The Strait of Melaka


Sunlight skipped off the skeletal ridges which crested each pearly green swell. The light reflected so brightly that I couldn't look directly at the water. When the swell got close enough it broke below me on the ugly, square jawed prow of the car ferry.

The deck began to rhythmically vibrate with a dull, guttural thud and we gently pushed back against the tide, perpendicularly into the world's longest shipping avenue. The crossing would take twenty minutes only, twenty minutes to traverse one of the most important and historically sought after commodities in world trade, the corridor which connects the Indian and Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Melaka.

As we slid westwards my destination, the Strait's northern gateway, rose white and crenellated from the sea. From the mainland the strategically vital trading post of Georgetown was an inconsistent line of pale tower blocks, ugly and unnatural in the shade of mountains of seemingly impenetrable virgin rainforest towering behind them. It was only by firing a cannon shot of silver coins into that dense jungle that the city's founder, Sir Francis Light, could encourage his labourers to clear the land for habitation.

We reached midway and the ghosts of the Strait passed silently below me, those who paid a heavy price in the struggle for control of the northern gateway. The Russian cruiser Zhemchung and French destroyer Mousquet lay far below the gentle swell, both sunk in 1914 during a daring solo raid by a German warship which had stolen into the harbour disguised as a British ship by rigging up a fake smokestack. In 1914 the Russian and French ships were the allied wardens of this vital corridor. The Strait's modern day warden, a Malaysian fighter jet, pulled upwards from the Butterworth air force base on the mainland, twisting and diving in the sky above me, it's engine howling into the clouds.

As we neared Georgetown the scene before me evolved. The pale towers stretched upwards into the sky, outstripping and concealing the peaks behind. At eye level they were replaced by rickety wooden jetties, suspended above the water on wooden stilts and supporting houses of corrugated metal. The ramshackle dwellings encroached far from the mainland to meet me, as if the pale towers behind were slowly pushing the past further and further away into the Strait.

Jetty in Georgetown

It was not a wooden jetty of old, but an ugly lump of concrete that at midday I rolled off the ferry onto. I was fed directly into the heart of old Georgetown, a city that has drawn an eclectic mix of architecture, people and food from all over the world due to the benefits of doing business on trade's busiest shipping lane.

Such a hodgepodge of nationalities, allegiances and interests meant that historically social unrest wasn't uncommon. To ease tensions, Georgetown was built on a grid layout with specific streets and districts appointed to different ethnicities. Hungry and following my nose, I soon came across the district of one of Georgetown's earliest inhabitants, numerous as Sir Light needed a large, cheap labour force to build the city, Little India.

Convincingly colourful shop fronts sported authentic Indian foods and wares, albeit with some adopted southeast Asian twists. Restaurants served up the rich, spicy vegetable curries that you might find in Rajasthan or the Punjab, but they were mostly pre-made and presented buffet style as is common in southeast Asia, in place of the Indian norm of cooking to order. Elsewhere florists hawked garlands of ceremonial flowers and the red spatterings on the ground in front of shops spoke of the daily ritual appeals for good business.

On a sunny Saturday morning several days later, with a belly full of Malaysian roti bread, I took a walking tour in the neighbourhood of Little India's urban rival, Chinatown. To this day almost all Chinese trade to Europe, Asia and the middle East passes the Strait so Chinese factions have always made up a large proportion of the Georgetown's population. I realized that I never seemed to be more than a few meters from the delicately designed facade of a Chinese temple. My walking tour guide showed us how a trained eye can reveal the ethnicity of the patron at a glance, for example a Cantonese temple can be identified by dual fish on the roof.

A Cantonese temple, spot the two fish on the roof

The range of Chinese ethnicities meant that the temples sometimes had to be as intricate on the inside as out. My guide told me how some even had secret doors so that the inhabitants could make a quick getaway in the event of a raid by a rival temple or the police (several of the temples served the secondary purpose of local mafia/syndicate headquarters). One such door subtley reduces in size as you pass through so that during a police raid the nimble Chinese could slip through and away whereas the clumsy British redcoats would become wedged. Unfortunately it was now bricked up as in the present day the escape route would have led straight into a trendy looking café next door.

Standing in front of a busy Chinese restaurant, our guide joked "If you want beef, go to the Muslim district, if you want pork, go to Little India, if you want to eat anything, go to Chinatown!" Cringeworthy.

While I could feel a tangible sense of history in the UNESCO protected city, unmistakable through the varying ethnic districts spattered through with beautiful British colonial buildings, ultimately, Georgetown felt a little disappointing. This town must once have been a full gas maelstrom of trade, travellers and skulduggery, unremitting and unrepentant. It was built by, and for, the rough, weatherbeaten souls who lived hand to mouth on the world's treacherous oceans because they were married to the sea or because they had no other option. Old Georgetown was a product of an age of exploration and battle, of new frontiers, cruelty and bravery. The trade industry on which the city was built has been shifted to mainland ports so that Georgetown can focus entirely on it's new millennial generation of travellers for whom important commodities are WiFi and brunch bars, not homemade wine, cannon balls and places to practice axe throwing. New Georgetown is just too clean, too orderly, a watered down shot of something exotic and unpredictable, the serpent de-fanged and placed in a tank the shape of a lemon drizzle cupcake.

Thankfully then, my accomodation was on the far side of the island in the small, local town of Balik Pulau. I volunteered for a few weeks at Titi Teras Guesthouse, a sleepy, incoherent building with a facade straight out of the wild west, set up in part to house touring cyclists passing through Penang. Several days later I would connect Penang's largest and second largest towns by a walking around 15 kilometers over the central ridge of hills with Tuba, a Turkish cyclist who was also volunteering.

Balik Pulau and the west coast of Penang

Walking from Balik Pulau to Georgetown

A hamlet in the mountains of Penang

My arrival in Penang marked my one year anniversary on the bike. A relentless storm system moved in with a violence that encouraged even I, generally resistant to weather's unpleasantries, to take shelter in the guesthouse. Consequently, I had time to reflect on some of my personal discoveries over the following week. Here are a few:

1. People everywhere are basically the same. They all want the same things, food, shelter, financial security, safety, education for their kids, some extra cash for indulgences.

2. Differences between people which become meaningful and sometimes violent stem from not understanding the first point. Many times during this journey I have been warned by the locals of a particular settlement, region or country about the dangers of travelling in the adjacent settlement, region or country. 'Careful in (insert neighbouring community here), there are robbers, drunks and dishonest people there'. On many of these occasions the advisor had never actually been to that place or had little or no contact with the people there. (On no occasions has one of these dangers come to fruition, I get the same treatment by 99% of people, regardless of age, region, ethnicity or religion).

3. The dangers of point two can therefore be mitigated by promoting the understanding of point one. Then mutual understanding can spread and decrease fear of the unknown.

4. Mainstream media and political parties are not likely to promote point one as it is often in their interests to appeal to a certain demographic at the expense of another, which can even lead to the dangers of point two. People must facilitate point one themselves. The best way to do this is real, interpersonal contact, i.e travelling.

In 1511 the Portuguese 'Carrack', the  Flor Do Mar, would have passed Penang Island on it's final, fateful, journey south. Like mine, it's destination was the strait's namesake, Melaka, it's purpose, conquest and loot. The captain, Afonso de Alburquerque, was successful on both counts, but less successful in navigating his vessel heavily laden with treasure from the Sultan of Malacca's Palace on the northward return, out of the Strait. She was lost in a winter storm and has never been recovered.

A full size replica of the Flor Do Mar has been built by the maritime museum

With favourable winds the Flor Do Mar would likely have made the Penang-Melaka run in a few days at most. On a touring bike laden not with treasure but with smelly clothes and camping equipment the migration took me several weeks, albeit with a week in Kuala Lumpur midway.

One morning I climbed a small hill to Melaka's St Paul's church for sun-up. Few of the port's buildings tell it's story better. The now crumbling structure of southeast Asia's oldest church has taken many forms, as a gun turret under Portuguese rule, as a lighthouse and an ammo dump for the British. Back in native hands, what remains is a reminder of a violent past. I stood alone, in the dark below its arched gatehouse and peered out into the Strait towards Sumatra. A broiling electrical storm rolled menacingly towards me, great flashes of light simultaneously illuminating the furious cloud above and a metal tanker thugging unconcernedly northward up the strait. Such a storm was once the peril the unlucky Flor Do Mar. Behind me stood the statue of another, more fortunate Portuguese sea captain, Duarte Coelho, who built the original church in gratitude for surviving a similarly furious storm.

The varied history of St Paul's church reflects the equally varied history of Melaka proper. The city's colonial masters are most identifiable through it's architecture, that of the Dutch being easily the most widespread. Hemmed in by unmalleable hills to the east, the Dutch colonisers pushed west into the strait and one evening I followed their expansion on foot. The café where I was staying would have been only a few meters from the waterfront. To reach the strait now I wandered for several kilometers across reclaimed land adorned with Dutch gabled terraces. At a distance the tall pointed townhouses were reminiscent of the most picturesque of Dutch cities, Amsterdam, though at close range they missed the finer details and luxury of the real thing.

Reclaimed Dutch quarter

The river in Melaka before sun up

Just about the only Malaysian mosque I didn't sleep in - the 'floating mosque' in the Melaka Strait

Like Georgetown, Melaka's trading heritage has left a varied population. Indeed my walking tour guide was an ethnic Indian with Dutch heritage also. Much of my week here was spent hanging out at the local Sikh Gurdwara, reading and drinking copious free milk tea's. The large Sikh population here largely migrated from Punjab in north west India. My arrival coincided with the annual celebration of the life of Sant Sohan Singh Ji, once a student at the temple and one of the most venerated Sikh personalities in southeast Asia. For three days Sikh's gathered from all over Asia and the Gurdwara pulled out all the stops in accordance with the teachings of the Guru Nanak, who said that food should be available to everyone, all the time, free of charge, regardless of demographic and importantly, caste. A marquee the size of an airplane hangar was erected and dish after dish of delicious, vegetarian Punjab food was served from 5.30am each day. Safe to say I didn't stray far from the temple!

Tuba and I joined a charity walk connected to the Gurdwara to raise money for the homeless in Melaka

Both Melaka and Georgetown were born as trading ports, buying and selling foreign produce rather than exporting themselves. This changed initially when the British introduced tin and rubber production into the area and as I cycled south from Penang to Kuala and onwards to Melaka, I saw evidence of west Malaysia's more recent industrial revolution. The palm revolution. For hundreds of kilometers I pedalled through palm plantation after plantation. If I blurred my eyes the unnatural uniformity of the neat rows of willowy trunks topped with long fawning leaves would dissolve into a unintelligible mass of deep green. For a moment I could imagine what a mysterious, teeming phenomenon these untamed jungles must once of been. There was no tricking my ears though. The faux forest which now offers a fraction of the range of habitats it once did was unnaturally quiet and little stirred other than the occasional group of macaques crashing from tree to tree.


Cycling west Malaysia
Puncture break in west Malaysia

On one night we slept in a fire station! 

West Malaysia's palm plantations

The kilometers between Penang and Melaka likewise made me realise that, outside of the cities, Malaysia is perhaps also less socially diverse than it once was. Muslim traders arrived in Malaysia from India in the twelfth century and, although this was after the arrival of Buddhist's, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus, they were more outspoken in promoting Islam and it stuck. On the west coast at least, mosque's comprise the vast majority of religious centers. This was a happy result for me as my visit to Malaysia coincided with Ramadan, when Muslims are encouraged to make an extra effort to help others and perform good deeds (although in my experience they rarely need any extra incentive). On almost every night between Penang and Melaka I was permitted to sleep in mosques and take shelter from Malaysia's occasionally ferocious night storms. I would turn up in the late afternoon and spend long evenings reading or chatting to the locals as during Ramadan the final prayer does not conclude until after 11pm. I was also unfailingly invited to join the evening iftar, when the ramadan fast is broken at sundown.

Sleeping in a mosque
Melaka lies a mere three hundred kilometers from the southern extremity of Asia, the Singaporean peninsula. From Melaka I had booked a plane ticket from Singapore to Darwin, Australia. The term 'Asia' is perhaps a loose and misleading term in it's suggestion that forty or so countries that span an overland distance of more than 20000 kilometers have any similarities in ethnicity, language, custom or religion. It is perhaps useful though in demarcating the world's largest continental landmass and, taking the Bosporus as Asia's western edge, I have been steadily traversing 'Asia' for almost one year. That year has provided a seemingly innumerable number of experiences, any one of which, in a previous life, would have been truly exceptional. It is a testament to my fortune that in this life such exceptional experiences were commonplace and it will take many words, lots of hours and perhaps some hindsight for me to begin to understand them and how they have changed me, and how they will continue to do so in the future. Too big a task for a paragraph in this post. What I am sure of is that I rolled into Singapore one week ago with a keen sense that an important chapter in my life would imminently conclude, of what importance, I am yet to discover.

My final days on this continent were spent in the company of five Indian students who I met at the Sikh Gurdwara in Singapore. The five had gathered from opposite corners of India, from Punjab, Bengal and Orissa, to find adequate work and study opportunities. Despite geographical, cultural and religious differences, and the best efforts of some high profile Indian politicians to rule India by division rather than unity, they had become brothers in all but name and invited me into their fold without a second thought. I was even allotted my own patch of floor in their already full room. We roamed the city at night and day, visiting Sentosa Island to swim in the Singapore strait and drinking whisky on a hilltop to celebrate Eid, the conclusion of Ramadan. These young men were this continent's last, unforgettable reminder to me of how it is face to face interpersonal interaction, on the ground, that has the capability to raize divisions, foster mutual empathy and bring people together, for better.


My friends in Singapore

Comments

  1. Fascinating stuff Kit!! Makes me SO JEALOUS! I was hitching through Malaysia in 1980 and spent a week in Penang (before the bridge had been built). I remember having to be very careful re sea serpents which are dangerous and fast. SO glad you got through there unscathed. And now you are into completely contrasting territory where you will have to be exceedingly careful NOT to run out of water. DON'T TAKE ANY RISKS ON THIS FRONT! I only once ran out of water, in Argentine Patagonia where I was not following roads, and had a very close shave. I have never forgotten this. My Guardian Angel saved me. I wonder how much of Australia you are planning to bike? When you have a rough idea of a date for crossing over to NZ let me know and I have an address or two that might be helpful. eg a friend who was running an NGO in Myanmar, all to do with milk & cheese production. Keep Well and continued CONGRATULATIONS on all your achievements so far.

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  2. Wow, a whole year and what a year you have had..... So many wonderful experiences. On to the Land Down Under.......enjoy!!! :-)

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