The Discovery Cafe: cool, cheap place to stay in Melaka
âHello, my name is Michelle Yeoh, and I would like to talk to you about the dangers of calcium deficiency.â
Well would ya now Michelle. This quaint public health broadcast from one of Malaysiaâs foremost celebs accompanies my journey from Melakaâs main bus terminal to the city centre.
âI donât want calcium deficiency to effect the decisions I make in my life and neither should you.â
Quite right Michelle, I do not want this to happen. Melaka is about 150km south of Kuala Lumpur. Rich in historical, architectural and cultural charm it is the 2nd of only two cities in the Malacca Straights to have recently been awarded UNESCO World Heritage City status.
Georgetown in Penang
being the other.
âThatâs why I drink high calcium content milk.â
Yeah, yeah. Enough already Michelle. Thanks luv.
Melaka is an extremely charming city. Steeped in the history of wave after wave of life under one colonial boot or another and all the confusion and lack of unity that this can bestow upon a cityâs identity, Melaka seems now calmed, comfortable and at one with itself now that the colonial dusts have settled. The main square sets the scene very nicely with its large water fountain and the armada of colourful tri-shaws that gather here before wending their way about the city.
Line of Tri-shaws
Each one of these a work of art in its own right. The owners clearly taking pride in coming up with the gaudiest, most complex, colourful and surreal arrangement of dĂ©cor possible for their little vehicles. Fake flowers, fans, mirrors, Barbie dolls, reconstituted motorbike parts and horns, fairy lights and tinsel abound. They are moving public psychedelic shows. Their battery powered hi-fis blare out an incongruous mix of hindi music, euro-dance, Guns ânâ Roses or Michael Jacksonâs âBillie Jeanâ amongst others. Quite at odds, but at once perfectly in keeping with the calm-carnival air of the city. Itâs Chinese New Year and this is clearly holiday town for the Malay Chinese, here in vast numbers during my stay.
Beyond the reigns of the original Malay Sultanate Kingdom and Monarchy Melaka passed into the possession of first the Portugese (1511) following Francisco de Gamaâs conquests in India at the end of the 15th century, then to the Dutch (1641) and then finally the British (1786).
Melaka tri-shaw bike (detail)
The Japanese seized Melaka briefly during the Second World War but following the return of the state to post war British rule it was not to be long before independence was sought for and (as usual, painfully) achieved. The declaration of the stateâs independence was delivered in Melaka by Tunku Abdul Rahman in early 1956 who went on to be the first Prime Minister of the unified nation state of Malaysia formed on 16 September 1963. As an interesting side point this nation state originally incorporated Singapore but owing to certain political irreconcilables Singapore ceded to become an independent nation state on 9 August 1965.
My walking tour of the old port area of the city today takes in first the Melaka Sultanate Palace, a replica of the original home of the Malay Royal Family following its historical destruction by fire.
It now houses the Melaka Cultural Museum and âSecret Gardenâ. Nearby is Fort Aâ Formosa, or what little remains of this former Portugese fort (basically a stone gate and ornamental cannon) after the British near raised it to the ground. Up the hill or âbukitâ behind the remaining fort gate sits St.Paulâs Church. Originally again of Portugese construction, taken over by the Dutch whilst they constructed their own Christâs Church (that resides in all its bright red splendour in the old town square) and latterly used as an ammunition and gunpowder store by the Brits. Oh yes! We were a respectful lot as usual.
I then move on to the Maritime Museum (situated on the Jalang Quayside). This is worth a visit if nothing else, for the rather fab âbuildingâ that it is housed within.
The Secret Garden (detail)
A full scale replica Portugese galleon ship, the âFlor de la Marâ, a vessel that once sank off the Melaka coast. Inside the visitor is presented with an overview of the maritime and trade history of the pivotal port of Melaka. As with Penang, the history; the fate of the port and its town being so bound to the politics, invaders and traders brought to its shores by the meeting of the two concourses of the monsoon âTrade Windsâ at this point of the peninsula. Following this lesson in history I revert to the simpler pleasures of ice cream and a walk along the quayside.
In Melaka I am staying at the very eye-catching âDiscovery CafĂ©â that sits right by the town centre and the canal side. Itâs relaxed and has good vibes. I sit and read and resist the urge as long as I can to buy a beer, but itâs Chinese New Year and turning into such a beautiful evening so âwhat the hey!â.
The Secret Garden attached to the reproduction palace/ museum
The hot sun is cooling down into the duskier shades of blue evening. A large vociferous flock of birds swarm about and sing within a large tree across the road. One can of cold beer definitely hitâs the spot! Probably reflective of the low alcohol intake I have these days and the often more modest amounts of food being taken in at meal times.
By great good fortune Discovery CafĂ© have arranged for a traditional Lion Dance troupe to perform tonight. This follows the setting off of a gigantic string of Chinese firecrackers suspended over the cafĂ© entrance. This dynamite strip cracks, bangs and burns sending sparks and a storm of bright red smokey paper shrapnel swirling through the air for a good five minutes or so! Itâs dangerous being a photographer tonight! Then it is the lionsâ turn.
Fort A'Formosa (all that remains od the Portugese ramparts)
We are graced by the acrobatic performance of the Red Lion (for Courage) and the Golden Lion (for Liveliness) this evening. To the vibrant beating of drums and cymbals they bob and jump, duck, dance and weave about one another. Whirling into and out of the cafĂ© and approaching mildly terrified onlookers. Strewn on the floor are a bunch of oranges that one by one are âconsumedâ by the lions, only to be given back to selected members of the audience as a sign of good luck and happiness. The Golden Lion sets down over a plate of fruit and vegetables for a time, preparing what ends up looking like a giant ceremonial fruit salad, whilst Red continues to perform ever impressive acrobatic feats to the beats. Great fun! AND I am handed a good luck orange too!âŠ but I have to say, slightly cheatingly.
Church atop the hill.
The lion drops it from its mouth to the lady next to me but she seems keen to pass it to me instantly. Hey, Iâll take good luck anyways I can get it.
This is definitely a celebratory improvement on Kuala Lumpur so far but I donât feel immersed in the New Year yet. Standing on a balcony at Discovery I stare out over the town and my eyes are drawn to a large red glow to the north side of town. Descending to street level I head out along abandoned streets heavily illuminated with red neon lighting (nooo, not that sort of red lighting!) and strings of Chinese lanterns. Soon I find myself stepping into the main bloodstream of the Malay Chinese New Year scene, the brightly illuminated, crowded neon and lantern drenched madness of Jonkers Street.
Lanterns are strung from all windows and back and forth across the street. Every child about seems to have little battery powered devils horns upon their heads and people sit and stand and drink at bars and eat from street vendors in large numbers. A real party throng. Not many foreigners here, if any, so again I am reduced to the silent observer, but itâs a beautiful, colourful, joyful scene and I finally feel I have a small taste of another peoplesâ happiness during their New Year.