Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On to Melaka – a whole new spin on adventure travel.

1 – 4 November 2011
It’s about the journey, not just the destination – getting there’s half the fun – it’s all part of the adventure , what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, just a few of the clichés we kept telling each other constantly throughout what turned into a very long day’s travel from Tioman Island on Malaysia’s east coast to the historic city of Melaka on the west.
After being foolish enough to stay way too long at B&J Dive’s Halloween party the previous night, we struggled up before dawn to finish squeezing our few clothes into our small backpacks and get down to the jetty in order to catch the first ferry back to the mainland city of Mersing. Here we would catch a bus across the peninsula to Melaka. Things started well when the ferry arrived only a few minutes late and we were amongst only a handful of passengers to board. We’d chosen the early ferry to make sure we had plenty of time to make our connection at the bus terminal and to avoid the over-crowding that normally occurs on the ferries. We quickly headed around to the main town in the next bay where we were relieved to find only a manageable crowd waiting on the jetty.
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Things were going well – until we reversed away from the jetty.  It seemed an extraordinarily long time before the boat started to go ahead and even then it was quite slowly. After a couple of switches between astern and ahead we began moving not out of the bay to the mainland but slowly towards the marina where we eventually rafted up beside another one of the ferries. While we expected some sort of announcement or communication from the crew none was forthcoming . As all the local passengers didn’t seemed concerned  we had little choice but to play When in Rome do as the Romans do and sit and wait.
So , an hour and three quarters later, a crew member came into the cabin and announced ‘Broken, all change to other boat.’  Oh how we would of preferred to have spent that wasted  hour and three quarters back in bed. It’s about the journey, not just the destination.
We transferred onto the other ferry which then proceeded out of the marina and back to the jetty to pick up the very large crowd that had gathered for the second boat of the day. Eventually we were headed over the water for our two hour passage accompanied by enough people to fill two ferries generating a predictable bouquet in thirty degree heat.  Getting there’s half the fun.
The simple act of stepping off the gang plank in Mersing was glorious. With tickets  to Melaka quickly purchased we found ourselves with time for a nice lunch at an excellent cafe by the harbour before we needed to board the bus. Things continued to look up when we headed for the terminal and saw a modern looking coach awaiting. Even better,  our seats were in the front row behind the driver with extra leg room, better vision and – we found no smoking signs prominently displayed. After being constantly assaulted by thick clouds of very pungent cigarette smoke in every restaurant, cafe, ferry, bus, bar and street corner, this was a huge relief. The local cigarettes are rumoured to be made from tobacco but judging from the vile smell this theory is far from proven.
Feeling quite content we settled in and prepared to sit back and enjoy the countryside on our comfortable ride to Melaka. Oh how easily we’re fooled by appearances. The first inkling that all may not be as it seems came upon us quickly on departing the terminal. Despite them all being right there in a box, it just seemed impossible for the driver to find third gear, no matter how much grinding and gnashing of metal teeth he tried. It would not have been too bad had he accepted defeat and simply revved up second and skipped straight to fourth but he insisted on making a number of  futile  attempts on every set of changes slowing so much in the process we literally bunny hopped forward when he finally gave up and grabbed fourth.
As soon as we’d cleared the city things improved on the open road where third gear wasn’t required and in the absence of continually grinding gears we began to relax. Unfortunately, soon after, so did the driver, first by lighting up a nice soothing cigarette that smelled like burning goat dung, then by giving his wife a call on his mobile for a long chat. While this behaviour was a little disconcerting to us, it reached the alarming level when we came to a T-intersection complete with stop sign.
Our bus driver at work photographed in his mirror
When driving a tour coach with a dodgy gearbox, while smoking and, by now, in the middle of an animated argument with your wife on the phone, such an obstacle would be challenging for many. Not to our man. He simply slowed down staying in top gear, went completely out on to the wrong side of the road and lugging the engine to almost the point of stalling, drove straight through the stop sign around the corner in a wide arc onto the opposite side of the highway before casually regaining the left hand lane. All the while the cigarette never left the corner of his mouth, the phone stayed in his right hand, glued to his ear and he never looked like slowing down in explaining to his wife all her shortcomings. Our driver may not have been stressed by it at all but the same could not be said for us or the poor guy on the motor scooter who’d been happily ambling down the road until confronted with a tour coach coming straight for him. However, we were impressed with said scooter rider's motor-cross skills as he went bush to avoid certain death.
Waiting, waiting, waiting for our replacement bus.
As we neared the city of Muar we were understandably looking forward to getting off the bus for our ten minute halfway stop but, at the same time, were dreading the third gear tango we knew was coming. As it turned out the grinding of gears paled somewhat into insignificance when the bus started to fill with a burning smell worse than the driver’s goat dung cigarettes. The air-conditioning turned from near freezing to very warm as smoke began wafting out of the overhead vents. Fortunately just as Rob muttered ‘Huston, we have a problem’ we arrived in the terminal and were able to exit rather quickly.
Our ten minute rest stop stretched into, you guessed it, one and three quarter hours as we waited for a replacement bus to arrive. It’s all part of the adventure.
Finally we were on our way and comfortably ensconced in our front row seats on the replacement bus. Certainly nothing else could go wrong or do bad things really come in threes? It was a question not answered until we were within 20 minutes of Melaka when we hit a large pot hole in driving rain and we heard a loud thump under our feet. Subsequently every bump in the road produced another loud bang which we could hear and feel through the floor. While Rob quietly  speculated that a shock absorber mount had broken, the driver was obviously not immune to the clunking, clanking and banging. With the rain becoming absolutely torrential he took the only sensible course of action that presented itself to him. He developed an increasingly concerned look on his face and began chain smoking as he drove on through the downpour trying to ignore the noises.


Tri-shaws are popular in Melaka & clearly more reliable than buses

Bouncing, bashing and gasping for air, we finally made it to the Melaka bus terminal. After expecting to arrive mid-afternoon here we were, in the dark, belting rain and still a few kilometres from the city centre.  All we could think of was getting into a nice dry room, having a nice hot shower and finally relaxing so we were immensely relieved to find a taxi and head to the hostel that we’d booked in advance.  After wading through the calf deep water to reach the hostel door we would of been in heaven,  if only it hadn’t been all locked up with a sign on the door saying ‘Dinner time, call XX number for service’ and if only someone had answered the mobile phone we could clearly hear ringing on the other side of the door when we called it five times while standing in the rain. We started to realise we were having a bad day. Damn you Ringo’s Foyeur Hostel!
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.                      
                  
We headed down the road to find somewhere to shelter and came across a great little cafe with good, hot espresso coffee, good hot food and it was even dry. Saved at last! But wait there’s more. We suddenly realised the cafe was attached to a very nice looking budget hotel and, on enquiring, found out the rooms were not much dearer than Ringo’s, offered a hell of a lot more comfort and we could actually get into one.  So endeth a very long day’s travel.

Ruins of a Portuguese church built in 1521 dominate the high ground.
We had decided to visit Melaka after asking for recommendations of what to see in Malaysia from Alan off Rogue. He has lived and travelled extensively in South East Asia for many years so it seemed natural to ask his advice and we’re pleased to say his guidance has proved invaluable. He spoke  of Melaka and its well preserved history and architecture very enthusiastically so it quickly went on the must do list of things to see on our land travels.  


Headstones date back to the earliest European occupation

Melaka has an intriguing history which understanding makes visiting the city much more enjoyable. It rose from a humble fishing village to become a major centre of the spice trade forming a vital link between the East and the West. Melaka (Malacca) is rich with history. Since its founding sometime around 1400, by a Sumatran prince, Parameswara who fled his own country after unsuccessfully trying to overthrow the Emperor. At the height of its power, the Sultanate of. Melaka extended its borders over the whole of peninsula to encompass Pantani in the North and on the west right into the neighbouring island of Sumatra. This was during the mid-1400s, the Golden Age of Melaka Sultanate unfortunately lasted for less then a century.


Replica Portuguese ship is very good maritime museum

In 1511, the first of many foreign invasions Melaka took place when the Portuguese arrived. The Portuguese were determined to control the East-West trade so the port still retained its importance as a trade centre until 1641 when the Portuguese in Melaka were finally defeated by the Dutch after many attempts. The Dutch who had a stronger foothold over the Indonesia archipelago swung the trade centre over to Sumatra as Melaka’s trade declined due to the silting of its port. In 1795 control of Melaka was given to the British by the Dutch Government in exile to prevent it from falling to the hands of the French during the period when the Netherlands was captured during the French Revolution.


The lone surviving gateway of the original fortifications
The British believed when hostilities were over the city would revert to the Dutch control so wanted to make the port irrelevant by attempting to move the population to their stronghold of Penang and proceeded to spend years destroying the city’s fortified walls with explosives. Today a single gateway still stands which only survived after Sir Stamford Raffles intervened and prevented the final piece of heritage vandalism.

 In a fine example of poetic justice, when a treaty between the two colonial powers was finally established for division of South East Asia, Britain ended up with the entire Malay Peninsula including Melaka which they had spend years and hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to destroy.

 By the time British took formal ownership 1824, the focus of trade had shifted from . Melaka to Singapore and Penang.  Melaka however became the focal point again during the struggle for independence after the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the British Colonial period that followed. So when Malaya gained its independence, it was only fitting that the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in . Melaka, where it all began. In 1989, . Melaka was declared as Malaysia's history city and has since been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Well preserved '57 Chev was 1st Prime Ministerial limo

We spent three days and nights wondering the historic streets of Melaka and loved the vibrancy of the place. The city’s status as a world heritage listed site is proudly revered with an almost innumerable range of museums covering the fascinating influences the trading port  has experienced.  During our Asian travels we have been severely underwhelmed by the shabby, mundane  and usually boring displays presented to us as cultural museums. Some we have been in and out of in under two minutes and that was too long.

Not one nail was used building the traditional Sultan's Palace

 However here in Melaka we were continually amazed. Whenever we thought we may be walking through the doors of one museum too many we discovered another truly enjoyable experience. These ranged from the Dutch period town hall which now contains the largest and most comprehensive display to the huge replica Sultan’s Palace. This amazing structure was built totally using traditional methods and does not contain a single nail. Every single piece of wood is jointed or dowelled. Just walking through the building is an experience let alone the range of very high quality, informative displays covering Melaka’s pre-European history.
Just a small part of the incredible Chinese Temple
The city boasts the oldest Chinese temple outside China itself. Built in 1704 it is a beautifully decorated building with gold leaf throughout and extremely  intricate porcelan figurines all over the roofs. The temple  typifies the religious tolerance  remarkable community. The main room contains three separate altars catering for the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian communities while within two blocks you will also find any number of Hindu temples, Christian Churches and Muslim Mosques all co-existing happily together.
Chinese Merchant's House was one of the many highlights
Another highlight was for us was visiting a traditional Chinese merchant’s house now operating as a private museum. This was in fact three adjoining houses and still in the ownership of the original family. The family’s history and way of life was perfectly preserved throughout for all to see and explained to us by very informative and entertaining guide. It was actually the final of six museums and heaven knows how many historic sites we visited during our wanderings with each being  a very unique and totally different experience and yet, we by no means went close to seeing everything. 

Heritage architecture lined virtually every street

As you would expect in a city boasting such a diverse range of ethnic influences, Melaka is simply a food lover’s paradise. We enjoyed meal after meal discovering all sorts of new delights of Portuguese, Northern and Southern Indian, traditional Malay,  Eastern Malay (Borneo) Straits Chinese and Mainland Chinese dishes. After months in Muslim Indonesia, at one restaurant Rob feasted on a huge serving of Chinese bbq pork chops to satisfy his long festering craving for pig while Karen devoured no less than half a duck. Total bill with drinks $12 Aus. One thing we have not worked up the courage to tackle is the deep fried or steamed bull frog. Seeing all the very fat, live frogs in an aquarium tank and having to pick which one you’re going to eat is something we haven’t mastered but the trip isn’t over yet.


Foodie's paradise where we never ate anywhere twice.

While we were in Melaka we heard from our Nae Hassle crew mate, Marc, who had joined Alan and Noi on Rogue for the trip to Thailand while we went on our wanderings across the land. An insect bite Marc suffered back on Belitung had become seriously infected and he had been admitted to Penang Hospital for treatment.  Throughout our travels in the tropics we had been ever vigilant in treating every scratch, cut and abrasion like it was a near fatal wound with enough antiseptic to sterilize a rubbish tip. Until this point we’d all fared well but what started as a simple irritating bite, when  scratched, had now laid Marc up in hospital on an intra-venous drip of powerful anti-biotics.

Just one of the many displays in the Sultan's Palace

As Alan and Noi were working to a tight time frame they had headed on to Phuket where Marc could join them later so, seeing we were preparing to head for Tanah-Ratah in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, we arranged for Marc to meet us up there in a few days after which we would travel the rest of the way overland to Phuket together.
Like many of the places we have experienced on our adventure, we knew we would leave Melaka having gained just a partial insight of what the city had to offer but what we did see during our all too brief stay has made us strong advocates of this piece of Asia that we had not even heard of until Alan listed it as his number one place to visit in Malaysia. For us it didn’t displace Tioman Island from Top of the Pops but it came a very close second. We’ve got another three weeks in Malaysia before we cross the border to Thailand and are keen to see what challengers to the current rankings lay ahead.
The entire inner-city precinct is a no smoking zone covering a number of square kilometres
Absolute heaven after our bus ride


One establishment we did decide not to eat at.


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