Search Results for 'walking a village'


On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain, a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, Burma, our guide parked alongside the road and led us into a small village. It’s one of the many memories of our recent trip to Myanmar that I’ll never forget. Back in 2011, I enjoyed Walking a Village outside of Varanasi, India on the way to Sarnath to visit Buddhist sites. After that experience, I vowed that I would continue to use this method of “slow travel” during future trips. I was not disappointed.

As we entered the village, we were enthusiastically greeted by small children. Some were shy, but most warmed up to me after I crouched to their level.

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As we walked among the thatch-roof huts, we introduced ourselves to a family sow and her brood who scurried away to hide underneath a nearby yam patch.

The family pig

The family pig

The brood of piglets

The brood of piglets

I was impressed with the use of solar panels in the village. One panel could power a small 6-inch TV. One home owner proudly showed how he could charge batteries to power a radio or a smart phone. He showed us his living space. I noticed that his motorcycle was kept inside, under the thatched roof.

Cycle in a village home

Cycle in a village home

This solar panel can power a small radio

This solar panel can power a small radio

Large solar panel on thatched roof

Large solar panel on thatched roof

A group of villagers were busy harvesting peanuts. They smiled as we passed by.

Villagers harvesting peanuts

Villagers harvesting peanuts

We didn’t meet many older children because they were in school. So we stopped on by to take a look at the classrooms before we returned to our vehicle.

Village school

Village school

 

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On the way to Sarnath to see the Buddhist sites in India, we asked our driver to stop outside a village and let us walk through on our own, to interact with the locals. This is who we met.

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Do you stare at the window at work, nod off into a travel dream while watching TV, or dream of yourself in another place while you’re waiting in the check-out line at the grocery? Do you say to yourself I wish I could be there now…but I can’t? Maybe, someday…Why dream when you could actually do it? Here’s how:

Step 1: Prepare your bucket list and set your travel goals.

Do you have a travel Bucket List? If not, start a Pinterest Vision Board and pin your favorite travel ideas from the Internet. That will give you some ideas of where to go. If you already have such a list, so some additional work on it. I use an accordion-style folder and then add individual file folders inside. My Bucket List folders have expanded into an entire desk drawer over the years. You could divide your own list by national and international, long-term travel vs. vacation, must-do vs. nice-to-do, immediate and later, or simply year by year.
We’ve all learned how to set goals in business. We know that goals must be:
• Measurable
• Achievable
• Realistic
• Time-based
You can use this same goal-setting process to achieve your personal or family travel goals. For example, we added “Central Asia” to our Bucket List after we’d completed our world circumnavigation and wanted to travel to landlocked areas yachts and cruise ships couldn’t reach. About four years ago when traveling in Myanmar (Burma) we met a couple from New York who had been there. They recommended Uzbekistan because they had used a travel agent who had grown up there. We contacted her and set a measurable goal to go there in two years. That goal was achievable but not realistic because it was not the right time of year and we had time-based family obligations. We changed the plan to four years, and voilà! we will make that trip in April of this year.

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Step 2: Decide where to go and make your travel plan.

Decisions are never easy. And sometimes you can be overwhelmed by so many choices that the year goes by and you realized you haven’t gone at all. Think of it this way. Yes, there are so many places left to see, but you do not have to do it all at one time. So simply decide how long you can be gone and then block off that time on your calendar. Select a trip that fits your timetable and budget. If you don’t travel often, start small and stay close until you’re comfortable with longer trips. If you’re not comfortable traveling alone, go with a group or with a friend who knows the ropes.
What is holding you back? Bring that Thing out of the closet and examine it. Can you go anyway? If that Thing is money, think about what you can give up to make it happen. Going out for dinner? Going to theaters when you could get a subscription to Netflix and pop your own corn? Do you really need that new car, new sofa, new bike, new…? Remember, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” (see my last blog). If you decide not to travel, it’s because you don’t value it enough.

Step 3: Research your chosen destination.

This is the fun part. Do take the time to look through travel brochures and tag the specifics you want to see. Explore alternatives before you choose what you want. Research on-line comments about day tours and hotels, keeping in mind that complainers are more vocal than “happy campers.” Learn from the mistakes of others but stay optimistic and excited about the places you’ve chosen to visit.

The Travels of Marco PoloBuy guide books, travelogues, and history books and read, read, read. Watch movies and documentaries about your chosen destination. Immerse yourself into the customs and cultures of locals.
Right now, I’m buried in the romance of the Silk Road. My head is bursting with blue-domed cities filled with gorgeous blue tiles, remote yurts (yes, one night will be a yurt-stay), and colorful bazaars. I’m ensnared in the clutches of Samarkand, founded in the 5th century BC. In 329 BC, the walled city was taken by Alexander the Great who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda (Samarkand) is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined.” This strategic city sat on the crossroads leading to China, India, and Persia. In Bukhara, two thousand years old, I want to bury myself into Marco Polo’s world, so I’m reading The Travels of Marco Polo, an illustrated classic about his excursions from 1271-1295. In Tashkent, the capital, I want to see for myself a city destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219 and rebuilt to become a prominent center of scholarship, commerce, and trade along the Silk Road. Altogether, I want to take on what has been called “the glorious weight of history” by understanding the customs and culture of just one country: Uzbekistan. Instead of sailing in the wake of ancient explorers, such as Cook and Zheng Ho, I’ll be traveling the sandprints of some of history’s greatest travelers and invaders.

The Travels of Marco Polo

What type of travel do you prefer? At our ages, Gunter and I opt out of group tours whenever we can. We prefer independent travel. We generally go through a travel agent who helps us plan our unique itinerary; sets up inter-country flights, trains, and cars; and books with a local guide. We also prefer “slow travel.” We choose a relaxed itinerary that includes time for leisurely breakfasts, “walking a village” (by ourselves, if permissible), and an extra day or two near the end for me to catch up on my journaling and posting before we head back.

Step 4: Make a commitment.

Those who achieve their dreams go out and do what others dream of doing. So, get out of your little bubble of existence today before you dig so deep into that comfort zone that you become mired and cannot claw yourself out.

“Some people live in a dream world and others face reality and then there are those who turn one into the other.” –Douglas Everet.

Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this  nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale at a reduced price for a limited time.

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1. Myanmar is more open to tourism than ever before. The country welcomed some 3 million visitors in 2014, about half of those international tourists. Five million tourists was a target set for 2015, although the numbers are not in yet. The number of tourists to Myanmar (Burma) is exploding because tourists may now enter freely after acquiring a visa online and picking it up on arrival; they can travel freely throughout the countryside without escorts (this was not the case during my first visit in 2006); and Myanmar is the most authentic and untouched of all the countries in Southeast Asia. Tourists are rushing to see it before it turns into another Thailand. So now is the time to go!

My husband and I chose Myanmar as our international vacation destination for 2014. Because of skyrocketing tourism, hotels tended to be scarce during the high season, so we chose to leave in October and return in early November. We booked through Enchanting Travels, Myanmar. They organized an independent “slow travel” tour for us via auto and plane, with a local tour guide at each destination. Our round-trip tour included the bustling city of Yangon, the fertile farms of Shan state, the mountain villages of Pindaya, the fishing villages of Inle Lake, the stupas of Bagan, a two-day cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, and relaxing at Ngapali beach, where I had an opportunity to journal before heading home.

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You can access my blog posts and photos about my trips to Burma here:

Why Go to Myanmar?

Burma in My Blood

Walking a Village in Myanmar

Burma, My Next Favorite Place

I recommend booking hotel rooms in advance through a local travel company—at least for the first few days of your trip. Cash is king in Myanmar. You can exchange dollars for kyats as you go.  Credit cards are not widely accepted but ATM machines are readily available. WiFi is like dial-up internet of the 1990s in most places, but that only forces you to adapt to the slow travel approach. Just be patient, take it easy, and enjoy the spectacular scenery and friendly people. Pack for hot weather. The “peak season” to visit with the best weather is from November to February. We traveled in October during the “shoulder season” because we wanted to be home for Thanksgiving. If you visit in other months, you’ll suffocate (110F/45C in Yangon) or you’ll soak during the rainy season.

2. Cartagena, Colombia is one of the most charming cities we visited during our entire sailing circumnavigation. Now you can fly there from almost anywhere in the world. The city holds a special place in my heart because this was our refuge from a Force 10 storm that we encountered off the coast of Venezuela during the Maiden Voyage of Pacific Bliss. In fact, I wrote this about Cartagena in Chapter 7 of In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: Maiden Voyage:

Cartagena is a magical place that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime. But a word of caution: Once you come to see her, you will dream about when you can return. From its charming, old walled city to its historic naval and land fortifications to the posh, modern high rises and its tourist beaches, Cartagena dazzles and thrills. However, this is a city that cannot be devoured; she needs to be savored—slowly and deliciously. Mark my words: Gunter and I will be back!

The photos below are taken from Maiden Voyage.

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Although we haven’t returned to this marvelous destination yet, rest be assured, it is on our bucket list! If you want to see the city, just book a hotel and take a city tour or travel around by cab. Be sure to spend a full day in Old Town Cartagena. While you’re there, you might want to take one of the many Spanish language courses offered. Or you might want to book a day sail to Islas del Rosario for some swimming and snorkeling. If you’re more adventurous, contact Worldview Travel about one of their jungle tours.

3. I never tire of Bali, Indonesia. But beware: Once you go there, you’ll return again and again. Bali has a special significance to me because Gunter and I spent our honeymoon there back in 1995. We rented a hotel at world-famous Kuta Beach, not far from populous Denpasar. If you like loud music and crowded beaches, this is for you. If you are more adventurous, you can do what we did. We checked out of our hotel after two noisy days and booked a four-day boat trip to Lombok and then to the Komodo Islands to see the dragons. Back in Bali, we spent the second week at the far side of the island, at a quiet beach resort with a volcanic, black-sand beach. We were instructed to hit the dong of a wooden carving outside our door to call for coffee service. Later, a server asked us, “Did you know that Mick Jagger slept here—in your bungalow?” Hmm. But our favorite part of Bali was the traditional town of Ubud in the interior, where we watched Balinese processions, visited carving and silver shops, and took in a Legong Dance at the King’s Palace.

When we visited Bali the second time, during our world circumnavigation, we knew exactly where we wanted to stay. With Pacific Bliss safely berthed at the Bali International Marina, we took a taxi to Hotel Tjampuhan on the outskirts of Ubud. For one week, we enjoyed a totally hedonistic experience in a secluded hillside bungalow overlooking a lush valley.  Birds called back and forth, their high notes overriding the deeper sounds of rushing water far below. Squirrels raced up tall tamarind trees and red hibiscus blooms added color to the verdant landscape. We swam in a cool, spring-fed pool, and enjoyed side-by-side massages at a spa dug into the hillside above the waterfall. In the cool of the evening, we walked into town and enjoyed performances at The Royal Palace. Later during our sojourn in Bali, we booked a few days with friends in Sanur Beach—a much better alternative to Kuta. I haven’t been back to Bali since the advent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love book and movie but rest assured, this island will never lose its charm.

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4. Vietnam is a must visit that combines history and beauty—and they openly welcome Americans. We visited Vietnam in June 2006, along with a cruising couple who had set up our private tour for four with a local travel agency, Focus Travel. That worked out well because we could share a van and driver. In fact, the total cost for each of us to tour there for 10 days, including guides, private transportation, four-star hotels, tours, a cooking class, 10 breakfasts, 4 lunches and one dinner, plus domestic flights from Hanoi to Danang and from Hue to Saigon was $673. We flew from Langkawi, where Pacific Bliss was berthed, into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Vietnam has over 2,000 miles of coastline and our route from Hanoi to Saigon covered most of it, backed by central highlands and jagged mountain ridges throughout most of it. Fertile farms line the rivers and deltas. We loved Hanoi with its charming French colonial boulevards and landscaped lakes. The city was a wonderful mixture of old and new. In addition to taking in a Water Puppet show and a Vietnamese cooking class, we toured the Military Museum and the sobering Hao Lo Prison Americans called the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

DSCN2056 (2) Rice Fields of Vietnam

We found the people giving, gracious and anxious to please. I was fascinated to learn what the younger Vietnamese think about what they call “The American War:” According to them, that was but a blip in their history, following a1000-year war against China and a 30-year war against France. Yes, the older generation of Vietnamese are battle-hardened, proud, and nationalist. But for the energetic younger generation (the median age is 29) Vietnam is a place to succeed, to earn a lot of money, and to have a good time. They care little about politics; they were born since all those wars occurred.

From Hanoi we drove along the coast to Halong Bay, a World Heritage site, then flew to Danang with its stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches, and drove on to Hoi An to relax at a beach resort for a couple of days. In a town famous for its tailors, we dropped off clothing to be “copied” and picked up the next day. Next we drove over the mountains to Hue, the former capital city of Vietnam where we took an evening barge trip down the Perfume River. We flew to Saigon and checked into a 1920s hotel in the heart of downtown, great for shopping and touring a city that, in 2006, had no McDonalds, KFC, or chain stores of any kind. From Saigon, we toured the Mekong Delta and then drove through industrial areas south of Saigon—car assembly plants, and numerous manufacturing complexes. There, we could see that rapid industrialization was underway.   

DSCN2035 (2) Tourist Boats, Halong Bay

With over 90 million inhabitants in 2014, Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country. A full 65% of its population is under 30. Since 2000, the country’s GDP growth in has been among the highest in the world, with the U.S. as its largest trading partner. When we were there, the populace was very excited about joining the World Trade Organization in 2007.  Since then, much has changed dramatically, so if you want to see parts of the old Vietnam with the simpler life, go there soon!

5. If you want a more adventurous vacation, check out Savu Savu or Fiji’s remote Lau Island Group.  We sailed almost all the way around Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, then left our yacht in Savusavu, on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu. We had obtained a special permit in Suva to visit Fiji’s remote Lau Group for a thatched-hut-on-the-beach experience. Not easy, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Chapters 8 and 10 of Sailing the South Pacific, my second book in the adventure series, describes two sailing seasons we spent in Fiji, where we had too many adventures to list here. Feel free to ask for advice in the COMMENT section below.

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What are your travel plans for 2016?

Blog 2, Danube series.

From its source, the Danube flows past the ancient kingdoms of Swabia and Franconia and the contemporary German towns of Ulm and Neuburg. But it is not until Regensburg that the river becomes Bavarian. Founded as a Roman garrison town, Regensburg was unscathed from wartime bombing, so its medieval art remains intact. The city’s primary landmark is the Steinerne Brucke, a marvelous stone bridge with fifteen arches that become higher and wider at the center, giving it a distinctive middle hump. I have visited Regensburg during other trips and never cease to be amazed.  On this trip, though, we joined the msAriana at Passau, one of the most visited cities in all of Germany.

Passau has been called the Venice of Bavaria, or the Drei-Fluss-Stadt, three rivers town. Dominated by rivers, Old Town is built on a peninsula whose end marks the confluence of the Danube with the Inn. A smaller tributary, the Ilz, emerges from a gorge to the north topped by two picture-perfect castles, complete with turrets and all. From a high vantage point, one can discern the rivers by their colors: The Ilz is black, the Danube is blue-brown, and the Inn is silver-gray.

I loved the pastel colors of houses lining the riverbank—pale yellow, russet brown, amber, and lime-green—meeting the baby-blue sky above. From the river banks, we climbed through a maze of narrow streets to reach the cream-colored St. Stephens Cathedral. What a treat! No wonder Napoleon said that in all of Germany, he never saw a town so beautiful. 

Celtics established and fortified their settlement on the Passau peninsula in 500 BC, trading salt up and down the Danube and Inn rivers. Romans replaced the fort with a camp in the first century AD. In the Christian era, the city was reborn and eventually became a prince-bishopric with its ecclesiastical rulers ruling along the Danube as far as Vienna. Passau became rich through trading flint, ceramics, wine, and grain. Products were offloaded at Passau and sent via pack animals far into Bohemia. Back the other way came hops, malts, spirits, animal hides and wool. Merchants made sure that their Rathaus (town hall) was one of the most splendid civic buildings along the Danube.

After touring Passau on our own and ending with coffee in one of the many riverside cafes, we boarded the svAriana for our cruise down the Danube. The top deck provided a view for miles.

DSC00664 Ariana Ship's Bell.jpg

Fifteen miles downstream from Passau, the Danube becomes a wholly Austrian river; however, four centuries before Charlemagne’s rule, the river was the boundary of the crumbling Roman Empire. Craggy granite heights above riverside towns were used by the Romans for forts and lookout stations. Now those fortresses hang onto bluffs, and hide behind breaks in the forests, abandoned to the ravages of nature. I imagine that each of these castles has a story to tell. We do know that some rose again as medieval castles, and later, others were turned into restaurants-with-a-view.

In no time, we were about to enter the first set of locks. I was amazed to see how close the ship came to the edge of the locks—not much over one foot! All these locks along the rivers differentiate a European river cruise from an ocean cruise. The Danube has most of them, a total of 19 locks; most of them (15) are between Regensburg and Vienna; one is between Bratislava and Budapest; and two are at the Iron Gates between Budapest and Bucharest. And finally, the last one is at Cernavoda, close to the delta.

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Dikes have been built to prevent floods along the Danube ever since the 16th century. Only about a fifth of the floodplains that lay along the Danube in the 19th century remain. Now, the Danube itself is regulated along over 80% of its length. Around 60% of the yearly electricity generation within the Danube River Basin in Austria originates from hydropower. After svAriana had passed through the locks to the other side, we viewed vast swaths of generation stations.

Europe is the birthplace of the bicycle and cycling culture runs deep. And the Austrian Danube is most likely the most famous cycle route in all of Europe. As we sailed downstream, we saw bicyclists on the banks cycling downstream. Most start their bike tour near Passau and end in Vienna; however, some continue to Bratislava, Slovakia, only 35 miles away down the river. The route is easy for beginners: There are few hills, and most of the ride is on paved paths that follow the river as it passes through the Eastern European countryside. One 13-day, 526-mile ride (named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Tours of a Lifetime”) from Experience Plus begins in Germany and winds past „impressive Bavarian monasteries, verdant Austrian vineyards, and pristine Hungarian villages before ending in the imperial gem that is Budapest.“ Melanie, because I began this blog on a German typewriter while staying at my step-daughter’s home in Germany, now Word does not allow me to fix the quotes. If you can, fine; if not, just type the preceding sentence over or reword so that it is not a quote. Thanks. Another travel company, AmaWaterways, offers a cruise combined with cycling stops. To some, cycling is a welcome change from the usual cruise-excursion voyage, but I prefer riverboating combined with bus and walking tours.

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During one of these walking tours (in the pedestrian lane of the bike path), our guide described past use of these trails. The bike route follows former bridle paths that run along the river from Passau to Vienna. But before that, commercial ships were pulled upstream by teams of horses.  And before that, slaves of the Roman Empire pulled those ships along! For most Americans, traveling Europe is living a history we don’t know much about. The advantage of cruising Europe is that I can come back to the same cabin every day to research what’s coming up next.

You’ve already taken your big summer vacation, but now, towards the end of summer, your family may be asking what’s next. Many small towns across the USA tend to hold special celebrations towards fall, just as the temperature begins to drop. These festivals feature a wide variety of themes and often include parades, entertainment, and lots of food. If you take the time to attend one of these events, you won’t be disappointed.

Here in Wisconsin, we are in the lull between the county and state fairs. State fairs tend to be huge events that span a week or more and sprawl over many acres. You end the day with aching feet, too tired to think about the long drive home. So why not attend a county fair instead? That’s what my husband, Gunter, and I did this year. A few weeks ago, we enjoyed the home-town flavor of the local Polk County Fair in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. This fair brought back thrilling high school memories of walking the midway hand-in-hand with my boyfriend’s ring around my neck. We were going steady and sat dangerously close on the Ferris Wheel and crushed tight on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Later my steady hit the jackpot and, with a flourish, he handed me the huge teddy-bear he won as his prize.

I pointed to the grandstand, “Wow, that looks so much smaller now!” I explained how, as a pre-teen, I’d modeled in front of those bleachers as a participant in 4-H, an organization country kids joined. I wore tight white slacks made of “white duck” and a red-and-white handkerchief blouse I’d sewn myself. The day Gunter and I went to the fair, the “demolition derby” was the main event; we sat on wooden bleachers cheering for drivers to destroy their opponents’ cars by crashing into each other until they could run no more.

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On the trek back to the field where our car was parked, we stopped every so often along the livestock buildings to pet a calf, a llama, or a goat.  The top winners would go on to the State Fair.

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During the summer and fall seasons in Polk County, one can find a celebration of something almost every week-end. With a lake every four miles and many rivers between them, concerts at the overlook,” usually a village park, are common. You can search the local papers to find fishing tournaments; tractor and lawnmower pulling contests; soapbox derbies; car, truck, motorcycle and tractor shows; brew fests, wine tastings, rib fests, and fish fries; art exhibits; movies under the stars; Monarch festivals; quilting shows; and so much more.

My favorite celebrations are the annual town festivals, replete with marching bands, parades and coronations of all sorts from Cheese Queen to Pumpkin Queen. Amery has the Fall Festival; Centuria, the Orchard Festival; St. Croix and Taylors Falls, Wannigan Days; Osceola, the Pig Roast; Milltown, the Pumpkin Festival; Luck, Lucky Days; and Clayton, Cheese Days.

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Next year, consider celebrating America’s birthday in a small town, the kind of place where everyone knows each other as a neighbor, not just on social media. We celebrated in unincorporated Wanderoos, where the main street is only six blocks long. We stood to watch the parade until a resident offered us chairs he took from the village park! I’ll bet you that won’t happen in the city.

During our circumnavigation, with our yacht Pacific Bliss safely docked near Port Dickson, we were told that we should see historic Melaka, the birthplace of Malaysia. “If you go there, you will discover the soul of the nation.” Of course, I had to go!

Reportedly, Melaka is the Malaysia of yesteryear, the one broadcast to the western world by writers such as Conrad, Kipling and Maugham. Somerset Maugham describes this city-state best in Far Eastern Tales:

“A long line of rickshaws and little men running between the shafts…running with dogged steps…the sampans wedged up against each other like sardines in a tin…Chinese shops where strange medicines are sold…Bombay merchants, fat and exuberant, standing at their shop doors selling silk and tinseled jewellery…Tamils, pensive and forlorn, walking with a sinister grace…bearded Arabs in white skull caps, bearing themselves with scornful dignity…a multi-colored and excessive world.”

I wanted to gain a feel for those times gone by so we planned a tour. Gunter hired a car and driver—all day for 160 ringgits (about $43 US) and we departed, backtracking south along the coast for two-hour ride past massive industrial and land reclamation projects, condo developments, and businesses—many of them abandoned since the thwarted economic boom of the 1990s.

After we arrived, we instructed our driver to pick us up at 5 p.m. and we set off to take the Lonely Planet walking tour of old-town Melaka. The tour began at a charming town square featuring a garden with a working windmill. My Scandinavian mother would have loved this! A row of bicycle-driven rickshaws decorated with colorful plastic flowers and delicate parasols waited for passengers alongside the garden. Tourist stalls nearby overflowed with goods from all over Southeast Asia. We continued walking past an ancient cathedral and the old town hall with a massive clock tower, both built in the traditional Dutch architectural style. This city has a most intriguing multicultural heritage, from Southeast Asian sultanates to European traders—the beginning of modern Malaysia.

Dutch-themed town square, Melaka

Dutch-themed town square, Melaka

Dutch windmill at Melaka Town Square

Dutch windmill at Melaka Town Square

Waiting rickshaws, Melaka, Malaysia

Waiting rickshaws, Melaka, Malaysia

Back in the 14th century, Melaka was just another lazy fishing village. That was before it attracted the attention of Parameswara, a Hindu pirate/priest from Sumatra, Indonesia. In 1398, the rogue priest fled to Singapore. Later, he sailed to Melaka and set up new headquarters. Under Parameswara, Melaka flourished. It became a favored port for waiting out monsoons and resupplying trading ships plying the Selat Melaka, the current Malacca Strait. This port, strategically located between India and China with easy access to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, attracted merchants from all over the east. In 1405, the famed Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Melaka bearing gifts from the Ming emperor as well as a promise of protection from Siamese enemies approaching from the north (now Thailand). Based on these early contacts with China, settlers followed and became known as the Baba or Nonya (Straits Chinese). They are the longest settled Chinese people in Malaysia and over the centuries mixed Malaysian customs with their own. The port experienced the inevitable squabbles and intrigues, but by the time of Parameswara’s death in 1414, Melaka was already a powerful trading state.

Melaka came into contact with Islam through traders from India, and in 1424, the third ruler of Melaka converted to Islam. Then his son, Mudzaffer Shah, took the title of Sultan and made Islam the state religion. From Melaka, he disseminated Islam through all of the Indonesian archipelago. He attracted Muslim Indian merchants from competing Sumatran ports and consolidated his area of control. Eventually, the Melaka sultans ruled over the greatest empire in Malaysia’s history and successfully repelled Siamese (Thai) attacks. The Malay language became the lingua franca of trade in the region, and Melaka produced the first major piece of Malay literature, the Malay Annals, the history of the Sultanate.

But all this glory ended when Europeans came on the scene. Melaka entered a period of steady and inevitable decline. It is a typical story of European conquest: the Portuguese arrived in 1509 seeking the wealth of spice and trade with China, but after an initial friendly reception, the Malaccans attacked and took Portuguese prisoners. This prompted an assault, and in 1511 Alfonso de Albuquerque took the city, causing the Sultan to flee to Johor, where he re-established his kingdom. Missionaries came and Catholicism was implanted. But while cannons could conquer, the Portuguese could not force Muslim merchants from Arabia and India to continue trading there. Other ports such as Java overshadowed Melaka.

The port city suffered attacks from neighboring Johor and Sembilan, as well as from the Islamic power of Aceh in Sumatra. Dutch influence grew throughout Indonesia; Batavia (modern Jakarta) developed as the key European port of the region. In 1641, Melaka passed into Dutch hands after an eight-month siege. They ruled for 150 years, and Melaka was again a center for peninsular trade. The Dutch, however, put more emphasis into their possessions in the Indonesian archipelago.

By 1795, back in Europe, the French Revolution was raging and the French had occupied Holland. Britain was an ally of the Dutch and offered to take over administration of the Dutch colonies to prevent their falling into French hands. The British administration was principally focused on enhancing trade, so they abolished the monopolistic trading policies of the Dutch. The Brits also feared rivalry with the Dutch traders, so they forcibly removed the Dutch population up the coast to Penang. They wanted to weaken Melaka, so that if it were ever returned to the Dutch, it could not rival their own Malayan ports! Fortunately, the farsighted Sir Thomas Raffles stepped in to propose a win-win compromise: Melaka was permanently ceded to the British in 1824 in exchange for another Sumatran port. Now the British had control of Singapore, Melaka, and Penang, called the Strait Settlements, the basis for further expansion into the Malay Peninsula. Under the British, it was Singapore that became the preferred seaport while the importance of Melaka declined. Today, the port of Singapore handles 50% of the world’s shipping and 90% of Japan’s oil.

A River Runs through it, Melaka, Malaysia

A River Runs through it, Melaka, Malaysia

My favorite stop on the tour was the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum: across the river from the town square. The house has been converted into a private museum by the descendants of a wealthy Baba-Nonya family. (Baba-Nonya is a common term here for ethnic Chinese-Malays.) These Chinese immigrant-traders intermarried with the local Malays and adopted many of their customs. This particular museum, though, is even more multicultural: it depicts the lifestyle and furnishings of the marriage of a European trader with a wealthy Chinese woman of class—a fascinating east-meets-west story. The exhibit includes Victoria-patterned china for entertaining western guests as well as sets of “Nyonya-ware,” multi-colored ceramic designs from Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces in China, made specifically for the Straits Chinese. I learned that the traditional blue-and-white Chinese china with which we are familiar was used only for special occasions such as funerals. Pastel china was for every-day use.

Pottery in a Melakan gift shop

Pottery in a Melakan gift shop

Furniture in the home is magnificent and massive: Chinese hardwoods are used in a mixture of Chinese, Victorian, and Dutch design with mother-of-pearl inlay. Marble surfaces have been imported from Italy. The staircase to the upper bedroom levels was carved by craftsmen brought in from China. The ceramic tile is Nyonya style: a blend of pink, yellow, dark-blue, and green. An open courtyard in the center of the combined townhouses allows light and fresh air. I’m impressed with the tiled drain—surrounded by potted plants—built to catch the rainfall. Our Chinese guide clarified displays depicting funeral and wedding customs and attire, the entertainment of guests, and how parlor games were played.

We continued to walk along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, a street also known as “Millionaires Row,” filled with more luxurious town homes of this style. Then we walked past numerous narrow long townhouses that had been converted into shops; they displayed goods for sale at the street entrances, but their private back yards were replete with traditional courtyards and fountains.

The highlight of Melaka’s Chinatown for me was the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, dedicated to the goddess of mercy. It is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, dating back to 1646. All of the building materials—and the artisans to build it—were imported from China. The temple’s interior is an explosion of black, red and gold. I watched, fascinated, as Chinese worshippers lit incense sticks and candles and presented their offerings.

Temple Street, Melaka

Temple Street, Melaka

Lighting incense at the temple

Lighting incense at the temple

After we returned to Pacific Bliss, I asked myself, “Did we discover Malaysia’s soul?” For sure, this visit to Melaka was a good beginning. I now understand more about the country’s culture and heritage. As was the case with most countries we sailed through, we needed to pause and stay for a while, observe, and interact. Discovery is always a process; it is never a quick fix.

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