Melaka  12 - 15 March 2008

Meleka (apparently Malacca is the old name) is a beautiful city absolutely steeped in history. It grew in the 15th Century to be the most important trading centre in  SE Asia the “Venice of Asia"and all the Europeans who ruled here – in order, Portuguese Dutch and British -have left their mark, as have the original Chinese settlers the Babas and Nyonyas who have retained many traditions despite intermarrying and adopting many Malaysian customs. The city architecture reflects this diversity, with old Chinese streets and temples, next to European buildings.

They are presently carrying out a full restoration brick by brick of the original riverside Portuguese fort. This was mainly destroyed by the British who didn’t want it falling to the enemy (the French at that time I think ) but Raffles of Singapore fame stopped this, so a shell remained.  

In the central town square many of the old Dutch buildings remain like the red Stadthuys or town hall. We looked around the museum there – 5 museums in one really - and out onto the balcony which had  a great view of the square. Later on they were filming a Bollywood production off the same balcony which was fun to watch. Everywhere are rickshaws, madly decorated with flowers and tinsel and blearing out music as they compete for business. We also saw where London buses go when they retire! The old part of the town on the river was really pretty, and we enjoyed the maritime museum housed in a replica of an old Portuguese ship, amazing how many famous seafarers passed through Melaka – Marco Polo, Captain Cook, Francis Drake and even Sinbad –who apparently really existed!

 

Up on the hill is St Paul’s the original Portuguese church built in 1521, and at the foot the original city gate Porta de Santiago and all that remains of A’Famosa the 16th century Portuguese fortress. It is incredible how much history is packed into the city.  We also visited a beautiful living museum on the river. This was a traditional Malay home which the owner was born in and had painstakingly maintained in its original condition with no attention to detail spared. In the garden they were practicing Malay dancing for an upcoming festival which was lovely with the river as a back drop.

The food was great too (a bit of a theme in Malaysia both putting on the weight lost in Indonesia!) representing all the different nationalities. We went out to the Portuguese settlement 5 km South of the town centre. Amazingly the Portuguese community whilst they have intermarried with Chinese, Indians and Malays, still retain much of their culture including the children learning traditional dancing and many people speaking what is an antiquated form of Portuguese. They are also still Catholics, making them very much a minority over here.  The old man in the Portuguese museum was an absolute mine of information. We felt we’d been museumed to death by now but had to take in one more the “Orang Asli” or natural people ie) the indigenous Malaysians’ museum. There are 3 main tribes still living in Malaysia which divide into many smaller sub-tribes. They still retain their original culture although many have done very well in modern society  as Doctors, Lawyers and business people which is nice to see. 

On our last night we went to a “Asian Cultural Evening” this involved a buffet after which we were entertained by dancers doing traditional Malay dancing. This was beautiful but unfortunately as the only white faces we were forced to take part in the “audience participation” element of the evening as it seemed churlish not to. Whilst we sweated through the song totally out of step with our co-dancers worse was to follow as some of the audience started to video the spectacle!! 

Horrifying to think who will have to witness that footage best not to dwell on it !

We also took in the night market in Jonker Street. This is a really fascinating  street full of  antique shops temples and cafes  and you can happily spend hours browsing in it.  

As we are now back to staying in the  “Toyota Hotel” whilst in Melaka we are  driving out to the  nearby beach suburb of Tantung Kling every night where they allow camping and we can have a shower. This was great midweek but a bit tricky on the weekend (which starts Friday here) as it is a very popular destination for Melaka weekenders who (whilst behaving well) were up till very late so a good night’s sleep was a bit elusive!

So, although Melaka was our favourite city so far in Malaysia, and we would really recommend it especially for those interested in history, by Saturday morning we were ready to move on. Next stop the southernmost state of Johor.