Don’t Mess With Melaka

Despite being designated a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008, I’d never heard of Melaka (or Malacca) until I started researching this trip. But it turned out to be a pleasant city with a compact and attractive centre and an interesting history, as well as being close to a stop on the Kuala Lumpur to Singapore railway line. Or so I thought.

I got the train from KL Sentral at 11am on Saturday morning and was surprised to find it pretty much empty, with only a handful of other passengers in my carriage. The train was a shiny new express service to Gemas, a town 3 hours south-east of KL where Malaysia’s two long-distance railway lines meet. It had airline seats and information screens showing a Harry Potter films with no sound and, that prized Malaysian indicator of wealth and prosperity, bone-chillingly cold air conditioning. But it was a pleasant journey and two hours later I arrived at Pulau Sebang-Tampin, from where I had been told I could get a bus to Melaka. This was accurate, broadly speaking, but a few details had been overlooked; the fact that I had to walk for 20 minutes to the bus station with 20 kilos on my back in the midday sun, for example. But I made it and, finding there was no bus schedule or information at all, followed the example of the local passengers and sat on the floor, waiting for someone to tell me when a bus to Melaka arrived. This strategy worked a treat and ten minutes later I was on the local bus on the hour-long, 35km drive to the city.

On the journey we drove through Tampin, a quiet crossroads town not unlike Khok Kloi, with its hardware stores, food shops and a Singer shop selling sewing machines and motorbikes. We then passed by small villages with red painted wooden houses raised on stilts with steep roofs shaped like this _/\_ , which I later found out were traditional and typical of this region. Arriving at Melaka Sentral bus station, I then got a second bus to the town centre and walked to my hostel, checking in two hours after departing the train.

The port city of Melaka was of great strategic value to the colonising nations and, prior to the development of Singapore, was the most important port and trading post on the Malayan Peninsular. It was colonised first by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, and later by the Dutch and finally by the British in the 19th Century. Each of these powers made their mark on the city’s architecture and culture and as it faded from prominence, dwarfed by Singapore and later Kuala Lumpur, its historic centre was preserved. The town square, or Dutch Square or Red Square as it is also known, is home to a fountain in honour of Queen Victoria, the Dutch-built Stadthuys dating to 1650 and the Christ Church. Many of the surrounding structures, formally colonial civic buildings, have been painted a dusty red colour to match the buildings on the square, and many have been turned into museums, about anything from architecture to Islamic history to stamps. The area is also the site of St Paul’s Hill, with a ruined church (Portuguese) cum fort (Dutch) cum storage building (British) at the top.

Across the river from the colonial centre is Chinatown, full of temples, restaurants and guesthouses, and founded in the 15th Century by Chinese traders . The buildings here are traditional Chinese shop-houses, terraces of narrow but deep buildings with shops on the ground floor and living quarters above. With their painted wooden shutters and charming quiet streets, the buildings reminded me a little of small French towns and, like in Europe, the history of these old buildings here were very much alive; restored, maintained and part of everyday life, just as they always had been.

Apart from its cultural heritage, Melaka is also famous for its food, which draws on the cities cultural influences over the centuries. I tried Laksa, a hot and sour noodle soup, as well as a dish called Rojak, a mix of cucumber, a pineapple-ish fruit, chunks of something the texture of tofu, and big pieces of crunchy stuff that was somewhere between honeycomb and pork scratchings, all mixed up and covered in a sweet barbecuey sauce. I have no idea what that was all about. That evening I visited the Jonker Street Night Market, which had all kinds of food on offer, from dried barbecued cuttlefish, to grilled breaded quails eggs that looked just like mini scotch eggs. My street food dinner reflected the variety of Malaysian culture; reconstituted fish balls in curry sauce, fried pork dumplings with soy sauce, and chicken satay skewers with peanut sauce, all washed down with sugar cane juice in front of a huge gilded stage which was hosting some kind of public OAP karaoke session.

However, my best meal in Melaka came the following evening, when I went to a famous local restaurant, Capitol Satay. Now in its fourth generation, it began as a street stall after the war when its founder, an immigrant from southern China, put a unique spin on the Malaysian classic of barbecued meat skewers served with spicy peanut sauce. The idea is a bit like cheese fondue; you sit at a round table with a bucket of molten peanut sauce in the middle, heated from below by a gas burner, and you help yourself to raw skewers and dumplings and chuck them in the sauce for a few minutes until they’re done. I tried skewers of pork, prawns and what I later found out was pig heart, as well as a selection of dumplings and vegetables. So peanutty, so filling, and sooooo good. About as far from a Sainsbury’s chicken satay stick as you can imagine.

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Capitol Satay

PS I almost forget to explain the name of this post; as I walked around the city I kept seeing brightly coloured posters with the ominous tagline ‘Don’t mess with Melaka’. No explanation, no clear visual message, just a mildly threatening reminder of this charming city’s penchant for violent retribution. Or maybe an anti-litter campaign.

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WorkAwaying at Yellow House

I’ve been aware of WorkAway for a few years, but my two weeks in Kuala Lumpur was the first time I had used it to find a volunteer project. WorkAway is a membership-based online noticeboard where families, businesses and charities advertise for volunteers, usually on the basis of around 5 hours work per day, 5 days per week, in exchange for meals and accommodation.

The work in question at Yellow House was a combination of household chores and community volunteer projects, which for me meant helping out at a school for people with special needs, teaching at a school for refugees, running a free clothing stall for homeless people, and taking part in the Street Salon, also for homeless people.

The students at the special school had a range of conditions, including Down’s Syndrome, Autism and Global Development Delay, and range in age from five to thirty-nine. This kind of environment was completely new to me and I found my first morning helping the oldest and lowest functioning students very difficult; I didn’t know each person’s different abilities and skills, and as they had little to no linguistic ability I found it difficult to engage. But, as I got to know the students better and began to understand their responses, I became much more comfortable. I also had the chance to go swimming with a group of the students at a local pool, which was great fun. It is useful as aquatherapy, for skills development, left-right brain alignment and co-ordination, as well as being good exercise, and I was impressed how calm the students were in the water, and how well they swam.

The refugee school is attended by refugees primarily from Afghanistan between the ages of about six and seventeen, and on my first day I helped out in an English class. Most of them were about ten and just like my group in Thailand, the lesson was Parts of the Body, and they too knew the universal classic that is ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. The teacher, also from Afghanistan, was quite traditional in method but he had a good relationship with the class and kept them in line. In contrast, the next day the teacher was off and another volunteer and I were asked to take the class on our own. That morning will stay with me as an important reminder of why I could never teach in a primary school for the sake of my sanity; name calling, fist fights, tears, screaming, me telling them off, them telling me off, and very little learning. It makes me want to have a lie down just thinking about it.

The clothes stall, called the Dignity Store, and the Street Salon are held once a week in conjunction with a food programme run by a Muslim charity in the centre of KL. Usually when clothes are offered to homeless people they are in a bag for them to rummage through, and are often broken or dirty. Special effort is made with the Dignity Store to provide clean, unripped clothes, and to display them on hangers for the homeless people to browse through, and take one or two items that they like. It’s all about treating these people with respect and, as the name says, dignity. Similarly, the Street Salon, in which we cut and washed homeless people’s hair, is as much about treating them as human beings and spoiling them a little as it is about hygiene. I was on shampooing duty, another first for me, and I enjoyed chatting to everyone and feeling like I was doing something practical and helpful.

All of the projects were quite humbling for me, and I was reminded constantly how normal all the people I met were, and how unlike the stereotypes. None of the homeless people were wild-eyed and rambling, the Afghan girls gave as good as they got and weren’t at all meek. It’s not that this surprised me exactly, but, as I lead a pretty sheltered life without much contact with society’s marginalised groups, it was good for me to be reminded that people are just people.

As someone who once felt like she was losing her marbles after living alone for a week, I was surprised how difficult I found it to adjust to living in close quarters with other people again. For the previous month I’d been staying either in hotels, with the room to myself, or in hostel dormitories which had tended to be spacious and largely empty, and I’d grown used to having a great deal of personal space. My dormitory at Yellow House, on the other hand, was small, only just big enough for the three bunk beds barely any space for storage. The communal area was more spacious and, although a little rough around the edges, was perfectly comfortable and bright, with murals and photographs on the walls and three dogs and a cat wandering around. The other volunteers, who were from all over the place, from Texas to Leicester to China, were all very friendly and we all did chores and upkeep around the house, although I managed to avoid imposing my lack of cooking skills on anyone. Although people came and went, there was a nice camaraderie amongst most of the volunteers, and by the time of our leaving barbecue on my final night, I was quite sad to say goodbye, but equally keen to be off on my own again.

For more about Yellow House, see here.

Kuala Lumpur

The contrast between Malaysia and Thailand was clear, as it had been when I entered Thailand from Myanmar, and the most striking difference is the people. Ethnic Thais make up more than 85% of the population in Thailand, but Malaysia is a mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians, who were encouraged to work in the rubber and tin industries in colonial times. These groups are culturally and religiously distinct; the Malays are largely Muslim, the Indians Hindu and the Chinese Buddhist or Christian, which makes the people-watching in Malaysia much more varied than earlier in my trip. The landscape was equally diverse on my bus journey to Kuala Lumpur, passing through flat acres of palm plantations, steep limestone mountains, and dense rainforest.

Kuala Lumpur is a city on an international scale, with skyscrapers and communications towers and a sense that Important Things happen here. It’s also very, very hot and humid and nowhere near a beach, which was tough for me. And like a big city should, it has lots of green space. Next to the Petronas towers and surrounded by gleaming glass skyscrapers is KLCC Park, a well-kept, landscaped park with fountains and a playground, always full of visitors to the city’s business district. Smaller and less manicured is the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, a slice of rainforest in the centre of the city, complete with a canopy walk, nature trails and the Forestry Information Centre. It is dense and hilly and attracts fewer visitors than it should, making it an excellent place to escape the big city for a while. KL’s main green space however is the Lake Gardens, towards the west of the city centre. A huge piece of land covering over 200 acres, it includes a deer park, aviary and butterfly park, as well as gardens devoted to orchids, rare trees, medicinal plants, and hibiscus. Its playgrounds, picnic benches and boating lake make it popular with families and there are a range of museums at the edges of the park.

The main attraction of Kuala Lumpur for Malaysians is not the green space, but the shopping; KL boasts more than fifty ultra-modern shopping centres selling luxury and high street brands. The majority of these are in the Bukit Bintang and KLCC areas, and in this part of the city, full of skyscrapers and designer labels, you could be anywhere in the world. I found a more uniquely Malaysian experience walking around the west end of the city; Chinatown, Little India and the former colonial centre, with it’s clock tower and intricate civic buildings that reminded me of the Brighton Pavilion. The international skyscrapers still form the backdrop in this part of town, but the foreground is all Malaysia; street hawkers, open sided canteen-style restaurants, and small bazaars in the alleyways

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Malaysia’s multi-culturalism everywhere, from the people to the religious buildings and monuments, like the Batu Caves, a cave complex designated as a Hindu place of worship for over a hundred years, with gigantic status and a 200-odd step gold-painted staircase leading up to the main cave. The language also reflects the strongly preserved cultures here; although Bahasa Malaysia is the only official language, most signs in shops and businesses are also written in Chinese and many are in English as well. A lot of advertising is in English only, and the general level of English in Kuala Lumpur is very high to the extent that I didn’t even manage to learn my ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Bahasa Malaysia; when I visited a bookshop I even found that almost all of the books on sale were in English.

Despite promoting itself as an example of multi-cultural harmony, KL is not without cultural tensions, as I learned when I was invited to a barbecue and pool party in a block of flats on the edge of the city. I chatted to a former political journalist, who explained that the political system maintains cultural divides, as the political parties are each directed at and financed by different cultural groups. In addition, he said that racism is more prevalent in cities, because the urban neighbourhoods each tend to be dominated by one group, rather than everyone being mixed together as they are in small towns.

At the same party my western companions and I caused a minor diplomatic incident when we went for a swim in the pool; we were aware of the Malaysians sensibilities about dress – respectable people are expected to have their knees and shoulders covered – so when we went for a swim we wore t-shirts and shorts over our bikinis. As we got into the water, the pool security guard told us that t-shirts were not allowed, only lycra ‘swim shirts’, and after a short discussion with our Malaysian friend, we were permitted to swim in our bikinis only. A little while later, after a complaint from one of the residents, a different security guard came over and told us that bikinis were not appropriate attire and that we should leave the pool. The caused a great deal of argument between the security guards and our party, to the embarrassment of me and the other westerners. Eventually the issue was resolved and the guards apologised to us, which was even more embarrassing. The other party guests, exclusively Indian and Chinese Malaysians, later said that the complaint had probably come from a Malay couple sitting by the pool, because it’s only the Muslim Malays who care about that sort of thing. They told us wearily that it is common for the Malays to make this sort of complaint towards other Malaysians and Westerners alike, characterising the Malays as killjoys and zealots. So much for multi-cultural harmony.

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Petronas Towers