All this is easily overlooked by the casual visitor, however, and most are seduced by the pretty, pastel-coloured cafés and townhouses and the crisp and clear South-East Asian light. The famous Dutch church in the main square seems to glow with a red that could not exist beyond the tropics and vibrantly painted temples like the Temple of the Evergreen Clouds seem almost to explode with colour. Malaysians are famous as being among the most hospitable and friendliest people on the planet and as you wander the back streets you are constantly greeted by a smile and a nodded ‘selamat pagi’ (good morning).
Not surprisingly, I never came across any of Melaka’s less welcoming inhabitants. I sat at midnight in the pitch black of the Portuguese fort and ghoulishly haunted Bukit China graveyard (the largest Chinese graveyard outside of China itself). I even held my ear to the Japanese clock that was donated to the city by Seiko to commemorate those killed during the Japanese occupation. It is said that if you listen carefully you can hear the cries of thousands of souls … apparently tormented by the added insult that there is now a Japanese clock in the town square.
The best way to tour Melaka is to wake one of the trishaw riders who doze under the trees in the town square. You can hire them by the hour and, should you decide to go a little farther, up into the old kampong (Malay village), your innocent cycle tour can turn into something of a safari.
The people here live in constant contact with a ‘tribe’ of huge monitor lizards. They can be seen swimming brazenly down the canals and basking in the dusty streets and backyards, always alert for an unwary chicken or cat that might stray too close. Even today there is a belief that if someone were to kill one of the giant lizards it would break the balance of peace and provoke an attack from the entire reptilian tribe. As night falls and the lizards become sluggish it is better to get off the streets of the kampong – to trip over one of these monsters in the darkness would probably be the most terrifying experience that even Melaka could offer. •
The best of the rest
KL is one of the fastest developing cities in the world yet the old town is so far managing to preserve much of its character. It used to be said that there was little to do at night beyond perhaps a G&T in the hotel bar or, if you were desperate enough, a visit to a karaoke club but today the nightclub strip in KL’s ‘Golden Triangle’ business district is one of the most vibrant in Asia.
The clichéd nickname of ‘the pearl of the orient’ barely does justice to an island that is culturally unique and shares little in common with any other part of the Malay Peninsula. George Town, the island’s capital, is the quintessential China-town and has more authentic Chinese culture and tradition than either Singapore or Hong Kong.
There are actually 104 islands in the Langkawi group, but if there is one perfect spot to head for it might well be Datai Bay on the main island. Datai has consistently been rated among the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. Compared with many other islands in the region Langkawi is relatively undeveloped and, inland from the beaches, classic rice terraces climb towards virtually uninhabited jungle peaks.
Just three hours drive from the skyscrapers of KL you find the world’s oldest rainforest in Taman Negara National Park. You can camp out at one of the strategically positioned hides around waterholes or saltlicks with a chance of seeing wild elephants, a Sumatran rhinoceros and even one of the last Malay tigers.
Singapore: The Manhattan of the East
According to some legends Singapore was a thriving metropolis back when the ‘Manhattan of the West’ was still no more than a collection of lonely tepees. Marco Polo is said to have visited a flourishing city here in 1292 but it wasn’t until 1819 that Stamford Raffles arrived and the new Singapore was born.
Within a decade the wharf was a hive of activity where Bugis labourers loaded sleek Sulawesi schooners and Indian opium vendors made deals with Chinese ‘bumboat’ traders. Adventurers mingled with pirates and there was a feeling that from Singapore anything was possible. Raffles Hotel became the centre for Western visitors but even here life was often rough and ready and, according to local legend, it was once even necessary to evict a tiger from under the pool table before a game could take place.
Today the Chinese bumboats are long gone from Boat Quay and, unfortunately, the chances are extremely slim that Singapore will ever see a wild tiger again. These days soaring glass-and-steel skyscrapers throw sleek shadows onto the mirror-like surface of the quay and, along Orchard Road, rows of luxury hotels rub shoulders with polished marble shopping malls.
But there are still few places that can compare for sheer cosmopolitan excitement with Singapore. As a stopover shopping trip there is nowhere else in Asia that can compete and night time in Chinatown or Little India is as frenetic and exciting as it has ever been. Eating is almost a national sport in Singapore and the countless open-air ‘hawker centres’ – offering enough irresistible and exotic dishes to last a lifetime – must still surely be rated among the best dining experiences in the world.
It has been said that Singapore has gone so far towards removing the dust and grit of Asia that it has become sterile and has sold its soul to western business ideals. But Singapore’s soul is alive and well and even in the most space-age of skyscrapers you can be sure that the ancient laws of Feng Shui will have been respected. Any visitor who takes time to explore this unique island is invariably seduced, even today, by a sense of being at the centre of the action.
Highland fling – jungle bashing in the Cameron Highlands
By Malaysian standards it was a chilly morning, and the dawn mist was just beginning to rise out of the jungle-clad valleys when I followed our guide Bank Kali (he used to work in a bank) on a trek into the hills. It was hard to imagine we were only about 100 miles from the equator as our trail cut across a pine forest slope. The British colonials had tried their utmost to transform these hills into a dreamy version of home and, even to this day, the Cameron Highlands are a surreal combination of quaint thatched-roof teahouses, strawberry farms, tea plantations and ‘pukka’ Malay rainforest.
Mr Kali grew up in the jungle and picked up his first work as a guide when he was just 8 years old. His experience is limitless and there are few jungle skills that he doesn’t know. With deft flicks of his machete he showed me how to transform viciously spiked strands of tough rattan into animal traps, walking sticks, bracelets and canes “to make children good”.
The orang asli (literally Malaysia’s ‘original people’) still harvest rattan from the jungle. Many earn a living from selling butterflies to collectors or the huge rafflesia flower – the world’s largest bloom, at almost 1m across – as a medicine for pregnant women.
Because of this, the last time that Mr Kali saw a rafflesia in the forest here was three years ago. The last tiger he saw was in 1967, but he has seen tracks more recently and believes that they still exist here, although it’s unlikely that a viable breeding population survives. While I optimistically scanned the trail for pugmarks, Mr Kali used more practised eyes to search out orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants, some with a flower that was almost 30cm long.
As we walked on he showed me some of the more treacherous local plants: the ‘blister plant’ (which burns you), the ‘wait-awhile’ thorn bush which catches at you and rips clothes and skin if you try to get away and another plant which if you touch it ‘will make you loose your way’.
With Bank Kali as our guide we never did get lost, and watching him stride out happily into the the jungles of the Cameron Highlands it wasn’t hard to see why this sprightly old man had forsaken the cashier’s counter for the bush.