The bus from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca was cheap, fast and comfortable. It was wonderful to read in a comfortable reclining seat while being cooled by an agreeable dry air conditioning and it was with some annoyance that I looked up when we stopped for a break, only to realise that we already had reached our final destination. It was when I was leisurely striding through the bus station towards the local bus station when I felt for my smartphone and in a rush of panic found out that I had left it on the bus. Fast pacing back to the bus, but it had gone. To the information desk and from there to the bus company’s ticket booth and somebody who worked with buses pointed out where the bus I had taken now stood, but the driver was gone. Where was he? Why do drivers leave their bus? Do they have no sense of duty? Back to the company’s ticket booth, impatiently waiting and cursing, then back to the bus and there he was, the glorious driver, who had returned from wherever he was, now sleeping on one of the comfortable reclining seats and, on my knocking, which woke him up, he opened the door and with a smile he handed my phone back to me. Walking back through the bus station I knew I was the biggest idiot traveller in the world… the biggest, prolifically sweating, idiot traveller in the world, I decided, because it was extremely hot and humid.
The hostel was atmospheric and it had a tiny courtyard where somebody had tried their hand at some artsy New Age symbols. When people asked me I told them it was the WiFi code of the hostel:
Malacca has a rich history. It was first Malay, obviously, and then Portuguese, Dutch, British and finally Malay again. In the first half of the 15th century the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He visited what was then a small Malay settlement. When I looked up the admiral on Wikipedia he proved to have an interesting biography. His occupation was mentioned as admiral, explorer and palace eunuch, a rather unexpected career choice, I thought. His appearance has been saved for posterity: he was 7 chi tall and had a waist that was 5 chi in circumference, which must have given him a BMI of mumble 3 point something kilowatt. Furthermore he had a high forehead, a small nose, glaring eyes, whatever that meant, white teeth, because of a life long habit of brushing them with sea salt and a voice that was loud as a bell, presumably high pitched though, given that he was a castrate after all. During his career as Chief Envoy he made seven sea voyages for the Chinese emperor, collecting tribute, trading and generally messing around the Eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean. In his controversial book, ‘1421’, the British author Gavin Menzies, claims that Zheng He may have circumnavigated the world and, almost one century before Columbus, must have discovered America.
Malacca, as other South East Asian cities, has a temple dedicated to the great admiral who is greatly revered by Chinese people in the region. The fleets he commanded during his travels consisted of enormous ships that carried complete vegetable gardens that provided food during those long voyages and even prostitutes for, well, various reasons, good conversation and stuff. They sailed through large parts of the then known world and brought back such extraordinary treasures as ostriches, zebras and even a giraffe which undoubtedly gave rise to great excitement among Cantonese foodies at the time.
Together with Molly and Adam who I had met at the hostel I set out for lunch. Halfway the street was a queue for a restaurant that served the famous chicken rice balls. Molly was adamant: long lines mean good food, she argued. I was not so sure. Adam was happy go happy and so we waited for our food in the hot afternoon sun. When it was our turn we ordered a large portion of chicken rice balls and were seated. The chicken rice balls were very unimpressive: balls of rice and a plate with what can only be described as ‘just chicken’. The recipe was brought here by Chinese settlers from Hainan. Good riddance, the good people of Hainan must have thought.
On one of my walks I stumbled upon the old Dutch cemetery.
This is a photograph I took of a gravestone of some ancient Dutch trader who left his bones there. Other gravestones I saw at the ruins of the St. Paul’s Church, indicate that few of the Dutch traders at the time lived past the age of 45, succumbing to fevers, diarrhoea or the clap. Or possibly all of these together. Malacca had a brutal climate.
During the weekend there is a lively night market along Jonker Walk where old Chinese people sang Karaoke style on a podium, applauded by other old people. The day after that the podium was filled with Chinese kids playing Chinese chess. What do I know of Chinese chess? Nothing.
Chinese street art in Malacca. Horses galore…