“Coming up on your right, ladies and gentleman, you’ll see Sean Penn snuggled up to Jennifer Lopez, and basking to your left, is the well-known Madonna.”
Although it may sound like we’re guests to a Hollywood hoe-down or fortunate ticket takers to the prestigious Oscars, we’re halfway around the globe, cruising along a muddy tributary that bisects the town of Melaka, on the west coast of Malaysia. And leading our excursion is a very comical and imaginative tour guide.
For 36 years Bernd Goodtink has operated Paramiswara Tours and has integrated his sense of humor with some of Melaka’s historical venues. During this laid-back river cruise, we ogle over the six foot (1.82 m) long lung fish lizards that clamor over the waterway’s mucky shoreline. While flaunting scaly hides and 32 razor-sharp teeth, they share no resemblance whatsoever with the actors, but each one bares an adopted famous name and is part of Bernd’s first-class act.
We drift slowly in the Panama-style cruiser and pass by jerry-built shacks that swagger along the boggy banks like tired old tin men. Their tarnished crowns are topped by sheets of corrugated aluminum and ramshackle torsos are supported by toothpick-thin stilts. Mudskipper fish flip-flop at their grimy front door stoops and the 60-pound (27 kg) slimy lizards slither beneath.
Smiling women veer out over sun-splashed verandahs, appearing oblivious to the creatures that crawl below, and their curious wide-eyed children gaze inquisitively as we float by. Although the lines of airing laundry indicate occupancy in others, many of the humble hovels are vacated, waiting patiently for new face-lifts.
“Over the next few years, the government plans to invest mega ringgits [Malaysia’s national currency] to transform this muddy canal into a replicated scene out of the 1700s,” Goodtink shares over the loudspeaker. “It’ll be like a vision right out of Venice.” We are informed that authentic materials, such as 100-year-old bricks, will be imported for fabrication, primitive huts will be transformed into pastel abodes to imbibe a Mediterranean feel, and gallant gondoliers will paddle past the historical attractions that have already stood rooted for centuries.
Although checking out these heritage hot spots are also doable on foot, my travel-companion-daughter and I had literally wheeled by them earlier in the day, on a person-powered trishaw. With Aman at the helm, we had cuddled on the floral tricycle shrine without an inch to spare.
If the tight squeeze and flowery fan-fare didn’t catch the eye of every passerby, tunes from the top forty that blared out from our pedal-pushing machine certainly did. While jostling along sliver-thin roads that weave around the quaint township, we said a silent prayer for ongoing strength in Aman’s quads, and hummed along with the Back Street Boys.
We tooled through the town square where well-preserved remnants imbibe the glorious past and understood why this destination has been officially declared the historical city of Malaysia. In the early 17th century the Dutch had established trading bases in Southeast Asia including Malaysia. Period pieces like The Stadthuys, which was initially the residence of the Dutch and Deputy Governors, stands as proudly as it did when first erected in 1650.
Its adjacent neighbor, Christ Church that came along a century later, still boasts original handmade pews and a tiled tale of the Last Supper. And A’ Famosa, a fortress that was built by the Portuguese in the early 1500’s, (the Portuguese captured parts of modern day Malaysia in the 16th century), holds the record at being the granddaddy hallmark of them all. Although the structure sustained severe damage during the Dutch Invasion, in 1808 a gent by the name of Sir Stamford Raffles saved the heritage remains that are still being toured today.
From Moorish style mosques and stately mausoleums to ornately decked-out temples and tired looking tombstones, Aman pedaled and pumped merrily through Melaka while we reveled in the relics and relaxed.
A cobblestone bridge links the city’s main square to Chinatown and the world-class alley of antiques, known as Jonker Walk. It also spans the muddy Melaka River where Bernd Goodtink’s comical river tour ride is preparing to wind down.
“Melaka attracts visitors worldwide,” Goodtink shares, “and I want to send you off with a goodbye that you are all accustomed to.” Broad-leafed jet fruit and flourishing rubber trees provide a verdant canopy as we coast towards the home berth.
And before disembarking, the cruising comedian bids a farewell to just about every nationality, using his own rendition. “To the French au revoir. To the Spanish, adios. To the Britts, ya hoo. To the Texans, ya’ll come back now, ya hear. And to all of you friendly Canadians, hope to see you later, eh!
If You Go
Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board
Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, New York