from : room 111, Baba House. Melaka, Malaysia

We didn't go to Bokor in Cambodia to find ghosts but we did. We looked for ghosts in Melaka but we didn't. Instead we found the well preserved corpse of a town that once bustled with traders and immigrants but is now hollow and vacant, filled only with distracted tourists having their pictures taken in front of once important buildings and the local people who depend on them for thier livliehood.

Tiziano Terzano wrote a wonderful book about the fortune tellers he consulted during a year spent traveling overland through the world. A fortune teller had told warned him some twenty years previously that he would surely die if he flew even once in 1993. On that trip, perhaps more attuned to the spirit world than we are on this one, he wrote about the myriad ghost sightings in Melaka. A sixteenth century sailor caught making love to a nun was beheaded while she was buried alive. Their sporits are still seen embracing in the ruined Portuguese fort. The moans of the 1000 Chines civlians murdered by the occupying Japanese forces during WWII can still be heard in the old parts of town. Factory workers possessed by spirits when a German company built on top of an Indian temple.

We looked for these and found none. We asked many people if they had seen them and found only one person who had observed apparitions. On a bridge where the Japanese had displayed the severed head of a Chinese boy caught stealing rice.

A great deal of land has been 'reclaimed' from the ocean and the houses of 'millionaires row' where the rubber and tin barons built thier dream homes that were once ocean side are now almost a kilometer from the water. The site of the old fort, whose cannons once guarded the mouth of the river where spice laden galleons would moor, is now so far inland that the armaments would have great difficulty protecting the rows of identical that have sprung up between it and the sea. The seaa that was the very lifeblood of this town is now far down a muddy stream littered with rocks and scavenging monitor lizards that it seam every bit like a fossilzed whale that was beached on the shore a generation ago.

Perhaps it is harsh, or at least presumptive to say that Melaka died some time around the second world war. We ventured only twice outside the historic center and then only briefly. The problem was that everything outside the centre was so depressed and depressingly, pragmatically ugly, we could find no reason that would spur us on to trudge through the heat to see more.

It is not as though Melaka does not try. Not as if it takes no pride in it's heritage, on the contrary. The museums are wonderful, particularly the Maritime museuam housed in a replica of a Portugeuse Galleon. Three of the six nights we were there a street was closed of for pedestrians, booths were set up and the clan associations belted out Karaoke. The bar and restaurant owners were quick to show us before and after pictures of the building they had refurbished. Then also, perhaps there is some vibrant renaissance taking place in a suburb somewhere and we were not informed. After all, on our last night in Melaka, Malaysia had a record breaking drum festival attended by some 50 000 people. We only read about it on the bus out of town the next day. No sign of the event was posted or talked about in the old town.

Melaka city center is fossilized. As though the land reclamation cut it of from its lifeblood, the ocean and left it to dry up in the tropical heat like a beached fish. This town is most certainly worth a visit but it is like a coffee-table book about Malaysia said, children like museums to be alive. They will visit a zoo four times a year but a museum just once in a decade. I fear that for all the fond memories I have of Melaka, it will only be once in a lifetime.




~ Nigel




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