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Bukit Fraser has lots of reminders from the colonial period

We finally managed to get ourselves out and about and to the Puduraya bus station by about ten thirty. Our plan for today is to head to Bukit Fraser, another British hill resort a couple of hours away from KL. It was already hot outside but inside it was even hotter and with large packs to lug about I think we both quickly started to get zapped by the heat. Despite best efforts we couldn’t find any bus going to Bukit Fraser and we only later re-read Lonely Planet to find that you have to get an early morning bus to a village along the road and then change there for the once a day bus that does the trek up to the hill station.

Knowing that long distance taxis also left from the bus station we went in search of them. It was like a game of hide and seek. On the ground floor we were told they were on the second floor. On the second floor we were told they were on the ground floor. We eventually found them on the first floor. These taxis run to quite a wide range of places but Bukit Fraser seems to be one of the less popular routes. Even so, a driver immediately came to our aid and within minutes we were heading out into the traffic of KL.

As we were drove through the city we both knew it was almost the last time we would get to see the Petronas Towers and other local landmarks. Stef in particular seemed to be looking back wistfully at the disappearing cityscape behind us. The main expressway took us north and after about forty minutes we turned off inland and started to climb up to the hills. We could see them in the distance ahead of us, lush and green but shrouded by mist and dark clouds. We climbed up past a large dam and I pondered to myself how many people had been displaced by the reservoir and how much wildlife had been sacrificed to provide this supply of water, questions I will never have the answers to.

A collapsed bridge forced us to make a detour before the climb up started to twist and turn around the contours of the hill. I found my mind wandering off again to pose questions about what possessed people to first make the climb up here, how they did it, when was the road built and how did they go about it. They always seem like major tasks because whole chunks of the mountainside have to be carved out in the process. As we climbed up the side of the hill you could sense the air getting cooler outside and I in particular was looking forward to being somewhere not quite so hot and muggy.

We finally made it up to Bukit Fraser at about 1:00pm. It is a very sleepy, small village which is dominated by a golf course and a few large hotels. We checked in to what was the Quest hotel, a large hotel sprawling in tiers up the hill with views out over the golf course. It seems to change hands relatively frequently as we saw maps and information posters around the village with four different names for it. We had the feeling that the hotel was very empty as there were few people around either here or in the village. Our room was large, a little shabby, but with a small balcony looking out over the golf course below.

BF is devoutly Muslim, but luckily there's still room for a village tavern!

The village is based at the site of an old tin trading post. What is now the golf course used to be a tin mine although we could see no evidence of any mining activity at all. In the afternoon we went for a stroll around the village and there really is not much here. An old blue and white police station is next door to the post office, there is a small row of shops with a couple of places to eat and that’s about it apart from hotels. Across the valley from our hotel is a large sprawling complex on top of the hill which looks like a self contained resort.

We followed the road through the village and up the hill past the mosque. It was very green with beautifully landscaped gardens and everything seemed pristine and clean. While it was cooler than the lowlands, the humidity here seemed just as high and the air was very dense and thick. Its odd because in the Cameron Highlands a little further north, the humidity was a lot lower. A café on the corner by our hotel provided lunch. They had a very basic menu just rice and noodles. We soon found out thought that the crunchy bits in our lunch weren’t bone but small bits of glass. They didn’t seem bothered at all about this when we pointed it out to them. Needless to say we didn’t go back there!

There really isn’t much to do here other than to just relax and enjoy the cooler temperatures. We headed back to our balcony and spent the afternoon playing cards and chilling out trying to work out why a large group of college students had chosen the entrance to the golf course to have a kick boxing practice session. At the appointed time the chants of the Muezzin rolled across the village as he kicked off the next prayer session.

In the evening we went to the local Tavern, a small cottage style building whose furniture inside looked like it had been transported straight from an olde English parlour. Dinner was provided at one of the cafes by the shops, very tasty but very spicy, and we then crashed out for an early night.

Hill station flora in front of the mosque

This morning we were woken by Bukit Fraser’s star attraction, birds. The dawn chorus kicked off at about 7:00am and it was a cacophony of sound that lasted for about twenty minutes or so. In the morning we decided to follow the Henniman trail, a short walk along the back of the golf course. We found the entrance for the walk just below the mosque. A large sign told us that we entered at our own risk so I was expecting a very narrow path with lots of dangerous sections but it was not so. The path was for the most part clear and wide. There were a couple of small bridges across water and one small but steep down hill section that was a bit slippery after the overnight rain but there was a rope to hang on to to steady yourself as you went.

It was a short walk through the woods and we were soon back onto the road at the other end of the golf course. Along the way were a couple of shelters to sit for a while, no doubt in places that were good bird watching spots. With no binoculars and no clue of what we would have seen if we stopped we just kept on walking. Neither of us had brought Lonely Planet with us so we had no idea which road we had come out onto. We headed off down the hill but not knowing if that would take us back to our hotel we looped back up and walked along Lady Maxwell Road which Stef knew was in the right direction.

Before long we were back in the centre of the village. The whole area seems to be dotted with bungala, bungalows, which must have been built when the hill station was first set up. Close to town there is one on the side of the road that looks like it is in the process of being renovated, or at least inside it there are tools and half empty bags of plaster. It looked like a very simple affair with just two rooms, one on either side of the main entrance door, and a small kitchen and bathroom at the back. It would make the ideal place to just come and escape the world for a while with little to do here except to relax, take short walks around the hill and contemplate life.

We spent the rest of the morning on our balcony watching the world go by, which really means watching the odd bird fly by. Out on the road we had bumped into the people in the room next door to us. They were a frightfully “what ho” British couple, originally from Bromley (just a few miles away from us in South London) who have lived in Singapore for the last ten years working as teachers. They are on their last holiday around Malaysia before they head back to the UK and had been up and out early to get the best of the local birds. We politely asked if they had seen anything and the wife bursting with excitement told us they had seen three green magpies. Not knowing that there was such a thing as a green magpie we both managed to feign great interest in their spotting before we parted our ways.

Out taxi arrived on time at 1pm to take us back down to KL. Our route down went along the main gap road, a much shorter and faster way down than the way we had had to come up. The road has been repaired and renovated recently as the Sultan came up to Bukit Fraser just a few weeks ago for a break. On our way down we passed some people sitting on the side of the road who looked as if they were watching out for people on a race. A 4x4 parked nearby had stickers for the Rainforest Challenge on the side but it was for the 2005 race so we were not sure. Later it passed us by but we soon caught it up again watching it reverse off the side of the road and down into a small gully. Neither of us thinks that the driver had expected to roll back as far as he did and even though it was a 4x4 we reckon he will have needed a pull to get out of there.

Back at Puduraya, KL's bus station, and the touts are doing their best

Our driver was not afraid of putting his foot down despite the twists and turns in the road and I was soon feeling pretty queasy. I managed to nod off and when I woke we were already back on the outskirts of KL. He dropped us back at the madness of the Puduraya Bus Station where I sat with the bags while Stef went in search of the first bus out to Melaka, about two hours further south from here. He came back waving tickets for a bus that left 20 minutes later, enough time for a quick pit stop and to get some drinks and a snack for on the way.

Down at the platform a chap started to talk to us and as usual we were wary about what we said in reply. You never really know if these people are touts trying to extract money from you or whether they are genuinely trying to help you. It turned out that he was a tour guide working for a company based in KL. He was between tours so was heading back to Melaka for the night to see his wife and to do his laundry before coming back to KL tomorrow to meet another tour group. He was very friendly and asked us about our plans for Melaka and where we were staying (“I have a friend who runs a hotel”), offering to take us to our hotel.

As we left KL it started to rain and before long there was a deluge of water all around us. It didn’t seem to slow people down on the roads though. We were on another comfy bus, maintaining in my view Malaysia’s status as best “country for bus travel”. We played cards all the way on the bus and soon arrived at Melaka. Here the tour guide caught up with us again and what we had cynically thought was going to be an attempt by us to hop a ride in a taxi with us and persuade us to go to a different hotel was a genuine offer. The bus station has moved, as they all seem to have in Malaysia, and is now a little way out of town rather than in the centre. His wife works at the Tesco (!) supermarket across from the bus station and parked their car there this morning so he actually gave us a lift in his car.

We checked into our hotel, another in the City Bayview chain that we had stayed at in Penang. They had a very good promotional rate but trouble brewed when our internet connection didn’t work. It was already late and Stef started to make noises about moving hotel as the person who could fix it wouldn’t come on duty for another couple of hours. I stood my ground and eventually the problem was solved by us changing room. We had a room service dinner and then hit bed, both feeling pretty knackered.

Trishaws by the Stadthuys in Melaka

Today we followed part of the walking tour in Lonely Planet which takes you around the historical centre of Melaka. They tell you the distance you will walk and give you an estimate of how much time it will take you to complete the tour. We have found in other places that the time estimates were woefully under stated, or perhaps we just linger too long at the stops along the way. As expected in seven and a half hours we have covered about two thirds of the tour which Lonely Planet says will take three hours to complete.

The tour starts at the Stadhuys, an old Dutch colonial building at the heart of the historic city of Melaka. Built in the mid 1600’s it is believed to be the oldest Dutch building in the east. The rooms are high ceilinged and large with dark wooden floors and thick beams supporting the ceiling. The windows were closed with large louvered shutters and, apart from the signs that tell you otherwise, we could have been somewhere in Holland. Originally the town hall and Governors residence, the Stadhuys is now home to the History and Ethnography museum.

What could have been a very dull place to visit instead caught our attention. The main entrance leads into a large wide corridor which displays the various governing powers of Melaka and the time period that they were in charge. A small archaeological dig shows evidence that the Dutch had included sewers in their building design, something that was previously only thought to have been introduced by the British.

The first room you go through houses more archaeological finds, mainly pottery and ceramics. Dotted around were information panels but, at floor level and in small typeface, they were a little difficult to read, the only point I think they could improve upon. Some of the ceramics came from the nearby Bukit St Paul, others were found in villages about 15km away. The archaeologists believe that in times of warfare people buried their possessions to keep them safe while they had to flee their villages. The caches of goods they have found were either forgotten at a later date or they were the belongings of people who were unable to come back for them.

An interesting collection of arms came next, ranging from pistols to rifles, bayonets, swords, bow and arrow and the inevitable kris. The samples covered both European and Asian styles and it is interesting to see the variety of styles for basically the same thing. A mock up of the Governor’s room came next with dark wooden furniture, ornate candelabra’s and a small collection of silver and pewter ware. It implies that the Dutch passion for pewter started as a result of the tin trade in Melaka, something we need to check.

Taking a moment at the mosque

The rest of the rooms we saw covered more traditional aspects of daily life including mock ups of traditional homes. For the most part this explained the various customs for weddings used by the different ethnic groups in Melaka. They were all pretty elaborate affairs but the most complex seemed to be that of the Malay people. Families who have daughters start their preparations early by investing in livestock when the girl is still young so that it will be ready for the wedding feast. The groom’s family start the hunt for a suitable wife and when they find a potential match they go about checking the girl’s reputation.

If all is well a contract of marriage is entered into by the two families with the two people most closely affected, the bride and groom, still not having met each other. Half of the agreed dowry is paid at this point. If the groom subsequently pulls out his family forfeit the dowry but if the bride pulls out, her family has to pay back double the amount of the dowry. Later in the process the bride has the option to refuse the marriage but this is on the wedding day itself and no doubt the pressure then to go ahead is too high for her to refuse. The dowry is used to buy the furniture and basic essentials for the newly weds home.

A date for the wedding is agreed upon, one that is mutually suitable and ensures all the relatives can be there. For the week running up to the wedding it’s all hands on deck to get things ready. The men of the village erect new bamboo huts where the wedding food can be prepared, served and eaten. The bride’s family house is ceremoniously cleaned and new curtains, furnishings and decorations are put up all ready for the big day.

The day itself to me has similarities to the Indian wedding we went to a few years ago. It seems to be a complex process of rituals, ceremonies, games and teasing which result in the bride and groom finally meeting and starting to get to know each other. During the day the bride can change costumes between seven and fourteen times. Here in Melaka she will wear costumes from the different ethnic groups that make up the unusual cultural mix that is Melaka to symbolise the peaceful coexistence that they live in. Everyone seems to muck in and have fun, even when its time to clear up from the wedding which from the sounds of it usually ends up being a bit of a water fight.

From the museum we crossed the small town square and went into Christ Church. Originally a Dutch Reformed church it was built with pink bricks brought from Zeeland in Holland. Few signs of this Dutch heritage remain, we only found one memorial panel in Dutch, as the church was then converted into an Anglican church by the British. It celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 and still seems to be going strong. It is a very simple church inside but it tells a sad tale or two. The memorial plaques inside are either remembering people in their 70’s or people, usually women, who had died in their 20’s. I would love to know the story of the chap whose nickname was Inky, he was one of the 70 year olds that are remembered there.

Our route then took us across the river which is no longer a bustling fishing route. The only boats in sight were ones offering cruises for tourists, one of the many signs that historic Melaka is changing under the increasing pressure of tourism, changes that are not necessarily for the best. Walking along Heeren Street we saw a newly renovated building at number 8 that has only opened up to the public last year. Inside, Colin, a guide from Malaysian Heritage spent probably about an hour with us explaining about the house and telling us tales of old Melaka.

The house has been restored with funding from the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple and Malaysia Heritage now manages and looks after the temple on their behalf. Pictures taken before renovation tell a sad tale of a building left to disintegrate and sadly, there are many others on this street that are also in a bad way. It took them four years to turn the property around, removing concrete that had been plastered on the walls, replastering it with a traditional lime based plaster and renovating the woodwork and tiles. The end result is worth a look but if Colin is there when you visit get him to sit down and chat to you.

He was a mine of information. He told us that the building is of a typical Dutch design, built facing directly onto the street with no pavement between the house front and the road. Because the Dutch levied a property tax on the width of buildings they were all here, as in Holland, built with a narrow frontage but stretching back a long way off the street. Heeren Street used to be on the waterfront with the main docks just short walk away. Land reclamation, initially by the British but now by the Malay government, has now pushed the street a few hundred metres away from the water.

Melaka is a hybrid mix of culture but over the years people from different ethnic groups have started to feel marginalised and have sought refuge in different areas of the city where they could live among their own people. In part this was also driven by British policies of land title, where they would only lease land and property to people. When the lease expired they forcibly moved people out to different areas.

Not far from our hotel is Kampung Morten, a village of traditional Malay people. We can see it from the windows of our hotel and it still retains a very traditional look. The people who live here are mainly fishermen, a livelihood that is under threat from tourism. When the daily catch is in, the fishermen prepare the fish by their houses, discarding the heads and other unwanted parts into the river. The government though now wants to turn this waterfront into a tourist attraction so the fishermen are likely to get moved on to a different part of Melaka. It seems wrong that tourism could result in this change because any self respecting tourist would want to come and see the fishermen at work as they are.

Colin said that this is just one of many examples of tourism affecting the daily lives of the local people. On Jonkers Street, a main street in Chinatown, a weekend market leads to the street being closed off to traffic. This is blamed for increasing pollution and raising rents which has forced many traditional craft based business out. They have recently discovered the original curved wall of Fort St John, which the British blew up many years ago. It is close to the sight where Malaysia’s independence was declared to the Malay people and Malaysian Heritage wants the site to be protected and commemorated. The site is really something quite unique being the start and end of colonial rule for Melaka. Unfortunately the site is in a prime location for property development and no decision has yet been made about what will happen.

Melaka, jointly with Penang, are applying for UNESCO World Heritage Status. A UNECSO report a few years ago commented on the risk the historic area is under and the need to preserve and protect the old buildings, many of which are looking worse for wear (although a lot better than HoiAn in Vietnam which has UNESCO status). Hopefully the process of applying and gaining this status will give some leverage to the heritage team but I somehow feel that more of the history of Melaka will be lost before the historic value is realised and protected. The need for responsible tourism has probably never been greater here.

We stopped for lunch at 1511, a Peranakan (local style) house which has a fabulously ornate interior. It is next door to, and associated with the Baba Nonya Heritage Museum. The museum is actually three connected houses that all belonged to the same family. It exudes wealth at every turn, wealth that was earned through rubber plantations. The houses are a mix of Dutch, Victorian British and Chinese designs and content. Heavy wooden furniture with patterns inlaid in mother of pearl reminded us of a house we had visited in Hoi An.

The interior here was very ornate. The staircase was intricately carved, a process that took nine months to complete with the carvings throughout the house taking four years in total. A family of twelve lived here with their eight servants who seemed to occupy the house next door. Rooms had displays of the decoration that would be used if there was a death in the family or for a family birthday. There was a large kitchen and, unusually a separate bathroom complete with bath and stand up shower which I think were a later modification.

At the front of the house upstairs cabinets held the wedding costumes used by the family. They are heavy garments made of silk with gold thread. Expensive they have been passed down through the generations. AS they cannot be washed the family take great care to protect the quality of the garments. The people wearing them have to wear an undershirt made of bamboo to stop the silk sticking to their skin.

Delicious Indian food, and we get to eat with our hands, tastes even better that way!

Another room was set up as a dining room. The table was laid with English china which was only used when European visitors came to the house. It was one of four different sets of china the family had. A sideboard proudly displayed bottles of 140 year old brandy that had not been opened. It was tempting to swipe one on the way out but I suspect they would have noticed! While it was an interesting place to visit you are taken around by a guide who spoke very quickly in heavily accented English and didn’t really give you the time to look at what she was talking about and ask questions as you went.

The tour then ambled around Chinatown, taking in Jonker Street but splitting it up with a side trip to a street lined with religion. Here Chinese temples, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple are all lined up on the same street. Continuing on this line across the river would bring you out at the Christ Church by the Stadhuys. The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple has recently been cleaned up and restored so you can now clearly see the decoration of the ceiling. Wooden figures have been carved into the rafters and painted in gold. They include figures you would not normally see in a Chinese temple, including Dutch and Portuguese merchants as well as other public figures. Colin told us that he thinks they were people who worked favourably with the Chinese community at the time the temple was built and so were honoured by being included in the design.

Further along the street is the Kampung Kling Mosque, another example of the diverse and multicultural community that is Melaka. Its design has Hindu, Moor and Balinese influences and throughout it is decorate by tiles that you would more commonly see in Holland or Britain. By this stage we had both well and truly had our fill of sightseeing for the day. A cool drink at the Geographer’s Bar (very nice but very western) set us up for the stroll back to our hotel, further away from the centre than we had remembered but still only about a ten minute walk.

With a pool beckoning we went for a rehydrating dip before heading out later for dinner to one of the places in Little India. Here we had a fabulous southern Indian meal, served up on a banana leaf, which again reminded us on Deepak and Nandita’s wedding that we had been to in India. A little chicken curry, spicy chicken tikka, dahl, pickles, aloo, peppers and rice with chapatti’s and poppadums washed down with tea and lime juice really hit the spot.

Melaka's landmarks

It’s hard to believe but ten calendar months ago today we left the UK to start on our trip. I can remember back to South America where we marked up our two month anniversary of being away. Now we only have two months left and time seems to be flying by and taking on unusual characteristics. Today is our last real day in Malaysia. Tomorrow sees us off to KL’s international airport for the start of a mammoth trip across to Africa.

But less of that and back to today. We were slow to get going this morning, partly due to my lack of sleep as air con nose hit me again in the middle of the night and I spent two hours hugging a box of tissues. It was probably something to do with the storm that raged for hours during the night Huge flashed of lightning that lit up the whole sky and torrential rain pouring in rivers along the street below. When we did finally make it out, we picked up the Lonely Planet walking tour where we had left off yesterday. Instead of heading directly for the Stadhuys we turned off to wander down Bukit China, disappointed to see that many of the shops along here seem to now be deserted and boarded up. It gives the area a soulless feel. What should be bustling streets full of life and activity, simply look despondent, forlorn and lonely.

We came across the small Dutch cemetery (not in the book) which ironically is the final resting place of more British people than Dutch. It is very small and somewhat neglected. A staircase running behind the cemetery leads up to the top of Bukit St Paul passing on the way three or four very large family tombs. At the top of the hill are the ruins of St Paul’s church. Now deserted for more than 150 years, only the shell remains a sad sight to see for what must have once been a vibrant centre of religion.

Propped up against the walls inside the ruins are large old tombstones, huge slates of rock that have been carved and engraved with inscriptions about the dead people who lay below them. Originally a Portuguese Catholic church, it was taken over by the Dutch but deserted when they built their own church, Christ Church, at the bottom of the hill. St Paul’s commands fabulous views out and across Melaka and also has the added benefit of a strong cooling breeze.       The remains of St Francis Xavier were buried here for nine months before being taken to his final resting place in Goa. A white marble statue stands testament to this piece of history. It had an unreal feeling to it, almost as if it was exuding light. Unfortunately someone, or something, has run away with his right hand as his arm now ends in a jagged stump. It is strange to think that the water line used to be close to the foot of the hill. Today the stretch between here and the sea is dominated by new modern shopping blocks and apartments rendering the rather functional white lighthouse tower added by the British rather useless.

We walked down from St Paul’s to the Porta de Santiago, the only part of the old Portuguese fortress A’Famosa that now remains. Colin from Malaysia Heritage who we met yesterday had filled us in on some of the history of the fort. When the British captured Melaka they decided they wanted to leave it in a state that would make it unattractive to other invaders. As part of this plan they set about destroying the fort. Initially they hired men to hack away at the walls by hand but the Portuguese had built a pretty impregnable fort and it was slow going. They finally gained agreement to spend £70,000 (a huge amount of money in those days) to buy gunpowder to blow up the fort. When it was almost demolished, Sir Stamford Raffles came by in his search for a new base, not yet having decided to settle in Singapore, and stopped them from blowing up this last entrance gate.

Malaysian puns

In 1972, Queen Elizabeth II came to Melaka to see the gate and also to see the ruins of St Paul’s Church. At that time, there were no paths to reach the church, you simply had to scramble up the hill. The local people decided that it wouldn’t do for the Queen to be seen scrabbling about in this way and because of her visit, a set of stairs now leads up to the top.

We turned left and went to see the Muzium Budaya. Its collection is mainly a series of figures dressed in the different traditional costumes of the local people. There is also a scene of the Sultan holding court. For me though the best part was the building itself. It’s made of dark wood and is a replica of the Sultan’s palace. Large, open rooms are kept cool by the breeze blowing through many windows. Outside is a small Forbidden Garden, allegedly representative of the garden the royal princesses would have played in.

The heat today seems to be more intense that yesterday, not so much from the temperature but from the humidity. Even though we had only been out and about for a couple of hours, after a long day sightseeing yesterday, we both agreed that we had reached saturation. We went in search of a cooling drink and then mooched around the antiquey shops on Jonker Street for a while before heading back to our hotel. A dip in the pool, well the hot tub, cooled us both down and helped to rehydrate us after another sticky and sweaty afternoon.

Downside of air travel. From Kuala Lumpur …
… to Hong Kong. Spot the difference? We couldn't!

Stef had been up really late last night doing more stuff on the website and I think that by the time our alarm went off he had only had about four hours sleep. Not a surprise then that he went back to bed after his last nasi lemak breakfast. We had booked a taxi to take us to the airport and at 1:00pm were waving our goodbyes to Melaka and heading off in a very smart car back to KL. The driver had turned the air con on to keep us cool but it was actually freezing inside.

We had allowed extra time to get to the airport but in the end got there very early, so much so that check in hadn’t yet opened. We were able to check our bags in all the way to Windhoek, our final destination on this leg of our trip and then killed some time looking for new books to read. It was a small bookshop in the airport with typical holiday reading fare. Stef was walking up and down the aisles not really looking at the books but just with a grim “this is not for me” look on his face. Needless to say after a minute or two of me looking on his behalf I soon turned up several books for him to choose from.

We boarded our plane and although we had good seats in terms of their location the usual lack of legroom problem kicked in for Stef. The plane left on time, landed on time and it was a pretty uneventful trip. We had two hours to wait for our connection at Hong Kong and, being so late at night, pretty much everything was closed. Stef sniffed out a Starbucks though and had a last coffee before our long haul leg to Johannesburg.

It was strange being back in Hong Kong even if it was only the airport. This is where we had started our travels around Asia in December last year so we had come full circle. We have spent longer in this continent that we had intended to and with the exception of Malaysia and Singapore had spent all of our time in places we hadn’t planned to come to and some that were on our definite no go list. It really reflects one of the beauties of travelling this way. You can chop and change your plans as you go relatively easily (although each change involves hours at a ticket office) as different people you meet give you new ideas of what to go and see.