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Melaka –

A Life & History Less Hurried

Nicholas Klar takes the circle tour from Singapore to Melaka via Kuala Lumpur. He finds much to like, along with several kilograms to shed.

It’s the greenery that tells you are a long way from home. Everywhere tropical vines, banana palms, fruit trees peep over walls or rear overhead providing refreshment of both sight and smell. It was a short ride to the Keong Saik Hotel, a charming old renovated row house, in what we later found out was the former red light district. Though if my memory serves me well there was a lot of old Singapore that was a red light district. Sitting outside a nearby corner café was the wizened ‘Tan’, an octogenarian all too ready to share stories with anyone nearby and willing to listen. Later we sat around laughing and bantering amongst the smoke, noise and steam of the local night food stalls sharing some wonderful laksa and satay for dinner.

“I’m not sure about the concept of finding inner peace while you’re hanging onto a dirty great weapon.”

“Till tomorrow”, said Tan as he excused himself extending his bony hand, crushing mine with a strength that belied his years. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that we were moving on in the morning. Within hours the sun trickled through the drapes and I set off on a leisurely walk down wide broad clean streets to the train station to book tickets. In hindsight we decided that maybe we shouldn’t have stayed the night in Singapore and caught an overnight train instead. But then we wouldn’t have met Tan. On the way back I dallied at a couple of temples, Hindu and Sikh respectively, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Singapore society. In a nearby park I watched some tai-chi exponents practicing with swords under the far flung shady canopy of banyan trees. I’m not sure about the concept of finding inner peace while you’re hanging onto a dirty great weapon.

The ‘express’ (sic) train to Kuala Lumpur was not a memorable one. Well, maybe it was, but not for any good reasons. We only managed to travel about ten minutes out of the now aging, but formerly grand, Singapore station before grinding to a halt at a siding, where it remained steadfastly stuck for the next hour or so. The a/c felt like it was turned to about minus 10º. We had to sort through our bags and then it was four t-shirts all round. Finally and gratefully the train slid into the Kuala Lumpur Sentral railway station. Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it seems to be almost universally referred to as) is a bustling multicultural metropolis with a number of attractions, aside from its great shopping and local eateries.

“In Melaka the indigenous Malay and immigrant Chinese cultures blended into a unique society known as baba-nonya.”

After a day and a half seeing the sights and a night spent on a friend’s coach in suburban KL we set off back toward Singapore on the long way around via Melaka. Buses leave for Melaka from the Sentral Bus Station in KL regularly. In fact, buses from KL seem to leave regularly for EVERYWHERE - and at an extremely good price. This one cost a mere 8RM for the three-hour trip to the coast. Melaka is famous as an old trading port that first belonged to the Dutch and later the British before they abandoned it for Penang further north. Here the indigenous Malay and immigrant Chinese cultures blended into a unique society known as baba-nonya. Throw in the sprinkling of European influences and you have a wonderful cultural mix unlike anywhere else.

After escaping the harassment of various taxi operators and fellow touts at the bus station, not to mention the occasional giant iguana, we made our way down to the old baba-nonya quarter where one can find a collection of places to stay amongst the fine old family homes that dominate both sides of nearly every street. These magnificent two-story wood and stone structures feature a central open courtyard that can be used for several purposes. To me the greatest enjoyment was lying in a comfortable bamboo recliner, a drink in hand, watching as a refreshing tropical deluge came thundering down inches from my bare feet.

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