Traveling to Melaka started in an interesting way. Keeping the bus waiting for fifteen minutes until my trustworthy (but late) travel companion arrived (we won’t mention nationality here as if it makes a difference, but one might say she comes from just south of the Texan border…), we arrived in town without a place to stay at 11:30 PM. Having never done such a thing before, I trusted my astute communication and negotiation skills to get something sorted out on the fly, without a problem.

I shouldn’t have.

Luckily, getting off the bus, a man asked us where we were staying, and I reluctantly said we didn’t know. Not reluctantly because I was embarrassed, but because you don’t tend to say that to a man that tries to talk to you just as you get off a bus. Luckily, he saved the day by offering us a place in his own guest house (“It belongs to my wife… Well, no. It belongs to my second wife”), by paying the taxi to take us there, and by giving us some extra spending money. Lucky he did, because little did I know that ATMs were closed at that time, and finding a reasonable place would have been tough. Lesson learned.

Getting to the center of town, we wanted a drink. So, we stopped at the bar near our rick-shackety hotel (well, it was a place to stay, and we were in a bit of a bind, as previously explained), to only be greeted by evil stares and questionable looks. Nothing happened, but you could feel that we weren’t particularly in place there, two Westerners (one of them without any sort of head covering) amongst a largely Muslim population.

A third-world glass of juice

In the mood for a beer, I went to the refrigerator to find a bottle in the shape I associated with being a beer bottle. Little did I remember that we were in a Muslim country. It was fruit juice. Local fruit juice, though, so I took it. The man asked if we wanted it with ice. “Yes, please.”

After fiddling around for ten minutes with who-knows-what, the man came back with the drinks. I suddenly realized that I have obviously spent far too much time in first-world countries, because I can say I have never drunk anything from a plastic bag. Well, it’s a cultural experience, and I was not complaining! Just interested and amused, and the juice tasted wonderful.

Luckily, with time the locals seemed to ease off and continue to go about their normal lives. The obvious tension from previously subsided, and we could enjoy our drinks. After a while, we made our way back to the hotel, catching some well-needed shut-eye before the next day of sightseeing.

 

Any introductory class in South East Asian history will tell you that Melaka, Malaysia (aka Malacca in English) was historically the key port in the region from the 15th Century onwards. That same class will tell you that the Melakan civilization was also the largest in the region at the time, due to its critical location and the lack of significant competition nearby. In fact,  so strong was the position of the city and so far were the reaches of its trade (spices, mainly, but other goods as well) that the Portugese apothecary Tomé Pires was known to have said “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice”.

Ancient stones used for money in Melaka

What the history class will probably not mention, however, is the comparably unfortunate state the city is in now. The teacher will also be unlikely to convey the effect of Dutch, Portugese, and British colonization in the region that, despite its strong history, is now far from the first-class civilization it once was.

The only home I saw of a "normal" Malakan family demonstrates the current state of affairs.

I am by no means saying the foreign rule was definitely responsible for this downfall – I hardly have the knowledge to make such a conjecture – but I can easily imagine it didn’t help. A trip to any museum around town is happy to explain the many wars that occurred in the tumultuous region, mainly between the many European powers that wanted control of the area – or, more recently, with the Japanese in the 1940s. By the time you have read for the fifth time about the Malay dagger, you have gotten the point.

Incidentally, none of this is meant to contradict the beauty of the city. Indeed, the remnants of the great civilization are still clearly visible, albeit not necessarily accompanied by the grandeur of the day.  The town demonstrates beautiful remnants of its colonial past, such as the Sultan’s palace. This large wooden structure, apparently a replica, is beautiful inside and out.

The Sultan's palace, in all its splendor

Dotted around the town are museums, churches, and murals that tell a bit of Melaka’s story, both past and present. These are both enjoyable and unique.

Visiting Chinatown on a Saturday night, you can experience the local market, where stalls selling everything from food to jewelry to sandals fill the streets. People milling through these stalls can grab a bite to eat, and the best food I had all weekend was meant to be a short tide-me-over before dinner. Stopping at one such stand, I grabbed a large, heavy dumpling wrapped in palm leaves. Upon opening it, I found something similar to a rice ball – a triangular rice shape, tainted blue from whatever spice (I hope) they used on it. Biting inside, I tasted a heavenly stew-like mixture with vegetables and beef that truly demonstrated the ability of Malaysians to cook well. Isn’t it funny how all the best food you ever have seems to come from the most obscure and unexpected places?

A tourist trishaw in Melaka costs 20 RNG per trip (i.e. around 4 sterling or 6.50 US)

Nonetheless, tourism is clearly the main economic activity in this town, and the central areas are covered with men on bicycles (trishaws) trying to convince you to take a ride somewhere with them. These thin, rickety structures shake and wobble with every imperfection in the road, and many blare loud music such as Michael Jackson while passing along. Incidentally, if it rains, you also get the cover of an umbrella! You have to hold it yourself, though…

For the rest of the blog, I’ll just post some pictures of around town, as they largely speak for themselves. I hope you enjoy them. Don’t forget to read the end, though, as there’s a quiz to take!

The famous Dutch church in the center of town

Christ Church with the fountain in front of it. This is where all the trishaws gathered to collect tourists.

The Museum of Malaysian Independence

What, historically, was a fort defending the city from invaders

The Malaysian flag, flown proudly on the Independence building

An ornate Arabic text shows demonstrates the region's strong Muslim background

Murals remind me of Orgosolo, Sardinia, although they are not as detailed or provocative here

Small structures on the riverbank add to the city's originality and beauty

Slightly out of the way, a pier looking out to the sea

And, just next to it, a cool-looking cart

Leaving the center of town, you see Malaysians have truly beautiful houses

... not to mention ornate traditional shoes!


 

Ok, so enough pictures. One of the things we did was to take a bike ride through the forested areas around Melaka, and below is a quiz. I learned a lot during this quiz, mainly about the origins of commodities I use every day. So I’m going to post a number of pictures, and you have to guess what they are all of. Good luck!

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