Articles by Noble Wordsmiths and associates
(Written for Travelledwriters.com)
After a few days in Kuala Lumpur I had managed to conquer one of the several train systems to find the ‘Bersepadu Selatan’ bus station to Melaka. I found it a little daunting at first. Although, the woman behind the ticket kiosk spoke English, it was still difficult to understand her instructions from behind the glass barrier at the noisy train terminal. As a precaution, I decided to do a trial run a couple of days earlier to get an idea of how long it would take and to make sure I knew where I was going. It was amazing at the bus station. It seemed to be more like an airport than bus depot. There was lots of security and they would only let me into my gate with a validated ticket. After a little hassle getting my ticket stamped I got through. Just like an airport, there was a boarding gate and a TV with a gate number and departure time.
Bus travel is one of the most popular ways to get around because it’s reasonably cheap. As a result the bus station was huge and immaculately clean with restaurant areas and a few shopping zones. The stewards arrived 5 minutes before departure. Once the bus had arrived we were beckoned to board our luxury coach. It was fantastically comfortable. There were 2 seats on the left and 1 on the right. I was lucky enough to have a single seat and stretch out a little.
Fortunately, there was a toilet on board. I remembered a couple of years earlier in Malaysia. I was bursting on my way to the Cameron Highlands. There was no toilet on board and the driver wouldn’t stop to let me go, and I was nearly brought to grief in front of the whole bus. Since then, I have learnt never to drink cheap coffee before any bus journey in Asia. I had no idea of where I was going when I arrived. I had my Galaxy Tab with Google maps as my guide. I was only 3 miles away from the hostel, so I decided to walk, which was a mistake. The bus station was just out of town and only accessible via a motorway. There was no path. I was literally taken around the houses and ended up walking around the suburbs. The heat of the afternoon was burning down on me as I navigated my way through the quiet streets. I had only just acquired a Galaxy Tablet, and I was very impressed with the Google Maps. Although I didn’t have a clue where I was going, I knew exactly where I was on the map. In all my years of travel, I could now just wander wherever I wished without having to remember my way back or keep an eye out for landmarks – it was true brilliance!
I managed to find a place on the internet for £5 a night. It was one of the cheapest prices I had ever found in Asia, which left me with some apprehension of what it would be like. As I managed my way into town, I began to approach a small bridge. A couple of young guys were hanging around when one of them said in a very camp voice, “Hello welcome to Melaka, can I help you?” Politely I said “No thank you,” and kept on my way. I thought to myself, ‘Here we go, what kind of seaside town is this!’ The Malaysian population is made up of Malays, Chinese and Indian people, and this can be seen throughout the country. The Chinese areas stood out the most because of their red decorations and Chinese lanterns that hung from the city dwellings. A lot of the buildings were run down and needed a lick of paint, but it seemed to be quite a quaint little place. After an hour, I made it to the L’armada hostel. It was the last section along a row of buildings with shop units running along the ground floor. There was a large glass door that opened as I pushed my way through. The stairs and walls were devoid of any paint, or decoration, and the place looked rather barren.. As I elevated further and further up the flights of stairs, it became apparent that the building was not finished, or perhaps it had been decades earlier. I was beginning to think I had made a huge mistake in booking this locale. I had visions of an old couple coming out of their apartment waving me in and showing me their spare room or something – but I suppose it would have been an experience.
I reached the top floor where I saw about a dozen pairs of sandals. It seemed very quiet. I walked around for a while when I was met by a young guy who signed me in. I had booked a single room but they were all taken so he gave me a twin, but it wasn’t much better. All there was in the room was two beds and a fan, and without air-con the heat was unbearable. Tired, I headed out for some food and then returned for an early night. The hostel was very basic, but it was clean and had ample washing facilities.
Around 9am, I went in search of breakfast. Nothing seemed to be open; I found a place that did late cooked breakfast but didn’t start until 1pm. I walked around for an hour hungry and becoming quite frustrated that I could not sit down and eat something. In the end, I walked over to a small food hall and asked the guy about some noodles. After sitting down, I was brought some fiery hot noodles that had crispy bits of what looked like tortilla chips in them but was a deep fried wonton skin, I think. I’d ordered tea without sugar, but it must have had 5 sugars in it – satisfied and full of energy, I went exploring.
A short time later, I happened upon a big red building in the town centre called ‘Stadthuys’. It was a museum so I decided to take a look. As I walked through the turnstiles, little did I know I was embarking on a two day journey back in time that would put Melaka at the top of my most favourite places to visit in Asia.
Over the centuries, Melaka has been sought after by Europeans for its trade connections between the east and west through the Straits of Melaka. It was first conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. The Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1641 and ruled until 1798. During this period, the Stadthuys governors’ building was constructed, which has now become the museum. The British took power in 1826 until it was handed back to the Malaysian people in 1957. I saw a depiction in a museum display showing the inauguration. There were parades, street parties and celebrations that went on for days ending hundreds of years of foreign rule.
Walking around the streets, it is apparent that there was a strong European influence during the construction of some of the architecture, which was strange because I was so far from home but felt like I was in a European city. Most Malaysian people speak English, because it is still taught in schools as a second language, which is very useful when trying to get around.
The Stadthuys building was built by the Dutch in 1650. It is a large building with many displays of what life was like for the Malays in the 1600’s. I found some old Malaysian currency that had Queen Elizabeth’s portrait on the money from 1967.
Apart from the museum, it was fascinating to just stand and look at this amazing 350 year old building and try to imagine what had taken place within those walls in all that time. I managed to sneak out the backdoor of the place and got past some gates, where I found myself at the foot of St Pauls hill. Many other tourists were heading up there following a path, so I decided to tag along. There wasn’t much to see at the peak apart from some old ruins, but the view of the city was spectacular.
I met a man selling pictures. He was pretty cool and a bit of a hippy. We chatted for a while whilst I decided what painting I was going to buy. They weren’t cheap but I was having a nice time and I wanted a souvenir to remember my time in such a great place.
Once on the other side of the hill, I found a place that looked like a seaside town. There was an old ship and a large shopping centre as well as other tourist attractions, but I was tired, and hot, and decided to head back. That evening I went for a walk in search of food, when I heard lots of music and commotion coming from up the road. As I went to check it out, I could see hundreds of people walking up and down the main street called ‘Jonkers walk’. As I approached, I could see that the road had been blocked off to traffic and a busy market had now come into effect. It was the weekend but I was unsure whether it was a regular event. I searched up and down but it was all the usual knick-knacks and I found nothing to my taste. It was a very busy affair with lots of Chinese music and everyone seemed to be having rather good time.
In the morning, I decided to head back to where I left off. The previous day, I had learned that Melaka’s history was rich in trade, so I decided to take a look around the Customs and Excise Museum. There was some really crazy stuff in there that had been confiscated by officials at the docks. It was all contraband from pre-1957. I found some taxidermy frogs that had been positioned so they were playing miniature guitars. There were many weapons, other stuffed animals and alcohol that had been confiscated by the British in the first half of the 20th century.
As I left, I saw a surprising notice on a board saying that Malaysia was a developing country and was hoping to be upgraded in the next few years. I was astounded to think that this beautiful, modern country was considered 3rd world.
I read in my guide book of a place called Istana Kelsultanan. It was a dark imposing palace but unfortunately was only a reconstruction of a 15th century Istana, but was none the less impressive. It was a huge Chinese teak building that belonged to the Sultan of Melaka before Europeans conquered the region. It was here when I realised I had developed a passion for Melaka history. Again like many other museums I had visited in Melaka there were many depictions of historical events. I could see things like the Sultan in court or early depictions of traders on the beaches of Melaka throughout the centuries.
Melaka has been one of the main meeting points for trade between the east and the west for hundreds of years. The city was situated at a point of enormous strategic importance by linking China to India and the east to the west. The city quickly grew, and within fifty years had become a wealthy and powerful hub of international commerce, with a population of over 50,000. When Singapore was only a fishing village, Melaka had already achieved worldwide fame amongst traders and travellers alike.
Trading in spices, textiles, rice and precious metals, it is easy to see why Europeans had fought many times in a series of takeovers to maintain control of one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world. It was a shame I only had 3 days because I could have easily spent a week or two there. I spoke to the guy at reception and he told me where I could get a bus back to the main station. It only took 10 minutes. Like most places in Asia I felt let down by modern western developments but who was I to stand in the way of progress? On the outskirts, it seemed to be a little run down and neglected but turned out to be one of history’s wealthiest places on earth.