This morning we have a 6.45am start, picked up by our tour group leader and heading to the train station at Woodlands. There are only 4 of us on the tour, Mum and I and a married couple from Sydney. We take the train from Singapore into Malaysia, to a town called Kulai, where our coach meets us for the remaining travel to Melaka.
Melaka has had a long and interesting history, beginning sometime in the 14th century. Legend has it that Parameswara, a Hindu Prince from Sumatra, founded the state when he stopped to rest under a Melaka tree. The port became famous for waiting out monsoons and rsupplying trading ships plying the stait of Melaka. Melaka attracted merchants from all over the region, thanks to its strategic position between China and India, and with easy access to the spice islands of Indonesia. Melaka has been inhabited by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British and its thanks to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles that many of Melaka’s historic buildings still remain, when he stepped in to stop their destruction at the end of Dutch reign.
Once aboard the train, and upon arrival at Johor, we meet our guide ‘Chan’. He’s great – he’s a real storyteller and he knows his stuff. He wants us to taste and smell Malaysia as well as see and hear about it. His stories are peppered with stories and comparisons, so that everything he tells us soaks into our brains to stay. He buys banana chips for us at one of the rest stops along the highway. Apparently some of the bananas grown in Melaka are as long as your arm. The banana chips are not the sweet ones like we are used to but great big bananas which are dried and salted slightly and taste just like potato chips – they are really really
tasty – I can find a banana chip addiction coming on. We buy a packet at just about every rest stop after that! It was a good experience to try one of the local Malaysian snacks also.
We stop by the roadside, where Chan shows us how the rubber trees are sapped, putting little drips of wet rubber on our palms, telling us to rub the paste with our fingers until it becomes rubbery.
First stop in Melaka is lunch, which is a buffet at the Rest House Cafe at the hotel where we’ll be staying for the night, the Equatorial Hotel. Lunch is divine, as it was the last time I dined here. There’s a great selection of local dishes and the best miniature cake buffet! After lunch we head to Jonker Street. Chan takes us into all sorts of little shops to explain what they do and a bit about life in Melaka. Of particular interest is Wah Aik’s shoemaker shop where they used to make shoes for bound feet. The shop has been in the family for generations and the beaded Nonya shoes that are also made here, are considered Melaka’s finest. Chan’sapproach means the shop owners welcome us into their shops to look at and photograph things we probably would otherwise not have been able to. We also get the history of the town and its people this way.
We go to the Cheng Hoon Temple, where Chan tells us all sorts of in depth stories of how it came to be that three opposing faiths ended up worshipping under the same roof, his eyes wide and hands excitedly waiving about. This is Malaysia’s oldest traditional Chinese temple and it remains a central place of worship for the Buddhist community in Melaka. I’ve been to this temple before, but Chan’s commentary certainly made the visit more interesting. Then there are more shops to visit, like the ones where all manner of paper goods to accompany the dearly departed into the afterlife are sold – you name it, you’ll find it – paper money, paper sewing machines, paper beer cans and even a paper treadmill, though I can’t imagine why you’d quite care about keeping fit in the afterlife!
Next Chan gives us some time to wander around Jonker Street where I get the chance to visit Orangutan House, home to the art t-shirts of Charles Cham. Charles started painting at the age of 5 and after working as an editorial artist for a few years in Kuala Lumpur, he went to France to paint. He became a member of the Association des Artistes Independents in Aix-en-Provence and exhibited in the Salon des Independents in 1990 and 1991. In 1993, he set up his studio in the old quarter of his hometown in Melaka and named it the Orangutan House. His works are based on the philosophy of Yin and Yang, believing that everything has another side, visible or not. His works are in private collections in more than 40 countries, but you can view some of it at http://www.absolutearts.com/charlescham/
. You can buy t-shirts at Orangutan House for RM35.
Meeting back at the Christ Church, we continue with a short walk to A’Famosa Fort (also known as Porta de Santiago) and St Paul’s Hill. Porta de Santiago was built by the Portuguese as a fortress in 1511 and the Dutch were busy destroying the bulk of the fort when Sir Stamford Raffles came by in 1810 and saved what remains today. St Paul’s Hill is home to St Paul’s Church which was originally built in 1521 and was regularly visited by St Francis Xavier who performed several ‘miracles’ in the church. Inside are some engraved stone tombstones of members of the Dutch nobility who are buried here. Chan offers us the opportunity to climb up the hill to the church, but we are all starting to feel the heat now and none of us wants to climb those stairs, so we head back to the hotel to check in.
Mum and I start the afternoon off with a swim. The pool grounds are quite lovely and the water feels refreshing – all that’s missing is a cocktail. After our dip, we dress and head downstairs to the Café K5 for a glass of Tiger and some dinner, a simple meal of black pepper chicken chop with some steamed vegetables and pasta. I had wanted to try some more local food for dinner, but Chan advises us to stick to the hotel or the shopping mall, which is probably a good idea while you are stuck travelling on a coach without a loo!
To finish off the evening and take advantage of the cool, we buy a ticket for the Melaka River Cruise. RMB15 buys you a 45 minute ride up and down the river. The cruise runs all day, but dusk is a really nice time to take the ride because all the lights come on. A lot of the old buildings along the river had been painted in all sorts of mural designs and they are simply gorgeous. Also along the route is Kampgung Morten, a living museum of 85 homes, which is open to the public, although it is still a real functioning village. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time in Melaka to visit the Kampung, but I would definitely consider it for a return trip.
I really like Melaka, there’s something I can’t put my finger on – yes it’s a bit grotty, like most destinations in Asia, but the architecture is gorgeous, the history of the town itself is fascinating and the food is divine. I would love to have spent another day at least here, just to fully check out all the sites. There seemed to be a lot of construction going on this trip and it would be interesting to return in 5 years or so to see exactly how much it had changed. I hope Melaka doesn’t lose its unique quality though.
Cocktail of the Day: Shandy