Malaysia is a country that has two parts, one on the Malay Peninsula and the other on the island of Borneo. After leaving Singapore, I traveled north by bus up the west coast of the Malay peninsula, stopping in several Malaysian cities along the way. In Singapore, I learned about the Chinese, Malay, Indian, and British colonial influences that have shaped the region around the Straits of Malacca, and I followed these trends as I made my way through Peninsular Malaysia.
At the height of the British Empire, England controlled three main ports along the Straits of Malacca: Singapore, Melaka, and George Town. These three colonies made up what were called the Straits Settlements. As with Singapore, all three cities have long had populations of Chinese and Indians who came to trade with each other and with the local Malay population. However, while Singapore is predominantly Chinese, the Malaysian cities have much higher Malay populations, with 56% in Melaka and 31% in George Town. The architecture is similar to that in Singapore, with many shophouse-style buildings and elaborate Peranakan (local-born, upper-class Chinese) houses. Because the British taxed property only on the width, and not the depth, of houses, the main characteristic of the Chinese houses in this region is their narrow facades and deceptively deep interiors (some houses go back over 200 feet from the street!). In front of each house is a small porch covered by an overhanging upper floor. All of the porches line up to create a covered sidewalk to protect pedestrians from the sun and rain.
When I arrived in Melaka from Singapore, the first difference I noticed was the traffic. Despite the fact that Melaka is many times smaller than Singapore, the traffic is much worse, and quite a bit more chaotic. The roads are narrower and lined with open drains, in contrast to the wide and clean streets of Singapore, and there are no skyscrapers or commuter trains. In fact, there is not even a port.
Even before it was colonized, Melaka was an important port city for trade; as the capital of the Malacca Sultanate, it was on par with Venice during its heyday. Melaka was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1511, when they built a large fort to protect their newly-captured trading outpost. Later, in 1587, the Dutch came along and ousted the Portuguese to take over the colony. The Portuguese fort was destroyed and Dutch-style administrative buildings and churches were erected in its place. Finally, while the Dutch were distracted by Napoleon, the British moved in, and in 1825, Melaka became a British colony. The Dutch buildings were apparently acceptable to the British though, because they remain to this day. The city is centered around Dutch Square, which is overlooked by the old Stadthuys (“city hall” in Dutch).
Unfortunately for Melaka, what was once an important harbor has been filled in and built up, and what had been a busy river carrying spices from further inland is now plied only by riverboat cruises. Indeed, tourism is now one of the most important industries for the city. Since 2008, the city center has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the city of George Town, and efforts to preserve and capitalize on the historic area have resulted in a city that is nice to explore and is popular with both foreign and local tourists.
There are many interesting things to do in Melaka. I visited the Peranakan Heritage Museum and the Stadthuys Museum, and didn’t even scratch the surface of the city’s impressive collection of museums. There is also a preserved kampong (traditional Malay village) a short walk upstream of the Dutch quarter, where you can see the indigenous building styles and traditional houses that are still inhabited. At night, the city comes alive with lights and music, particularly on the weekends when the night market opens along the main road through Chinatown. There, I tried many different local foods, such as pineapple tarts, durian puffs, and cendol. All around there are hilariously-decorated trishaws taking people on joy rides through the streets blasting the songs “Despacito” and “Havana”.
The city of George Town is located on the island of Penang off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. This city, which is still one of the largest ports in the country, was the first of the Straits Settlements that the British established, in 1786. At the time, the Dutch still had control of Melaka and the British had not yet established Singapore, so they arrived with laborers and built a city out of the swampy coast of Penang. Like Melaka, George Town has an area with colonial buildings, but these are British and Art Deco in style rather than Dutch. The British also built a fort in George Town, called Fort Cornwallis, to defend the port. Interestingly, this fort is named after the same general who surrendered to George Washington at the end of the American Revolution; after he surrendered the American colonies, he was sent to India to oversee a different set of colonies, including Penang.
George Town has one of the highest Chinese populations in Malaysia, at 53%. The city of George Town therefore has a large Chinatown area, and the island of Penang contains many temples that are frequented by the Chinese community. Unlike in Singapore, where housing is strictly controlled and the Chinese shophouses have been repurposed, many of the shophouses in George Town are still inhabited, sometimes even still with a shop in front. I experienced the Chinese presence in George Town in a particularly memorable way because my visit coincided with Chinese New Year, which I’ll talk more about in the next post. Along the coast adjacent to the historic city center is a row of “Clan Jetties”. These wooden piers, which stretch out several hundred feet over the water, are built up with entire neighborhoods where various Chinese clans live to this day (the jetties look a little precarious, but at least the residents do not have to pay property taxes!). Spreading out further along the coast To the north and south are numerous high-rise buildings which, despite the old-world feel of the island, give it a rather cosmopolitan look, particularly when it lights up at night.
In between Melaka and George Town lies the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, which I also spent a few days in. Because Kuala Lumpur is several miles from the coast, it is not a port city, and therefore was not one of the Straits Settlements. It was, however, overseen by the British as a subordinate colonial city due to its natural resource production. This city, whose name means “muddy confluence” in Malay, was first settled in the 1800s when Chinese migrants arrived and started to mine for tin. When the colonial authorities caught on to this profitable business, they began to develop an administrative district in the swampy land adjacent to the Chinese settlement. Despite devastating floods, the city continued to grow and develop and is now a busy metropolis of over seven million people and is the economic capital of Malaysia (it is also the political capital, though many government functions are carried out in nearby Putrajaya). The city center is a maze of food vendors, skyscrapers, public transportation, and massive shopping malls.
Kuala Lumpur is not very well-loved among travelers in Southeast Asia, and many of the locals I met have only moved to the city for work, but there are a few attractions that kept me interested during my stay. The most prominent of these are the Petronas Twin Towers, which were for a time the tallest buildings in the world (though the current champion is twice as tall!). Nearby, the KL Tower stands in the center of the KL Forest Eco Park, an enclave of rainforest winding through the city center. Just outside of the city is an important Hindu temple built inside the dramatic Batu Caves. This cavern inside of a mountain is accessed by a grand staircase of 272 steps guarded by a 140-foot-tall statue of the Hindu god Lord Murugan and many observant monkeys. Inside the cave, devotees have built several freestanding temples and shrines to honor Murugan, the god of war. Because the steep stairway is the only way to access the temple complex, all of the building materials must be carried up individually – that is, each visitor is requested to bring up what they can carry from the pile at the base! Due to the importance of this particular temple for Hindus, it is a major pilgrimage site, especially during the Thaipusam festival, which recently took place. The evidence of this event was everywhere, as the area surrounding the temple was quite dirty and cleanup efforts were still underway amid the crowds of worshippers and tourists.
My time in Malaysia was overall very interesting and fun. In many ways, Malaysia is very modern and easy to travel in. And despite the fact that the Malay word for “water” is air, I have not really felt “upside-down” being on the other side of the world! I hope to return to Malaysia in the future. There are many more areas, particularly in the central and eastern parts of the peninsula, and on Borneo, that I would like to visit. For now, though, I am headed to the beaches of Thailand!