Malacca

Yesterday, feeling a bit guilty about wimping out of our planned exploration of Malaysia, we took a package tour to see Malacca, Malaysia. Malacca (AKA Melaka) is on the west coast of Malaysia about 125 miles north of Singapore. It was important in colonial times as one of the ports cities (like Singapore and Penang) on the Straits of Malacca that were critical trade routes both then and now. Malacca is also the capital of Malacca state, one of Malaysia’s thirteen states.

The distance to Malacca makes a day trip less than ideal. The highway from Singapore to Malacca (and all the way north to the Thai border, we were told) is excellent, but it still takes a minimum of two and a half hours driving to get from the Singapore-Malaysian border to Malacca. So add two border crossings and a stop for lunch to the five hour, round-trip, bus ride and it turns out that you get to spend only two hours walking around Malacca itself. The tour company we used was called RMG Tours. They picked us up at our hotel at 8:15AM and got us back to our hotel about 9:00PM that night. There were about twenty people on our trip. The bus had seats for about double that number, so we could spread out a bit. That was good because the seats were cramped for people our size.

The drive north to Malacca was uneventful. I dozed a bit and cogitated a bit to pass the time. Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw on the whole trip was the palm oil plantations. Malaysia once was the world’s largest producer of rubber, with huge rubber plantations covering the landscape. But the price of rubber nosedived and planters looked for an alternative. What they found was palm oil. Palm oil is found in everything from food to cosmetics and is now a large source of income for Malaysia. This income is threatened by the perceived adverse health effects of palm oil in food, but our guide gave us the party line that there was no danger to eating food that contained palm oil. The oil palms, which look exactly like a lush green version of what we in the US all picture when we picture palm trees, covered vast tracts. We were told a cute, ecological story. The forests of palm trees attracted rats, who ate the palm fruit. So the farmers introduced native snakes to the plantations to eat the rats, which they did. But that left a forest full of hungry, poisonous, snakes which created quite a hazard for the palm oil workers. The farmers now use owls to keep the rats under control and the snake danger is still present, but improving over time.

Malacca was named a World Heritage city this last year, just in time for us to add it to our list of World Heritage sites that we have visited on this trip. We spent our allotted two hours wandering around the old part of Malacca. We quickly departed from the tour led by our tour guide. It sounds funny, but we have been on so many tours this trip that we have heard pretty much everything in the Asian guide’s handbook. For example, the first stop in Malacca was at a Buddhist temple to Quan Yin. Quan Yin is a goddess who protects sailors. As you might imagine, every coastal city where Chinese merchants have settled has a temple to Quan Yin. Her temple in Malacca was distinguished by beautiful ceramic decorations, but we had pretty much heard the rest of the story several times before.

So we set out on what turned out to be an odyssey to find a Peranakan museum described in our guidebook. Ever since we visited Singapore three years ago, Kris has been very interested in learning more about Peranakan culture. Peranakan culture is a combination of Chinese and Malay and is peculiar to the Straits region. The Peranakans are descendants of the Chinese merchants who married local women and stayed to live in the Straits region. The males in this culture are called “babas” and the females are called “nonyas,” so sometimes Peranakan cuisine or decoration is termed “nonya.” We had a map of Malacca with the museum marked, but spent a long, very hot spell dealing with the lack of street signs before we finally found the museum. Then, it turned out that the museum attendants would not accept Singapore dollars, even when we offered an outrageous exchange rate. Kris offered them fifty Singapore dollars (about $35 US) for the 16 RM (Ringgits Malaysia) cost of admission (about $4.50 US) and they would not take it. Frustrated, sweaty, and decidedly annoyed, we headed for the next site on our list, Christ Church, a remnant of Dutch colonial times. We had walked one block, turned one corner and Kris hit the jackpot, souvenir-wise. We ran into a shop that, among many other things, sold inexpensive reproductions of nonya ware, the ceramic dishware used in Peranakan homes. Kris had wanted a sample of nonya ware ever since our last visit to Singapore. She also hoped that she could get some ringgits to use for at the Peranakan museum. Well, the shop was happy to sell Kris some nonya ware, but not happy to give her some ringgits. But, one of the shop owners was happy to walk another block with us to a money changer (we had been told that all the money changers were likely to be closed because of a Muslim holiday) who was happy to change Singapore dollars into ringgits. So, Kris got her nonya ware, had a very pleasant conversation with the shop owner during the walk to the money changer’s and back, and we were finally admitted to the Peranakan museum.

The Peranakan museum was a former Peranakan home that was beautiful and beautifully furnished in period furniture and decor. In Asian cities, houses tend to fill their lots up to the walls of the adjoining house. So if you want natural interior light and air circulation, you create an interior courtyard that is open from the ground floor to the sky, no matter how many stories you have. This two story house had two interior courtyards, each with a small water garden on the ground floor. The courtyards made for wonderful, cool spaces on a hot day and admitted nature into the heart of the home. Peranakan style also is characterized by vividly colored tilework; very practical in a house that has openings for the courtyards in the roof, but also very beautiful.

A half-hour in the museum about used up our two hours. In fact, we had to high-tail it back to the rendezvous point in order not to be left behind by the bus. Hampered once again by a lack of street signs, we were pretty red in the face by the time we climbed back into the bus for the ride back to Singapore. We both agreed that there was plenty we didn’t see in Malacca and “next time” we would spend the night so we would not be so rushed.

Tim

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2 Comments

  1. kenneth said,

    October 30, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Malacca is an interesting place to visit. There is plenty to see and do with the historic scenery and beauty, you will want to spend as many days possible in this city.
    Malacca is indeed a wonderful place. The culture is brilliant and lively; it also is traditional because of the memories that it holds of its early days.
    The weather in Malacca is similar to other parts of the country as far as temperature and rainfall are concerned. The average temperature remains in the mid 20s C (70s F) throughout the year. Rainfall is part of the weather in Malacca, with abundant rainfall through the year.

  2. February 18, 2009 at 8:35 pm

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