Monday, September 10, 2012

Malaysia: Where Enrique of Malacca Came From, by Cecilia Brainard

Malaysia: Where Enrique of Malacca came from
By Cecilia Manguerra Brainard  
published in The Freeman and, Sept. 7, 2012

CEBU, Philippines - Even though I'd read that Malaysia has the third largest economy in the ASEAN countries and is the nineteenth largest in the world, I was flabbergasted to see how developed it actually is; more so than Vietnam or the Philippines, more on par with Singapore and Hong Kong. My husband Lauren, our friend Doug, and I were there last April. Malaysia has all the trappings of a First World country: excellent infrastructure, social services to its people, low crime rate, beautiful sites, all of which have made Malaysia a popular tourist spot.

Our first stop was Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur or KL as it is popularly called.
As our plane approached KL, I could see stretches of land with what looked like coconut trees. Closer, I realized these were palm trees, the incredible number, which was both impressive and disturbing. North, South, East West, as far as your eyes could see, there were palm trees. It made me wonder what sort of environmental repercussions this monocrop could cause. We would later learn that palm oil has helped make Malaysia wealthy and provide its people with a fairly high standard of living. On the other hand, because of palm trees, forests have been shrinking, displacing wild animals from the forests and jungles. Elephants were among those displaced from their natural habitat.

These Oil Palm Trees were planted in the 1960s by the Malaysian government for its edible fats and oil. At the time, rubber and tin had ceased being Malaysia's top-income products, thus the cultivation of these palm trees that originally came from West Africa. Palm oil is one of the top major exports of Malaysia, along with electronic equipment, petroleum and liquefied natural gas, wood and wood products, rubber and textiles.
KL is a modern city. What I liked most was the Lake Garden Park, 92 hectares of it, located in the heart of the city and which acts as the green lung to about 4 million people. KL was carved out of a jungle, and fortunately the city planners had not destroyed all of it.
Downtown you have the space needle, twin Petronas Towers, and numerous skyscrapers. Many of the high-rises are new and have bold designs, many of them blending Western and Moghul features. As we toured KL, we realized that it is a sprawling city. The Bintang district, where we stayed, is part of the Golden Triangle, and from there one could walk to many tourist sites; but it was April and very hot, so we opted to take the Hop-On-Hop-Off Self Guided Tours.
We visited the Central Market, which boasts of having been founded in 1888 as a wet market, and which was rebuilt in 1937. We were hoping to find stalls of fruits, flowers, meat, just like a regular wet market, but we found only handicrafts and souvenirs. Gone is the wet market, to our disappointment. I mention this because in fact there is much in Malaysia that has been "cleaned up and modernized" to the point of being somewhat sanitized.

A must-see for tourists is the Merdeka Square; Merdeka means independence, it was there where Malaysia declared its independence from the British in 1957. The Square is a nicely landscaped grassy area surrounded by The Selangor Club, St. Mary's Anglican Church, and other buildings of the British colonial and Indo-Saracenic styles. Nearby are the copper-dome-topped Sultan Abdul Samad Building and the City Gallery.

In fact, the rulers of Malaysia seem to have gone out of their way to share their wealth with its population of 27 million. The minimum wage was recently set at 900 ringgit per month (roughly $297) for workers on the Malaysian Peninsula; 800 ringgit per month (for those in the states of Sabah and Sarawak). The Malaysian government wants to transform the country into a high-income nation by 2020. There does not seem to be a lack of employment in Malaysia. When we later drove out of town, our tour guide commented that the villages have few young people because they are all working in cities.

Other places to see in KL: Chinatown, Little India, the Petronas Towers, the National mosque, National Art Gallery, the Convention Center, the large Crafts Cultural Complex, and the Bintang area had high-end shops and excellent restaurants serving international cuisine. We had a wonderful dinner at La Bodega, which serves Spanish food. We also had Arab food in an open-air restaurant. There are food courts for a quick cheap meal or snack.
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From KL, we took a daytrip to Malacca, which is on the West Coast of Malaysia facing the Straits of Malacca. I was looking forward to visiting Malacca because of its rich history. Founded by a Sumatran prince in around the 15th century, Malacca became an important international trading post, so important in fact that the Portuguese occupied it in the early 1500s, and later the Dutch and English had their turn in occupying the strategic place.

One of those who went to Malacca was the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan. It was in Malacca where he acquired his slave, Enrique De Malacca. Both of them went on the 1519 historic journey from Sevilla, famously known as the "first circumnavigation of the world." In fact, Magellan was killed in Mactan, and Enrique left behind in Cebu. Some historians had suggested that Enrique was originally from Cebu, because he reportedly understood the language of the people when Magellan's ships arrived Cebu. Other historians have disputed this, saying he first understood the language of the people of Mindanao in what is now known as Butuan. Whatever the truth is, Enrique had a link to my native Cebu, and I was curious to see Malacca.

It took around two hours by tour bus to get from KL to Malacca (also called Melaka). Gone were the skyscrapers and glitz of KL; Malacca had one and two-story houses and some old traditional Malay houses made of wood with peaked roofs and intricate border designs. Our first stop was the Strait of Malacca, but because of geographic changes, what is there now is not what had been there during the time of Magellan. The Strait, which is between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra remains as one of the most important shipping lanes in the worlds, connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Oceans.

Because of its multi-racial population throughout time, Malacca has different communities in the old parts of the city. We drove through the Portuguese quarter, which had churches and Catholic schools (Malaysia is predominantly Muslim). Very little is left of what the Portuguese had built back in the 1500s. In the historic area, we saw the A Famosa Portuguese Fort with a lone surviving gate at the foot of St. Paul’s hill. On top of the hill are the ruins of Saint Paul’s Church. From there, you have a nice view of Malacca and the Strait. The strait, our guide said, is now farther away because of land reclamation. This old section of Malacca is still being developed, and our tour guide told us the Malaysian government is looking forward to cruise ships stopping in Malacca. Malacca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Even though current-day Malacca is different from the Malacca of the 16th century, I was still very interested because this very area was where Ferdinand Magellan and Enrique would have visited. It was the Portuguese settlement from1511 to 1641; some historians say that Magellan acquired Enrique as a slave, in Malacca, most probably in 1511.

A short walk down St Paul Hill revealed old Dutch homes and the charming Dutch Square, with a fountain and red brick buildings around. There were shops for the shoppers and a shady tree with a bench for the hot and weary. We opted to sit and take in the sights. To our right was the administrative building called the Stadhuys, which once housed the quarters of its governors and officers. Straight ahead was the Christ Church. There was a clock tower and more Dutch buildings from the 1600s. The Dutch were in Malacca from 1641-1825, a period of 184 years, the longest time Malacca was under foreign control. From 1825 to 1946, Malacca was under British Rule.
Across the street was the Malacca River that joins the Strait of Malacca, and which had been a passage way for ancient trading ships to warehouses and piers along the river. A small part of the Malacca River has been restored to allow tourists to imagine how it looked in the past.


Across the river was the old Chinatown with Jonker Street at its center. This narrow street has houses dating to the 1600s. Jonker Street became famous for its antiques; now there are other shops and restaurants. Sweltering in the April heat, we took a break in one of the cafes for a cold drink. Afterwards, we strolled along this historic street and peeked into the antique shops and took pictures of temples, mosques and two-story buildings. It was all very colorful and joyful, and finally totally exhausted, we plopped down in our tourist bus, ready for our two-hour drive back to KL.
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Born and raised in Cebu, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the multi-awarded author and editor of over 15 books. Her recent books are: Magnificat: Mama Mary's Pilgrim Sites (Anvil, 2012) and Out of Cebu: Essays and Personal Prose (University of San Carlos Press, 2012). Her website is

tags: travel, tourism, Malaysia, Asia, Malacca, history, Enrique, Ferdinand Magellan

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