Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Malacca Turned Me Into Rick Steeves

It's not often in Southeast Asia (heck, the world) that you see tourism done right. Touts and hawkers desecrate the peace at the entrances to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; corrupt politicans privatize whole beaches in Indonesia; monks forced to ask for early-morning alms in Laos to satisfy amateur photographers. 
Malacca is different.
We pick up a cab at the bus station after an unremarkable two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur to the port city on Malaysia's southwest coast. A few minutes drive, over a few modern overpasses and down wide boulevards, and we turn onto a tiny side street. Back into history.
This is Malacca's (properly, Melaka) old quarter, a UNESCO heritage site. Three years ago, the UN decided the old core of this port town was worth preserving for the world. It's easy to see why.
Our guest house was a converted 200-year-old warehouse; on either side are buildings just as old, still functioning as such. Walking by them is a glimpse into history, with crates of cloth and oriental medicine, wrapped boxes of ginger and pepper and dried fish.
The warehouses line a canal that snakes more than a kilometre in from the ocean, an artery of commerce that goes back from before Columbus sailed into history.
Malaysian sultans, Chinese exporters, Arab proselytizers and Indian entrepreneurs made the city important. Smart taxes and tolerance to different ways allowed the city to thrive and grow.
Then we came along. Portuguese, then the Dutch, then British. Europeans actually choked off the port with their greed and prejudice. High taxes, religious intolerance, and just downright douchebaggery saw Malacca slowly strangle. By the 19th century, British indifference (or desire to emphasize their post on the island of Penang, up the coast) finally sealed Malacca's fate. It languished in obscurity, its harbour slowly silting in.
Which is not to say it disappeared. Melacca limped along. And as it goes in so many other places, neglect equated to preservation. A hodge-podge of 500 years of building styles and cultures survive to charm today.
There's Harmony Lane, with mosques, temples and wats that have tolerated each other's differences for centuries. The buildings are so old they lack that bland uniformity you see in their younger kin. So the Chinese temple has a Hindu flair, the mosque has European accents. Then there's the red-brick utilitarianism of the old Dutch administration buildings; British and other European churches, fading in use and form.
Apparently there was a building boom in Malacca just before the Japanese invaded. Many buildings in the historic quarter sport dates from the late 30s to early 40s.
Much of SE Asian history is of the 'you have to imagine' variety- either various waves of development have wiped out older buildings, or they don't survive the climate. Usually the only old buildings in any town are temples of worship or palaces, and there's only so many of them you can visit before eyes start to glaze.
That's what makes Malacca a delight to visit after six months of touring. There are shops, warehouses, parts of a fort, bureaucratic structures. There's a wide brick walkway along the canal, for pedestrians. Restoration work and preservation seem to be ongoing.
Nearly two dozen small museums crowd in the quarter, telling stories from the history of education (skipped that one) to the Japanese occupation (watched the video).
It's a town that still relishes its diversity. Restaurants and markets emphasize the multi-cultural nature of the port's history. There are Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, and Nyonya (Chinese mixed-blood) eateries dotting the quarter. Antique shops and artists' studios produce genuine handicrafts, interesting art- again, a sight rarely seen in the area.
I sound like Rick frickin' Steeves, I  know.
In fact, the daughter and I started doing passable imitations of the American TV tourist to each other, so easy was Malacca's material to work with.
Malacca has its flaws, for sure. Garish Chinese-style gates advertising beer and dried noodle mixes greet you at the quarter's entranceways. The antique stores will fleece you, and tourist-junk shops abound. A riverboat ride down the canal shows massive developments near completion, which will no doubt put more pressure on the area to cater to the masses.
But you can see the development has been done with some thought to the surroundings. There aren't many examples of really unsympathetic construction.
And the core is very well protected. You see no-smoking signs everywhere- there's no smoking in the buildings. Let me repeat that. This is Southeast Asia, and there are no smoking signs. And not only for one place. The whole quarter. And people were respecting that. I saw no one smoking in a building.
The day we left, the papers had a story about a developer that had cut down some centuries-old heritage trees to make way for a new building. Shit hit the fan. The governor was livid. The town mortified. “He'll never work here again,” he threatened.
This is simply unheard of. Worrying about trees over development? I had to pinch myself I was still in SE Asia.
We hardly stayed long enough. We walked the streets at night, feeling perfectly safe. Smart placement of floodlights add both a feeling of security and charm to the place. There's a quiet but busy sound to the evening. The church bells rang nine, prompting birds roosting in the trees to call out an angry chorus for being disturbed.
God help me, I am turning into Rick Steeves.
It was time to head back to the guest house. The streets were quiet. We jump as some rats race out from under a car and dash for the sewer, scrapping with each other as they went. Even that doesn't bother us. It's an ancient port city, after all.
These are world heritage rats.

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