Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Trip to Malacca, attempt #2

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you remember how disastrously my last trip to Malacca ended. I got barely 30 km out of the city late last November when my car blew its head gasket and died on the side of the highway, leaving me with a large towing bill and an even larger repair bill. So I finally made the second attempt last weekend… successfully!

If Kuala Lumpur is an example of Malaysia’s vision for the future, Malacca is surely its gatekeeper of the past. Few cities in the region can match Malacca for fascinating and diverse history. Owing to its strategic position, the city has been ruled by a Malay sultanate (15th century), the Portuguese (1511-1641), the Dutch (1641-1824), the British (1824-1942), the Japanese (WWII occupation, 1942-1946). Such was the importance of Malacca to the shipping and trading industries that the Portuguese explorer Barbarosa famously said, “He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” In the photo to the right, the well-known Christ Church in the center of town was built by the Portuguese in 1753 and has been well-maintained ever since.

After Malaysia’s independence from colonial rule in 1957, the traditional British spelling of Malacca was eschewed (at least officially) for the more proper Malay phonetic spelling of Melaka, which is what you’ll see on road signs and such in the country. It seems a bit odd that a city that not only embraces but banks on its historical value would make such a notable attempt to divest itself of its historical place name spelling, but oddity is common (to my eyes) here. Malacca was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, which has only raised its international visibility as a great historical destination in the area.

For a brief, but well-written overview of Malacca's history, click here.

I was lucky enough this time to have one of my friends accompany me, and he actually grew up in Malacca, so it definitely made it more interesting and a bit easier, too. The car did perfectly well on the relatively short drive (about two hours), and we arrived right around 2 p.m., having eaten everybody’s favorite toxic road trip food, McDonald’s. We parked and wandered all over, visiting gems from Malacca’s historic past. Among the highlights was a 17th-century Portuguese church, which has only its walls remaining. In the church are many stone tablets, dating back to the early 1600s. Since there were no guides or descriptive markers there, and since the tablets were inscribed with what I think is Latin, I’m not sure what the tablets were—grave markers or something, perhaps. It was nevertheless fascinating to see and touch things that were so old. Next to the church is an old Dutch graveyard, and all of this sits on a hill so you can look out and see the ocean easily. The seaside town lies along the body of water named for it, the Straits of Malacca, considered to this day to be one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Across the narrow channel lies the vast island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Another interesting sight we saw was a replica of the original palace of the 15th-century Malacca Sultanate. This large building was constructed entirely using descriptions from the ancient Malay annals of the period. The most remarkable thing is that, despite its complex structure, its many sharply sloping roofs, and its seven enclosed porches, not a single nail was used in its construction. Within the building were many dioramas and pictorial essays recreating activities and outlining typical life in the palace during the reign of the Malay sultanate.

We visited the local mall simply to catch a break from the heat and soak in some cold A/C, but we didn’t linger long. After that, we went into the heart of old Malacca and walked the narrow streets, stopping in cafés and bars, exploring Buddhist temples and Chinese Hokkien temples as well, and browsing around in all the funky shops. At around 6 p.m., the streets in the area were all closed off to traffic and a huge festival-like night market sprang up in the streets. We wandered back and forth for a couple of hours, sampling various street foods and drinks, and checking out all the trinkets and goods for sale. One of my favorites was this food called dongkeng tangbushuai. For this traditional Chinese snack, glutinous rice is pounded into a paste that has the consistency of raw bread dough, then it’s cut with scissors into bite-sized pieces and rolled in a mixture of ground peanuts and sesame seeds. It’s warm, mildly sweet, and for whatever reason, immensely satisfying. I also met a beautiful yellow-nape Amazon parrot who was sitting out on a perch with a little leg chain. He took to me right away, letting me scratch his head and hold him and the Chinese girls who owned him couldn’t believe it. I showed them pictures of Shiloh, and they showed me a video (on their mobile phone) of their bird singing “Happy Birthday” (yellow napes are among the most talented Amazons when it comes to talking). It was a great surprise, because Amazon parrots are an incredibly rare sight here in Malaysia and I certainly never expected to see one on the streets of Malacca!

Finally, we made our way back to the car around 8:00 or so, and set off on the return trip to KL. However, the preceding Friday had been a national holiday in Malaysia (Labor Day), so within an hour’s time, we were in a spectacular traffic jam crawling all the way back to KL along the North-South Highway that runs the length of Peninsular Malaysia. For those of you who live in Colorado, imagine the Sunday evening ski traffic returning to Denver along I-70 after a long holiday weekend. It was like that. We bailed off in the town of Seremban, got gas and snacks, then got back on the road and finally arrived back in KL around midnight.

Malacca is a great town, certainly the cradle of Malaysia’s rich history, and I really enjoyed it. There’s doubtlessly more to see and experience there, so I plan to return again before long. It’s an easy day trip.

In the “shocking news” department, it seems that my mom is actually going to fly to Malaysia to visit. She needs some dental work done and while it would cost her nearly $5,000 in America, the same thing costs less than $500 here, and the quality of treatment is quite good. Medical and dental tourism is big business in some of the nations around here. Thailand is well-known internationally for excellent dental and cosmetic surgery work at a fraction of the price charged by American dentists and doctors. People can have a nice vacation and get their work done and still save a ton of money. So I made the arrangements with my dentist here and booked my mom an $800 round-trip flight from New York to KL on Malaysia Airlines. For some reason, flying from the West Coast (as I always do) was considerably more expensive. This is her first time traveling to Asia and I’m really excited for her! I’ve also booked a flight for us to Krabi, Thailand (a short flight from KL and just across the bay from the island of Phuket), and we’ll stay at Ao Nang beach, right on the Andaman Sea. The water there is clear, the sand is white, and some of the most spectacular islands in the region are in the immediate area, and it’ll be a fun 3-night excursion while she’s visiting.

And from the weather department, a subject about which few people here talk, we’ve gone abruptly from the wet season to the dry season and it is hot here! When I ask, people do tell me it’s rarely this hot. It’s also unusual for us to go so long without rain. (It rained today, May 13th, though… our first proper rain in almost two weeks.)

As I’m faced for the first time with the somewhat near-term prospect of returning to the United States—something I’m not quite yet ready to do—I’ve tried to figure out what it is I enjoy about living here. It’s not dirt-cheap, the traffic is horrible, it’s hot, the internet is slow, I’ve almost had to eliminate nice wines and good cheeses from my life because they’re so expensive here (or simply unavailable in some cases)… so where is the appeal? Well, I can honestly say that I do enjoy teaching English. That’s been a delight for me, and I especially enjoy the one-on-one tutoring I’ve done. But beyond that, I think it’s that when I’m here in Malaysia, I’m different… somewhat unique, even in a notably multicultural city. On the streets of Denver, I’m just another average white dude. But in KL, even though there’s a relatively sizeable expatriate community here, I’m still very much an extreme minority. For some reason, I like that. I’m remembered at shops and restaurants and even parking garages because I’m “the white guy.” In a vast sea of Malay and Chinese faces, a Caucasian is the anomaly, and an American is even more uncommon. I think on some level I like that. I’m not sure if that’s driven by ego, or if I just appreciate not being an anonymous face in the crowd, but I think that’s a big part of why I have so far enjoyed living abroad.


barbmerchant said...

great post! I am looking forward to my visit...not so sure about the heat and humidity though. Sounds like living in Alabama again!

See you soon.

kai said...

Nice blogs mate, glad that u wrote it - especially about Malaysia. Enjoyed stay!