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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Malaysia: Melaka

Melaka port
Melaka is no longer a busy port, but there's still plenty going on

I'd incorrectly assumed that Malaysia would be like Indonesia; after all, they're geographically close, they're both predominantly Islamic, and they both have dictatorial leaders. So I wasn't prepared for the fact that Malaysia is a totally different travelling experience from Indonesia.

Fish drying by the river in Old Melaka
Fish drying by the river in Old Melaka

Melakan Culture

Melaka's Christ Church
The distinctive red colour of Melaka's Christ Church

Melaka is steeped in history and is one of the best examples of multicultural colonialism in existence. In its long and distinguished career the port has been inhabited in turn by the original indigenous people; by Prince Parameswara, who settled in Melaka in 1389, setting it up as an important port and starting the long line of Malay Sultans; by the Portuguese, who captured it in 1511 from the sultans but totally failed to capitalise on its potential as a port; by the Dutch, who captured it in 1641 and still totally failed to capitalise on its potential; by the British, who took control of it for the Dutch in 1795 during the French occupation of the Netherlands, and who retained it permanently in 1824 along with Singapore and India, in exchange for letting the Dutch keep Indonesia; by the Japanese who occupied it in World War II between 1941 and 1945; by the British again, after the war; and finally in 1957 by Malaya (now called Peninsular Malaysia) when the British handed the area back to its rightful owners as part of independence. Every change of owner was bloody, except the first, the Dutch-to-British change and the last, and a lot of the historical sites and sights are remnants of fortifications or ruins of churches destroyed in the conflicts. It seeps colonial atmosphere.

Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
Melaka's Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Marriage and the Stadhuys Museum

The Stadhuys, Melaka
The Stadhuys Museum

In the Stadhuys Museum in Melaka, there is a very informative display about Islamic marriage in the Melaka area. I couldn't resist copying it down, because some of the things it says appear completely bizarre to someone used to a western version of marriage. In Indonesia I found myself wondering why some of the women hide every inch of flesh under head scarves and full-length burqas – a custom that seems like a cruel torment in a climate that can fry eggs on the sidewalk – but the Melaka museum display on marriage is even more intriguing. Here's my attempt at a summary:

It's a far cry from the comparatively equal concept of western marriage, and it does seem to be heavily weighted in favour of the groom and his family, which is a bit difficult to swallow for a liberal like me. Indeed, when I read the following in the museum's diorama display on the history of Melaka, it didn't surprise me to see the wording that they chose to use: 'Melaka joined Islam in 1414... and the laws and prohibitions of Islam were implemented in 1424 when Parameswara's son, Sultan Mohammad Shah, took over after his father's death.' Prohibitions? After reading about marriage in the Stadhuys, this word feels particularly apt. I just hope that it's my lack of upbringing as a Muslim that makes me raise an eyebrow or two at the difference between Malaysian marriage and western marriage; after all, you can't judge an entire culture based on one museum display.

Other Sights of Melaka

A grave in Bukit China
A grave in Bukit China

I spent another couple of days just wandering round, thoroughly enjoying the feeling of history and cultural significance, and marvelling at the sights of modern Malaysia. I visited the Stadhuys – the Dutch-era town hall – and its museum, where I not only read a complete history of Melaka, I also discovered the correct terms for rice harvesting. You 'thresh' the rice to remove the grains from the mature stalks, and 'winnowing' is the name of the method of throwing the dried grains into the air to remove the husk. Now I can talk to any rice farmers I meet with confidence.

Porta de Santiago
Porta de Santiago is all that remains of the Portuguese fortifications; St Paul's Church is in the background
Old Melaka
The streets of Old Melaka