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.