From Melaka to Pinang: Between the historical ports of Malaysia

A Peranakan mansion in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Melaka. Pictures: Paolo Coluzzi

Sunday, April 25, 2010

WHAT a contrast between Dumai in Sumatra and Melaka in Malaysia! Less than 100km separate them, but it's two worlds apart. Dumai is a rundown rather ugly small town, whereas Melaka is probably the most beautiful and interesting town I've visited since the beginning of my journey! It's like delving into centuries of history that you can still see and touch, plus it's blessed with the water of the sea and of its river Melaka, and on top of that it's very well preserved!

I just loved the place. I found a neat little guesthouse in Chinatown, in Jalan Tukang Besi, a street also known as Harmony Street, as one Hindu Temple, a mosque and a Chinese temple stand in this road one close to the other, a sign of the mixture of races and religions that have dwelled in this town. The Chinese temple, Cheng Hoon Teng, is actually the oldest Chinese temple found in Malaysia, dating back to 1646.

There are churches as well, the oldest two built by the Portuguese (St Paul, now in ruins) and by the Dutch (Christ Church). The first was built as far back as in 1521, dominating Melaka from the top of the hill with the same name, the second was built in 1753 and has become one of the main landmarks of Melaka, together with the Stadthuys, the old Dutch town hall (believed to be the oldest Dutch building in the East) found on the same square, now housing the interesting Historical, Ethnographic and Literature Museums.

But these are only some of the historical buildings that fill the old town: at every corner on can spot an English colonial building, a Chinese shophouse or a Baba Nonya mansion.

As many of the readers will know, the Baba Nonya or Peranakan are the Chinese who came to Malaysia between the 15th and 16th centuries and started mixing with the local Malay population ending up mixing the two cultures. Yet another example of the historical and ethnic heritage of Melaka. Apparently there are even people in Melaka of Portuguese origins that can still speak Kristang, a language mixing Malay and Portuguese!

If one wants to find shelter from the scorching sun or the heavy rain, history can be also found in the many museums scattered around the centre; apart from the three already mentioned, there is the Muzium Rakyat, the Maritime Museum and the Baba-Nonya Heritage Museum, among others. A museum with many fascinating dioramas is also housed inside the reconstruction of the majestic Melaka Sultanate Palace, all made of wood without using any nails! All this in the town centre, within walking distance (and if one doesn't want to walk, he/she can take one of the colourful beca that are found everywhere).

But Melaka is not only history and tourists, there are plenty of shops and shopping malls, restaurants and coffee shops one can go to, and particularly streets, little parks and walks one can wander through to relax and chill out.

My favourite is the walk along the Melaka River, particularly pleasant in the late afternoon or at night when the temperature goes down. It was four very pleasant, interesting and relaxing days I spent there, but on Thursday afternoon the 15th of April I decided to get a coach to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

I'm not so fond of big cities, but Kuala Lumpur is probably one of the most livable and tourist-friendly cities in South-east Asia. I didn't really need to go there, as I had already visited the city a few times when I was living in Brunei, but I had arranged to see some friends, and anyway the train to my next destination, Penang, left from there.

During the almost two days I spent there, however, I did walk around a bit. From my guesthouse in the central area of Bukit Bintang I went to Merdeka Square overlooked by the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad building (1897) and to Chinatown, walking past the beautiful Masjid Jamek (1907).

I also went for a walk into Bukit Nanas park, where Menara Kuala Lumpur, the telecommunication tower, stands at 276m, and to the impressive Petronas twin towers and the pretty park behind them. Yesterday, shortly past 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I took a train from KL Sentral to Butterworth, the town on the north-western coast of Malaysia facing the island of Penang, which can be easily reached with a ferry from the train and coach station.

The journey from Kuala Lumpur lasted for about seven hours, but I enjoyed the view from the train, particularly after Ipoh, when mountains and hills started rising around us.

The train arrived in Butterworth shortly before ten, and I reached the small hotel recommended by my guidebook by around eleven. More about Georgetown and Penang next week!

The Brunei Times