‘Malaka’ is a Greek slang word meaning someone who doesn’t use his common sense. It’s used in the company of friends and considered rude if used otherwise. Men are more apt to use it as they might if saying ‘Dude’ or ‘Mate’.
While visiting the city of Melaka in Malaysia, I was confused by the numerous ways it could be spelled. I found it written as Malacca, Malaka, Malakka, and, finally, Melaka as the most commonly used spelling. In researching the spelling, I discovered the origin of the word which is even more confusing. How does this Greek meaning relate to the lovely, historic city of Melaka in the south-western part of Malaysia? I can hazard a guess that it somehow reflects the general make up of Malaysia which is one of diversity in its culture, religion, ethnicity, and language.
My decision to visit Malaysia for the second time…the first time was in 2010 which took me to Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown in Panang…was to visit, Melaka, Malaysia’s other historic city. Both are UNESCO sites with Melaka receiving their designation in 2009. Up to that time, Georgetown was the place most tourists headed for, but now Melaka is definitely on their radar. It’s varied history, diverse culture, extensive restoration of its old buildings, and its scenic river is sure to please any visitor who takes the time to go.
Knowing that the history of a place can tell one so much about its present day character, I made a huge effort to see as many of the museums this city has to offer in spite of the intense heat. Malaysia is a tropical country on the equator so its heat has always been a problem for some and with climate change it is heating up even more.
I met up with a friend from Canada for three of my six-day visit. On the first day we decided to take the river cruise down the Melaka River which runs smack dab through the city. This was a wise choice because it gave us not only a good overview of the city, but also a breeze which relieved us of the heat for the 45 minutes we were on the boat. Every twist and turn of the river brought me a new and more beautiful view of life along the river show casing numerous little bridges, the many colourful buildings, and flowers everywhere. I couldn’t stop snapping pictures and I couldn’t help thinking that this must be very much like taking a Viking cruise down one of Europe’s rivers.
We were also treated to some of the local wildlife when our boat captain drew our attention to huge monitor lizards nesting on the rocks among the trees. They blended in so well with this environment that we would never have seen them on our own.
The cooling breeze from our boat tour revived us enough that we were able to take a look at a museum near the boat pier where we disembarked. It turned out to be the Royal Malaysian Customs Museum which gave me my first understanding of the complex history of Melaka. This area known as the ‘Straits of Melaka’ became an important centre for the trade route established between China and India in the 1400’s. The first European country who wanted to grab a piece of this trade route was Portugal. Portuguese settlers arrived bringing the beginnings of the Catholic religion to the area which had already been introduced to Islam when one of the Sultans married a Muslim woman. He is generally considered to be the founder of Melaka. When the Portuguese began to botch things and lose favour with the sultanate due to levying heavy taxes, the Dutch saw their opportunity to grab a piece of the pie for themselves in the mid 1600’s, thus, bringing in Protestantism. The Dutch influence didn’t last long and so began a slow demise allowing the British to move into the city around 1830. They eventually expanded to Penang where they established a permanent state. To this day the largest group of retired ex-pats living there are British.
Another very interesting museum to visit is the Baba and Nyonya Mansion where you can learn something about the Peranekan culture. I kept seeing this word all over the place not knowing what it meant until I wandered into this museum. Baba meaning lady and Nyonya meaning man are the Peranekanian terms for “Straits Born” people who originally came from China. Did I mention that the history for Malaysia can be quite confusing? This mansion has been in the Chan family for centuries and has been beautifully maintained by the Chan descendants who reunite there twice every year. I got a clear picture of what life was like in the early days and just how restrictive it was for the women. They could not go outside their home unless accompanied by a man. Furthermore, they could only go as far as the main hall and when they got that far, they had to look through screened windows to see the outdoors.
The third and last museum I took the time to visit was the Stadhuays Museum which is housed in that part of the city where the Dutch settled.
Many of the buildings have been restored to look like the original red brick buildings dating back to 1650 where they lived and worked. Although the museum has a Dutch name, it actually focuses on the history and the ethnography of all the people who make up this city as we know it today.
This is the centre of the city which has been beautifully restored. Here you will find tour buses galore and gaudy trishaws and their drivers who await to take eager tourists on a ride around town. They make quite a scene and let everyone know they are coming down the street with their music blaring.
Before leaving this area, I discovered that if you leave from the back of the museum and venture to climb up the hill, you can get a good view of the city, as well as some information on this historic site now known as St. Paul’s Hill. On top sits the oldest church in Melaka built by the Portuguese which was taken over by the Dutch and renamed St. Paul’s. When the British came, they used it as a fortress for their ammunitions. Eventually it was restored to what it is today. Inside the structure plaques commemorating Portuguese and Dutch dignitaries can be found lying about while outside a statue of St. Francis Xavier dominates.
On the way up, you will also see a number of smaller museums…all closed which for some reason I could not get an answer as to why…as well as the old Governor’s Mansion, also closed. Apparently, a new one has been built elsewhere in the city.
There is, however, much more to attract tourists besides museums, trishaws, and old churches/forts. As in all of Malaysia, their food is a huge attraction. Here again the diversity of this country and the city has created a haven for really good food. Funky little cafes offering food for a mixture of palates…Malay, Indian, Chinese and Western….abound. For coffee lovers there is no end of choices because Malaysia has many coffee and tea plantations.
Crystal and I soon discovered that the best way to beat the heat and revive ourselves was to take time out not only to sample the excellent coffee, drinks, and food, but to also catch up on our email and make plans for the next leg of our separate journeys. Most of the cafes offered us air-con and WiFi which proved a comfortable and relaxing way to spend a few hours. Below you will find some pictures and a bit of dialogue about my favourite eating spots:
Calanthe Art Cafe where you have the choice of 26 State Coffees from Malaysia. I treated myself to a green tea and coffee cappuccino which was delicious for an afternoon tea break. The night before both of us had an unusual butter chicken made with a coffee cream sauce which was delicious. Not just the coffee and food, but also the funky decor is a lure for most people. There are no end of things to look at, such as an aquarium, an old TV, antique lamps, and a myriad of other antiques to gaze at while you wait for your food.
Eat at 18, which we found quite by chance while looking for another cafe for our breakfast, was my second choice. It’s hidden on a quiet little lane way running off Jonker Street or the Walking Street as its commonly called. Jonker Street is the main thoroughfare running through the old part of the city and Chinatown. It is lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops but really comes alive every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for a fun-filled outdoor market which draws hordes of people.
Eat at 18 can be hard to find, but these days with Maps Me, you can look it up for its general location where you can then find it hiding behind a proliferation of greenery set a little ways off the street. Don’t give up the search because it’s well worth it, especially for its Lavazza coffee and breakfast. The lunch and dinner menu looked very good, too, and the staff were knowledgeable and friendly.
Another surprise find was The Baboon House. When I discovered it across the street from the Baba and Nyonya Mansion, I hesitated before entering partly because of its name and the entrance which looked old and run-down.
Well as the old saying goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” and this was certainly true of this little gem. When I stepped inside the large door leading to the front receiving area, I was pleasantly surprised. Here was another old Peranekan home which has been converted into a peaceful little cafe in a huge garden with rustic furniture throughout.
My scepticism persisted when I noticed only a handful of people there but soon vanished when a sweet young student immediately appeared to serve me. To begin with I ordered an Americano coffee which was excellent. I nursed that while catching up with my emails but then decided to have a late lunch when I saw the menu. An all day breakfast and lunch are available with the star of the show their all natural baboon burgers. and sandwiches. This restaurant isn’t open for dinner. I decided to forego the burger for a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich which was delicious and thoughtfully prepared.
I liked this place so much that I went back the following day for a late breakfast. This was Saturday and the place was packed. It’s such a great place to relax and be with nature and especially nice for families. I will miss it and my lovely waitress.
On my last night, I decided to try a Pakistani restaurant practically next door to the hostel I was staying in. It’s called Pak Putra Restaurant and probably serves some of the best Indian food in the whole country. During the day it’s nothing to look at, but the crowds at night tell the true story. Tables are lined up outside stretching along the whole block. Food is delicious and again, I had butter chicken. Their prices and the service are great. Being a Muslim owned restaurant, however, no alcohol is served, not even beer.
My final impression of this country was its diversity of people and how it all seems to work which must be no easy task. I had to do a bit of research to find out why it works and why the Malaysians I talked to seem to be quite proud of their country. Here are some things I learned which helped me understand which I will share with you:
- The largest group of people in Malaysia are of Malay descent, followed by Chinese, and Indian. Just about all the world religions are represented with Muslims outnumbering all of them with 63%. Buddhism is next with 20%, Christianity follows with 9%, Hindu at 6%, and the remainder consists of what is called traditional Chinese (Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestral worship).
- Malaysia gained its independence from the British on August 31,1957. This was a memorable event when thousands of Malaysians congregated at the Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur to sing their new anthem together as the Union Jack was lowered for the last time. This transition was carried out peacefully.
- In addition, did you know Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy? Furthermore, did you know that she has nine kings and queens? What all this means is that each state (9 in all) elects an Islamic sultan as their King for a period of five years as a representative for their area. These Kings must have Queens so the country has nine Royal couples. These elected men have a lot of power and are responsible for electing a Prime Minister to lead the country with each state getting their turn at having their King as a PM. They tend to keep a low profile in the public eye, except when one of them does something unusual, such as marry a former Russian beauty queen. This happened just recently, and he has since abdicated. All the Kings and Queens appear to be normal folks with varied interests many of which are sports.
Such diversity along with a succession of stable governments since gaining its independence from colonialism has no doubt contributed to the inclusiveness that prevails in Malaysia. Foreigners are not treated as strangers. They are welcomed and treated with a great deal of respect. Malaysians are open and curious about their visitors and always willing to help you out. A good example of their generosity to visitors is that you can stay for up to 90 days without a visa. What more can a tourist ask for?
Here is a final collection of pictures to illustrate this fascinating country: