Our stay in Melaka happened by pure chance but a lot of the best things in life aren’t planned. Melaka isn’t the nicest place in the world and I probably wouldn’t be in a rush to go back there. We were both broke and ended up working in a karaoke bar with the most bizarre selection of music and cleaning hotel rooms. Despite all this we had an incredible month of fire juggling, drink serving and money making in Melaka, Malaysia. We became part of a family and learnt about real local culture, we realised that travelling should be done slowly and that experiences are best when shared. This is how it all unfolded…
All the money is gone
After 6 months of travelling around Asia our money had run dry and we’d planned on finding teaching jobs in Kuala Lumpur. But, as soon as we reached the capital we realised that working in the city was not for us. Too much beeping, too much traffic, too many people and far too much counterfeit goods. I vaguely remembered a nice small town just south of Kuala Lumpur from my travels in Malaysia nearly 10 years ago. My memory is pretty bad at the best of times but I remember Melaka being pretty chilled, having a river, great food and a cool hostel. Thinking a quieter destination would be good to figure out how to top up our bank accounts we jumped on a bus.
Arriving to Melaka bus station we soon realised that a 6 km walk to the city centre was
fucking stupid not a good idea in midday heat. Finally stumbling into town an hour later, red faced and sweaty, we saw a familiar looking hostel. Garish yellow and mint coloured walls, a bar filled with old memorabilia and the hostel name painted on the building… this was where I stayed almost a decade ago!
A blast from the past
We needed somewhere to sleep and I was curious to see how much the place had changed, so we went inside. I mentioned I have bad memory, which is true, besides faces – I always remember faces. Behind the counter I saw someone familiar, who turned out to be the owner and who also claimed to recognise me. The hostel hadn’t changed a bit and we sat and reminisced about the summer I’d come 7 years ago. After casually mentioning that we were skint and trying to find teaching jobs, John the owner was quick to jump on the opportunity. With a little persuading we agreed to help work in the hostel and use it as a base until we found teaching positions. He didn’t say what kind of work, just ‘work’. We agreed on a confusing situation where we’d pay for our room but be paid to work, so we could still save a bit of money whilst we job hunted.
Sounds pretty good right?
The hostel definitely has it’s own individual charm that you’re unlikely to experience elsewhere. The building is in a perfect location, sitting by the riverside with a big outdoor patio and lots of outdoor seating. Antique memorabilia and photos of Malacca from times gone by fill the cafe. Outside, old VW Beetles are converted to display local arts and crafts and in the evening live bands and Karaoke goes on until the early hours. The kitchen serves traditional Malay and Nonya food with vegan options and the bar sells some of the cheapest beers in town. Sounds pretty good right?
Something doesn’t quiet add up
However good it all sounds, the pieces don’t quite fit together. The hostel is everything you’d expect from a once popular hostel which is past it’s former glory and hasn’t kept up with the times. A common sight around South East Asia I think. The garish yellow paint is peeling from the walls and you question whether the memorabilia is there because it’s cool or just because it was left on the shelf 50 years ago. The hostel rooms are like cells, not attracting many customers and giving the hostel an eerily empty feel. The late night entertainment was an ear bashing of Chinese love songs, Malaysian classics and 80’s tearjerkers. It might not have been perfect but we grew to love it.
Kumar, bed making and Nepali singing
So it turned out that my ‘work’ was cleaning the empty hostel rooms. I never really saw any customers but somehow overnight the hostel would be turned upside down, for me to tidy in the morning. I worked with Kumar, a very interesting guy from Nepal, who I was quick to discover was very militant about bed sheet folding. I’m not going to lie, the first week my folding was pretty shocking. The beds had three sheets to tightly fold, without creases, in a very particular order. My bed has only ever had one sheet, so I was a newbie to the sheet folding game.
After a week of observing and Kumar educating me in the art of the fold I had it down perfectly. Try as I might, no matter how perfectly I folded them Kumar, without fail, would come and refold them. We formed an interesting relationship, with Kumar asking me questions about English girls, Kumar showing me pictures of his girlfriends from Nepal and Kumar refolding my folded beds. All whilst he would sing traditional Nepali songs at the top of his voice.
Nights of drink serving, fire juggling and Rosie the singer…
Sarah’s ‘work’ was slightly more glamorous, being the beauty that she is. She worked in the bar serving drinks, being bought drinks and generally being cool. The clientele was a mish mash of confused western travellers who weren’t sure what to make of the hostel, drunken Chinese tourists who couldn’t handle their drink and wealthy Malaysians who wanted to flash their cash.
As the sun went down and the crowds built up it was my time to shine (or burn)! each night I would wow hundreds of spectators with a fire juggling show. Alright, it was never quite hundreds…I’m pretty sure one evening we had close to 40. 40 wowed spectators who’ve just watch me singe off half my body hair actually tip pretty well, so I was happy. I would end up with about £20 from a 5 minute performance each night – more than enough to fuel Sarah and my alcohol and veganism.
Once I’d finished, it was time for the star of the show. 4 or 5 or…basically however many nights Rosie the singer would turn up you’d be in for a treat. She would silence the crowds with her unnecessarily loud renditions of 80’s English, Chinese and Malay classics. Towards the end of the night if we had any Chinese in the crowd Rosie would, without fail, whip out a selection famous old Chinese songs. All the drunken Chinese tourists would then stand up and sing with her. I never found out the name of the songs but I can still remember the melody in my head…
Lots of new friends!
The people we worked alongside really made our time memorable in Melaka. One of the aspects of travelling I don’t like is that you’re always leaving people behind. Even though it was just a month, we grew into a big dysfunctional family, which is a beautiful thing to experience in new countries.
There was Gary, a young Nepali guy who planned to work in Malaysia for four years and then return to his wife and kids with his savings. Gary was one of the nicest people we’ve been lucky enough to meet on our travels. Short, broad and always smiling, we would eat with Gary and he would tell us ghost stories from Nepal. It’s encounters with people like him that make travelling unforgettable. He invited us to Nepal, with an invitation you could tell was real, so we when he returns to his family in 2 years time we can’t wait to take up his offer!
Many evenings were spent with Ban who ran a stall selling chain mail jewellery in one of the converted VW beetles outside the hostel. An interesting man who’d quit a successful job in Singapore to open the jewellery stall. He had strong Buddhist ethics however was not very tactful and blunt. As English was his second language it often made a lot of his comments hilarious (and often pretty rude).
Three brothers ruling the show
Then there were the owners and their courtesans. The hostel was owned by three Chinese Malay brothers, all with very different personalities, who spent their day drinking tea in the bar. There was John, the oldest, wisest and most friendly who I’d met 7 years ago. Although very business minded he had a good heart and really welcomed Sarah and I. He would invite us to eat with them and always cater to our vegan needs. He showed us around, introduced us to his friends and family and taught us about Malay and Chinese culture. He also paid us. We liked John.
The second brother was Winston who seemed very wealthy but who always seemed unsure of us. We never really had much contact with him and he didn’t actually speak to Sarah in the whole month we were there. Finally there was David, a chauvinistic businessman who always seemed to have an ulterior motive. He was pretty shady so we kept our distance.
All three would have their courtesans constantly sitting in the bar, eating and drinking. We never actually worked out if they were wives or mistresses. They also never really spoke to us and we never heard them speaking English so we put it down to language barriers. On the last day they all wished us farewell in perfect English so I guess they just didn’t like us.
Last but not least we had Eddy. There were many rumours which circulated around Eddy and we knew he was an Uncle to John and the brothers. It was also clear he had a serious drinking problem. He would spend each night drinking high strength beer and listen to the roar of Rosie the singer. By about 11 pm he would be hammered and would sing along to the Chinese songs whilst trying to get people to dance with him. He was apparently an ex-gangster but to us he was just a sweet, albeit permanently drunk old man.
And Kumar. Kumar the militant bed folder.
Nothing is perfect
In hindsight, we had Eddy who was generally too drunk to talk, Winston and the wives who didn’t talk to us and David who we didn’t want to talk to. It might not sound great but it just worked. There were regulars like Scorpion Bob the famous rickshaw driver and ex-muay thai champions who became our friends. We would eat together and be shown parts of town we would never have found otherwise.
Besides all of our new friends, we actually saved some money (although we did forget this was the point of our stay). It was nice to not constantly be living on a tight budget. If we wanted another beer, we bought another beer. If we wanted an extra portion of food, we bought an extra portion of food. Instead of eating the only vegan food we stumbled across we KNEW where to go to get the good stuff. We knew markets where we could buy kilos of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables and make food for ourselves. Every part of the city we explored and we also caught up with all the things which aren’t as easy on the road. We ran, I found a kickboxing club, we juggled, we meditated. We got ourselves back in sync, which I think you definitely need during long-term travel.
In life the best things aren’t planned
After 6 months of being on the road it was nice to feel part of something again. Sometimes it can feel like you’re constantly leaving things behind when you’re travelling. In Melaka we gained a family rather than lose one. We felt part of the community and experienced things we definitely wouldn’t have if we had just travelled through. It helped reinforce that to begin to understand a culture at the very least you need to travel slowly. Absorb your surroundings and not constantly be thinking of where you need to go next.
This section of our trip, although not planned and probably not what a lot of people would choose to do travelling, was perfect. We met people we’ll never forget, we saw life from the eyes of a local and we had amazing experiences. To me, that right there is perfect travelling, as long as it’s done slowly with lots of tasty food along the way!
And, importantly, we found teaching jobs. We didn’t rush into jobs we didn’t want, we waited and found the right ones, in what turned out to be an incredible city. We spent the next year living and teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam, another place and culture we fell in love with.
We’d love to know what you think, tell us in the comments box below!