Friday, November 11, 2011


Sailing down the Mekong at sunset meant that we just had to be close to arriving at Luang Prabang. Then I became aware that on the riverbank, above the various moored long boats and behind the tree line, I could spot lines of buildings. Yes this had to be it at last.
After two days sailing down river I had arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage city. This is one location which most tourists to Laos seem to head to.

The boat landing was just a ramp which we nosed slowly into until the boat gently ran aground. Waiting for us to disembark were numerous agents for guest houses and hotels. Although I had no booking or even really any idea where I would stay, it was not going to be a problem.

The first person to meet me was a friendly young man from Suk Dee GH. As we discussed prices half a dozen others began to offer their places. I actually enjoyed questioning and the general to and throw of the barginning. But in the end I choose the original place offered and headed off following the leader for about three blocks along the riverbank. Suk Dee was one block back from the river and in a nice location. The first room they showed me seemed too good for the price I was going to pay. It was. $US30 per night, but I was only going to pay $US10 per night. So I got an unstairs room, one block back, with a varandah and ensuite. A fan which was more than adequate as I was not paying for the air con unit which was also in the room. AC units tend to be set far too cool and during my stay the fan was all I needed.

The historic area of Luang Prabang is full of old colonial style buildings, most seem to now be guest houses and few are more than two stories high. There are lots of trees, many old and spreading, which provide welcome shade in the daily heat.

Except for a few main roads through the historic precint, most of the streets are narrow and there are numerous smaller lanes as well. Some of the lanes in particular are especially picturesque and photogenic. Growing on the side of one lane I discovered the largest bunch of bannanas that I believe I have ever seen. Of course I took a picture.

Once I had settled into my accommodation, I headed off for a walk around. I was only one block back from the main street which ran the whole length of the historic area and beyond. Just a block along from where I joined it I located the night market. This was the largest night market that I think I have ever come across. It ran down the street for the best part of five or six blocks, with some branches off into side streets. Besides stalls along each pavement,the middle of the road also had a double row of stalls. I found out after pushing agains the flow for a while, that the practice was to walk in one direction beside one pavement and the reverse on the other pavement. Most of the goods were spread out on mats on the ground. I do not recall any stalls with goods on tables. Many of the sellers were sitting on the ground, some others on low stools.

Most of the sellers had the same or very similar goods to sell. There are many scarves, even more T shirts, mixed souviners and every now and then a stall with something completely different. At the far end of the market I began to arrive at food stands. Most were specialising in fruitshakes coffee and cold drinks. However, the reall find, down a side allyway was the dinning area. Here various sellers had BBQ's with kebab style meats held on split bamboo strips – very efficient. Half chickens, duck, strips of pork, were common but there was one seller with BBQed buffalo liver which actually tasted quite good in a chewy sort of way. There were also cooked sassages including a buffalo one. Kebabs cost between 10,000 kip and 25,000 kip being the highest price I heard. Usually my meat cost the 10,000 kip. Next to each meat display, was set out a buffet range of salads, rice noodles, stir fries and sometimes fresh fruit. A help yourself plate full cost 10,000 kip. So for 20,000 kip a very satisfactory meal could be had for about $NZ3.25 – good value in anybodies' currency. I dinned here every night but one. Always the place was busy and seating in high demand. Not just locals but back packers and even small tour groups having an 'experience'. It was actually a very good way to have a meal at night.
On the first night after that I was walking back along the road and found some of the passengers from the slowboat at a street front winebar. So I joined the group and enjoyed French wine by the glass at about $4NZ. Great value! Several of the group had yet to book in anywhere so I ended up bringing them back to my guest house where they stayed for a couple of nights.

It was very enjoyable chatting over a glass of wine in that setting. Fun to watch all the activities going on about us. The group ended up drinking the wine bar out of bottles of Beer Lao.

I went back a second night later in my stay and drank on my own. How ever a two year old girl from one of the shop keepers who had been wandering around came and sat down at my table and started eating my peanuts. I didn't mid because they waiter had brought them along as a value added thing and having had a few I was going to have to pay for them anyway. As for the girl who had bought a book along with her – which she did seem to be proud and processive of, well she swopped tables when someone new came along. Perhaps they had better nibbles?

On the second evening in Luang Prabang, the 'boat group' invited me to join them at the market for a meal and then we went around to Lao Gardens – a bar a few blocks away. We missed the fashion show be were in time for the hip hop display. It did seem a bit of introduced American culture but the boys were pretty good at it. I think the young group members thought that I was a bit of a novelty as I was more than twice the age of most of them – perhaps even triple some ages? I didn't mind as it was a bit of a novelty for me as well and it did make an enjoyable way of filling in an evening. They were still enjoying the night when I decided that it was time to make my way back to the guest house. On night they climbed the hill to watch the sunset only to find that clouds blocked any view from the top.

The hill, Phu Si, is only 100 metres high, but it does dominate the township. It also makes an achievable spot to get good views of the town. That Chomsi, a 24 metre stupa crowns the hill top. There is a little temple there and a number of folk were doing devotions while I was on the summit. At night the stupa is illuminated.

Getting to the top involves a steep climb up a set of steps to reach the first terrace and the ticket office which you need to payt to actually go higher. But having got that far up, how many would decide not to keep on climbing? Clever marketing I thought.

From that point upwards the parth is less vertical but still a good test of fitness. I am glad I had improved my fitness before I set out on the trip. Most of the climb was through welcome shade providing trees but it was still hot, just without the direct sun.

From the summt I was able to sort out the various parts of the city and notice the greenery, the flatness and how low every building actually was. Looked very pleasant place. I watched a lizzard which was camera shy for a while which was a pity as it was worth a photo. There was a steady flow of folk arriving and takng pictures of themselves on the summit.  I decided to go down by a different pathway as this would take me past some Wats which sounded interesting. This was a path less used. I did. Spend some time trying to get a picture of several very attractive butterflies but they would not oblige and land near me.  A pity as they were different to our New Zealand ones and quite colourful.   Actually on this trip I am spending a lot of time on similar efforts to 'capture the moment' Mostly it is the big winged butterflies. I want to get but it sees that I am only photographing smaller ones.

Half way down the track I came across a whole series of sparkly gold painted Buddha statues in various positions and poses. Quite an interesting collection and very modern.
I spotted a sign pointing to Buddha's footprint in a cave. Well the first cave I found didnt have it although there were shrines at the enterence and and another inside the cavern.
However along the path was a little window shaped box with a small gold footprint painted on indentations in the rock to give a sort of footprint. However, finally I located the correct cave but despite trying hard I could not discern a footprint in the gloomy interior. Oh well!
I did managed to get a few photos of monks around the area.

Back on ground level I explored the side of town away from the main street and discovered a guest house which was beside the Nam Khan river and had a large bamboo verandah built out over the bank. It had reclining couches and was a great place for a cool soft drink.
Ah the luxury!

But after a pleasant 30 minutes it was time to pay the bill and head out into the heat again.

During my wandering in this general area I came across a small shop and museum for the Yao minority group. This was all new to me and I was intrigued to look and the products on display – mostly textiles, and to wander through the small museum displaying items and photographs from Yao everyday life. The Yao are one of the hill tribes who had migrated from an area of China to settle in Laos. As a result their language is different to Lao and I discussed this with the young woman who ran the shop. I had been surprised to find their books were printed with Chinese characters.

Outside, at the rear of the shop/museum there was a full sized Yao village house in traditional village style and materials. It was not very large and was mostly just one room. In one corner there was an open fire with the various simple cooking pots and kitchen impliments. However, there was one small room partitioned off which was just large enough to contain a double bed.

Luang Prabang has at least two other museums. The main one is a National Museum and is housed in the Royal Palace which is located in the middle of the old town. Effectively there are several buildings to visit. There is a large Wat, the Palace itself, the Royal Garage, the Guards Building and the Royal Ballet building.

The theatre building had an interesting exhibition of the Mekong, emphasising the cultures and peoples who live along the river's course. Each aspect had a small area composed of text photos, comments from ordinary people and sample impliments etc. Appropriate music was playing quietly around the exhibits. Although the exhibition was well prepared and interesting, it did seem rather cramped for space.

Wat He Pha Bang is a large and impressive building which somewhat distracts attention away from the Palace. It is tall with sweeping roof, and raised on a mound so that a dozen or so steps have to be climbed to enter it. Both outside but especially inside, the glitzy shine of gold against red paint is astonishing. I was somewhat staggered when I entred it. Numerous square gold columns stood at attention and the main feature was the gold palanquin which takes 16 men to parade a large statue of Buddha seated on a throne. Must be a very impressive time and I imagine it would be noisy with trumpets, drums and cymbles all playing together. It is a pity that no photography is permitted here or in any of the palace buildings.

The Royal Garage only contains five or six cars. Two are old 1960's vintage Lincoln Continentals which were gifted by the USA government. There is also a Ford Edsel model which is fairly rare and not a car that I can recall ever seeing 'in the flesh' as it were. I can recall when cars like these were all the rage and anyone owning one in NZ was the envy of everyone. I hate to think what the fuel consumption would be though.

In the Royal Guards quarters I was able to view an interesting photographic exhibition entitled 'The Floating Buddha”. Mostly in black and white many of the images where very engaing. Most were taken during a Buddhidt monks retreat which the French photographer was priviledged to attend and photograph. He took many thousands of shots so it would be surprising if he wasn't able to get some exhibition worthy images. The exhibition has also been released in book form. There were about 50 prints on show.

Most visitors only seemed to inspect the Wat and the Palace. The Palace reminded me of visiting a British stately home. The throne room and reception rooms are impressive enough with a couple thrones collections of swords and various objects related to receiving guests. I did hear it explained that the throne was onoy slightly raised as it was important that the king was not higher than the chief monk. The royal quarters are not large and are fairly dull. The dinning room with a table formally laid out in western style was interesting but I did wonder where the chopsticks where and what if a guest wanted to just use spoon and fork as is common here.
In other rooms there were displays of gifts presented the king by various countries. One from the USA included three small pieces of rock from the moon. They are mounted in a dome shaped piece of glass or plastic which I decided was designed to magnify what were really very tiny samples.

Overall the Palace is quite a short visit unless you try to read every lable – which I tried to do. Then I spent a little time to wandering around the pleasant but small formal garden.

The second museum is one devoted to the ethnic make up Laos. I had not realised how many different groups are part of the population. I was surprised to see that Laos is the most ethnicly diverse nation in the world with over 150 distinct groups. Some of course are very small groups.

Only a few of the groups had displays in place and the museum would be pushed for space to expand the exhibits. Of those that were there, I was interested to see the range of traditional clothing styles. There were eamples of several groups elaborate wedding costumes and marriage customs, elaborate beds and so forth. Athough the notice said 'no photographs' I was told I could taken pictures without using flash. So I did take a few.

I did discover that the Lowland Lao who live in the river valleys and flat land preceeded the later arrivals, some of whom didn't get into Laos until the 19th century. The various later arrivals took to living in the hills because that was where the spare land was located.

I have noticed as I have travelled around Laos that you still find folk, mostly women, wearing clothing which would reflect their traditional group. to

Noticed in Lonely Planet that there was a silk weaving set up which gave free tours. Visiting the OckPopTok shop near the guest house, I noted that they would run free tuktuk rides to take anyone out to the centre, which was about 10 or 15 minutes from the shop. So I arranged to be taken out and they were as good as their promise and ran a tuktuk both ways for me.

At the centre I meet my guide who took me through the collecting of silk worm cocoons, extracting the micro fine thread and spinning it to produce a stronger thread. Still very very thin though. We then went into the workshop where about a dozen looms were set up. Not all were threaded up or being used. They tend to set the looms up to make to order. The widest cloth that they can weave appears to be about one metre wide but they can do many more metres in length. It can take a week to set a loom up for a pattern and I wondered what fine eyesight the women must have to be able to thread up hundreds of rows of such a very fine thread.

From memory there are three different types of silk weaving but I don't have the details with me as I type. I may be able to insert them later. I was very pleased to be able to photograph and video the women working and they seemed happy with that.

I visited the showroom but with prices over one million kips I was not prepared to buy something on the off chance that I would get a suitable piece. However, sitting near the showroom was a young woman from one of the minority groups weaving on a traditional body loom. In this process she had the lengths of thread tied around her back and her feet held a stick with the other end attached. She used her legs to maintain or release the tension as she worked. We had a good discussion about her work and her background.

In answer to my question, my guide told me that the women can or do earn between $US 50 and 100 per week. This is equal or better than the average wage earned by town workers. It seems that payment depends on amount produced but the more complicated patterns get paid more as they take longer to finish. I asked an American woman volunteer at the centre about the amount and she confirmed that it seemed about correct.
Two of the BIG attractions of Luang Prabang are to visit a waterfall and to visit an elephant centre. There are numerous variations on these offerered by the various booking agents around town. Elephants can be a half day, a full day or stay over night or even longer. There are activities based around the elephant centre or there are jungle treks riding elephants. On the full day and longer you not only ride and elephant but you also get to help wash one.

There are two main waterfalls to visit. One is higher but both seem to be composed of a series of steps and pools. One is closer to town than the other.
I finally decided that I could visit Luang Prabang without doing one or both. So in the spirit of keeping the price down I booked and Elephant Village half day trip which was to include an hour ride and a boat ride to visit the lower waterfall. Even at half a day it still cost $US42, which was more than my guesthouse charge for five nights accommodation – and there would be a few dollars change.

Well come the day and an 8:30am pick up say a van of eight heading for Elephant Village about 14 kms from town. The Village is set up to rescue and care for old work elephants, mostly from the timber industry. On arrival at the village there was one elephant around the Elephant Hospital and Feeding area. Day visitors get to feed an elephant – one elephant by the look of it. After coffee we boarded a local style longboat with an engine and a long shart to the propeller. The shaft can be lifted in shallow water. It was a quick ride across the river to the elephant 'trekking' area. There were other groups there beside us and as they only have 11 elephants in total and they were not all at this place, there was some competition to get a ride first. The longer you waited the shorter the time for other activities. Well in the end part of our group got elephants and three of us had to wait till they came back on 'our' elephants. There was a seat on the back of the elephant which would carry two normal sized adults. When our elephants came back there was a move to fit three of us onto one elephant -another group was waiting too. However the other couple objected, rightly so and we went off on two elephants, which is why I became the only solo rider. And no I did resist the invitation to sit on the elephants neck and control it

The hour was made up of 30 minutes actual riding and 30 minutes waiting. The ride itself was somewhat exciting as the movement of the seat reflected the moving of the elephant's legs. As a result there was a steady swinging side to side and up and down. It was a novel experience and one move thing to add to my list os 'experiencies'. We went over some open ground – actually harvested gardens of local farmers, before riding through open forest which seemed more like a plantation or certainly regrowth. At a point near the turnaround we handed our cameras to the 'driver' and he dropped off the elephant to take our photographs – lots of them. The elephant being creatures of habit just carried on along the path, which shows how often they have done this.

Back at the boat and it was a short run down to the falls. We first spied areas of rushing water cascading out of the vegetation on the bank. That was quite spectacular on its own. Having landed we went up the path to the falls themselves. Here there was another group of elephants giving rides for a different trip company. At the falls there were food stalls and a small changing hut. Various bridges and walkways took you over parts of the falls which were descending like a series of giant steps or stairs. As people were walking over the steps the water was only around angle deep. But it was quite forcefull and looked impressive rushing over the rim of each of the very wide steps.

There was a pool area deep enough to swim in – well push against the current. Watching the others venture in, I stopped taking photographs and went and changed. It was good fun fighting against the current and then moving out to the side to go upstream again. Overhead was a flying fox which people were riding along to drop into a pool and ther was also a rope swing. We only had 30 minutes before it was back to the boat and a quick ride back to Elephant Village for a buffet lunch. Along the way we passed local farmers and fishermen doing their daily work and ignoring the regular passage of camera snapping tourists.

I guess in the end was quite happy to have spent the money for both experiences were memorable. I would have liked to have spent longer at the falls however. Perhaps next visit! Oh, and perhaps I could find out who gives the elephant rides at the falls.

I think that this was the evening when I did not go to the Night Market for dinner. Instead I treated myself to a meal at the Sonphao Restaurant, which was just a 100 metres or so along the road from my guest house. I had discovered it one morning when looking for breakfast and was impressed with the ambience and service. I had been the only perosn having breakfast then and the service was imressive. The interior of the establishment looked very French with nice light wood tables looking rather like IKEA products and check tables cloths. Generally a sort of minimalist look to the place which with its light airy feel, I rather enjoyed.

Well each evening they run a dinner performance of Lao dancing in the upstairs area. I went along and found just four other dinner guests. The performers all seemed like teenagers but it is hard to tell ages here. There were three musicians playing traditional instruments including the curved wooden xylophone. The young women dancers prefromed four dances each with a costume change. Interesting to watch but each was quite short. Amzingly the final dance merged into a tune that seemed to me to be Old Lang Sign and once they started holding hands I new I was correct. I felt that this was really out of place and not appropriate. When they finished they got each of the guests or pairs to pose with them for a photograph.

There are a lot of Wats in Luang Prabang. A Wat is a Buddhist temple complex. There are a lot of wats in Laos as well. Within stone throw of my guesthouse there were five or six large wats. Mind you you would have to be a good stone thrower!
But it almost seemed like there was a wat down every street. There weren't of course, but there were a lot. That meant there were lots of monks and lots of novices in the area . They stood out in their saffron coloured robes.

I found it not only photogenic seeing the monks on the street but I was also intrigued by what they did. I sort of asumed that munks were conservative and shunned modern activites and devices. But what did I see? Monks with the earpods listening to mp3 players, monks with cell phones, monks using their laptops in coffee bars and of course monks with umbrellas. Some up as the walked along, some up as they rode bicycles along the road. They may not of all been monks some could have been novices. But it was often hard to tell as a novice can become a monk at 20 years of age. I also thought that you couldn't photograph them but none objected if I asked. Many were happy to talk and practice their English. They were happy to explain what being a novice entailed and discuss their daily routines.

So all in all there are hundreds of monks and novices in the city. And that brings me to the main tourist activity. Every morning then monks and novices do as Buddhist monks do everywhere, they go out along streets seeking offerings of food for their daily needs. In Luang Prabang, this activity has become a 'must see' tourist event.

Monks rise at 4:30am for the first prayers of the day. Then about 6am they go out collecting. One morning I went down to the main street to watch the line of monks collect offerings. I was rather amazed to see the crowds of tourists there and more arriveing in over full tuktuks. Vendors were offering tourists boxes of sticky rice fruit and other items of food to offer monks. Along the pavement people were shoulder to shoulder kneeing with their offering containers. Many were obviusly locals, but there were lots of tourists in the line as well. I went down the next morning as well and the whole tourist 'thing' was repeated. The second morning I went to the start of the line and round rows of neatly set out stools with a teatowel on each and baskets of food. Suddenly a row of tuktuks arrive and out pile a whole tour group of Japanese complete with a guide really shouting out instruyctions – and they had their own photographers to record their participation. Next to them was another tour group.

Promptly at 6:30am the first group of monks and novices begin to go along the line whie monks from other wats converge and joiin in what seemed to be a regular order of positioning.

As the monk passes each kneeling person he opens the lid of his collecting basket and a small portion of cooked rice is put in. There may be other items as well. As they pass along the line their supply of rice steadily increases. I noticed that everyy now and then a monk would check through his basked and remove wrapped items which he either threw into collectin bins or into baskets carried by boys marching along on their other side. My theory was that they didn't want commercially produced items, but it could also have just been that these items took up too much room and the rice collection would not meet their requirements for the day.

Now the tourists. Like me they all want to get that special photograph that time will prove to be a great classic shot. But even in the off season there were an awfull lot with cameras. Point and shoot, compacts, expensive silngle lens reflexes with various lenghts of lens attached. With flash and without. Most were on the road side but plenty were behing the givers line. It was the photo opportunity of their tour.

OK it all sounds like lots of pictures will be shown to their friends. The only thing is that there are leaflets out and notices around suggesting that photographs are taken from a distance and not close to the monks and not to get in their way. The problem was though if you did stand back to take a picture you line of sight was going to be blocked by some other picture taker.

I was not all that happy with the shots I took on the first morning, which is why I went back the second time. I chose to be near the start of the line because the toursit crowd was a little less, but also because I would have time to slip back the block to the road my guest house was on. I worked out that at least some of the groups would be returning along there and that gyess proved correct. There was hardly a tourist in sight but there were some local folk with offerings. I thing I got my best shots here and the pictures I like the best are just of the line of monks approaching along a tree lined roadway.

I did go into a lot of wats and wander around and in several I had the chance to chat to novices. I thought that was a priviledge and not something that the average tourist got to do. I think it was partly because I didn't rush, I was not in a group and I was old and that interested them. I was often asked my age and always were was I from. My age was the surprise. So I got treated with real respect. I made a point of always thanking them for talking to me and teling them how much I had enjoyed it. I was even invited in one wat to came back at 6pm and join the monks for their prayers. Well not so much 'join' but to attend and although I greatfully declined for a good reason I do feel it was an opportunity missed.

The big Wat with the tourists most visit is a monastry. Wat Kieng Thong is located right at the end of the peninsula which the town is built on. It costs 20,000 kip admission but there is a lot to see and hear. I was there around 4pm and right on the hour the big drum sounded. I went across to the drum building or tower to watch and listen. Beside the big drum there were gongs and cymbels being played. I suppose to the Buddhist there was a meaning but to me it just sounded like a loud noise. Well, perhaps not quite that. There was a rhythm to it and a pattern of rise and fall of the sounds. It went on for about 10 minutes. It was overall and impressive display done largely by novices.

Once the drumming was over the large crowds of tourists quite quickly headed off frpm the Wat. There had been a fair number there leading up to 4pm and I had overheard their temple guide busily explaining the workings of the temple and of Buddhism in general during my wander around the ornate sim, the large main building or temple. Once again there were steps leading up to it as with all sims I visited. This gave it a commanding position in the complex. Of course there was a large statue of Buddha at the far end and various other smaller statues around it. There were decorative carved panels along the walls and of course the outside walls and window frames were equally decorative. Gold colouring dominated.

Across the courtyard was another large building. Its name translates as 'The Carriage House'. This building, contained the large gilt decorated carriage which was used to to carry large urns of the remains of Lao royalty. I could imagine it in a funeral procession. It would have looked rater over powering to the ordinary spectator. Royal spendour even in death. There were a number of the naga snakes with their many tongues, usually on each corner of the carriage. The naga snake is a very dominant symbol in every temple and is included in many statues of Buddha.

Around the Wat complex were several other smaller temples or shrines. One contained a reclining Buddha.

One of the striking features of the buildings and near the main enterance was the coloured mirror glass patterns and figures on them. The walls were a mass of small figures and objects such as wagons and farm impliments all portraying scenes from daily life and from Lao legend. I hadn't seen anything exactly like this at other temples. I did take lots of cose photos isolating out particular scenes. Attached to the end wall of the sim was a full sized coloured glass tree of life, which quite a few of the young Asian visitors got themselves photographed in front of.

I stayed around the complex until most visitors had left and the stall holders were most packed up for the night. By now it was quiet and peaceful. Monks and novices were going about their routines and there was a general late afternoon or early evening tranquility.

Time to leave Luang Prabang and move on to the next destination. It had been very pleasant stay. The old town area at least had a very layed back, unhurried and relaxing feel about it. The many old buildings gave it a sense of timelessness. The lines of old house shops were still just that. In the late afternoon as twilght gathered, the families could often be seen sitting together inside the shop or out on the roadside eating a meal. Children would be playing games on the pavement while the main street continued its normal traffic and people movements.

Down the lanes off the main streets, the smell of cooking would be wafting through the air. At the riverside the boat owners would be trying to get a final passenger or two and the tables of the various bars ad resturants on the riverside would be slowly filling with guests.

Yes for once I felt a little reluctant to be moving on and I could fully understand how some travellers would revise their itineraries and stay longer.


Sunday, November 6, 2011



I was in conversation with a backpacker a while back when I was planning to visit Malaysia. He and his wife lived in Singapore. When I mentioned that I was keen to visit Penang he asked me why. I replied that I had the impression that it had lots of evidence of its long colonial history and I was interested in seeing that aspect. His comment was pretty much that I was wasting my time and that I would get all I needed in Melaka. So just in case he was correct I included Melaka in my plans – but I still kept Penang in there as well. I just lengthen my time in Malaysia.

In the end as much as I enjoyed Melaka, I believe that Penang was more preferable. My impression, subjective of course.

Getting to Melaka was fairly straight forward. I had spent the night in Kuala Lumpur and it was only a 15 minute walk from the hostel to a rapid light rail station. From here I travelled another 15 minutes to the station for the Southern Transit Centre. Up and down a vairety of steps and stair cases and I was in the bus depot.

Glancing around I noticed that this newly constructed depot had all the characterisitics of an airport terminal. On the level I was on were booking counters and food concessions. Providing you could show your ticket then you could pass the checkpoint at the top of the esculator and descend to the departure level. Each bus had a gate to gather at before the queue would be let throught the gate check and onto the bus.

Above the gate was a electronic timetable and departure details for this gate.

But first I had to get a ticket. There were some long queues but I spied a window without a line and went up and asked where I got a ticket for Melaka. The attendant must have taken pity on me because she organised a ticket for a bus although I would have a 90 minute of so wait.

The bus was crowded but I managed to get a single seat near the front beside the window. We left more of less on time but the journey down the expressway which would normall take two hours took nearly three. With a holiday coming up the traffic over the three and four lanes was bumper to bumper and often moved at a snail pace.

Although the window was not really clean enught to take photos through I did take some. Mostly of palm plantations. I assumed that most were oil palms. We did not pass through many towns as the expressway was designed to by pass them.

Finally we turned off the expressway and went through the toll booth and into increasing urbanisation. We made a few brief stops to drop off passengers before we reached the Melaka Sentral Bus Station. Unfortunately this has been built almost 5 kms from the city centre and you need to get a feeder bus or taxi to get into the centre.

I walked through the very congested terminal to find the local departure bay and bus #17 which for a couple RM would take me to Dutch Square according to guide books.

The bus was already crowded as I pulled my bag on board and moved down the asile a bit. A ticket collector came through and collected my money. As we pulled off a young man stepped out of a slightly wider gap between seats and indicated that I should put my case there which I did. I was the only European on the bus and as it turned out the only English speaker. Being a national holiday the bus had covered most of the window area with flags. All I could see out was through a narrow gap at the bottom of the window.

Now knowing that the trip was only a few kilometres, I began to get worried as to where the stop was. In the seats beside me were a couple young women. I asked them if I had passed by Dutch Square but they didn't recognise the name. I showed then a map and they began to suggest that we had passed it. Ask the driver they said. The driver thought for a moment and then said “Soon”.

So we continued the tiki tour through the back streets of Melaka until at a point along a busy multi lane highway the bus stopped and the driver indicated I should get off. Lots of others were as well. The two girls repeated that this was were I should alight. I did, the driver got out and pointed the way I should go. The girls had already explained that I had to go through a shopping mall cross another road and go behind the next mall.

I do not find new or strange shopping malls the easyist to find my way in. However, I finally navigated my way across the first highway and found the girls waiting for me. They explained that they would show me the way. Now that was really appreciated. The first mall was a breeze going along behind them. The through the next mall car park, cross another mulitlane road and they took me along the street to the end of the shops. The foot path came and went according to the shop it was in front of. Different levels as well. Round past MacDonalds and over a low wall and into a park. Now I began to see older buildings, musems and the occasional ancient fortification.

Suddenly we were in a small square and the girls pointed to a little bridge which I knew I had to cross. Dutch Square was small, very small and little more that a traffic island with a flower garden with some old brown buildings, one of which was Christ Church. This has been the landmark I had been looking for.

So I warmly thanked the two girls and told them they were my 'guardian angels' The did look very pleasant with their beaming smiles and national Malay costumes. One was dressed in black and the other in a bright floral pattern, both dressed from neck to ankle.

Later I realised that although the guide book and the Hostelworld instructions refered to 'Dutch Square' more commonly it seems to be known as 'Town Square'.

I crossed the bidge and entred the extremely busy old commercial area. The street ahead of me was 'wall to wall' shoppers and tourists. Mostly local families enjoying time out. I did not feel like dragging my roller bag through this street, but with the map could see and alternative route – one street to the right. This was the street my hostel was in. So I headed along the riverside road to what I thought would be my street, but it had a different name. Oh well the next one may be it. Still the name and the map did not coincide.

As I was standing on the corner a middle age woman called out to ask if I needed help. I showed her the hostel address. Yes the road I thought would be the correct one was but as she pointed out, that too had a lot of traffic. She suggested I go down to road I was beside. Reach the T intersection ( about 100m) turn left, come to a crossroad, look right to see an Indian temple and the hostel is a couple of doors along. Actually this was the check in hostel but the building I was staying in was just a 100m away closer to the river.

The hostel, Jalan Jalan, was a converted townhouse with a double story centre space where the lounge and coffee facilities were located. Most of the rooms were upstairs, toilets downstairs. My room was an adequate size with a window opening onto the corridor and a large fan. Above the window was a message ' ok you are in a hot country, keep the window shut and live in an oven'. Opening the window and the fan did obviously make a difference. Generally, I was more than happy with the guest house although perhaps providing breakfast would have been helpful. At least there were coffee and tea making facilities provided.

While I was in Melaka I had the effects of a heavy cold with at one point a slight fever. Fortunately it did not last too long. So I didn't make as much of the opportunities here as perhaps I may have had I not been 'off colour'. Being a bit 'under the weather' made me more aware of the heat and this slowed me down a lot. So perhaps I did not make as much from the 'Melaka experience' as I normally would have.

In the old town precict the streets were laid out in a basic grid pattern. Down each street the buildings tended to be double story house shops. So even in the main shopping streets the businesses were in small buildings. I found it interesting to wander along these streets. The area around Jonker and Heeren streets is a major historic residential area despite the shops. This area is just across the river from the Town/Dutch Square. Many of these century plus old homes were built by Chinese traders. Quite a few have decorative work across their front or at second floor level.

The streets are all narrow and with cars parked along them, passing traffic was one way. This resulted in the night market stalles being closer and the crowd more compressed; I think.

There are several old homes, a little more grand than others, which have been done up as museums. I had a look around one which celebrates the exploits of Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He)the famous Chinese explorer, who established a trading base at Melaka. Cheng Ho led the first of the seven great treasure fleets which set out from China in the early 15th century. The first of seven fleets – not all were led by Cheng Ho, set out in 1405 for Calcutta and returned home in 1407 with ship loads of goods. There were 62 ships in the great fleet including four very large vessels. All up around 30,000 men were in the fleet.

Obviously one of the great sea captains who sailed from China as far as the Persian Gulf and East Africa in later voyages. There is evidence to suggest that some of the ships in one voyage also reached Northern Australia.

The final great fleet voyage was 1431-33 after which the emperor banned further voyages. By this stage the Portugese and the Spanish explorers where coming into the Indian Ocean and Asia via South Africa and South America.

There was also a large reproduction of the Chinese map which Cheng Ho's voyages helped produce. They certainly had a good knowledge of SE Asia and Indian Ocean. They also used the compass – and 11th century Chinese invention.

Eaching evening the full length of Jonkers Walk became a night market with a performance area where a couple of streets converged, forming a triangular 'square'. Here there seemed to be a nightly comptetition for karoke preformers. Some were not very good but most could sing with confidence. One evening there was a prize giving being held with mostly young people gaining impressively large cups and plaques. The prizes were for making dragons out of found materials, sych as shells, drink cans, drink can pull tabs and so on. Most included light bulbs so that their dragons glowed in the dark. I was impressed by several of the constructions.

The night market itself was fun to wander through. Always crowded with a mixture of jostling individuals, including many western tourists. There were lots of food and drink stands, clothing, Tee shirts of course and avariety of novelties and toys. One stand specialsed in raddish cake another produced blocks of toffee which they then chipped up with a hammer bagging the small pieces for customers. It looked teeth breaking. There was ice shavings covered in various syrups, hot dogs 'latest style', which was a saussage cooked inside a waffle.

I discovered a new drink which appealed to me. Sour plum and lime juice. The sour plum was the red dried and salted Chinese plum which is nice to have on its own. There were several stalls selling their own variations of this.

A block away from Jonkers I discovered the Baboon House, a nice coffee bar. It had a central courtyard full with tropical plants interspersed with small tables and chairs. Each time I called in there was the same group of locals and expats working around a grouping of tables. I decided that they were a production group prodicing a publication of some sort. One was obviously the photographer and from time to time the group would discuss a picture with him.

I found a couple of other coffee cafes which appealed to me. One was in Julan Tikang Besi, just along from the hostel. Here the young owner had a classic Volkswagen Combi restored and converted into a mobile coffee cart, but parked inside the cafe to become the barista's base. The espressos were good as was the simple range of Italian inspired snacks. It was a fun place to have coffee. In fact I had my last Melaka coffee here on the way to catch the bus.

Along Julian Tikang Besi were more places of interest. For instance, the oldest mosque in Maleka was just along the road from the guest house. Every morning around 5:30am I was woken by the amplified call to prayer, which was repeated several other times during the day. I had a wander around the mosque There was an interesting mixture of archectural styles here. Arab and Indian I thought that I could spot.

Further along the road is the the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. It can be dated at least as far back as 1685. But with the Cheng Ho trading post having been established a couple of hundred years earlier, perhaps the temple can go back even more? An interesting thought.

When I went one sunny and hot afternoon, an elderly Chinese gentleman pointed out to me a special plant growing in the temple. I had flowers that had the shape of a small bird formed by their petals. Unusual but smewhat fascinating and something for me to photograph. The temple compond was crowded with visitors and many were taking the opportunity to worship and burn inscence at the various altars around trhe complex.

More or less across the road was a modern building housing a Buddhist Association which also contained many statues and several altars. It was however more of a museum than a temple.

Throughout the town I came across several more Chinese temples or clan houses. Most were closed so I assume they were more of a clan house than a general temple. The Chinese temples were to be expected because the area I was staying in is known as 'Chinatown'. There is also 'Little India' – I guess the term Indiatown would not sound as good. I visited the area but only during the day and thought that it was really a little dissapointing.

Also in the street near the guest house was an Indian temple. I didn't actually go into this as it was not always open when I passed by. However, there were times when it was and then, there was usually some form of Hindu ceremony in progress.

Across the river in the area of Town/Dutch Square, there were three churches of note. Right in the square was a Dutch Protestant Church which visitors were allowed into but not to take photographs. This is the oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia and was built between 1741 and 1753.

The interior of Christ Church was a little cooller than outside which was a welcome relief. It was a fairly plain interior with little decoration, a reflection of the Protestant practices of the 18th century.

These days the exterior, like everything else in the Square is painted a dull reddish brown colour. Most likely not the original colour at all. I read that the bricks to construct it came out from Holland.

Just along the road a bit is the twin spired white painted Roman Catholic Church. I found my way in and it too was a cooller spot. Nor was it over decrative either. Thanks to the windows it was light and brighter inside that was Christ Church.

The other church is in ruins. Positioned on the summit of a small hill behind Dutch Square is St Pauls. A well used path leads up to the complex of roofless walls. The Portugese, who originally controlled Maleka built it in 1521 and I think its commanding position would have dominated the area for quite a distance around the old settlement.

Apparently, the body of St Francis Xavior, the Jesuit mission was buried here for a period before being taken elsewhere. Today the empty tomb area is fenced off. I did read that St Francis had briefly visited the church as well while he was still alive of course.

Around the walls are leaning a variety of old tombstones mostly Dutch, dating back into the 1600's. Some make interesting reading. One talks about the wife as being 'chaste, pios and beloved' (1697). Another from 1915 records the fact that the gravestone of Frau Van Riebeck, wife of John Van Riekeck, founder of Cape Town had been removed and sent to South Africa.

Several of the tombstones contained a skull and some a scull and cross bones in their decoration.

From 1567 to 1596 the church became a fortress as the Portuguese resisted the growth of Dutch influence in the area. The siege ended with Dutch winning control.

There is quite a pleasant view out over the city from here.

I carried on down a path to the small ruins of a fortress gate complete a canon or two placed in front. This is all that remains of Porta de Santiago a part of A Famosa the Portugese fort. Most of what actually remains was a Dutch reconstruction.

Also in the Dutch Square is Stadthuys, built in 1660 by the Dutch. It was .a sort of old town hall and today houses a museum. However I nevver got myself into gear to go and have a look inside. Most likely I missed something really interesting – so be it.

Near the square was a sort of open air transport museum which included an old airoplane, railway engine and carriages, bullock cart and several other items. Near by was a reconstruction of a 16th century Portuguese merchant sailing ship. It looks quite imposing standing there on dry land, but I don't really think I would have wanted to sail around the world in it. It wasn't all that big really.

The ship was part of the Marintime Museum. There was also an Islamic World Museum and I think one or two others in the general area as well.

Between the old square and the modern shopping mall was a twll revoving tower which you could ride up for a view and then rotate slowly down again. My feeling was that the hill was a better viewpoint. Any way the hill blocked out a portion of the tower's view.

I made a copule of visits to the Mall, the largest in Southern Malaysia mainly to visit the supermarket. But it was also a cool place to be in, temperature wise and a fountain or two and a fish pond help make it feel cool. Other than that it was pretty much everthing you would expect to find in a shopping mall anywhere around the world - just with a local flavour and foods in the food hall.

The Melaka River is a distinctive feature of the town. Water level is maintained by a lock or weir system just a bit down stream from the old town.

Along each bank there is a walkway and so I went walking. It was a pleasant, I hot, activity. As I wandered along a steady flow of river boats passed by usually with their collection of tourists on board sightseeing.

I enjoyed my walk and was able to look at the various buildings which lined the river in a bit of detail. Most were homes and over a century old. I talked to one owner and he explained the problems he was having with the local authorities as he wanted to do some renovations to his home.

In many places atractive potted plants, often flowing, lined the water's edge. The river curved its way along past some cafes and guest houses which were mixed in with the individual homes. Over all a pretty area and I wondered if this was the location know as 'Little Amsterdam'. The did all seem to have the distinctive red roof.

So I walked along, passing several bridges before I decided to cross over and continue the walk on the opposite bank and return to my starting point. This walk took me past more bars and riverside cafes and on a couple of ocasions briefly onto a street. While walking along the street I passed a pet shop with numerous crowded cages on the street frontage containing birds and animals such as cats dogs and rabbits. There was a distinctive smell coming from the shop and I expect that it would be obvious in the bar across the road. The steps beside the bar led me back onto the river bank – a more pleasant and for a while, shaded area.

At one point the walkway became more of a bridge as water was able to pass under it into a area of trees, perhaps mangroves. These boarded a traditional Malay village which was somewhat also like a shanty town. Looking down into the water I watched something which I first thought was a crocodile but finally decided was a large swimming lizard. It was over a metre in length.

A similar one was living in the covered drain near my hostel. I discovered neighbours looking down a drain hole and joined them to spy the head of a similarly large lizard steering back at us. On another occasion its head was looking out at ground level. I gathered that this was not really a normal thing to happen but must have been because of the recent rains.

On one of my later walks, I went into the Malay village from the road and wandered around some of the lanes that went through the busy community. No one seemed to mind and although the homes and buildings looked rather 'run down' there seemed to be plenty of happy family activity going on.

The lanes led me into the local busy local shopping streets. The shops were small and their stock overflowed onto the street providing a technicolor range of products.

Having walked along a long stretch of the river bank, I decided to join the trend and do the boat trip as well. So next morning I was down to the landing by Dutch Square and go a good seat on the next boat to leave. Esentially, the trip just followed my previous route but went on further. We past a very well laid out Melakan village (Kampong Morten) which I suspect was a show village. It had all similar designed homes along with moque and administration offices. One, Villa Sentosa, was set up as a show home or museum for tourists. It is family run.

The trip came to a up river landing beside what apperared to be a fun park before returning back down the river. I was interested to see the overhead mono rail in action and wondered if it was just a fun park attraction or a working commuter line. I never did find out. On the return journey the tape recording was switched on and a commentary played. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the commentary and the scenery got out of sync as we sailed along and it got fairly useless as a commentary. Ajusting the boat speed could have cured it but that did not happen.

One of the attractive features of Dutch Square are the many coloured trishaws. Here the owners had decorated their bicycle powered rickshaws with multitudes of artifical coloured flowers and ribbons. Plus what ever else takes their fancy – flags perhaps. Each trishaw also seems to have its own ghetto blaster sound system. So as they peddle along, there is this loud music as well. Western hit tunes from the 1960's and 70's seemed especially popular. Some local music was aired as well though. Often a whole line of these vehicles would come along the street iogether but fortunately only a couple in the line would play music then. I guess the tricycles added a lot of colour to the locality.

My visit to Melaka coincided with a National holiday so every day the square area and Jonker Walk would be crowded with visitors. Lots of families as well and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves very much. There was a real holiday spirit around. It wsas interesting to note that most seemed to be Malaysians and appeared to be making their first visit to Melaka; judging by their reactions to everything.

The holiday did mean that my buses to and from Melaka were both full and the terminal crowded. But the interesting thing to me as I have traveled through Asia is that even when there is a national holiday, most of the business activities seem to carry on uneffected. OK, I did see some with notices indicating that they would be closed for the holidays but always these were the minority in Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.

I did not visit all the places I could have. For instance, I didn't go to see the Portuguese area on the coast. I was told that it was recently reconstructed or even 'constructed' and was mostly resturants, but not much actual historic features to see. That could be true. The tourist leaflet talks about Portugese Sqaure being built in the late 1980's and 'inspired' by Portuguese architecture.

I haven't mentioned the Baba-Nyonya culture either. This is from the Chinese who came to Melaka and married locals. There are examples of the culture in many restuarants where their special cooking style and dishes are featured. There is also a museum full of Chinese rosewood furniture but which is in a mixture of designs. It borrows from Chinese, Dutch and Victorian British designs. I came across this is various shops and cafes as well as in museums in other places, such as Penang.

Interesting but a bit heavy and solid for my personal taste.

Looking back now, I have to agree that Melaka was an interesting, if hot, city to visit. I would say that I enjoyed the colonial history of Georgetown more, but never the less, Melaka had lots to offer in a small accessable area.