Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Melaka and Kuala Lumpur

By now it should be clear that I am completely enamored with Malaysia…if I wasn’t sure after my first trip, the 35 days we spent there this time have certainly confirmed it.  We spent the last of these exploring Melaka and KL, which is pretty much saying we visited the country’s past and future.

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We arrived in Kuala Lumpur late Wednesday evening, but left for out day trip to Melaka early Thursday morning.  After quite a bit of confusion concerning trains and buses and more buses, we arrived smack in the middle of Dutch Square, which is known less formally as Red Square.  At some point along the line, someone decided that all the buildings in this spot should be painted a bright, distinctive red…but that makes it very easy to spot!  We dove into our explorations of this OLD, going through Christ’s Church and walking along the market stalls.  Parked in front of the church and all along the square were the famously ridiculous Melaka rickshaws.  Rickshaws in Georgetown were quaint and a bit eccentric…these Melaka ones, however, looked like a bunch of sugared up five year olds had designed them.  As we passed the market, we turned down a street that quickly turned into a dead end construction zone, but hidden there at the edge was a very old cemetery with graves dating back to the 1600s.  Following the flow of traffic, we circled back past another old church and headed toward the square again.

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This time, we turned the other way to cross the river and head into the Jonker Walk area, which is dominated by the Chinese population of the area.  Jonker walk is a packed street and its alleys, full of antique shops peddling everything from 300 year old coins to TV sets from the 1960s.  Between these shops, many others have sprung up selling souvenirs, bibelots, food, tea, and all other imaginable offerings.  I was pleased to see a couple artsy shops in the mix, selling politically minded T-shirts and local crafts.  After a long morning, though, we were definitely ready for some food.  The local specialty are chicken rice balls…great for Sangbyeong, but not so good for me.  I inquired at one of the many places selling these, noticing the “yam balls” on the menu, but these included shrimp.  The sweetheart who broke this news to me took pity on us and hand drew us a map to the local “total vegetarian” shop.  Doubt we would have found this hidden gem on our own, but the food was delicious.  We ordered vegan versions of laksa, mee rebus, and the daily special.  I made sure to go back and thank our map drawer.

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Thus sated, we were ready to renew our explorations, first walking up and down the river, looking at the replica of an old ship moored there, along with a water wheel.  Turning up the main road, we passed several museums dedicated to all kinds of history and present achievements.  At the end of the museum row, we found small, sturdy Porto del Santiago, the 450 year old Portuguese fort that protected some of the first Europeans to venture into this part of the world.  Although the day blazed outside, we entered the tiny fort and it was filled with cool cross breezes…and local couples taking romantic photos.  Behind the fort, a set of steps went up, up the high hillside, passing the old Dutch burial ground we had seen before.  After several minutes of climbing, we reached the peak and discovered a fantastic view out into the seaport that passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the Brits back to the Malaysians.  And a gorgeous old ruin of St. Paul’s Church.  Like the port, it passed through all the European colonists before falling into disrepair and resurrected by tourism.

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On our way down the hill, we passed the old Town Hall and Fire Brigade…then headed off to find refreshments, in the form of a lovely little coffee and chocolate shop.  Then it was time to hit the road back to KL…to catch the US and Korea World Cup matches that night!

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Our following three days in Kuala Lumpur were mostly spent relaxing in the Chinatown district.  The kaleidoscopic sights of Petaling Street vying with the Petronas Towers seen from afar.  Compared to Melaka, everything in KL feels flashy and NEW.  It felt good to hang out in a familiar neighborhood for these last few days, when I know that the next time I see a truly familiar city will not be until December!  On Saturday afternoon, we took off on the commuter train to see Batu Caves, one of the holiest sites for Hindus in Malaysia.  Sangbyeong got a kick out of the “Ladies Only” cars on the trains…and he was even more surprised to learn that I had ridden in them the last time I visited KL.

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The Batu Caves area is a huge limestone hill structure with several caves weaving throughout it.  As you approach the main cave, the huge golden image of Lord Murugan greets you with a mysterious smile.  On the left, the small Sri Shiva temple bustles with pilgrims getting blessed before they make the climb up the 273 stairs.  We went inside to admire the statues and watch the blessings happen…and I ended up getting blessed myself!  That meant we were extra ready to scale the stairs.  At the top, the gaping entrance leads into a huge cavern, where the floodlights on the floor do little to dispel the gloom in the high reaches.  Monkeys, puppies, and chickens pass beneath the feet of the people.  Climbing up the steps at the other side, there is an opening in the cave roof and yet another temple.

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As we headed back out, we took a detour going down the stairs to visit the mouth of Dark Cave.  This is one of the most studied cave ecosystems of the world and also houses the world’s rarest spider…the Trapdoor Spider lives only in this cave!  The entrance to this cave was a little outside of our budget, but the monkey clan that lived in that spot was entertaining enough!  We watched the family groom, play, and interact with many of the passing tourists.  One even tried to BORROW my dress.

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We spotted one, newly opened cave just as we were about to go to the train.  I am glad we stopped, because inside was a retelling of main events of the Ramayana in statues, all brightly lit in pink, green, orange, yellow, and BLUE.  Climbing around in the cave, we spotted familiar parts of the story, waterfalls, thousands of names scratched into the wall…and a “natural lingam,” represented by a large stalagmite.

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We left, reading this tablet, and it seemed a perfect sentiment to say goodbye to Malaysia, as we head on to our next adventure in India.

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