Saturday, July 5, 2008

Day 144. Malacca

The plane landed today Thursday at 6:30 am. No problem with passport control or customs, but I learned that the punishment if you are caught with drugs is mandatory death by hanging! A bit drastic the Malaysians, aren’t they?

By 7:30 am I was on my way to Malacca, or Melaka, which is 130 km southeast of the airport. The highway is first class and beautifully landscaped, but the sky had a very threatening look.

Malacca, which gives its name to the Malacca Strait of piratical fame, is an old city where Malaysian, Chinese, and Indians live together in happy confusion. At one time Malacca was the head of an empire that dominated not only the Malay peninsula, but also most of Sumatra and Borneo. The Sultan fought continuously with Siam (today Thailand), and finished putting his empire under the protection of the Chinese Treasure Fleet, commanded by the legendary admiral Cheng Ho (more about him a little later) in 1405.
The Chinese withdrew from world politics in 1435, so the Malaccan empire was ripe plum for the Portugese in the early1500’s.
Then came the Dutch in the mid 1600’s, and finally the British in the mid 1800’s. The city is thus an amazing collage of cultures, history, and architectural styles.

By 9:30 am I had found a little hotel right in the heart of the city, just at the time the sky opened a veritable monsoon deluge. To my good fortune the rental car agency had included an umbrella in the rental, so deluge notwithstanding I ventured unto the streets. My first priority was to visit the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, to learn as much as possible about the great Chinese explorer. He was the most trusted eunuch of the third Ming emperor, Zhung Di, who put him in full command of the Treasure Fleet. This fleet counted more than 150 vessels, a half dozen of which were leviathans of nearly 400 m in length (about 20 times the size of La Niňa, la Pinta, or la Santa María), and nearly 100,000 men. With this enormous fleet Cheng Ho (also written Zheng Ho) undertook seven exploration voyages into the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. He established diplomatic relations with kingdoms in east Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, Ceylon, Burma, Siam (Thailand), and the Malaccan empire, and in his book “1421, The Year China discovered America” Gavin Menzies has argued that some of the squads of the Treasure Fleet may have reached the west coast of the Americas. Cheng Ho was also a Muslim, and may have been instrumental in the conversion of many Asians to Islam.

The museum was not bad for a small town, and they had some cool models of the ships of the Treasure Fleet, maps, and a reproduction of the navigation charts prepared by Cheng Ho. The charts are navigation strips, rather than maps, and sometimes you have to use a lot of imagination to recognize the shape of Borneo, or the passage of the Gulf of Hormuz; however, they include all the landmarks a mariner might need when navigating in sight of the coast.

Afterward I went for a long walk through the city, always amazed at the strength of the monsoon downpours. Still, I had a chance to take pictures of some of the public buildings and canals, to give you an idea of the personality of the city. Funny story: They have a maritime museum, inside a mock Portugese galleon, but I couldn’t visit it because the ship was leaking water (from the downpour, not from the ocean) and they were worried about short-circuits.

I also stopped at a barbershop, and for $3 got a nice haircut. The nice lady who cut my hair took my general instruction of “short” to heart, as you can see in this photo. Oh well, nobody knows me around here and hair grows back, so I am quite happy to be as cool as possible.

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