Hello from Melaka, the third and final stop of my brief trip through peninsular Malaysia. As I write this blog I am in an internet cafe surrounded by hyper active Indian kids who are playing really cheesy trance music at full volume! Its not what I need at the end of what has been another energy sapping red hot day in Malaysia. Temperatures have once again been in the region of 35C, but it feels so much hotter with the humidity and strong equatorial sun. As ridiculous as it sounds I am actually looking forward to going to India to cool off! Checking the temperatures in Delhi at the moment and it is about 7C cooler than it is here, and less humid. I long to be able to go outside and not be soaking wet with sweat within about 5 minutes of walking.
The bus ride here was just over 2 hours from Kuala Lumpur. We did leave 20 minutes late because the bus driver was nowhere to be seen, and he did decide to fill up with petrol minutes from the bus station (something I think you should do after you've dropped your passengers off!), but we made it in the end. My hotel here is disappontingly basic and is perhaps the only place I've stayed without an English news or local sports channel. This is particularly annoying as today is Saturday and usually I spend my Saturday nights here watching Premiership football on the TV. It doesn't even appear like there are any bars in the near vicinity, so it looks like I'll have to miss out on my weekly fix tonight. This isn't to say that the Malaysians aren't English football obsessed like the other Asian countries. The first thing I'm asked by most men after they find out I'm English is what football team I support. And when they attempt to guess where I'm from in England, Manchester and Liverpool always come before London! My bus to Singapore does not depart till 1pm tomorrow, so I could really have used the channels that have been in every other Asian hotel! I think I've seen pretty much all of what Melaka has to offer this afternoon, so I don't know what I'll do tomorrow morning (its also Sunday and everything appears to shut here).
Melaka, or Malacca, was another key colonial port city like Georgetown further north. Alongside Georgetown, its centre was also recently designated a world heritage city by UNESCO. The city began to grow in the 15th Century, when it became a vassal state to Ming China. It was soon after conquered by the Portuguese, and then just over a century later by the Dutch, whose legacy it is most clear to see when wandering around the old quarter. The Dutch held Melaka 150 years, turning it into one of Asia's most prosperous sea ports. At the heart of Melaka, the Dutch stadhuys and clock tower remain the city's most famous buildings, and there are also remnants about of Dutch churches and fortresses. The British assumed control of Melaka in the late 18th century after the Dutch lost out to France in the Napoleonic Wars. However, when Britain initially took control of Melaka they feared they would soon after have to return it to Dutch rule once the wars were over. With Britain having its own prominent sea port at Georgetown further up the Malay Peninsula, they set about reducing the port's infrastructure and attempted to encourage the town's citizens to migrate north to Penang. For this reason it doesn't appear like the British are especially popular in Melaka, as our arrival signalled the end of Melaka's best days.
I spent this afternoon wandering around and exploring the city. I first visited a Chinese cemetary built on a hillside. Climbing the tiny hill exhausted me in the heat, and I thereafter became easily frustrated at the lack of pavements in the city centre. People criticise the Americans for being lazy and driving everywhere, but Malaysians must surely be far worse! I've found most American cities to be reasonably pedestrian friendly when I've been there, but you can't say the same of Malaysian cities. On a side note, its also worth noting how slowly everybody walks in Malaysia when they do bother to get out of their cars. When I was at university I couldn't help but notice how slow all the Chinese students walked, so I was expecting similar from everybody in South East Asia. However I haven't really noticed that to be the case until here. Malaysians really do walk at a snail's pace! I look around and see how developed Malaysia is compared to neighbouring Thailand, but then I think how much more developed it could be if the people just walked faster! Its definitely worth considering.
The city's historic heart was awash with tourists admiring the architecture of the Dutch central square. There was a host of trishaw (cyclo) drivers there touting for business and with all the competition their prices were actually quite reasonable. However I was running out of Malaysian money funds so opted not to go for a ride. Instead I treated myself to a ride on the surprisingly cheap Taming Sari Revolving Tower. It was basically an observation tower with a deck that rotated up and down an 80m pole, giving seated visitors a 360 degree view of the city. It was quite a strange sight to see on the edge of a world heritage city, but I enjoyed the 7 minute ride. From the top you could see how rapidly the Melakan coastline is developing. A huge shopping centre lay on one side, and a swathe of modern apartments lined the newly reclaimed coastline. The coast as it was back in colonial times is now about half a mile inland as they've reclaimed so much land here. The tourism boom is being catered for with a series of massive resort hotels being constructed, and further up the coast there are also theme and waterparks for visitors to enjoy - a far cry from Melaka's historic heart.
After the observation tower I crossed the Melaka river to explore the city's Chinatown, which was basically a large collection of tat shops. All market stalls and souvenir shops are the same all across Asia and I really don't see what the attraction is for tourists! Especially as many market stalls are manned by aggressive salesmen who I can't be bothered to deal with. I don't know why others do. I then visited the Stadhuys Museum all about Melaka's history. I recognised the first section off Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey. He did a piece stood by all the statues representing Melaka's many colonial rulers which was still fresh in my mind! The museum was pretty large, and although there wasn't that much explanation in English, it was about enough for me!
Melaka doesn't have all that much else to offer and an afternoon here is about right to explore. I've found it to be a reasonably interesting place and I'm glad I stopped here, but like other Malaysian cities it is blighted by traffic congestion, car fumes and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. As in Georgetown, I've been interested to see the colonial legacies left by the British and other European powers. I still find it strange to think that the British ruled this far away land right up until 1957. Whether we left a positive or a negative legacy is up for debate, but in place names, street names and even the use of English plug sockets, you can tell that we were here not long ago. From what I've read it appears that the British in Malaysia were here solely to profit. They shyed away from getting involved in domestic issues such as immigration and education, and insted were happy to rule ina relatively lax manner, whilst making profits from the countries resources.
Seeing this legacy has probably been one of the most interesting things about my trip through Malaysia. Its also been interesting to see how developed Malaysia is compared even to Thailand. The people here live in good houses and drive nice cars, and it doesn't appear that poverty is an issue. There are reminders that you are still in Asia though when you look and see toddlers riding on motorbikes. And you still have to watch out for the many con artists and rip off merchants that are about, particularly in the shape of taxi drivers whose meters "aren't working". I would have liked to have escaped the urban areas here and got out into the countryside to see a different side of the country. From what I've seen on my bus rides, Malaysia is a very lush green and hilly country, and if I ever return I'd definitely like to head up and explore the highland regions. Tomorrow however, I depart for Singapore. The bus is scheduled to take 4 hours including border formalities. I've calculated it will be my 14th and final land border crossing this trip (although quite a few of them were around Iguassu Falls in South America). I'm sadly back in a hostel for my 2 nights in Singapore as accommodation is so expensive there. I've not stayed in a hostel since my last night in Singapore, which was almost 2 months ago now. Hotel prices are so cheap in Asia I've had no qualms about booking my own room. I much prefer having the luxury of deciding when I go to bed, and its also nice to have control over your own TV (when it has decent channels on it!). I didn't see anything of Singapore on my last stop there, which was purely for the purpose of changing flights, so I'm looking forward to having a closer look this time. I'll update before I fly off to India!