Monday, May 04, 2009

Peninsular Malaysia - Melaka and KL

After quickly seeing what we could of Singapore it was time to lead Paul into that dirty, scary, uncivilized, third-worldish trauma of......Malaysia? Ha, not at all. Peninsular Malaysia is more developed and busier than the Borneo side and really only a small step down from Singapore while still a large step ahead of many of the other countries in the region. Malaysia doesn't seem to give you much choice on the buses you can take. Lots of companies but they all seem to run to the same place at the same price at the same time. You just get to chose between air-con, air-con delux or super VIP. All fancy fancy and well beyond what we are used to.
It doesn't take very long to get anywhere either and our first stop was only 3 hours up the road at Melaka. Melaka (aka Malacca) is the most important historical town on the Strait of Melaka, the narrow stretch of water between Malaysia and Sumatra which funneled and protected all trade between Asia (China and South East Asian kingdoms) and the West (India, Middle East and Europe). It was the middle point where the 2 monsoon trade winds met and in the 15th century was an incredibly wealthy and powerful area with as many as 4 harbour masters organizing 2000 trade ships coming into port daily, and up to 84 different languages spoken.
And then it all went downhill..... You can't be that powerful and wealthy without attracting some negative attention, in this case it was the Portuguese as they made their first voyages east, took over and tried to introduce a trading monopoly that would give them total control over the valuable spice trade. Naturally, everybody else just set up other trading ports and tried to break all the new rules. The Dutch and finally the British eventually took over, each adding its own set of restrictions that continued to pound nails into the coffin.
Today Melaka is a pretty quiet town (Singapore is the major regional port) with a lot of Dutch architecture in it's centre (they controlled it the longest). Across the canal that used to be Melaka river is an equally interesting Chinatown and with our Chinese host we were introduced to tea (he owns a tea shop, and tried to drown us), good local seafood and some of the history. I was shocked at how quiet everything became after sunset as all the traffic mysteriously disappeared (this was to happen again later in Penang as well) and then pleasantly surprised to find out that there were free nightly performances by a group of musicians in a little open area right by the canal to watch. In the end though we didn't stay too long, just 2 nights.
From Melaka we went to Kuala Lumpur, the capital. KL isn't really known as much of a tourist destination but we still managed to have a good time. We had a great host that took us around the area and got us involved in some pretty good eating, including the most interesting Japanese sushi buffet I've ever seen. Mandatory buffet and 6 tables of food just coming out and sitting there to steal before the next guy got it.... In KL we also managed to see the Petronas Towers, the world's tallest buildings 10 years ago when they were completed. They are twins, standing at 452m with a bridge between them on the 41st and 42nd floors. They don't look that tall from a distance until you realize that you can't even see the bridge. And when you stand right at the bottom and look up, ya, they're tall alright. It is possible to go up to the bridge for free but there are a limited number of tickets given out everyday and we were not able to get any.
We also visited the Blue Mosque in nearby Shah Alam. I did that in part because I know Jake wanted to see it and he probably didn't because after leaving us in Singapore we got a message saying he had to return home and would not be able to meet us again. It was a nice mosque, very big and claims to have the tallest minarets in the world. I don't know how true that is, but looking up at them they very well could be..... We also went to the Batu caves, a group of Hindu temples set inside a couple of caves. The caves are more like a naturally hollowed out hill but the effect is kind of cool. There is a set of 172 stairs to climb to get to the main cave and temple and on the stairs are dozens of monkeys that hang out to terrorize anyone going by. We had no food or bags and thus no problem, but it was fun to watch the locals scream and try to run away. At one point in the year there is a pilgrimage to the caves with the most devout mutilating themselves with various piercings, etc. Up to a million people show up in 3 days. That must be something to see. It seemed really quiet when we were there by comparison.


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