In a city where new, old, and very old meet,
Melaka has quickly topped my list of favorite destinations
The penultimate stop on our road trip took us south to the historic port city of Melaka. I found a Malaysian family to stay with on Airbnb so our first stop was to their house on a quiet neighborhood street a few kilometers outside the city center. Our host, Os, and his wife Hoz greeted us at the door with warm formality and invited us in for tea and snacks. Hoz brought out little banana donuts that were delicious (as most donuts are) and we drank green tea brought from a former guest from China. There are a lot of strict cultural rules in Malaysia, especially pertaining to being a guest in someone's home, and although I wasn't sure what faux-pas I was committing I tried to be as respectful as possible. Hoz didn't stay to chat with us, it was clear that the men entertain and the women are there to serve the guests and mostly stay in the kitchen. She was courteous but reserved at first- she wouldn't meet our gaze and seemed a little uncomfortable. Os on the other hand was garrulous and started telling us stories about past guests he's hosted and how he plans to decorate his house Moroccan style.
Hoz was gracious enough to let us come inside her kitchen and help her cook eight dishes of Malaysian food, which I'll share in my next post. It was a lot to take in but I tried to capture what the right colors and consistencies of the sauces and curries so I could try to replicate them myself. Hoz is a terrific cook and no matter how sharp you are, you'll never learn the nuances and instinct that comes from decades of cooking these dishes in just one day. The kitchen took on a life of its own when we toasted the cinnamon and star anise for the curry, reduced fragrant chilies and garlic in the wok, and smelled those delicious Indian and Thai flavors meld in the mouth-watering air. The best part of being in Hoz's kitchen was seeing her in her element; she was relaxed and in her comfort zone and I got to know a lot about her. She told me how proud she was of her kids, particularly her daughter with a full ride to Stanford. She talked about how she's traveled all over the world, lived in Saudi Arabia, and still gets mad at her brother when he throws leftover food away. A seemingly very shy person blossomed into the most talkative woman with the biggest smile and kindest eyes. When I left, she couldn't stop hugging me or grabbing my arm affectionately. I will always treasure getting to know her and her husband (and her secrets to delectable Malaysian food).
When we weren't at the home chatting with our hosts, who were so generous and great to us, we were exploring the town of Melaka. There are many similarities between Melaka and Georgetown: both are UNESCO world heritage sites, both will charm you with their small winding streets lined with old historic storefronts, and both were integral cities along the spice route between Europe, China, and India. The town has done a really great job at revitalizing what can be dilapidated streets and re-purposed a lot of buildings into trendy cafes and shops, turned historic Jocker street into essentially a 24-hour market, and cleaned up the riverfront so restaurants can set up tables or joggers can exercise. They've also preserved a lot of historic sites like the colonial churches, Dutch Square, and the old cemeteries where the earliest European conquerors were buried. These sites are free, close to downtown, and have a lot of informational placards available.
One of the coolest places to see in Melaka is A Famosa, a fortress sitting on top of a hill overlooking the city first built in 1511. On this spot once stood the palace of the Sultanate of Malaysia, which was dismantled and used to build the fort when the Portuguese took Melaka. When they gained control of the strategic port, they built a church, an armory, and several gates by which they monitored trade coming in and out of the city. A Famosa is among the oldest European structures left in Asia and the church inside is the oldest functioning church in Asia as well.
When the Dutch conquered Melaka and took power over the city away from the Portuguese, they used the fort as a symbol of their new regime. At the southern gate, the only one still standing today, they placed a symbol of the Dutch East India Company and inscribed "Anno 1670," not the year the fort was built but the year the Dutch completed their renovations.
During Napoleon's reign, the Dutch feared the French would try to take over the city so they temporarily ceded control to the British to protect Melaka provided they return the city to the Dutch after the threat was over. It didn't take long for the British to grow disinterested in Melaka; they were investing in Georgetown, Singapore, and Java and didn't want to spend the time or money to maintain the fort. Here's where I start connecting the dots from what I've learned from traveling so far. The man charged with ordering its destruction was Farquar, the same man who colonized Georgetown and whose name was plastered on many streets, hotels, and restaurants all over the city. The man who saved it was Sir William Raffles, a preservationist and the founder of modern Singapore, whom I learned about in the country's national museum.
I loved walking around the old fort. High on the hill, you have 360 degree views of the city from the ocean to the riverfront to the skyscrapers beginning to sprout up in this growing city. The fort itself is weather-beaten but standing on its own and in pretty good shape. All over the grounds, old tombstones of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British military personnel and their families are propped against the wall like giant old books. Most were inscribed in Latin and dated as far back as the 16th century all the way up to the mid-1800s.
We rounded out the stay with a visit to the Melaka Straits Mosque, a site our host Os had recommended. It's located on a small man-made island close to the city center and is only about eleven years old. As far as mosques go, it's a pretty standard building and doesn't boast the intricate mosaics or craftsmanship that make mosques famous attractions, but it does have a pretty amazing view of the water. In fact, the whole building seems to float on top of the water. It's a very serene environment to worship or to just take in a calmer part of the city.
Dain and I both had to borrow clothes from the mosque to cover up before entering. We also had to take off our shoes, which is standard upon entering every home or house of worship. The Malay people don't like to acknowledge each other on the street but they love to approach foreigners. We have taken plenty of selfies with strangers who want a small souvenir to prove they saw two tall blonde people in shorts. With fair frequency people approach us on the street and strike up casual conversation as if we're old friends, which Dain and I both love. In addition to being polite and friendly people, the barrier to conversation here is very low.
In typical form, a man approached us inside the mosque and asked if we knew much about Islam. We ended up listening to him explain how Muslims believe God is described, where the three monotheistic religions converge and diverge, and how Muslims worship. He brought up ISIS and the Islamic radicals killing in the name of Allah and how most Muslims completely reject their use of the Qu'oran to justify their immoral behavior. In fact, he was upset that more Muslims didn't denounce their actions more publicly. Muslims believe that to be happy and for the world to achieve peace, one must follow God's commands. Killing, among other things, violates the 10 commandments and is thus in opposition to Islam. I feel that if more people took the time to understand Islam even a little bit and, more importantly, get to know Muslim people, the world would be a much different place.
In all, I can walk away from Melaka (or drive away in our teeny white rental car) and say that it was one of my favorite places I've seen so far. The warm welcome from its people, the rich history so readily available, the modern amenities, and the completely foreign ideologies made touring this city quite a memorable experience. I will definitely be back, if only to have more of Hoz's food.