There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Malacca (or Melaka), The First of the Straits Settlement: Part 1 of the Malayasian Peninsula

25 Feb 2017

We touched down in Kuala Lumpur at 8 am - midnight according to our body clocks - stumbled through the airport and spent an hour queuing to be pointlessly photographed and fingerprinted. Parts of the airport had yet to be declared free of contamination after the murder of Kim Jong-nam, but that never crossed our minds, our abilities to reason and remember had leaked into the ether somewhere over the Andaman Sea.

The two hour journey south to Melaka (traditionally spelt Malacca in English) was a blur, indeed I slept much of the way though I have retained an impression of endless palm oil plantations, and a succession of well maintained, multi-lane dual carriageways.

Melaka's old town, by contrast, has narrow streets lined with low rise Dutch colonial buildings.

Our hotel, a typical narrow-fronted building
We stayed in a hotel on a street whose Dutch name, though now unofficial, is still used. Typically it had a narrow frontage but extended a long way back, an architectural style developed when the Dutch imposed a window tax in the 18th century. Inner courtyards created more than adequate lighting, and our room at the back was traditional and characterful.
Hotel room, Melaka

After a much needed sleep we took a stroll. The air hung hot and humid, but the forecasted rain that had threatened all day somehow never came.
Jonker Walk, Melaka

Nearby Jonker Walk, Melaka’s Chinatown, is another street better known by its Dutch name. Later, after investigating Jonker Walk night market, we fancied a Nyonya meal – a Melakan-Chinese speciality. Many Nyonya kitchens, we discovered, including the one we had earmarked during our afternoon stroll, close early so instead we went to the bistro next-door which claimed to be Portuguese but had a very similar menu. As long standing Lusophiles I suspect Lynne and I know rather more about Portuguese cuisine than the operators of the bistro, but the spicy squid sambar and the unspecified fish baked with ginger were excellent (if as Portuguese as sauerkraut and toad-in-the-hole).

26th Feb 2017

After a leisurely breakfast we met local guide C for a walking tour. We started opposite our hotel at a shop selling traditional Nyonya Batik clothing where they still make the tiny shoes for bound feet. We did not feel we needed an expensive souvenir of a barbaric and long abandoned practice.

Further down the street was a house of a wealthy Chinese merchant built back from the row of narrow houses. Still owned by the builder’s family it is well maintained, but further along was a similar but sad-looking house which the owners cannot afford to maintain and have not succeeded in selling.

Chinese merchants house, Heeren Street, Melaka
 Back on Jonker Walk C stopped for a 'one bite durian puff'. We encountered durians on our first Chinese trip in 2004. The fruit is popular in southern China but as our travels have taken us further south through Indo-China we have seen it grow in popularity. Here in Malaysia we may have hit peak durian - they have whole shops dedicated it.

A shop dedicated to the durian, Melaka
Photographed the following morning before they opened - durian eaters are not early risers it seems
To those unfamiliar with the fruit, it resembles a conker in its spiny jacket, though with the diameter of a Size 4 football. Splitting the leathery outer casing reveals what looks and smells like a nest of albino turds; its aficionados say it smells like Hell but tastes like Heaven. The first time we ate durian was one of the inevitable errors you make when ordering dim sum by sight; we scoffed the little durian pastries out of bravado and were rewarded with cloacal reminders for the rest of the day. It seemed we were about to eat durian again and with C looking on and relishing our forthcoming discomfort there was nothing to do but man and woman up and take it on the chin - and hand and forearm as it turned out.

'One bite, one bite,' said C, but Lynne decided it was too big and bit it in half. Foolishly I followed suit. The result was the distribution of durian cream over a wide area. The third that went into my mouth was sweet and not unpleasant, similarly the third I licked off my forearm. I cannot speak of the third that splattered onto the pavement.

The one-bite durian puff, Melaka
 'But they were too big,' Lynne complained as we borrowed the shopkeeper’s sink to clean ourselves up. 'They are puffs,' I pointed out, 'they disappear to nothing.' Any idiot can be wise after the event.

We continued along Jonker Walk before taking a left and right onto Jalan Tukang Emas.

Although Melaka is the oldest city on this coast, much older than the other Straits Settlements, Singapore and Penang, it dates only from 1400. Parameswara, a Sumatran prince with ambitions found no room for himself in Sumatra, fled to Tamasek (now Singapore) and then found himself pushed up the coast. One day while sitting beneath a Melaka tree be saw a mouse-deer turn on one of his hunting dogs and drive it off. Deciding it was time to stop running he chose that spot for his new capital and named it after the tree. There are still plenty of Melaka trees. Their yellow/green berries resemble gooseberries and are said to be edible, rather in the way that sloes are edible but I did not try one; I tasted a sloe once and learned my lesson. Less romantically, the site of Parameswara’s city was probably selected for its a natural harbour at the narrowest point of what is now called the Melaka Straits.

Melaka tree beside the Melaka River, Melaka
The city’s Muslim founders built mosques but Masjid Kampung Kling was built by Indian traders in 1748 though the current structure is largely the result of an 1872 make-over. It is mainly in Sumatran style with no dome and a very different minaret from any we have seen before.

Masjid Kampung Kling, Jalan Tukang Emas. Melaka
The wudu features English and Portuguese tiles, and the roof is supported by Corinthian columns - an eclectic collection of styles.

Wudu, Masjid Kampung Kling, Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka
 Unusually for a mosque the original cemetery was within the compound.

Cemetery, Masjid Kampung Kling, Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka

Melaka thrived. Zheng He, the Chinese admiral, explorer and diplomat visited around 1460. Relations were established between Melaka and China and the Ming Emperor sent one of his daughters (with a retinue of 500) to marry Sultan Manshur Shah (reigned 1456-1477).

This may be folklore rather than history, but the wholesale arrival of Chinese merchants was the start of Baba-Nyonya culture, a group who are ethnically Chinese but whose culture is a fusion of Malay and Chinese. The men are ‘Baba’ and the women ‘Nyonya’, though their distinctive cuisine is known only as Nyonya – so we know who does the cooking.

Many of the Baba-Nyonya, also known as Peranakans or Straits Chinese, became wealthy and were important intermediaries when the next wave of Chinese arrived. Between them they built Chinese temples, both Taoist...

Taoist Temple, Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka
...and Buddhist.
Buddhist Temple, Jalan Tukang Emas, melaka
67% of Melakans are Malay and 26% Chinese. Most of the rest are Indian, mainly Tamils who came to trade and work in the rubber plantations and they, naturally, built Hindu Temples.

Hindu Temple,Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka 
The mosque and three temples are neighbours on Jalan Tukang Emas, also known as Harmony Street, an example of tolerance and understanding of which Melakans are justly proud.
Jalan Tukan Emas, Melaka
Looking at the Taoist Temple and the Mosque from the balcony of the Buddhist Temple (The Hindu Temple is hidden behind the mosque)
 From here we crossed the Melaka River to Dutch Square where red brick buildings crowd in on stalls selling tourist tat….

Dutch Square, Melaka
…. and the air is filled with music, some of it unnecessarily loud, from the themed rickshaws.

Hello Kitty themed rickshaw, Dutch Square, Melaka
The Dutch were not the first Europeans in Melaka. Attracted by the city’s wealth the Portuguese King Manuel I sent his envoy Diogo Lopes de Sequeira to Malacca in 1509. At first he was well received but refugee Goan Muslims, who had first-hand experience of the Portuguese, turned the Sultan against him and he was lucky to escape with his life. Manuel then sent Afonso de Albuquerque who arrived in 1511 with 1200 men and 18 ships, and that was game over for the Melakan Sultanate.

The Portuguese ruled Melaka until 1641. Continually under pressure from neighbouring states and boycotted by Chinese merchants it was a difficult time, but they built the massive Forteleza de Malaca and controlled much of the trade spice trade through the straits.

Foundations of part of the Forteleza, which was demolished by the British in 1806/7, sits beside the Melaka River near Dutch Square….

Part of the ruined Forteleza de Malaca
…opposite the Church of St Francis Xavier built in 1856. St Francis Xavier, the indefatigable evangelist to the east, visited Melaka several times in the 1540s.

St Francis Xavier's Church, Melaka
The Dutch took Melaka by force in 1641 with the help of local sultans. The Dutch East India Company controlled the city until 1825 and although they contributed much to the present architecture they failed to develop the port, concentrating on their possessions across the strait.

The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 tidied up European interest in the area. Some swapping of territories gave the Dutch control of what became the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the British control of what is now Malaysia. So Melaka became British and stayed that way until independence in 1957.

In the redbrick square the Dutch Reform Church, built in 1753 and the oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia  became Church of England and ….

Christ Church, Dutch Square, Melaka
…in 1904 a fountain was erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – a little late as she was dead by then.

Commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, Dutch Square, Melaka
Steps leading up the hill behind the square opened up some impressive views.

Looking out to see from St Paul's Hill, Melaka
St Paul’s Church on the summit claims to be the oldest church in Southeast Asia, though how much of the 1521 Portuguese chapel survives in the current building is a moot point. It was named St Paul’s when it became a Dutch Reform Church in 1641. When Christ Church in Dutch Square was completed in 1753, St Paul’s was deconsecrated and has been quietly rotting ever since.

St Paul's Church, Melaka
St Francis Xavier used the church as a base for his Chinese expeditions. When he died in China in 1552 his body was brought back to Melaka where it spent two years before travelling on to its final resting place in Goa. It is surprising how many people feel the urge to throw money into an empty grave.

The former grave of St Francis Xavier, St Pauls Church, Melaka
On the other side of the hill is the Porta de Santiago, the only existing part of the Portuguese Forteleza. It was saved from demolition by the personal intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles and is now known as A Famosa (The Famous).

A Famosa, Melaka
Behind it is the Memorial to Malaysian Independence. Independence was declared here in 1957 before it was declared in Kuala Lumpur and the museum explains the lead up to the event. It gives the impression that the process was very amicable and avoids the strident anti-British rhetoric of the Gandhi Museum in Madurai.

Malaysian Independence memorial, Melaka
According to our itinerary C was now supposed to provide us with a Nyonya lunch – I had been looking forward to it since breakfast!

We had misgivings as he led us into the four star hotel at the end of the square and up to a huge dining room where three tables were occupied – none of them by locals. A menu arrived for the Nonya set lunch and C disappeared to wherever guides go at moments like this.

We decided to drink water – I could have paid £10 for two small cans of beer but decided not to - overcharging is not to be encouraged. The meal started with a non-descript soup and some pieces of chicken smeared with a sauce which should have been chilli but tasted of tomato.

Then the main dishes arrived and what promised to be a poor meal became dire.

Nyonya Lunch - allegedly
The sauce in the bowl at the front had a pleasant tamarind tang but the fried fish had lain in it long enough to become slimy. The vegetables at the back were just dull. The chicken to the right in a flavourless brown sauce had been so overcooked it was dry and barely edible while the dish on the left looks like an ordinary omelette – because it is. Omelettes are eaten on every continent; to serve one as an exemplar of a particular cuisine is nonsensical and lazy. It shows disrespect for Nyonya traditions and contempt for the diners. Coconut, lemongrass, tamarind, galangal and chillies are among the prime features of Nyonya cooking but apart from one tamarind sauce all were absent.

Dessert was cendol, available from a hundreds of stalls across town and many thousands more across the country. Shaved ice with coconut milk, green coloured rice noodles, a few red beans and a lot of unrefined palm sugar – you cannot go wrong.

After the meal I tackled C about it. ‘Is that real Nyonya food?’ I asked, ‘or Nyonya food for tourists?’ He had the good grace to look uncomfortable. ‘They leave out the spices,’ he said, ‘because westerners and the Japanese don’t like them.’ I expressed my displeasure in measured tones, it was not entirely his fault, we should have spoken up earlier. ‘Did you like the cendol?’ he asked. ‘The only redeeming feature,’ we replied. He looked surprised. ‘Foreigners don’t usually like the palm sugar.'

I despair. Sometimes bad food is a conspiracy between ignorant consumers and idle providers.

C left us in the afternoon and we decided to take a river trip.

Boat rides on the Melaka River
Melaka does not show its best side to its river but we saw some colourful street art,

Street art beside the Melaka River
....a footbridge which looked like it should be somewhere else and…

Footbridge over the Melaka River
…the Melaka Monorail. The 1.6km track opened in October 2010 and closed in December 2010 after a series of problems. It has not moved since.

The non-functioning Melaka monorail
We also had a look at the replica of the Flor do Mar, a Portuguese carrack which foundered in the Strait in 1511 while carrying off the deposed Sultan of Melaka’s treasure. The wreck and treasure have never been found.

Flor do Mar, Maritime Museum, Melaka
Having eaten little (and enjoyed less) earlier, the evening found us in the Geographer’s CafĂ© where we could keep an eye on the night market, sink a beer or two and eat Thai-style mango chicken and ayam masak merah (Chicken in spicy tomato sauce) – a vast improvement over lunch.

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