In my last blog, Soaking up the Kuala culture, I marveled over the Malaysian capital’s multiculturalism and its thriving Indian and Chinese communities. And I’m not done gushing just yet. With time to kill waiting for my friend to catch me up from Thailand, I decided to head down to a small town I’d heard about, Melaka. With no huge expectations and after a sweaty two-hour bus ride, I was immediately charmed by the small UNESCO Heritage City and its traditional fixtures and buildings. For anyone whose been to Luang Prabang in Laos or Hoi An in Vietnam, it’s a very similar vibe – think low rise, shabby-chic buildings with European features and an eclectic mix of jewellery, nik naks and quietly buzzing eateries. Add a scoop of gelato and you could almost be in an idyllic Italian village enjoying a far quieter pace of life than I’d been experiencing in hectic Kuala Lumper.
Melaka’s European influences came from the invasion of the British (I’ve yet to find somewhere we didn’t invade – soz all), after the initial invasion of the Portuguese in 1511, when Alfonso de Albuquerque set sail from Goa to capture Malaysia – meaning both Portuguese and Indian influences can be found in the city. The Portuguese were thrown out by the Dutch in 1641 who proceeded to rule Malaka for the next century and a half; setting up Dutch squares, cathedrals and windmills which are now some of the city’s most popular sights. After 1826, the British took over the domineering of sleepy Malaka and even Japan popped by to rule for a couple of years in the forties.
So Melaka has only been independent for 70 years but in that time tourism has boomed and a charming town like no other has risen from the ashes of its many invaders. Interestingly, the most noticeable influence is an oriental one, with Chinese temples nestled among the European architecture and lanterns lining the winding streets. One of my favourite things I did in Melaka was visit the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum which explores the customs and ceremonies of Chinese culture through the jewellery and artifacts left behind. Adorned with crowns and jewels, young people of the time would marry in arranged ceremonies to partners two years older or younger – 16-year-old girls would marry 18-year-old boys; 18-year-old females would marry 20-year-old males; and 20-year-old females wouldn’t marry at all as apparently by then they’d be deemed old maids. Around the ankles girls would wear thick gold rings to demonstrate that they were single, which would be removed only after marriage.
As well as jewellery, we saw intricately decorated shoes – which would apparently take two to three months to make and could be decorated with up to 1,900 beads per pair. The art of embroidery was seen as crucial to a lady’s development and those without the skills could be seen as unsuitable for marriage and also end up as old maids (the ultimate punishment apparently).
Other artifacts on show included cabinets and dressers built to show their blended heritage – one particular piece was built with intricate columns to show its British roots; detailed carvings in Malay style; and small Chinese dragons.
Up the road at the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum I learnt more about the customs of the time period by exploring an old-fashioned house, preserved exactly as it had been 150 years earlier. Again, we learnt about life and rituals such as the marriage ceremony, in particular the preparation for the first born child. Traditionally, a cage containing a rooster and a hen was placed under the bed and the morning after the wedding night, the first bird to emerge when the cage was opened would determine the gender of the couple’s first child. I did ask how accurate the birds tended to be, but was told it was just a tradition (so presumably 50/50?)
Aside from dreaming of oriental times gone by, there’s plenty more to do and see in Melaka, and I took to a pedal bike to navigate the busy Jonkers Street where the weekend market doles out souvenirs, gadgets and Malaysian food galore, mainly on sticks. Quails eggs, fried potatoes, jelly fruits – if you’ve not seen them on a stick before, you will in Melaka.
I pedalled towards the Dutch Square where the red stone sets the area apart from the rest of the city. Christ Church Cathedral rests in the centre of the European-style square and even a windmill joins the mix – authentic or an ode to the history, I’m not entirely sure. Nearby, I climbed St Peter’s Hill, admired the white chapel of the same name, and looked out over Melaka sprawling all the way to the ocean.
But back to my favourite topic – food. Melaka is famed for its stingray so I decided it deserved a try. I love all types of seafood and imagined it to taste a bit like squid. Someone who’d already tried it told me, no, it was meatier and tasted like beef. When I relayed this to another stingray connoisseur, they disagreed again saying my first guess was probably closer to the reality – so clearly trying it for myself was the only way to find out. My stingray, served in silver foil and cooked in front of me, was flavoured with a rich, spicy sauce full of lemongrass and okra (a green vegetable similar to courgette and often called ‘ladyfingers’ on menus). This would have made anything taste good, but the stingray itself was pretty tasty; a meaty, white fish which I can’t exactly compare to anything else with hardly any bones.
The stingray set me back 25 ringgits (£4), which must be because it’s a delicacy – I had to remind myself that that wasn’t actually expensive and would barely buy me a Tesco’s sandwich at home. For lunch the next day, a group of us ventured to Little India to see what one of the region’s biggest ethnic groups were eating. The place we found looked like a cake shop from the front but had a basic back room in which a banana leaf was placed in front of each of us and curry of the day (chicken biryani) was scoped on to it, alongside a selection of mango and radish dips, a poppadom and a lassi on the side. This cost approximately £1 – not only was this a complete bargain, I successfully reaffirmed my love affair with Indian cuisine; something that has begun to turn my stomach after a solid month of eating nothing else at the beginning of my travels.
So my lesson of the day – eat as the locals do and you’ll have money to spare and be full of chicken biryani. Oh, and lesson number two – if you’re ever in Malaysia, visit Melaka. It’s beautiful. If you needed any more encouragement, people (predominately Chinese tourists) get about in Hello Kitty themed trishaws blasting cheesy techno music. And you would get to look at them and laugh, OR join them – and laugh. Your options are endless.