The mixture that is Melaka

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Where I stayed

Flag of Malaysia  , Melaka State,
Saturday, July 2, 2011

From Kuala Lumpur we took the bus to the Cameron Highlands (over 5,000 feet high), a strange area which provides a break from the high temperature and humidity of the coastal plain, and which combines British style buildings with Malay, Chinese and Indian and has a golf course reminiscent of the Crowborough Beacon course. There are tea plantations as well as a huge range of small farming enterprises seemingly growing all types of vegetables, fruit and flowers. Strawberries are big here, grown in shelving 3 or 4 stacks deep, and each strawberry farm has a shop attached selling everything you can think of disguised as a strawberry! There is no season so they are available all year round but without much taste as they are forced. Large areas of land are given over to watercress production. It seems that people drive from as far away as Singapore to come and buy vegetables here and a couple of weeks before we arrived, during a holiday weekend, there was a traffic queue 7 kilometres long through the three townships that form the Cameron Highlands.


We visited the “mossy forest” which contains large swathes of sphagnum moss, numerous pitcher plants and orchids. A very atmospheric forest especially when the clouds weave in amongst the trees. The variety of plants is impressive with each tree playing host to up to 100 different types of life. The moss holds a huge amount of water, a handful producing a cupful of water when squeezed, as demonstrated by our guide, who also insisted on jumping up and down on the ground to show us that it is basically a trampoline and when one person bounces, so does everyone else whether they wish to or not, and the trees wobble. I found that extremely disturbing!


After the forest we visited what remains (only a handful of houses) of an Orang Asli village. It is at the top of a steep hill but a new village has been built at the bottom of the hill and the villagers are gradually being moved into the new homes there. An older man showed us his supply of poison darts whilst our guide demonstrated how to use a blow pipe.The darts are various sizes and have different types on poison on depending upon which animal is to be hunted. I shocked myself by hitting the target at first attempt, so quit at that point. The local Orang Asli man does not want to leave his old home, so he plans to stay on whilst the rest of his family are due to move down to their new house in the next week or so.


From Cameron Highlands we took a minibus (only transport available) across to a small town called Gua Musang which is on the eastern railway line, nicknamed the “jungle line”. We knew in advance that we would have to spend the night there as we could only arrive about lunch time and the train leaves at 11,00am. Our experience of the hotel there made us appreciate the fact that we were not staying longer. It is not really a tourist area and we did not see other Europeans there or in the next town. The train journey the next day was interesting as we travelled through the jungle for 6 hours (cost 3.60 each with our over 60 discount) passing through a handful of stations built when Malaya was still under British rule. We reached Gemas where we spent the next night and then took 2 buses the following day to Melaka.


We love Melaka, it has a fascinating old town, as long as the drains, the odd rat or two and the monitor lizards (up to 2 metres long) living by the river, don't disturb you. It has a mixed population of Malay, Chinese, Indian, descendants of the Portuguese and combinations of them all as a result of intermarriage. It feels as though we have stepped back a few hundred years as we walk along the river. Melaka's heyday was in the 1400's when it was governed by Sultans, and was one of the most important ports and trading centres of the world controlling the Malacca Straits, the route between China and the west of Asia and Middle East. The Sultanate had sophisticated codes of maritime law which facilitated trade and a complex administration with ministers of state responsible for judicial and security aspects of life. These controls were enhanced further when one sultan converted to Islam and embedded Islamic Law alongside its existing legal framework. It was during this period that Cheng Ho (more about him later) visited from China.


So the Sultanate thrived until the Portuguese arrived and conquered the town in 1511, they were followed by the Dutch in the midst of the 17th Century, and the British in the 18th Century. The Japanese took control for a brief period during the second W War. From the time of the Portuguese the power and influence of Melaka declined as the security for ships and traders deteriorated and the costs imposed by successive administrations through taxes increased. By the time the British were in control it was considered “a sleepy hollow” with the river silted up and unsuitable as a mooring.

We stayed a week as there is so much to see, the river area, Chinese temples, Mosques, the traditional style shops, birds along the river, botanical gardens and lots of museums. However, the most interesting was the Cheng Ho Cultural Centre which has an impressive Chinese facade. We peeped in as we were not sure what it was, and a woman said, yes, come and buy ticket here. The ticket is 10 ringits (2) which is expensive compared to the other museums (average 20 – 40 pence) so we hesitated and she almost grabbed us and hauled us in saying “Very big inside, you must see”. For the sake of international peace we paid up and started looking around. We still could not fathom what it was all about as some large posters were only in Chinese and we were standing looking lost when a party of school children (about 50) arrived with a guide and he said, come and join us! We might have run at that moment but thankfully we didn't – it was wonderful. The children were from Singapore (very well behaved and only slightly bemused by our sudden arrival in their midst) and the guide was speaking English so we finally started to understand.


The museum is all about Cheng Ho (Zheng He in Chinese). He was born in Nanjing, China, in the late14th Century and was captured when he was 10 years old by the Emperor's soldiers but became a loyal servant of the Emperor. When he was 13 he chose to be castrated as this meant he could be trusted to take on a greater role. Gradually he became more influential and he was charged with the task of building a fleet of treasure ships to sail overseas and make contact with other rulers and visit “uncivilised” countries, making commercial and political liaisons through diplomacy. I was truly horrified that I had never heard of him before. The fleet comprised over 160 ships, differentiated into numerous specialisms such as battle ships, supply ships, arm ships, water ships, farm ships (they grew bean shoots to obtain vitamin C and avoid scurvy), and the treasure ships themselves. They were like floating palaces, luxuriously equipped and huge, 120 – 140 metres long, suitable for hosting royalty of any nation, and storing the treasures that were taken and given as presents to forge links with leaders of other areas. Almost 28,000 men set sail in the fleet in 1401, including 180 doctors, and that was the first of 7 expeditions that Cheng Ho undertook. He visited Melaka and made it an important staging port with supplies and warehouses, revisiting it a number of times. The fleet communicated by means of flags, bells, drums and carrier pigeons. He travelled as far west as Mogadishu, up to Mecca and Jeddah. (Map in photos)


The museum is housed in one of the original warehouses with 3 wells in the building dug to supply the fleet. We watched a video with the school children and a type of puppet show, (which dealt with the castration issue very delicately!), and by the time we had been around the museum it was closing. We had not had chance to wander around and look at artefacts by ourselves but the staff told us to keep our tickets and come back the next day. We returned and as Jim had lost his ticket we were prepared to buy him another but the staff recognized us and were very welcoming, so then we were able to spend a couple of hours going around alone. It had been fun with the children as the guide had made the story entertaining for them and asked them questions with little prizes for those who answered correctly but it was also great to see the exhibits with no-one else around.


A strange off shoot of the Cheng Ho story is that an English man, Gavin Menzies, has written a book, "1421", claiming that there is evidence that Cheng Ho's fleet reached Australia, New Zealand and the Americas, long before the European explorers. No other academics support his theories and they are cruelly dismissive of his writings as only academics can be. After the seventh trip, a new Emperor was in place and he banned all further expeditions, even burning ships to ensure they could not be used, and the closed door policy was put in place in China which lasted more than 100 years, leaving the way clear for European explorers and subsequent colonisation. Cheng Ho died on his return home during the last voyage so he did not see the effects of the policy change.


Another day we read online that there were celebrations in the Portuguese Settlement on the 29th June as it was the end of a six day festival. It took about 30 minutes to walk there from the town centre. We had believed mistakenly that the Portuguese settlement would be old, reflecting the time they arrived in the 1500's. In fact, it was started in the 1930's when 2 priests became concerned that the descendants of those original Portuguese settlers (Catholics), who had intermarried with local Malay women, were losing their identity, language and sense of community, (and religion?). They persuaded the government to allocate land on the seashore near the edge of town where they could build houses together and continue their fishing traditions. We spoke to a man who used to be an Ambassador here in Malaysia and he told us that it was the 80's before the settlement became well established but it has helped preserve the Portuguese Creole language. The men decorated the fishing boats and after the priest blessed them for the coming year, prizes were awarded. We felt sorry for the poor angels who tried to stand very still while the judges seemed to take forever making notes to help their decision making.


Tomorrow we move to Johor Bahru for 2 nights before flying to Sabah (formerly British North Borneo). We are so close it seemed crazy to miss it, especially as the bird watching and diving are meant to be superb and they say that no headhunters have been active for at least 50 years so we should be safe.



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