It’s the end of April and I’m writing about my weekend trip to Melaka, Malaysia in January. I wasn’t done with my #TakingOverAsia series! There’s still one more after this, if I can fit it somewhere between two other posts about San Francisco. Obviously so much has been going on with my move to a brand new city. My goal is to get these posts up before I go back to New York in May
to party for my Master’s graduation. 🙂
On January 15th, I woke up and went to volunteer at an animal shelter in Singapore. However, because my Airbnb was so far away from the shelter, I had to be packed and make it to the bus station by 2PM. My friend who is Singaporean was taking another friend and I to her grandmother’s place in Melaka for the night. She warned me that it is not nearly as safe over there, so pack light, don’t bring any valuables, don’t bring any money. Thus, I left behind my camera, my credit card, and had only my passport, a change of clothes, and some skincare samples for toiletries. Those sure came in handy on this trip! I wanted to wear my sneakers, but my friend thought it would be safer for me to wear my beach flip-flops to blend in with the local Malaysian Chinese girls because American tourists are often targets.
Melaka is only three hours away from Singapore by bus! It was a fairly comfortable ride, and once we arrived the entire world was unfamiliar.
- I’ve never been to a country where the demographic is completely new for me. Malaysia is a Muslim country, and I’ve never met an ethnic Malay person before. I have a few friends from Malaysia, but they are ethnically Chinese just like my friend and her family we were visiting.
- Most Malay women wear hijabs that fully cover their hair. When I was in middle school one of my best friends was a hijabi too, but Egyptian. I never asked her what wearing a hijab means. Now I understand it is a symbol of modesty, which I actually got to experience in Melaka.
- All public bathrooms had squat toilets! :O I haven’t seen one of those since I visited China when I was a child. Also, Malaysia bathrooms don’t have toilet paper and instead have a hose. I learned later that it’s because Muslims have to wash after… erm let’s move on.
My friend’s aunt picked us up when we arrived early evening. The first spot we hit was Chinatown to try the cheap and delicious street food. It’s interesting to see how Chinese food evolves in different parts of the world, because the food was “Chinese” yet completely new for me. I’m not complaining, it was delicious!
There’s a Chinatown in just about every major city I’ve visited, and I must award Melaka with the cutest one. Since it was about two weeks until Chinese New Year, the streets were completely decorated with little umbrellas and lanterns. The sunset was glorious and the decorations blended to make gold and pink hues shower the entire street.
There are decorated carts on the street you can pay to ride – and they were decorated in every way possible. There were Pikachu carts – which is probably a copyright violation but still interesting. At night they all lit up in different colors. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to rent one.
After our dinner on the streets of Chinatown, my friend’s whole family took us to second dinner at a famous satay restaurant. If you’re not familiar with satay, it’s just meat or vegetables on a stick … I think. We had satay hot pot where you choose the satay you want and stick it in a hot pot filled with spices. It’s a little different than Chinese hot pot because it didn’t sizzle outside the pot (the weather’s way too hot for that).
My friend’s family speaks Mandarin, but with an accent that I cannot understand! I’m sure it wasn’t a whole other dialect because sometimes they said things I was able to catch and if I ask them to speak each word slowly I was able to understand. They all understood me when I tried to speak. China is so big that in addition to dialects, there are also Mandarin accents! And my friend’s family has lived in Malaysia since before her grandma was born. I’m sure lots of things have changed in language since then.
And after second dinner, my friend’s uncle took a few of us to a rooftop bar. I was surprised that bars even exist in a Muslim country, but it must be because Melaka has a huge Chinese population.
Our accommodations that night were very comfortable. My friend’s grandma and her uncle’s family live together in a huge house with enough rooms to give one to the three of us. The funny thing is that the bedroom doors had a second mosquito shield door outside, and I kept forgetting to close one door before opening the other! GAH!
The next day was our day of exploration. Melaka is a pretty small city, and we only had until that evening to explore. I was really surprised to learn how much culture one little city can hold. My favorite part of Melaka is the river. The downtown area is built along a river featuring some of the cutest houses I’ve ever seen.
I wasn’t prepared for hot it is in January. I knew that there are no seasons, but I didn’t think the sun would be so strong since we’re still in the Northern Hemisphere. I didn’t pack sunscreen on this trip except my Biore Watery Essence sunscreen for my face. Both my feet got burned in those flip-flops, and I had two huge blisters on the side of my feet for weeks!
In order to get out of the sun and cool down we bought a durian dessert … and I tried it. Word of advice – everyone will try to convince you durian is good, but the strong flavor will stick with you even if you eat something else. Fair warning.
I really love the houses – each one is uniquely designed and colorful, but it’s like they were all designed with the same theme!
I learned that the houses are Peranakan – which means pure-mix Malay-Chinese. How can you be pure and mix at the same time? Well, in the early times when Chinese men would move to Melaka for better work and money, they married Malay women, and gave birth to children who are 50% Chinese and 50% Malay. These mix-blood children were called Peranakans, and their parents would insist that they only marry other Peranakans to keep the 50-50 blood pure.
We visited a museum that used to be the living quarters of one particularly rich Peranakan family and basically toured their entire house. They had photos of generations of their family, and their bloodline has always been pure-mix until this current generation, when someone married a white man.
In addition to Peranakan culture, Melaka also used to be known as Portuguese Malacca when it was a colony of Portugal. Some areas in downtown had forts just like Macau, and there was a Anglican church right in the middle of the town, though I don’t think many people are Christian.
Speaking of religion, my friends and I visited a mosque, even though we are all Christians. We think it’s important to love our Muslim neighbors and visit respectfully even if we don’t agree on beliefs. We were asked to put on robes before entering, and the women’s robes even had hoods to cover our heads, so I got to first-hand experience what it’s like to wear a hijab in the heat. The man in charge of the mosque was really nice – he spoke English and told the three of us to be careful on the streets because there are motorcyclists swooping in and out and may snatch up our purses. Good thing I brought my backpack!
Our last destination was the Malay village. It’s interesting that the Malay people in Melaka had a sectioned off neighborhood in the middle of the city when it’s supposed to be their country. Their houses were very different – now I could see why the earlier houses were Peranakan – they obviously had Chinese influence.
Do people in Melaka turn their houses into museums? A nice old lady owns this house that we were able to visit, and she must have kept it the way it has been for generations. There were even chairs where people got traditional marriage ceremonies. This house was not air conditioned at all and you could feel the full heat beating down on you. No more heat, please!
My friend wasn’t traveling back to Singapore that night because she wanted to spend some time with her family, so our other friend and I took the bus back by ourselves. We did just fine all the way until after we got through the Singaporean customs, where we got detained! Somehow our bus left customs without us and we got lost on our way looking for it. Security caught us, and they questioned me in a little room because they didn’t understand why I had two stamps allowing me into Singapore (one from when I first entered of course). Eventually they let me go because I was with a Singaporean resident.