sense to make the effort to get to the top (insofar as catching an elevator constitutes making an effort).
I decide, then, to go on a little day trip out of KL. An interesting-sounding place quite near the capital is Melaka, more commonly known to the world as Malacca, the city that gave its name to the famous Straits. Melaka is two or so hours away southeast of KL, and I cover this distance (Alex stays in KL nursing a cold !) on a Transnational
bus. This company runs a huge network of long-distance buses all over peninsular Malaysia - I catch the bus at Puduraya Station near our hotel in Chinatown. The station is bedlam: countless queues of passengers waiting at ticket windows intertwine and block the concourse, touts mingle with the crowds, each shouting out a particular destination - it's like a market. "Eeeeee-poypoypoypoypoy
" (Ipoh, Alor Setar and Penang in case you hadn't guessed). I should like to know if this racket boosts their business in any way - I somewhat doubt it...
Melaka exudes its history - a very colourful, rich and frequently bloody history. By accident of its geography -
This is St Paul's Church - it was built by Melaka's first colonial masters, the Portuguese. The Dutch renamed it St Paul's Church when they drove out the Portuguese, and they in turn were shooed off by the British, who promptly decided to use the building as a gunpowder depot. Nothing if not resourceful...
located at one of the narrowest points along the straits separating the southeast Asian mainland and Sumatra and at the meeting point of the easterly and westerly monsoonal trading winds - Melaka became one of the most coveted pieces of land for over three centuries. Portuguese, Dutch then British fought over Melaka and the precious commodities that passed through its warehouses. Silk, tea, gold, precious stones, rare woods, porcelain, cloves, nutmeg, pepper and countless other valuable goods passed through these straits. The wealth generated by this commerce turned Melaka into a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, a crossroads of cultures - Indian, Chinese, Malay, Arabic and European - which it remains to this day, even if the days of the Spice Islands are long gone. Pirates, too, had their eyes on the galleons' cargo and swarmed in these sea (and, we're told, still do - this time it's the cash in large ships' petty cash boxes they're after).
It's all hopelessly romantic and it's impossible to wander through the streets of the Old Quarter, with its bright red-painted Church and Stadthuys
, its haf demolished Portuguese fort and its warren-like Chinatown, without casting your mind back to a day in the
The roofless nave of the church was being used as a set for a bizarre-looking commercial. Locals were crowding around to watch. I asked what the ad was for, but nobody understood since it was all in Tamil !
1600s when the city would have been alive with the cries of merchants and the colour and smell of spices.
On top of this, Melaka is home to a bewildering diversity of museums, which range from the ordinary (Museum of Maritime History of Melaka) passing through the moderately dull (Museum of the Declaration of Independence) to the downright bizarre (Museum of Enduring Beauty). Naturally being the culture vulture I am I visited the first, but could not bear not to take a peek at the last one. It turned out to be a fascinating collection of pictures and commentary about the way human being permanently modify their bodies in the search for beauty - foot-binding, nose-piercing and like...(nothing too gory thankfully in case you were wondering, this is a conservative Islamic country I would like to remind you). It was actually extremely informative, and had the added benefit of being unintentionally hilarious at times. Amongst my favourites were:
-"corsets were truly tyrannous to wear"
-"the most famous lady in British history is surely Ethel Granger" [on a British lady who apparently had the tiniest waist in the world - I have obviously not
being doing my history
And now for some Portuguese...
This, the Porta de Santiago, is the only remaining Portuguese-built structure in Melaka. The Dutch destroyed all the rest in taking Melaka.
-"modernisation is rapidly causing the abdomen of traditional practices"
In the afternoon I also had a stroll though the town's atmospheric and sprawling Chinatown, a neighbourhood of colonial-ear shophouses decorated with calligraphic signs. In the narrow streets you can see a mosque, a church, a Hindu temple and a Chinese Buddhist-Taoist temple in the very same street. There cannot be any doubt that Melaka's cosmopolitan past had left a powerful and admirable legacy to the modern city.
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