Malaysia: Malacca Meanderings and a splash of magic

Day 4 (04/01/2011)

Time to get outta Singapore. I’m not a shopper, especially not of the designer goods Singapore aims its sales towards. Also it’s the start of my trip, I rarely purchase gifts in the first half of a vacation, especially since I’ll be back here in 10 days and intend to revisit Chinatown for some el cheapo souvenirs.

I got in last night about 12:30AM and I’m up at 6AM since today is a travel day. I realize I really rather dig travel days. Something about going somewhere new, seeing something unseen makes me roll from bed in the dark and pack up in the minimal light. I make a decision I may regret but I don’t want to carry all this cold weather gear, so I spend $20SD and rent a locker. In an act of stupidity (maybe) I chuck my towel into the locker. I’ll buy one or pray the places I stay offer complimentary towels. I do need a ‘shammy towel’ for these hot weather escapades.

Okay, fuck you Singapore taxis, a $5.50SD ride becomes $9.90SD trip due to booking fees and other, bogus charges. I enjoy that 10 Singa-cent tip buddy.

Soon enough, at 8:30AM and we’re on the road. The driver is peculiar, even though only seven people are on a bus that carries forty there is No Switching Seats! A German backpacker tried to sit right behind the driver for the best view, but was dispatched to his seat four rows back.

Singapore's Border lair of villainy

Geraint is right, leaving the Singapore border the building does look like a villain’s evil lair. I approve.

Crossing the border is painless, my passport is glanced at and then I’m waved through. Malaysia warns ‘drug users will be put to death.’ This could be a severe Islamic country.

There is, for some unknown reason, about a five minute gap between Singapore and Malaysian border control. We pile back on the bus, all seven of us, in our correct seats and go through another easy border crossing. A steady stream of buses park and leave, disgorging people going from Singapore into Malaysia. Malaysia offers a new border twist, voluntary bag screening. Many locals bypass the scanning machine. How dumb a criminal does one have to be to be caught at this border?

The road from the border to Malacca hosts palm tree after palm tree, so I nap the journey away. When I wake up I read up on Malacca and the German asks me what I’ve learned, despite having a German copy of the same Lonely Planet guide.

At Malacca Sentral, I change some money into Malaysia Ringgits, it is disconcerting to be in a country without any local currency (except Cambodia – which I’ll explain sometime.) On lurching 5km bus ride later and the German and I end up in the Dutch red town square.

Work safe. Work smart!

Instinctively I like this town. It has history and culture and this place wears its history proudly. I wander Chinatown before finding the Cheng Ho Hotel. I take a room in the dormitory for two nights at 15 ringgits. I’m the only one up there for my stay. It could have been a real steal if not for the mosquitoes feasting on my sweet maple syrup Canadian flesh. Also, sign of the trip has to be – ‘Please do not leave the door open it lets in mosquitoes’ which would be true if the screen had been attached to the doorframe.

Nerd Note:
I don’t know where to put this, so I’ll slap it here. Malacca inspires a game idea I recently started developing. It stems from some of my favourite parts of other games. I love the Civilization games, I don’t think I’ve ever completed a game but I loved the exploration in the early stages of the game; finding new resources, cultures and marauding barbarians. Uncharted Waters is my favourite video game – the point was to make money and build a fleet by buying sugar low in London and trading it for profit in Amsterdam, while avoiding pirates but it was also possible to attempt to circumnavigate the globe. I still recall the glee I experienced when I found Shanghai. My fleet was nearly out of food and water. Add to that Brad’s insightful blog about ‘magic‘ and Malacca just sort of solidified a lot of my thoughts.

I start at the main Stadhys painted a deep, bright red. This is the old fort complex; of the Portuguese, then Dutch, and finally the British, tellingly the most successful phase of the port of Malacca was before the Europeans arrived… when it was a free port with a secluded, safe harbour.

Okay, I’m not going to rant about the atrocities caused by the Europeans during the Age of Exploration and Exploitation but… the English language being entrenched in Malaysia makes this an easy country for me to travel in. And while the British did very bad things, even the Malaysians appreciate the education system left behind. Malaysia as a country, is only 53 years old.

Back to the fort of Malacca. It now houses a pretty thorough museum complex, detailing the history of Malacca as a city and port. I had never heard of Cheng Ho before but he sounds like possibly the baddest admiral ever. It’s a very cool building, with plumbing found from the Dutch construction in the 1600s. A lot of people don’t go to places for history, but I find it fascinating. The fact the town is named after a tree that the founder sat under while a deer mule kicked one of his hunting dogs into the river, is just cool to my creative mind. All names come from somewhere.

The fort complex sprawls and houses at least four museums as well as a ruined church atop the hill. I skip the democracy museum, quickly visit the small Cheng Ho one, breeze through the… I-don’t-know-what something like a big house showing the past five mayors (but a more permanent position) and their stuff and accomplishments.

Convertible Churches... it's a British thing.

I climb the summit of the small hill, the church is roofless. I’ve seen churches and ruins like this before. This church met its demise when the Brits decided the best way to oust the Dutch was simply to cannon blast them into submission. It worked.

The view, I don’t know what I expected but the view isn’t overwhelming. For some odd reason I expected the Straits of Malacca to amaze and be iconic, after all, at one time this was one of the preeminent trading ports in the east. Instead its a stretch of mottled green water with some islands lurching on the horizon. I don’t know what more I wanted but this typical seascape did something right.

See... right there... Strait of Malacca

I stroll down to the mouth of the Malacca River, it now is shallow with silt and sediment and ’boutique’ hotels are sprouting upon the banks. A boutique hotel should not have over one hundred rooms. At the beach I watch some Asians snapping pictures with the Strait as a backdrop while the local women were in the tidal zone collecting shells it appeared – or doing laundry – it was impossible to tell.

I meet Pinto at the hostel, he is a fascinating older Portuguese Malaysia. His children speak six languages! He and I sit down and he sets out my itinerary (Penang, Langkawi, Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur – Pinto “meh, it’s okay”, and Tioman Island – which I won’t get to this trip). He exudes wisdom, a ready smile and stories. I like him from the outset. We just banter. Much of Malacca seems to be still recovering from New Years and the restaurants have odd hours some open just for lunch, some for dinner and some not at all. Pinto recommends Nancy’s but it’s closed. I end up… somewhere Lonely Planet recommended but utterly average Indian food. I did manage to only use one hand to eat though! Result. Also, banana leaf ‘plates’ are shockingly effective.

I opt for a river cruise and it turns out to be fun. I meet Ani and Claire; Ani, being blonde, is a huge hit with the Malaysians on the pier. I chat with Claire and she’s from Vancouver but is Asian – from Hong Kong I think.

Lights, toddler, action - yah, it's dark.

The cruise is kitschy, they’ve lit up the bridges and buildings and it’s all very cute but not very cultural. I enjoy playing with the Malaysian toddler on the boat as much as cruising the once renowned Malacca River. The 90s hip hop and 70s Abba didn’t really convey the history like I’d hoped.

Good night Malacca.
Good evening mosquitoes.

Red lights... do not mean the same in Malacca as they do in Amsterdam.


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