Friday, 7 March 2014

Malacca Malaise - Part II

After reading Alain De Botton's The Art of Travel, I was motivated to contemplate and emotionally explore the depth of some of the more mundane things that we were experiencing. I was thinking about writing a word sketch about the incredible heat and suffocating humidity that pounded down upon us every day from 10am-5:30pm, the melancholy that overwhelmed us during the slow sailing legs, the thick smoky air that we woke up breathing because of the continual burning* that goes on here, or the exceedingly uncomfortable anchorages that we were spending night after night in. But I re-thought that idea and have instead decided to go on to write about the wonders that were hiding beyond the murky waterway of the Malacca Straits and the new times that abound for the historical Straits settlements.
*the continual haze that sits over the land and waterway is due to a number of factors including the burning of jungle for palm plantations, burning rubbish including plastics and burning natural waste such as leaves. The smoke haze is compounded by the heat haze and other pollutants such as driving cars and industrial emissions.
We have been fortunate enough to venture inland, first to the cool climes of the Cameron Highlands where we were refreshed by the chill of the night air and our eyes filled with the lush greens of the tea plantations; next, to the town of Malacca, to have our senses filled with the historic port town and its nueveau scene.
Cameron Highlands
The Cameron Highlands was historically a place for horticulture and colonial holiday getaways. Located 200km north of Kuala Lumpur and centrally located in the Peninsula, it is a long way from the busy centres and indeed high, with its peak Guning Brinchang at 2031m above sea level.
Hugh pondering his future as a tea-picker
We ventured up to the Highlands via a 5-hour bus ride from Penang. The long distance bus system here is cheap, comfortable and the way most people get around, connecting the thousands of towns and cities that intensively cover the Peninsula. We were struck by the sheer density of the palm oil plantations that covered the land next to the highway heading south and inland from Penang, which gave way to granite mining (by blasting) as we passed Ipoh and then the greenhouse structures that dominated the hillsides for the horticulture the closer we came to Tanah Rata (the central town in the Highlands).
We made our way off the bus at about 7pm and indulged in western-style chinese for dinner. After marvelling at the chilly night air and covering the town in about 10 minutes we decided to go and enjoy sleeping in a hotel for the night. We awoke early and day 1 had us scaling (including some clambering) the highest peak - Guning Brinchang, thankfully with the forethought to start early to beat the 30C heat of the day paid off. While it was nice and cool in the evening, the day still brought some stinging heat. After admiring the view of the jungle covered rolling hills of the Highlands that disappeared off into the distance and the haze we walked the 7km down the mountain and popped into a strawberry farm. Tasting their produce and enjoying the sweet delights, we hadn't eaten Strawberries since September, when we were in Bali and these were fabulous! As we continued on our walk, we found ourselves in the middle of a tea plantation, up to our waists in the lush green tea shrubs. The array of the green of the tea leaves was amazing, with deep emerald colours through to the new bright and light green shoots. The tea fields were rebalancing our colour senses, after becoming accustomed to so much blue. We stopped in at the 'Boh' Tea plantation and sampled their Cameronian Gold, a lovely black tea, not too unlike english breakfast and walked away with our 100 pack for future consumption.
Fresh Strawberries! Yum!
Day 2 had us again out and about early, this time jungle bashing and slipping our way down the steep hill to the waterfall and dam that forms part of the busy irrigation network and hydro-electricity supply for the Tanah Rata area. The thick silt in the water made the waterfall unappealing for a swim and we would just have to keep on walking. Once at the dam, Hugh marvelled at the power of the turbines, while I thought unexcitedly about the climb that we had ahead of us back to the town. An afternoon trip to the incredibly dull bee farm where we wandered amongst timber hives and the somewhat depressing trip to the butterfly farm where we watched the attendant pull live butterflies out of a box to refresh the supply (sifting through hundreds of butterflies that had not survived the trip) wrapped up our stay in the Highlands. 
While the landscape of the tea plantations was a truly spectacular sight and the mountain hiking that we did was superb, the commercialisation of the area and dense agricultural development was taking its toll on the beauty and sustainability of the area. Cars, roads and buildings were covered in the white dust from the granite mining 40km down the hill which have no dust suppression requirements, silting and pollution of the waterway from unrestricted horticulture and a desperate tourism sector will negatively impact the areas capacity for future development and continue to detract from its natural beauty. 
Malacca (Melaka) Town
We had heard wonderful things about Malacca Town from Hugh's parents and other cruiser friends who had been there ahead of us and we were looking forward to another break from the boat. The town was built on the western side of the Malacca River in the 15th C as the main trading port on the Straits for boats coming west from China and Indonesia and boats coming east from India and Europe. It provided safe harbour while traders waited for the monsoon system to change as they could continue their sail. The dominance of this port was fiercely fought over by the Portuguese, Dutch and English, before finally diminishing in dominance by the mid 1800s.
Malacca River by Night
Today the old town has been protected and the UNESCO heritage town is a bustling delight, with the old shop houses repurposed as guest houses, art galleries, cafes, boutique clothing stores and hip bars. Thankfully we arrived on a Sunday, where the main street is closed to traffic and transformed into a meandering market with the roadway covered in stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs, food, drinks and nick-nackery. It was a 3 hour trip to Malacca from Port Dickson, made somewhat more challenging by the 81st anniversary of the Malay Defence Force as they celebrated the day with a big show and parade right next to the marina. The three-bus journey to Malacca was quite easy and once again, we were impressed with the bus system here, even though it took quite a long time to go the 100km to Malacca. But the travel was worth it, as this town looked like it had had a transformation to become a centre of art culture inspiring and fuelling new artists. 
We walked around town, indulged in some street fare and enjoyed the active streets. Off Jalan Hang Jebat (the main street) were Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques. At its height, Malacca was said to have over 80 languages spoken, due to the sheer number of travellers and traders that wandered the town. We delighted in some German pork knuckle, hamburgers and Nyonya (traditional Malay-Chinese) cuisine and some Malacca favourites - chicken rice balls. Malacca was a diverse and contemporary town in an old town's body. While the buildings gave the town its visual character, the lack of footpaths and hectic traffic made getting around a slightly risky project. A boardwalk had been built running along both sides of the river providing a 5km winding path away from the traffic where you could imagine the sounds, sights and smells of the trading port 300 years ago. 
After some evening drinks at the Geographer Cafe listening to a cover band, we settled into the room in the Wayfarer Guesthouse (our stay a generous gift from Hugh's parents) which backed onto the Malacca River and relaxed listening the low hum of live music emanating from the local bars.
Malacca Town, still adorned with Chinese New Year Lanterns
The next day we visited the Maritime & Naval Museum, housed inside a replica Portguese Caravel (timber cargo boat). The novelty of seeing the Captains quarters and the cargo hold was worth the trip (even if some of the faux-tifacts were a bit cheesy) and some interesting history was detailed about the delivery of the message of Islam to the area and the fighting that took place for ownership of the port town over the centuries. On our walk back to town, Hugh was excited to visit the Customs Museum, which detailed the history of the Port Customs over the centuries. While filling the walls with photos of the customs 'group' shots from over the years wasn't particularly interesting, the seized items such as some guitar playing frogs frozen in taxidermy and sexually explicit wooden carvings made it an entertaining visit. Hugh was quite chuffed with that museum visit, I was keen to get lunch.

Our land visits had been fun and made our southward journey along the Malacca Straits an enjoyable trip, I just had to peek beyond the toe rails and into the lively streets of the townships to see that the waterbourne history of the Straits is very different to the current drivers of culture and future development. While De Botton has some interesting points to make on travel and truly seeing a place, he does tend to focus on the negative. My mental shift from the Malacca malaise showed me that I just need to keep looking to find the other side of the story.


1 comment:

  1. great photos and descriptive pieces - new career I'm thinking - NM