Thursday, April 17, 2014

Melaka, Part I - An Overview

17 April 2014

We had a whirlwind four days in Melaka, which is why I haven't blogged in almost a week.

WOW this is an exciting city!

First, Melaka is the Malaysian spelling, and Malacca is the English spelling.  Both are right.  Both are also the name of the city that is the capital to the province of the same name.  Yes, you can be in Melaka City, Melaka Province.

The train doesn't go directly to Melaka - we had to go to Tampin, then take a taxi.  The train went through the usual city/suburb/rural/farm sequence of scenery, though with some interesting temples and such along the way.  (No monkeys in either direction, though - I was kind of disappointed we didn't see any exciting wildlife.)

Oh, re the trains - I keep meaning to say something about train travel around the world.  If you don't know the website "The Man in Seat 61," you need to check it out.  He thoroughly describes every train system you can imagine, including how to get from one part of the world to another by train, with links to all the various companies so people can pre-book their tickets.  INVALUABLE website for travellers, so definitely bookmark this site!!!  We've used his info in each country where we've travelled by train - that's how important this website can be.

Okay, so, back to Melaka.  Melaka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just like George Town on the island of Penang.  Here's the detailed information from the UNESCO website: 

Melaka is a historic city on the Straits of Malacca, which is the body of water between Peninsular Malaysia and the island of Sumatra, on the east side of the Indian Ocean.  The sultan of Melaka was very powerful and ruled a large area, his subjects being predominantly the local Malay people and also Chinese from further north.  The sultan and his people were eventually overpowered by the Portuguese, who came in the 1400 or 1500s. (Actually, a stone was unearthed that has carvings of the crest of Alfonso Henriques, first King of Portugal - he was king in 1130-something.  It has been speculated that this proves earlier Portuguese-Malaysian interaction - but it could also have been that the later explorers brought this stone.)

Anyway, Melaka was the Portuguese trading post in this part of the world - and the main export were spices.  Eventually, the Dutch replaced the Portuguese, and a century or two later the British replaced the Dutch.  So most of the historic sites are layered and altered and changed by the varying conquering influences.  

Our first evening, we walked from our little hotel and crossed the bridge over the Melaka River, and wandered around Chinatown.  Which borders on Little India, because so many people from the Indian subcontinent have crossed the waters and settled in Malaysia over the centuries.

Jonker Street is sort of the center of Chinatown, and there was a fun night market - all kinds of food stalls, various knicknacks and odd little things for sale, some music and dancing by a community group of senior citizens, and crowds of people seeing and being seen.  Great fun!  Of course, the old buildings were equally fascinating, especially when a Buddhist temple is all lit up and is only a block or two down from the Islamic mosque, equally lit and glowing in the dark night.

We ended up walking through much of Chinatown again the next day, as we followed along the river heading toward the sea.

There are murals everywhere!  On retaining walls.  On buildings.  On one section of row houses where everyone agreed to change the entrance to the river side of the building, and to paint murals on their buildings.  Even brand new buildings were designed with murals on them.  The place is just glowing with colour and action - the buildings are so alive!

The old town center, which includes a Portuguese church, a clock tower, and a windmill (the Dutch period) is still a town center, but houses museums and other historical information centers.

And of course there's the old fort, which was built by the Portuguese and reinforced by the Dutch and then mostly destroyed by the British.  (Can't we all just get along?)  There are bits and pieces of the fort that are still intact, or more accurately, rebuilt.  But other parts are still being excavated by archaeologists, and you can see these bits around the perimeter of the old fort.  

The information on the fort excavations says the Portuguese fort was built in 1511, after conquering the Melaka Malaya sultanate.  The Dutch then extended the fort when they took over the area in 1641.  Then, in 1807, the British stormed the area and destroyed most of the fort - only the Porta di Santiago, the main gate, was saved by the man who became Sir Stamford Raffles (the guy who designed Singapore as a trading hub).

So, of course, we had to go see the Porta di Santiago, which is impressive.  It stands alone, with just a few cannons as company.  Tourists come in and wander through the winding entrance that goes in and out a few connecting halls - though they probably were more like tunnels when the entire fort walls were extant.

The fort once surrounded a hill, with a chapel on top - we climbed the hill and found the ruins of the chapel that had been used by all the conquerors.  There were remarkable views of the city and all the way out to sea - Sumatra is a long way off, and we couldn't see the island through the haze.




Since this had been a chapel and church to all the generations of colonial powers, there were, of course, graves.  The cemetery was off to one side and wound around the hill.  Some of the gravestones went all the way back to 1500-something; Dutch names and sayings like "heronder leyt begrayven" were from the 1600-1700s; and then good old Daniel James and other English names showed up with 1800s.  

I realize that taking photos of gravestones is a bit dark, maybe even ghoulish, but, well, the carvings are just gorgeous.  Really and truly amazing.  Beautiful in the detail and symmetry, the lettering is lovely, and there are almost always intertwining borders.  Just wonderful sculpture.

And no, the skull and crossbones doesn't mean a pirate was buried here - that's a symbol of death in general, not piracy.  Though I'm sure pirates passed through this important trading post and tried to plunder and pillage and all that.

Just a bit past the Porta di Santiago is the memorial building commemorating the announcement of independence of Malaysia.  The building shows British as well as Malaysian (or Moorish) architecture, and now serves as an archive of historic documents.  Another beautiful building in this city where gorgeous architecture is so common, it seems almost average.

But not all of Melaka is historic, or architectural, or even cultural.  Well, okay, the fabric qualifies as cultural, or maybe more like ethnic - there were stores full of the beautiful Malaysian batiks which are similar to the batiks of Indonesia and Thailand, even if they aren't as well known.  I just love the sudden pops of colour that show up as we walk by a row of shops.  Or a random tile in a little corner shrine.  

We spent three days walking up and down the river.  One day, we took a cruise up the river, to the Spice Garden Jetty, site of the old market.  Another day, we went to a few museums near the old town center.  And a third day, we went to the historic sites and climbed the hill for the view.

But there's more to say, and more photos to include - and rather than making this the world's longest blog post, I'll sign off and promise another blog or two tomorrow and over the next few days.

So stay tuned for more Melaka!


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