26 November 2015

Melaka's Colonial District

Although Malaysia is a country with a fascinating history very little of that is evident on the face of most of the country.  The majority of the homes and commercial developments in towns are new builds.  There are some older buildings in and around the cities and when they are maintained they are beautiful but by and large the profusion of newer buildings can make urban Malaysia seem rather homogeneous.  There are exceptions to this, the best known being Penang to the north and Melaka to the south.  In their time they were both trading ports before Singapore took over as the hub of the region.   These two locations quickly became our favourite places in Peninsular Malaysia.  Over the summer holidays we took the opportunity to grab an AirBNB flat and spend a few days walking around Melaka.
Melaka's Colonial District
Melaka's Colonial District
Melaka rose to prominence as a trading port under the local Malay sultans in the 14th century but was colonised by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.  Their reign came to an end in 1602 when the port was taken over by the VOC (the Dutch East Indies Company) who handed it to the British in 1795.  Melaka struggled on in slow decline watching as the most lucrative trade went first to Penang and then to Singapore.  This chequered history means Melaka is a fascinating city of mixed cultural heritage and this is reflected in the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation that was granted in 2008.
Colonial Melaka
Melaka's history is written all over its face
We spent the first day enjoying a wander around the Colonial District.  It was very surprising for me to see Christ Church which is built in the Dutch style.  As soon as I walked through the door I felt as though I was back at home in the Netherlands again instead of in the heat of the tropics.  The similarities did not end there.  Many of the buildings date back to the Dutch Era and look rather comfortingly familiar (if out of place).  If the buildings are distinctive in design they have been somewhat ruined by the uniform application of a matt red paint which rather ruins the ambience.  Other than the interior of Christ Church my favourite part of the colonial town was the section of shop houses near the river where the distinctive narrow Dutch bricks were exposed, I could have been walking down a street in one of my early home towns. 

Christ Church Melaka
Christ Church Melaka
Sadly while the Churches (Dutch and Portuguese), Stathuys and some of the colonial buildings remain the fort built on the hill commanding the Melaka River was destroyed in the early 19th century when the bricks were needed to build a new fort in Penang.   Many of the older buildings house small museums dedicated to a variety of subjects including the Democratic Government Museum, The Stamp Museum, The UMNO (United Malays National Organisation, the main Malay political Party) Museum, the Islamic Museum and the Youth Museum.  There is also a park complete with a Small Plane and a train carriage (selling overpriced souvenirs) although we never worked out the relevance of this.

Dutch Bricks Melaka
My favourite street in Melaka
We walked down to the river to catch a tourist boat to see the sites from the water.  It is a lovely way to see the city, particularly some of the wall art for which it is famous.  The tour took us past the relatively new Pirate Theme Park built by the city council at eye watering cost and consisting of a rather lacklustre big wheel, a swinging boat and some other rides.  It looked pretty deserted as we sailed past and we could not quite work out who would be interested in a small theme park when they have the whole city to explore.  As we travelled further on we saw the famous Melaka Monorail.  It broke down on its first day when it was discovered that it could not cope with the rain (a bit of a problem in this climate).  At the turning point of the boat we could see a Monorail carriage parked overhead.  I guess this is meant to give the impression that the system works (or could do at any time) but a close look reveals that that train should not be moving anywhere soon!

Melaka River
Picturesque Melaka River
One of the real joys of the journey was spotting the many Monitor Lizards (I love monitors) swimming along the edge of the river just under the noses of the pedestrians on the boardwalk above.  After the boat ride we walked down to the Maritime Museum set in the hull of a replica of an early Portuguese trading ship.  Sadly by the time we reached it the museum was shut but it was fascinating to look around the outside and realise how small these pioneering ships, similar to the famous Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, really were.  More modern patrol craft are situated across the road and looked like fun to explore.

Melaka Monorail
The ill fated Melaka Monorail
Because of the heat and humidity we find that the children need to sit down and have a cold drink every few hours my refreshment of choice in the heat is some Limau Assam Boi (the rather unappetisingly named but heavenly to taste sour plum and lime juice).  As for food there are plenty of places to choose from in Melaka ranging from Malaysian to Thai to Western or the local Nyonya cuisine (Peranakans are people of mixed Chinese/Malay heritage, the men are called Babas and the women Nyonyas) cuisine. 

The riverbanks are decorated with wall art

And a boardwalk for those who prefer to stay off the water
Sadly the tourist authorities of Melaka allow a horrendous fleet of tourist trishaws.  Far from being a romanticised version of the vehicles of yesteryear these gaudy moving discos have flashing lights, are themed (the most popular appear to be Hello Kitty, Ben 10, Avengers and Frozen), and belt out the most unpleasant music.  They fill the streets and are almost impossible to avoid.

Tourist trishaws - an invention of the devil
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Ersatz Expat