Malacca, Port Dickson, Penang and Langkawi - Malaysia Old and New

Malacca, (halfway up the straights that divide the west coast of Malaysia
and the huge Indonesian island of Sumatra), was already a thriving port for
trading ships in 1420 AD when Admiral Cheng Ho (a Chinese Muslim eunuch)
arrived. Cheng Ho was leading the greatest ever armada sent out from China
by Emperor Zhu Di. Its mission: to map and dominate the world. Malacca had
been promoted and developed by the Chinese as a trading post to gather the
spices of South East Asia in one place so they could conveniently be traded
and carried back to China - at this time China consumed 100 times the spices
that Europe as a whole did. The great treasure fleet had taken 6 weeks to
get from Beijing to Malacca, so Malacca was also the forward supply base for
all the previous fleets that had sailed from China.

After provisioning in Malacca, Cheng Ho divided his armada into 4 great
treasure fleets that in the next 2 years discovered and mapped America
(north and south, east and west coasts), Antarctica, Africa, Russia,
Greenland, and Australia. When they returned in 1423 AD, the world was laid
open for China to dominate militarily and through trade. But the expeditions
had proved so costly, and Mongol enemies and political intrigue by the
mandarins, had so weakened Emperor Zhu Di that he died in 1424. His son Zhu
Gaozhi ascended the throne, and the same day issued an edict:

"All voyages of the treasure ships are to be stopped, all ships are to be
stored, no repairs are to take place, all foreign expeditions are to cease".

China retreated into centuries long self imposed isolation, and it was left
to Christopher Columbus using a smuggled Chinese map to 'discover' America
for Europe in 1492, and the Portuguese also using Chinese maps to 'discover'
and conquer Malacca (already cut off from their Chinese protectors) in 1511
and expand the European spice trade, and the rest is history. (For more of
this, read 1421 by Gavin Menzies, a British Submarine Captain and
Navigator).

Its easy to see why Malacca was so important - the Malacca Straights are the
key route from East to West and vice versa and still are. The British
recognized this when they established the Straights Settlements - Singapore,
Malacca and Penang at the south, middle and north of the straights. Malacca
had not been easy for the Portuguese to conquer - it had the bravest
warriors in the Malay Peninsular, but cut off from their Chinese sponsors
they lacked the weaponry to withstand the invaders. The Portuguese in their
turn were ousted by the Dutch in 1641 who were attempting a monopoly of the
spice trade. The Dutch voluntarily handed Malacca over to the British when
Napoleon invaded the Netherlands, preferring Protestant Britain to gain
control rather than Catholic France. In 1795 this was confirmed in a swap
deal.

Today Malacca receives more cruise ships than traders, and its not easy to
anchor off, so we sailed past to Port Dickson about 30 miles further north.
Shell's main refinery in Malaysia is in Port Dickson - I was almost
electrocuted there 15 years ago when moonlighting as lighting supervisor on
a play Nicky was directing there (they could only afford the airfares for
the actors and director, and I had to travel to nearby KL anyway
once/week..).

Now Port Dickson is a sleepy town, very Chinese (the Chinese in Malaysia who
make up 40% of the population are predominantly along the Malacca
Straights). Refineries are not always the best focus for development, so
Port Dickson is trying to develop beaches south of the Refinery, including a
Marina and apartment complex. Intrepid was one of 30 boats with Rally Asia,
and Rallies and empty tourist developments have a symbiotic relationship -
the rally gets cheap deals, the tourist development gets free publicity and
appears full to potential investors.

Malaysia is targeting the English speaking market for tourism (expect to see
Visit Malaysia in 2007 posters in London - the 50th anniversary of Malaysia
as an independent nation). So Rally Asia had an impressive series of tours
and dinners all free - the state of Negri Sembilan including the Sultans
very impressive palace built in 1900 entirely of wood (no nails even), a
delightful open house at a village, Malaysian dancing; a formal dinner with
the Chief Minister of the State attending; a slightly haphazard tour of
Kuala Lumpur including the Telecoms Tower (3rd highest structure in the
world), and Putra Jaya - a sort of Malaysian Washington DC or Paris's La
Defence - a planned site for all Central Government offices, about 30 kms
outside KL.  Rallies are a bit like a cruise or holiday camp - organized
extravert fun, which perhaps 20% unreservedly enjoy, and 80% enjoy most of
the time but are glad when it stops. So we had high tea, listened to
speeches, entered hairy knees competitions, waited for missing tour members,
rearranged schedules and drank at the bar complaining about
everything..(yachties always find something to moan about, usually the price
of beer).

And in between we organized a private trip to Malacca with 8 others. The
British had knocked down/blown up all but one gate of the Portuguese/Dutch
fort to concentrate on Penang, but the shop houses still sell spices and
gold as well as artworks and crafts, I spent an hour discussing the ways of
the world with a Chinese pawn shop owner, the river still flows between
narrow banks, and we ate duck mee (noodles) in a restaurant packed with
locals (our usual criteria) for 30 pence. The Baba Nonya (Straights Chinese)
made sure they could worship ancestors as well as possible in temples set up
for the purpose, and their houses still have the rich dark rosewood
furniture for which Malacca is famous. We had some made for us when we were
in Sarawak 15 years ago, and I had a careful look at a captains desk ("will
ship to England sir")..

15 years ago Malaysia described their Vision for 2020 - to become a
developed nation, and in 2006, they achieved 'developed' status on one of
the many rankings that exist, this one based on life expectancy, health
care, education, housing etc. Certainly viewing the thousands of new houses
and the general infrastructure puts Malaysia streets ahead of Indonesia, and
apart from the heat and palm trees one could be persuaded you were in
England (they even drive on the left). In 2020 expect to see Malaysia up
there with Britain. The population of 24 million is already some 6 million
more than when I was here, and industrial growth is such that they now have
about 3 million Indonesian immigrant workers to do the agricultural and
construction jobs that Malaysians don't want. The ex PM Dr Mahathir is
publicly criticizing his hand picked successor Abdullah Badawi (just as
Margaret Thatcher did to John Major). And at the carefully stage managed
UMNO (the ruling Malay dominated coalition) party conference , Malay youth
are getting worried about the great compact that solved the race riots in
the 1950's. This essentially gave political power and some preferential
treatment to Malays in return for allowing Malaysian Chinese freedom to run
their businesses. The Chinese Diaspora is coming home though, and Chinese
whispers are starting:

"Why should the Malays retain their preferential treatment - after 50 years,
why do they still need it, shouldn't they be able to compete on equal terms
by now?"

The Malays reply that its not about competing, its about values - if Chinese
run their own businesses, work 16 hours/day, and take huge investment
gambles, should they be allowed to dominate local people who are more
conservative, work for others, and have decided that 8 hours/day is
adequate? This could still be Malaysia's Achilles heel, although more likely
the pragmatic Chinese will allow the Malays to save face.

We sailed north from Port Dickson to Pangkor, one of the many wannabe
Langkawi holiday islands that are sprinkled up the west coast of Malaysia.
Pangkor is interesting because it was already a well established Chinese and
Malay settlement well before the fashion for tourism caught up with it. We
anchored in a beautiful deep bay to the west, and dinghied in - to find
monkeys cavorting on the electric cables and a sort of water sports
emporium - 20 or so stalls each offering a water activity - snorkelling
training, being towed behind boats in a variety of ways, jet skis, sailing
dinghies and of course lots of Malaysian stall cooking. 10% of the tourists
were western, the rest Malaysian. We hired a taxi to go round the island and
found a wonderful 50 foot long wooden fishing boat being constructed - even
the engine and the 1 metre diameter propeller were made on the island by
Chinese entrepreneurs. Further on there was more integration in the main
Pangkor town, which specialized in 100 things to do with a dead fish - they
have a huge fishing fleet - and are working hard to tempt holiday makers -
dried rolled squid wasn't bad, satay fish skin has some way to go, fish
flavoured breakfast cereal flakes have yet to catch on in Intrepid - but I
guess I spent 40 Ringitts (about 7 pounds) so that's one measure of success.

Penang was a tough 75 miles sail north so we left at 5am, before first light
as it easier to exit a known anchorage in the dark than to enter an unknown
harbour. Penang has always been a bit of an anomaly in Malaysia. When
Singapore left Malaysia in the 1960's, there must have been many in Penang
who wondered if they should not have engineered an exit at the same time.
After all Penang was the 2nd most important of the ex British straights
settlements (it was actually developed by the East India Company before
Singapore), and has a Chinese majority. But they didn't and Singapore
thrived while Penang faded. For a while they contented themselves with
developing their own businesses and expanding tourism similar to Bali in the
Batu Ferringhi beach area, while supporting the DAP, one of the only 2
political oppositions to UMNO (the other opposition is PAS the radical
Islamic party). But recently even here real-politick triumphed, the lure of
UMNO pork (if you can call government funding that here) was too much and
Penang is now represented by UMNO and has several big government funded
projects including a hugely expensive 2nd causeway/bridge under
construction.

Georgetown is the capital (that it is still called that reminds you of
Penang's British history), and we stayed at the (until the Rally arrived)
deserted Tanjung City Marina in the heart of the city. Indian enterprises
are 2-4 blocks in from the shore, Chinatown takes over thereafter, Indian
and Chinese temples vie for the highest and best positions. Both races grew
rich in Penang, and the biggest Chinese temple houses a bronze Goddess 50
feet high, and further construction of a 16 pillared temple is ongoing - the
pillars are pre-constructed in ........the People's Republic of China, and
funding is from there as well as from 100's of local businessmen. The
Chinese network developed in 1420 is being re-established.

Thanks to the rally's symbiotic relationship, Marina charges were only 4
pounds/day, we ate superb Indian food for 3 pounds total at Sri Ananda in
Little India and toured Penang's spice gardens, butterfly and fruit farms,
and Pam bought some lovely batik. She had to leave us after an eventful
cruise up from Singapore, with her sailing pedigree she kept us smiling and
on our toes, and left with a decent suntan (and dozens of presents) to take
back to Britain. Her farewell was a dinner dance at the delightfully exotic
Eastern and Oriental Hotel (sister to Raffles), built in 1884 where Rudyard
Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward had preceded us.

Malaysia features a 'Make Malaysia your 2nd home' scheme which allows people
to buy any house in Malaysia over 40,000 pounds (and for that you can get a
reasonable 3 bed 2 bath apartment with view) and provides a 10 year visa and
tax free car. We had a spare day so spent a day investigating (its actually
a very good way to get beneath the surface of a country). A fair number of
Brits have settled here, and mix golf with voluntary work. 'Health tourism'
is being energetically promoted (1st world health care at 3rd world prices:
'triple bypass operations with first rate facilities and surgeons for less
than 3000 pounds'). I'm not actually sure how much a triple by-pass 'should'
cost but it sounds like a bargain to me, although I don't intend to check it
out personally.

After a bouncy Rally Asia dinner with rickshaw races and live band, 'the
Rally' (some 20 boats) left, we stayed on a bit (preferring to sail by
ourselves), and cruised next day north 25 miles to Bindang Island where we
huddled with 2 Malaysian fishing boats as 2 dramatic thunderstorms crashed
and rocked their way erratically down the straights, now aiming for us, now
veering away, mostly sheet lightening with forks arcing down to the water.
But next day we managed to sail up to Langkowi (the other boats had had to
motor) and anchored off some of its 98 smaller islands near James Bond style
limestone cliffs and towers with sea eagles screeching around. Vagabond
Heart with 3 children aged 10, 8 and 6 anchored near, and we met at a
friends yacht for sundowners, then again at the large fresh water lake we
dinghied to. Bill and Debbie are intending to circumnavigate (they have
already taken 2 years to get from Sydney to Malaysia so they may need a
University by the time they complete, doing school and some work on the
way). The Rally are charmed by the kids, and its certainly good to get some
age differences! 10% of the Rally boats have kids, but most are stopping in
Thailand. Swarms of catfish writhe around your feet in the freshwater lake
and eat your dead skin away - much to the amusement of the mainly Malaysian
tourists who take a speed boat over for 30 minutes of freshwater splashing
before rushing back. We lolled and eyed the monkeys who had designs on our
bag..

Langkowi (land of eagles) was originally a small Malay settlement island,
where a young Dr Mahathir was sent after he completed his medical training.
40 years later as Prime Minister he put Langkawi on the map as host to the
1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government conference at a specially constructed
conference site. With tax free status and four new 5 star hotel complexes
Langkawi competes well for the international luxury travel dollar, and is
keen to bounce back from the Tsunami which hit on Boxing Day (locations
south of Langkawi were largely shielded by Sumatra). We are here for the
Langkawi International Boat Show - the Rally is a centre piece of the show,
the deputy PM is opening it today, we have free entrance and Dr Mahathir is
due to host a special dinner (although he had a mild heart attack last
week..).

Truth be told, the Langkowi International Boat Show would have fitted into
some of the larger exhibits at the London Boat Show, but you have to start
somewhere, and there are in all some 20 exhibits, including some reasonable
boat equipment made in UK, plus the usual hotel and real estate developers
and tourism exhibits that everyone walks past. The marina is full so we are
anchored outside with most of the rally, squeezed in behind breakwaters. The
air is still humid and 33C - hot enough to make frosty England in November
seem attractive, various boats have talked about living here only to
conclude that they would be trapped inside air conditioned cocoons. Only a
month to Christmas and you wouldn't know it here - Malaysia will celebrate
Christmas but only as one of many celebrations, not the culmination of a
hyped shopping frenzy.

www.intrepidofdover.co.uk website has been updated with photos, our with
latest plans for 2007, and a table showing friends who have cruised with us
over the last 6 years and 40,000 nautical miles. With best wishes for a
happy December party season,

Andy and Nicky on board Intrepid of Dover, Langkawi, Malaysia.

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