One of the most interesting ways to learn about a foreign culture is to see where they go on vacation within their own country. This is particularly true of places of cultural significance. Everyone loves a natural wonder, but it won’t tell you as much about a group of people as a site of historical significance.
Kat and I were happy to get out of Kuala Lumpur for a few days and took a 2 hour bus ride to the south west coastal city of Melaka, one of Malaysia’s top tourist draws. Melaka is a city with an interesting and long history being occupied at one point or another over the past 600 years by Portuguese, Dutch, English (the Dutch again), and Japanese during WWII. Finally then Malaysians got to control their own city.
All this European colonial history makes Melaka a hugely popular tourist attraction for Malaysians and, for reasons that escape explanation, Chinese on package tours ALL of whom were staying in our hotel. (Chinese tourists were top on our list of most awful human beings ever — until we encountered Russian package tourists in Thailand – but more on that for a later post).
The town is quite small and very walkable. It’s quaint and (somewhat) relaxed with a lazy river floating through it. Though it’s right on the coast, you can’t really see the water unless you’re up high on a hill. There are a number of remnants from the colonial era (primarily Dutch) that you can explore — the dutch church, the dutch government offices, ruins of the Portuguese fort. Kat’s not really a history nerd like me, so I explored these sites without her. To be honest, it was all quite dull — a LOT of panel reading and not a whole lot to see. To spice things up, the town has built a bunch of replica nonsense for tourist bait. You can explore a recreation of a 16th century Portuguese galleon (which I did — again, not worth my 6 ringit). There’s also right on the river a recreation of a dutch waterwheel and a dutch windmill and my GOD did the Malays and Chinese clamor for photos in front of those. I was perplexed by this but Kat pointed out that this is the closest thing to “Europe” that a lot of these people have seen. I guess it’s a good point. If there were a giant Chinese dragon or something in downtown Annapolis, Maryland I might have my photo taken with that too.
A popular thing is to rent a bicycle powered trishaw covered in flashing lights and trinkets and to be driven around the city with music BLARING from speakers in the back. (“Gangnum Style” typically, as if you even needed to ask). It does add a certain flare to the place, especially at night as these insane pop and neon-light powered rockets zip around. We tried many MANY times to get a good photo, but it just didn’t work out. Use your imaginations.
Like any good tourist city, Melaka has some foods that it is known for, including its own Pat’s/Geno’s style “which place makes the best thing” rivarly. Of course, this is Asia and not Philly so the fight isn’t over cheesesteaks, but rather over chicken rice balls. Loyal readers will remember chicken rice that we ate in Singapore. This is the same thing except the rice is served in tiny sticky golf ball sized pieces and this is apparently ONLY done in Melaka. Again, who can explain these things? There are two places that are both “famous” for their chicken rice balls. We only went to one because both had incredibly long lines.
It was good. Worth waiting an hour in line good? No, it never is REALLY now is it? But it was still fun and I’m glad we did it.
We were in Melaka for Christmas, and I’ll be honest, it was a low moment on the trip for both of us. It just didn’t feel right being so far away from friends and family and familiar foods. It’s not Christmas when it’s 95 degrees out and you’re eating chili paste and fish sauce. So for “Christmas dinner” we decided to treat ourselves to something special — THE most famous restaurant in all of Melaka (and perhaps one of the most famous in all of Malaysia) — Capitol Satay.
What this is, basically, is a dirty hole in the wall with a bunch of tables with big holes in the center. In the whole is a giant vat that is filled with delicious spicy, peaunty satay sauce. You go to a wall cooler in the corner and pick out skewers of anything and everything ranging from vegetables, to pig ears, to offal to prawns to lord knows what else (STILL not entirely sure about some of what I ate). You bring those skewers back to the table (they cost about 30 cents each), the staff turns on the propane tank located between your legs and the satay sauce begins to bubble and boil and you cook your own skewers in the sauce right there in the middle of the table.
This is great fun for a huge group especially. It was also INSANELY messy. Also, we had to wait over 3 hours to get in. Again — not sure it was worth all THAT but it was terrific fun and I know that it’s a Christmas dinner that we’ll be talking about for a long time to come.
We were in Melaka for 4 days and honestly it was a day or two too long, but it’s still worth a visit. By the last day we ran out of stuff to do and just decided to be lazy and go see a movie (Life of Pi in 3D was pretty good!). We were excited to get out of our dingy hotel filled with screaming Chinese and a sewage-y smelling bathroom. It was back to KL for us for an extended period of time (which you’ve already read about) and after that we departed for the cool climes of the Cameron Highlands, full of forest trekking and tea plantations. More on that to follow in our next post.
I leave you with this (admittedly awful) picture so you can get some sense of what Melaka was like. Please to enjoy: