A tale of two Malaysian cities

Damai Beach, Kuching, is a great place to see out the day.
Damai Beach, Kuching, is a great place to see out the day.

It was the giraffe that really threw me. I was panning my camera across the kampungs and suddenly there it was, moving blurrily in and out of focus as my viewfinder also tried to make sense of the unexpected sight.

Then all became clear and I was indeed eyeball-to-lens with a giraffe, no matter that it was concrete and cartoon-like.

In the decade since I was last in the coastal Malaysian city of Malacca I was expecting some changes, but this was bewildering.

But then, I suppose, why not? Those gnomes that peer out of the shrubbery in New Zealand gardens are hardly traditional, so it is not unreasonable for the owner of a customary kampung (Malay house) to liven up their own garden with something exotic.

Malacca is a lot like that - a combination of the old, the new and slightly askew. It was a gentle little fishing village until, in the Middle Ages, the Majapahit Empire turfed Iskandar Shah, the last King of Singapore, out of his kingdom and across the Malacca Strait.

His Royal Refugee-ness discovered that the wee village was most favourably and strategically placed if one wanted to take control of the busy strait and so that was the end of the quiet delights of a bach on the beach in Malacca for the locals and the beginning of a history of takeovers.

Iskandar established an international port with a reputation for fairness and reliability, and because it was so successful everyone wanted a crack at it. Along came a succession of corporate raiders: The Vietnamese, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British and, finally, the Japanese. Although some of these takeovers involved incidents of extraordinary barbarity, it was the brutal Japanese occupation in World War II that the people of Malacca cannot bear to remember or bear to forget.

And, yet, in Malacca's main square, the grandchildren of the war seem oblivious to the bayonetting of babies within living memory and have welcomed the Japanese back, in a way.

Hello Kitty, heroine of popular Japanese culture, simpers "konnichiwa" or flirts "saikin do" to entice customers into a trishaw. The three-wheeled vehicles are garishly decorated to attract custom, some so wonderfully ghastly they're glorious. Those featuring Hello Kitty were being admired by some trilling young Japanese who were equally oblivious, it seemed, to the bloody rampage their very near ancestors may have taken through these same streets.

The new Japanese invaders are armed only with yen and goodwill and it was hard to know what to think about it all. But then, like the giraffe, why not? Malacca has long had a reputation for tolerance.

I strolled along Harmony St (Jalan Tokong) past Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia; Sri Payyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia; and Kampung Keling Mosque, built in 1868 although Islam predates both the other faiths in Malacca by a couple of centuries.

The trio sit almost shoulder to shoulder and as I stepped back into the street, standing in front of the newer Xianglin Buddhist temple to observe the first three, a posse of young men came laughing around the corner.

They couldn't have timed it better; I almost felt like I had been set up. As they passed by they peeled off into their respective places of worship and there it was in eight pairs of Levis and eight pairs of popularly-branded sneakers - the tolerance that appears to be the essence of Malacca.

It was hot, and down by the river I ate a bowl of chendal, sweetcorn milk mixed with coconut milk, poured over ice and threaded through with unidentified thin green strings of sweetness. I had passed on the one flavoured with the vile-smelling durian fruit but could still smell its pungent odour from the next table where it was being slurped with a great deal of infant happiness.

On the other bank I could see a Hard Rock Cafe, another insidious invader, and in the river between I watched a water monitor lazily swim upstream and crawl onto a protruding rock. It was another Malacca mix of old and new - the lizard remnant of the dinosaur age sunbathing alongside a thoroughly modern speed boat.

Later I visited a Peranakan restaurant, lunching on the food of the early Chinese migrants who married local Malays, and then visited a Peranakan or Nonya house where I walked barefoot across a cool marble floor, inspected exquisite panels of embroidery and ran my finger lightly over intricately carved rosewood furnishings.

Although Malacca has been thrust into the new millennium in a rather haphazard way, with new office, hotel and apartment blocks constructed with little regard to town planning, in the narrow lanes of the old parts of the city, a great deal of charm remains.

Up on the hill past the old fort of A'Fomosa are the ruins of St Paul's Church, where standing in the cool shadow cast by a statue of St Francis Xavier I looked out over what was once a little village that exploded off the riverbank and into the Straits of Malacca to become the city it is today. It's not a big city but its history is enormous.

A couple of days later I was looking aghast at an enormous hairball on display at the Sarawak Museum in Kuching on the island of Borneo. Kuching means Cat City but this was not barfed up by a feline. It was from a crocodile and, worse, it had the bottom plate of a human denture attached. It was revolting and yet I couldn't stop staring at it.

Next to it was the gold watch of poor Mr Abang Superi Abang Saat, stopped forever at 3.45pm on August 29, 1993, the time a croc snatched him off the riverbank.

And who knew there were so many snakes lurking in the undergrowth, from the dreamy-looking pythons to the horrendously beautiful Sumatran and king cobras.

It was the same with the turtles, ranging from wee terrapins to a rather squashed-looking beast with a funny nose that for some reason made me feel squeamish.

The bird cabinets were a relief and the huge range of birds astonishing. I expected them to be bright and tropical but mostly they were simply shades of brown with a few bright orange chests, with some royal blue crests. Only the enormous hornbill had any great degree of colour.

The Sarawak Museum is a proper old-fashioned museum; it's shady, the floorboards creak, it's a little bit dusty and it makes you feel a little pit of anxiety in your stomach at just what you will see next.

Kuching is onomatopoeic to Westerners and there's a lot of ka-ching! at Top Spot, a food court on the roof of a multistorey car park. It was hard to know where to start. All around the edges were food stalls loaded with fresh produce and all I had to do was choose.

In the end I coped by reminding myself that there would be other nights to try other things. I chose my ingredients and fled to a table before I changed my mind, and drank from a fresh coconut while I waited for my meal to be cooked.

Afterwards I headed down to the riverside and strolled along the paving stones. There were more food stalls with traditional fare as well as candy floss, donuts and icecream. Islamic couples walked in respectable groups while other young lovers were entwined and unchaperoned. A Malay version of Willie Nelson busked and crooned over his guitar, singing a song that was vaguely familiar in a language I didn't understand.

At the end of the promenade I could see blue lights flitting in the air and when I got there I saw they were toy darts with LED lights being shot into the air by a catapult. Cheap, plastic tat but it didn't matter - against the humid velvet sky they looked magic.

The next morning I was the only person in the cat museum. Cats, cats, cats - from the regal to the smug and fatuous Garfield, the museum has searched the world for all things feline. There were movie posters, cat sarcophaguses, jewellery, paintings, cartoons, clothing and the part cats have played in our lives including some pretty ghastly stuff that the SPCA would have, well, kittens, about.

Rescued orangutans live out their days at the Matang Wildlife Centre or if they can be taught to look after themselves they will be released back into the surrounding Kubah National Park. I made parcels of sultanas, sunflower seeds and runny honey, wrapped in a betel leaf and tied with string. I passed one into the hand of grumpy Peter and tossed others to Catherine, Doris, Ting San, Amman and the oh-so-naughty Ali who scooped up three packages and then found, to his greedy horror, that he couldn't hold onto them and undo them all at the same time.

I later saw others swinging freely through the trees and was unexpectedly moved.

The orangutans were only part of my Borneo adventure. During an intense monsoon rain, I slipped and slid, drenched, across a bamboo walkway that linked a 300-year-old longhouse with the rest of the village. I sat around a table on a covered verandah, trying to hear and be heard over the pounding rain while drinking strong milky tea out of a glass tumbler with the village chief and shaking my head about the state of Syria. Just through a doorway in front of me a cage full of headhunted skulls dangled next to a flickering internet modem.

I caught a boat to Bako National Park through the choppy monsoon seas and saw a bright green python fat with the corpse of some unfortunate small animal that made the mistake of passing by at dinner time and, almost best of all, I saw a proboscis monkey feeding on berries only a few short branches above my head.

He looked down his famous nose at me, unimpressed by my squeaking delight and probably thought to himself, "what a prat," but it didn't matter - simian derision was a small price to pay for the chance to experience the deep and humid beauty of the Malaysian jungle.

Jane Warwick travelled to Malaysia courtesy of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

Sunday Star Times