Sounds romantic, a name we have all heard of in history lessons, and it was a delight! Founded as a port in the 14th century by the Portuguese and fought over by the Dutch and then the British East India Company – it is bang on the old spice trade routes to the east and made a perfect stopping off point for the ships – the old town is a remarkably unspoiled mix of all these influences, charmingly entwined with Straits Chinese heritage and delicious Nyonya cuisine.
Our trip did not get off to an auspicious start, as we discovered we had left our crucial Singapore immigration exit slips behind…signal for being marched into a separate room where new forms were filled and an official painstakingly input everything on a computer…and of course delayed our bus by at least 20 minutes. The queues in and out of Malaysia were horrendous in both directions – first week of school holidays. Duh! So the four hour trip took well over five; even our return, where we had had to get a limo as all buses were full, took over four hours with overhead thunder, lightening and torrential rain.
But on the plus side: we met a charming American couple, Sue and Sean, as we wandered round the bus depot in the early hours – turned out they were veteran divers and photographers with inside knowledge of the Indonesian islands; notes were taken for future travels! Poor them, they had decided on a day trip which ended up being scarcely three hours (note to all: this is not day trip from Singapore!), so we took them under our wing and devised a whistle-stop tour of the main attractions, comprising the old Dutch town and the more contemporary 19 and 20th century Straits Malay quarter – Jonkers Street – now a hustling, bustling shopping and eating area.
Wonderful street food – 5 dimsum for R3, about 80p – and later Nyonya laksa and spicy seafood in a palm leaf with beers for about £10 (seafood is surprisingly expensive everywhere; had we stuck to veg or chicken we could have spent R5-6 each or about £1.25).
Had found a boutique hotel –
the Sterling on booking.com – and it really was rather wonderful too, old colonial style, with a jacuzzi bath on the balcony But no gin! On the Sunday, after our river trip, we had a rather unremarkable lunch – but at least I had a glass of wine (beer is too gassy), the first for about 5 days; the jolly waiter with a limp, who spoke (in my hearing) French, German and Japanese, thought Ross looked like Piers Branson. Who? You know, James Bond….Aaah Brosnan!
Fascinating the number of tourists (made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008), mostly huge crowds of Malaysian and Chinese, in groups, taking photos of everything in sight, especially themselves. The Churchillian V sign is a favourite pose…and, thankfully, relatively few Westerners. It’s great when people love their own country to the extent that they visit its landmarks, something we in Europe rarely do.
The photos really tell the story better than words; but Malaysia I think has the potential for lots of wekeend trips – people are friendly, food delicious and access (relatively) easy.
As we drove back, I mused on what is the difference between what we used to call Third World and Second World countries. It hit me suddenly. In, say, both Kenya and Malaysia you will see modern buildings, high rise office blocks, huge shopping malls, town-house developments and the like. In Kenya (and other countries with outward trappings of wealth and development) you will still see thousands of people walking everywhere and an army of overloaded matatus
(minibuses). In Malaysia virtually no-one walks and there are frequent and smart buses gliding down the roads. There is enough disposable income to take public transport, to own a motorbike or even a car. Mind you, even in Malaysia, you have that Third World phenomenon, a police road block. We got stuck in one for 40 minutes!