I left my heart in Melaka

I’m posting this from Semporna, Borneo, where I’ve just signed up to do my divemaster course. Yee haw! More on that later.

In the meantime, Melaka (aka Malacca), the place I just left. It’s a place where it’s easy to get stuck. I arrived on a Monday, thinking I’d spend a few days. A week later I finally left, reluctantly, to catch my flight to Borneo.

There’s no beach to speak of nearby – it suffers the filthy water of most port towns. But Melaka is a popular tourist destination for KLers as well as foreign tourists. I arrived on a Monday and the town was dead – at 7 pm I went out in search of dinner and found very little. But as the weekend closed in the town slowly filled up, peaking on Friday and Saturday nights when the pedestrianized Jonker Walk was wall-to-wall tchotchke-shoppers and there wasn’t a bed to be had in the whole downtown.

Dotted around town are giant, lush trees that serve as a reminder of the virgin rain forest that Parameswara, a Hindu prince and pirate, found when he decided to base his empire there, in the early 15th century. With help and protection from the Chinese, he transformed the small fishing village into *the* place to park your goods-laden ship in the notoriously pirate-infested Straights of Malacca during your trip from China to India to Europe and back again. Which is ironic, since, as I said, Parameswara was a pirate himself.

The town is a colorful mix of cultures that reflect its history. Over the centuries native Malays intermarried with colonial Portuguese (called Kristang), Indian merchants (called Chitty people) and Chinese (called Peranakan or, more colorfully, Baba-Nyonya, meaning father-mother). This multi-culti heritage results in fascinating architecture, Hindu and Buddhist shrines surrounding the large central mosque, and, most importantly, food that’s so good you want to cry.

Overall, it’s a relaxed, happy place that has hit upon just the right mix between tradition and modernity. Its heritage is preserved in museums such as the Baba-Nyonya Museum, but this heritage is also still alive, in a modern way, in the dress and customs of Melakans.

If I go back to Peninsular Malaysia, I’m going to try to go back to Melaka. I like it that much! In fact, I met a sweet Iranian painter and musician who was on his *third* stint there – once for a week, once for 40 days (!) and this time for 30 days. It’s that kind of place.

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Bangkok is hot, loud and dirty

I arrived at the Suk 11 (heh heh) hostel in Bangkok at 2:30 am…early Thursday, I guess it was. It’s a quiet, teak, traditional-looking place tucked away down an alley next to a 7-11. The sleepy security guard had me register, wordlessly handed me a bottle of water, and pointed up a steep staircase. In the delirious state I was in after 24 hours of nonstop travel, I’m shocked I managed to find my room.

Sleeping in a real bed was pure luxury, but I had to get up fairly early to go get my visa to Myanmar. Despite what I thought were careful preparations, the process of applying took a lot longer than I thought – evidently the forms had changed somewhat, so I had to fill them all out again. Interestingly, the new forms required far less than the old ones – the old forms included a CV-like work history (to weed out the journalists, I suppose) and full travel details. I was extremely surprised at how polite, friendly, and helpful the officials were. They happily photocopied my passport for free (I was supposed to have brought a copy) and even provided paste to glue my passport photos onto the new forms. The whole experience, which took place in the usual bland, dreary bureaucratic setting, was a great contrast to my experiences in, say, Eastern Europe, where officials seemed to take malicious glee in torturing the form-filling challenged. But I’ll hold off on final impressions until I actually have my passport back with a visa attached. 3 pm today.

After applying for my visa, I went to the Hua Lamphong train station to buy a ticket on an overnight sleeper to Chiang Mai for tonight (Friday). Mid-April in Chiang Mai is a “dangerous” time – not only does the forecast say 105 degrees, but April 12 is the beginning of Songkran (Thai new year) festival, celebrated most vigorously in Chiang Mai and the highlight of which is The Pouring of Water Festival. Evidently, for the four days of Songkran youths patrol the streets with water guns (or just big vats of water) and soak anyone in their path. I guess if I go out I’ll have to leave my camera behind, or at least store everything in plastic bags.

After getting my train ticket I decided to wander around in nearby Chinatown, which is much like Chinatowns anyplace else: businesses selling cheap knock-offs and strange dried and fresh food spilling out onto narrow streets, forcing pedestrians off the sidewalks to dodge motorbikes, etc.

I normally have a great sense of direction, but it simply is out of order here in Bangkok. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop, whip out a map or my guidebook, squint at the road signs, and try to figure out where I was and which direction I was going in. And every time I stopped, a tuk-tuk driver would come up to me to offer his services….usually leading to a conversation about wherever he could get a commission. One guy even tried to tell me that Chinatown was “all closed because holiday” so that he could take me to a shopping strip he knew.

After wandering about in Chinatown for a few hours I was very overheated – I’ve never needed a/c so bad. So I found my way back to the train station and hopped on the fairly new metro, which links to the awesome Skytrain – all with a/c, and all of which avoid the nightmare of Bangkok traffic – back to the Suk 11 for a cool shower and a nap. (I’m not quite over the jet lag.)

All told, I’m excited to get the hell out of Bangkok. Maybe under different circumstances I’d enjoy it more, but right now I want some peace!