Tuesday, 11 August 2009
We got on a bus, leaving Johor Bahru behind and headed for Malacca, the traditional birthplace of Malaysia. There both exquisite and strange sights and sounds awaited us.
Johor Bahru is on the southern tip of mainland Malaysia and Malacca a quarter of the way up the western coastline. Bus fares are cheap, the coaches are modern and comfortable and the roads good, making traveling by bus ideal. The same applies to the trip from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital.
The roads up to Malacca are lined by palm plantations that disappear on the horizon, intermittently interspersed by universe old, dense jungle. Malacca is unlike that in the sense that there seems to be no clear distinction between the old and the new, like a pot of soup made with many ingredients and once stirred.
It's not just the architecture that is incongruent; the peoples and all their various religions, cultures, and languages and the landscape are all harmoniously juxtaposed. It was common for us to walk by an intricately ornate Hindu temple followed shortly by a Buddhist temple, a Christian place of worship and all sorts of new age institutions. Likewise, people from all around the world speaking in strange and wonderful tongues walked the streets and filled the shops and restaurants or sold their wares or exercised their skills.
A great starting place to see and experience the richness of this beautiful town is the bottom of Laksamana Street at the well known Red Square. Here clay-red buildings stand testimony to the centuries of European influence. Christ Church is quintessentially Dutch architecture of the 18th century. The materials used to build this gem were shipped from Holland and each impressive roof beam was carved from a single tree.
Lined up around the circle in the middle of the square are dozens of outlandishly colourful trishaws(three-wheeled bicycle carriages), their eager drivers standing close by, offering tourists umbrella shaded tours around the town. The trishaws are decorated with fresh or plastic flowers or both, teddy bears, dolls Arsenal number plates and much more, reflecting the individual taste of the owner/driver, some much more kitsch than others.
And although the worst dressed cycle might be lost in the sightseeing, what however may be inescapable is the music blaring out of speakers hid in boxes attached to the back of the bikes. I saw an old couple in a trishaw blaring Nirvana through blown speakers overtaking a young couple in a trishaw blaring(Only one volume available) classical music(So old I don't know who on earth it was).
Adjacent to Christ Church is the old Town Hall(The Stadhuys), also built by the Dutch for the then Dutch Governor of Malacca. It now houses the Malacca Historical Museum, a popular attraction. Opposite that stands the old clock tower, ticking the millennia off. For the energetic, climb the hundred or so steep steps up to the top of St Paul's Hill to get a birds-eye view of Malacca and the Malacca Straights sea. Here you also get to see St Paul's Church, originally named Duarte Coelho in 1521 by its Portuguese builders before the Dutch renamed it and turned it into an extension of the hill top fort.
My wife and I weren't feeling energetic at all, so instead we allowed ourselves to be drawn by the relaxed vibe of the restaurant at the bottom of the hill and the allure of a relatively cheap and appetizing looking pizza(Pizza's are really expensive in this part of the world and generally disappointing). The restaurant was cool and offered a good view of the goings-on in the street. Families sat around tables, mom and dad playing Rummicard, the kids listening to i-Pods and reading books. At other tables, couples talked in muted tones while big groups of people sat around huge tables eating and drinking. Our pizza arrived and it looked like the one on the picture(A popular disclaimer in these parts is: “Photo's only for display purposes”) and tasted just as good as it looked.
Its worth noting that here, in my experience, “western food” never turns out as western as I would like, which makes it a bit of a gamble if you are particular. However, traditional cuisine draws from many influences, so there's sure to be something to suit most palettes. Malacca enjoys a good reputation amongst Malaysians for serving the best Peranakan or Nonya(Chinese Straits) dishes at cheap prices, so take advantage of this while here.
Belly's full, we continued our exploration. We crossed the bridge over the river at Red Square. For the best view of river side life and architecture, its best to take a riverboat trip which leaves the jetty near the Tourist Office. We headed for nearby Jonker Street, where we lost our hearts to this quaint town.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Malacca was one of the most prosperous trading cities in Asia. Silks, spices, ceramics, opium, tobacco, ivory and much more were readily available here at the waterfront bazaar. And although many of these items have since gone out of vogue and the port has lost its importance, what has remained is the old world charm of a trading port, especially here along Jonker Street. Its a photographers paradise.
Jonker Street is also the place to head if you are an antique collector. Well preserved artifacts, many dating back three centuries, are a dime a dozen. Just a caution though, if its genuine you will need an export license. Another thing to take into account is the fact that Jonker Street closes itself off to vehicles over the weekend so that street vendors can set up shop. So, if its a buzz you want, plan your trip to Jonker Street over the weekend.
There is much more to see in Malacca, like the Portuguese Square, various museums, Klebang Beach and the snake park, not to mention the many different restaurants that help transport one back a few centuries. We couldn't get around to doing it all, so we left our heart there in Jonker Street, to make sure that we go back soon!