Thursday, December 6, 2007

Writing from Malacca, Malaysia

I am posting from Melaka (also Malacca) Malaysia, in the southwest of the country along the coast. Melaka became famous as one of the world's busiest commercial centers starting around 500 years ago. It is strategically located along the narrow strait of Melaka through which today about 20 to 25% of all world ocean commerce passes, and along the ancient spice trading routes between India and Southeast Asia. It is also located where the monsoon winds change directions so traders could safely moor here. Early in its history, a fair set of commercial trading laws was developed, further encouraging traders to stay here. The original village converted to Islam early in its history and so Melaka also became a regional center for the Islamic faith. The city has a population of over 600,000.

The region was strategic enough to be of great interest to the Western colonial powers. The Portuguese succeeded in taking it in the 16th century. In the 17th Century the Dutch took it from the Portuguese and finally, in the 19th century, the declining influence of the Dutch caused them to hand it over to the British. British rule did not formally end until 1957 and this year Malaysia celebrated 50 years of statehood.

From what I have seen so far, Malaysia is a true melting pot. Here in Melaka, Malay is the primary language but almost everyone speaks some English and most signs are in Malay and English. English is not spoken nearly as much here as in Singapore. In Singapore English is the lanuage of instruction whereas here it is just a required language class that pupils typically start taking at age 7. There is a big chinatown here because many Chinese came here when Melaka was a trading center. In fact, this region and China traditionally had very close ties. There is also a somewhat smaller Indian population and a Little India section.

Malaysia is definitely cheaper than the Philippines or Singapore. My guesthouse here is just US $5.50 per night and I can eat a nice breakfast or lunch for about $2.00, including tea or coffee. I love the food here -- Malay, Indian, and Chinese are abundant. I have been able to buy Chinese donuts off the street, too, something that I had missed for awhile.

Due to the rich history of this area, there are museums galore here. And so I have been able to satisfy my curiousity about Malaysian history. In fact, I have noticed that my rate of learning has accelerated now that I am traveling and not working. Before, when I was working on my job, I was not really able to satisfy my intellectual curiosity because I didn't have the time or I was too mentally tired after working all day or week. Now, I am reading much more and learning more about a wide variety of topics and meeting a lot of interesting people from all walks of life around the world.

I have met a couple of interesting early retirees here at my guesthouse. One became a permanent resident here in Malaysia through the Malaysia My Second Home Program which makes it pretty easy for individuals to gain permanent residence status if they put some money in escrow to show that you have means to support yourself. These folks live part time in Thailand and part time in other countries like Indonesia. A nice residential hotel room in some nice parts of Thailand off the tourist trail might run a little over $100 per month. Here in Malaysia, a much wealthier country, the cost might run 3 times that. But they are able to live quite a bit cheaper than they could in their home countries (UK and New Zealand, respectively).

The Malay language has a Roman alphabet and is the easiest Asian language for a native English speaker to learn. It is only a little more difficult than a traditional Roman language, like French or Spanish, according to US State Department statistics. Malay is nearly identical to Indonesian except that it has incorporated more English words.

Well, tomorrow I hope to meet Dave in Kuala Lumpur so that we can begin our adventure together, slowly traveling north through Malaysia then Thailand and possibly Cambodia and/or Laos. It will be nice to be traveling with someone again. We hope to travel together for about five weeks. Then, in late January, I will be meeting up with my friend Elena (who lives in France) in Bangkok and we plan to explore Burma together. I just bought my Burma plane tickets a couple of days ago.

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