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.
Malaysia is an advanced nation. It's not as advanced as Singapore, which has managed to make advancement a clinical science, but Malaysia is instantly a step up from Indonesia. The shops have fixed prices on their goods; transport costs are fixed and the ticket touts don't inflate them; everyone, absolutely everyone, either speaks English or knows someone who does; the roads are wide, multi-lane and efficient; the food is clean, wonderfully varied and inexpensive; the tap water is drinkable; you don't get mobbed by people everywhere you go; and tourists are not a source of amazement and intrigue, they're just accepted and pretty much ignored. I was astounded.
In fact the only example I could find of Indonesian insanity in Malaysia was with the labelling on cigarettes. Malaysian cigarette packets are labelled with the amount of nicotine and tar in each smoke, much as in Europe and America; in Indonesia they don't even bother to tell you, or to distinguish between high tar or low tar. However, every single packet in Malaysia claims to contain cigarettes with 20mg of tar and 1.5mg of nicotine, putting them in the very high tar bracket, irrespective of the actual strength; for example, Marlboro are labelled 20mg and 1.5mg, and Marlboro Lights – that come with the caption 'Lowered tar and nicotine' – still weigh in at 20mg and 1.5mg. So are the figures intentionally misleading? In a sense they are, because Malaysian law dictates that packets should list the maximum possible figures for tar and nicotine for all cigarettes, irrespective of which cigarettes the figures are talking about. I suppose it's better than no warnings at all, but it's still a bit odd.
I was so blown away by the unexpected modernity of Malaysia that for the first few days I couldn't help pointing out to everyone I met that it was so quiet, so easy and so civilised here; Malaysia looks like it's going to be a halfway house between Indonesia and Singapore, with Singaporean civilisation and Indonesian pricing. I didn't waste any time in going for the cultural jugular, hopping on a bus from Johor straight to Melaka, the famous historical port on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia. As the air-conditioned bus sped along the superhighway, with ample seat space and very few other passengers, I figured that life was going to be a lot better than the guidebooks had made out. I think Malaysia is going to be fun.
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.
I spent my first day in Melaka exploring the museums and cultural oddities of this delightful place. I was reminded of one of the Germans I met in the Togian Islands – one of the pitcher plant enthusiasts – who kept banging on about the 'steamroller effect' of Islam, a force that was destroying Indonesian culture in the same way that it had already destroyed Malaysian culture, according to his observations. At the time I didn't have enough information to agree or disagree with him, but it's certainly true that Islam is extremely influential. Exploring Melaka showed me both sides to the argument.
There is no doubt that the historical aspects of Melaka haven't been swept away by the arrival of Islam. They are actively pushed as tourist attractions, and the major museums are excellent. On the other hand, the exhibits that pertain to Muslim life in Melaka do come across as something of a shock to those who may not be familiar with the ways of Islam, probably because your average westerner isn't exposed to the details of Islam that much, and ignorance is a terrible interpreter.
Marriage and 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:
The process starts when the parents of a boy decide that it's time he married, and they put out their feelers to look for a suitable girl (this is, interestingly, a different way round to some other religions that practice arranged marriages, when it's up to the mother of the girl to find a suitable boy).
When a potential bride is found, the boy's parents visit the girl to see if she has the correct manners, looks and so on, and if they reckon she's a good 'un, the two sets of parents agree on a suitable dowry.
The agreement is ratified by the payment of half the dowry from the girl's parents to the boy's, but here's the catch: if the groom decides to back out, the dowry deposit is considered lost and the groom's family keeps it, but if the bride backs out, then the bride's family has to pay the groom's family twice the dowry as compensation.
When the couple actually marry, the holy oath and vows are made just between the men: the groom, the Imam (holy leader) and male attendees from the wedding party. The bride has nothing to do with it; she gets married in absentia, as it were.
This ceremony is followed by the formality of giving the ring, where the bride actually gets to meet the man she's already been married to. Then follows the celebration – alcohol free, if you're a particularly keen Muslim – and they live happily ever after. By decree.
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
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.
I climbed the main hill in Melaka to the ruins of St Paul's Church, I checked out the Porta de Santiago (about the only relic still standing from the original Portuguese fortifications), I ate a delicious curry for lunch, I bought exotic fruits at the market, and I did all those things I enjoyed doing in Indonesia but without the hassle. I felt quite light-headed with the effortless way you can glide through the streets here, sampling the environment without losing your cool; it was utter bliss.
One of the more interesting places I visited was Bukit China in the western part of Melaka. Bukit China is a hill that's smothered by 12,000 Chinese graves, most of which are in such a state of disrepair that it's impossible to tell who's buried there. Covering 25 hectares (about 62 acres) the hill not only contains huge numbers of traditional Chinese graves, with their extravagant surrounding walls and elaborate gravestones, but it also provides a good view of Melaka itself, with its famous but polluted seaways, and ancient and cramped road system. The inscriptions on the graves are interesting too, or at least those that you can make out, and some are even in Roman characters. One of them had two people's names on it, a man and a woman, but only the man had dates next to his name; the woman's dates were left blank, presumably because she hadn't died yet. That would freak me out a bit; imagine seeing your own gravestone every time you visited your husband's grave, just waiting for those dates to be filled in. Sounds like something out of A Christmas Carol.
Old Melaka, with its side streets, temples and antique shops tucked into a bend in the Melaka River, is also a delight to walk around, and it gave me a good chance to join in with a local custom: using an umbrella even though it's not raining. Until I've trusted my bush hat to stop the ultra-violet from destroying the back of my neck, but an umbrella is even more effective and is rather cooler in the heat; I felt terribly English strolling round Old Melaka with my umbrella unfurled, but I'm now a convert, and it doesn't look weird in Malaysia, because everybody's doing it. I have to rate my brolly as the most useful travel item after my computer; don't leave home without one.