Another day, another foreign jaunt to make everyone jealous. Post-Bali I was feeling pretty jaded but, not one to let a lack of sleep get me down, I still thought it was a great idea to take a trip to Melaka, in Malaysia, the following weekend. And I was not alone. Lorna was still kicking around, and thoroughly overstaying her welcome, so the presence of a guest convinced me that it was a great idea to strike out, once again, into the unknown. Unlike my AirAsia experience, getting to Melaka was far simpler and much more stress free, as we were able to go the Year 9 school trip way and take a coach. And, just like in Year 9, we fought our way to the back of the bus and established our supremacy as the cool kids. Getting out of Singapore and into Malaysia was a bit of a faff, and for some reason the Malaysian border authorities seemed particularly interested in the fact that I’m English, but I work in Singapore. I managed to fight through the minefield of their questions, however, and soon enough our bus was pootling along the road to Melaka, where we arrived at an obscene time of night. Our hostel, Jalan-Jalan Emas, was quirky but a little odd, set in a traditional Melakan house, the showers and toilets were basically outdoors. In fact, the whole place took the idea of ‘open plan’ to the next level, with definitely less roof than you would expect to find on a building. Our bunk beds had definitely seen better days, which isn’t that much of a selling point when your bunk mate is a right fidget. I really felt like I was living local style though, and it was a nice enough place. Luckily, the aim of our trip was to see sights and do history, not sleep and stay indoors, so the place we chose to stay was pretty inconsequential. The hostel also had the unique selling point of being on the oldest street in the city, where some of the oldest temples in Malaysia can be found, and throwing distance from all the good stuff, so we did pretty well on location.
Because of our horribly late arrival day 1 had a slow start, but through sheer luck, and the fact that neither Lorna or I possess any sense of direction, we managed to stumble across ‘Harmony Street’, so named because it boasts the Kampung Kling Mosque, Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple and Cheng Hoon Teng Temple all within throwing distance of each other. The former is one of the oldest mosques in Malaysia, striking because of its imposing white tower rising above the rest of the old town. Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia, and, impressively, one of the oldest functioning Hindu temples in continental Asia. Finally, Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia and still practises the three doctrinal disciplines of Chinese worship. Its impressive enough that three of the oldest temples in the country are located on the same street, never mind that they exist for the worship of three completely different systems of belief, but this mindset pretty much sums up Melaka. The city is a weird mis-match of cultures and people. Built by the Dutch during their colonial heyday, the infrastructure and architecture were taken over by the British who did very little to modify what had already been built, but who, in typical British colonial fashion, encouraged the growth of local trade and enterprise in order to increase their influence and power-base in the area. This encouraged the growth of the Baba-Nyonya community, now the largest and most powerful ethnic group in the city (although intermarriage is dissipating their influence), who are responsible for much of the city’s culture. This all sounds very confusing right now, but I’ll do my best to elaborate as we go, I promise. So, anyway, we found and explored some old and interesting temples on our first morning, completely by accident, and then set off in search of the river and Jonker Street, the main road in Melaka, and where most of our sightseeing desires were based.
Melaka is a very cool city. I’ve done a pretty good job (even if I do say so myself) of recapping for you a brief history and explaining why it seems so very European. The majority of it was built by the Dutch and, as a result, the city still looks very Flemish with brightly coloured, narrow building frontages hiding miles and miles of indoor space. There’s also Red Square, on the edge of the river, which is exactly what it sounds like, a square where all the buildings are red, including an old Protestant Church and a clock tower that doesn’t tell the right time (it might look Dutch, but we are still in Asia). This was our next port of call, and a place we would return to a lot over our time in Melaka. It’s also where we had our first experience of the Melakan trishaw. A carriage powered by a man on a bicycle might not sound particularly terrifying, or even particularly exciting, but in Melaka the trishaw is a whole different beast. In what can surely only be a misguided attempt to attract more customers, trishaw drivers have engaged in some weird Changing Rooms style contest to pimp their rides, which has resulted in an army of trishaws, decked out in LED lights, blinding colour combinations and a variety of disney merchandise, blaring pop music at unsuspecting travellers. It’s terrifying at first, hilarious in the dark and decidedly wearying after two days of constant audio-visual attack.
After dodging our first trishaws and exploring Red Square we decided to set out and find our first museum. The Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum is, by all accounts, the museum to visit in Melaka. Until fairly recently it was the private house of the wealthiest Baba-Nyonya family in the city, but the current owner decided that it could be put to better use as a museum exploring the culture and history of the community, so it was converted in 1986. As a museum its pretty impressive, but before I get to what’s actually there lets go back a bit, as I promised, and explain what I mean by the phrase ‘Baba-Nyonya’. I think I’m right in saying that the Baba-Nyonya community is the biggest ethnic group in Melaka, and that they gained status under the British in the 18th and 19th centuries. Baba-Nyonya is the community which grew out of the marriage of ethnic Chinese men to Malay women and is made up of the Baba’s (male descendents) and Nyonya’s (female descendants). Everything about the Baba-Nyonya community, from their dress and traditions to the food they introduced is a hybridisation of the two cultures. So, now that this brief history is over, lets get back to the museum. There are free guided tours run a couple of times throughout the day and it is completely worth waiting for. The museum is fascinating but I would’ve had absolutely no idea what I was looking at if there wasn’t someone there to tell me. It’s filled mainly with the furniture and belongings of the family, and tells the story of the community as a whole through the families own personal history. Because of our late start, the end of the tour pretty much marked the end of day 1, but we did manage to locate a free walking tour of the city to keep ourselves occupied the next morning.
Day 2 will forever be known as ‘the day of too much walking and one really, really weird museum’. I’ve not encountered many free walking tours in my time, but the local tourist board runs two every week and we were lucky enough to be in Melaka on a day when there was one going on. Never ones to turn down free stuff we were on that walking tour before you could even say ‘walking tour’, ready to explore the city. The tour took in the opposite side of the river to where we were based, and covered the history of Red Square, the Stadthuys, the thoroughly European Christ Church, the slightly pitiful remains of the Portuguese A Famosa fortress and the ruins of St Paul’s Church on top of the horribly high Bukit St. Paul. Our guide was very knowledgable but just a tiny bit scary, luckily not so much so that we didn’t enjoy the tour, but enough that I listened carefully to what he said, lest he quiz me and then tell me off for not paying attention. It’s been a few weeks now since I was in Melaka, so my memory of what I learned is a little bit rusty but I’ll see if I can dig up the main points from my memory. The redness of Red Square is a fairly recent phenomenon and only came about when someone discovered the bricks of the church were originally red, and decided it would be a great idea to paint the whole place one, very extreme, colour. Red Square is also built more or less on top of the old Portuguese fortress, who occupied the city before the Dutch and were driven out because they didn’t actually do a very good job of being colonists. Overlooking the square is Bukit St Paul, a very big hill with the ruins of St Paul’s Church sat atop it. We had already battled the hill the day before, but found ourselves slogging up it again to see the statue of St Francis Xavier, a Jesuit who founded a college in the city and was briefly interred in the Church in the mid-16th century. The statue is one handed, and the legend goes that his body was mysteriously preserved after his death, despite the long journey it took from China to Calcutta, via Melaka, except for a mysterious missing hand, which also mysteriously fell off the statue. At least I think that’s the gist of the story. I could look it up but I won’t, there’s something or other mystical about it and I think that’s the main point of the story. Anyway, the tour covered the European quarter of the city and was really interesting but pretty long, still, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys walking and learning stuff. Not so much if you don’t like either of those things, mind.
After the tour and a well-deserved lunch there was just time for one final museum. It was a toss up between a well regarded Chinese heritage museum and a wild-card about the life of a 14th century Chinese explorer and eunuch. Of course we went for the latter. Cheng Ho (Zheng He) seems to be the Chinese hero none’s ever really heard of, but who’s actually really popular amongst those in the know. A favourite of the Emperor Yongle, he was a court eunuch who rose to become admiral of the Ming Dynasty’s fleet and sailed the world on diplomatic and exploration missions. His journeys encompassed Melaka, hence his enduring popularity in the city. He’s an interesting figure who did a lot of cool stuff at a time when Europe was firmly worried about its own well-being, but I’m not sure he’s worthy of a whole museum. It begins, admirably well, covering his early life, rise to fame and career, but somewhere in the middle of the sprawling building that houses the museum Cheng Ho gets lost, and a dozen other random subjects are introduced, including African animals Cheng Ho may or may not have couriered to China, musical instruments and a very odd diorama of the fleet in Melaka where the ducks are considerably larger than anything else. There’s also a room dedicated to a slightly hare-brained theory that Cheng Ho discovered America 100 years before Columbus and that some of his crew intermarried with native Americans and introduced Chinese DNA into the population. Yeah, it goes weird. The museum is also laid out in the most illogical way possible, if you were to follow the signs telling you where to go you’d probably miss out three quarters of the stuff, which, actually, is maybe the intention. We were the only people in there, which probably also says a lot about the museum, but we had a good, if slightly surreal, time learning about a little known figure.
Post-museum our day was almost over, and so was our trip into Malaysia (nearly). We ended on a nighttime river boat tour of the city. Now, as everyone knows, I love a good river boat tour, but I’m sad to say that this one wasn’t actually that good. I think there was meant to be a commentary, but the driver must have forgotten to turn it on because it was running about 10 minutes behind the actual boat, and was so quiet I at first thought he was just listening to the radio. There were some interesting things to see along the river, but the boat was moving way too fast to actually be able to appreciate anything. I’m glad we did it though, no holiday is complete without getting on a river. I’ve said it in every single post so it’s now basically meaningless but I would really like to go back, if only because I’ve never seen so many museums in such a small area and I actually managed to visit a pitifully small amount of them. Also because I really liked Melaka and I didn’t eat nearly enough Nyonyan cuisine.
Leah Out X