Malaysia #2: When in Melaka…

When in doubt, turn left.

Family Travel Stories
This rule isn’t original to me. I stole it from Lawrence Block, the award-winning and multiple best-selling crime author. Not hisownself – he doesn’t know me from Adam – but his character Bernie Rhodenbarr always takes the choice on the left when faced with two equal options. He doesn’t agonize over the decision. He doesn’t complain that it’s hard. He just takes the one on the left and moves on.

It’s not original to Uncle Larry, either. I’m sure Robert Frost had something to do with it, among others, but his Burglar books are where the concept came to me. Years after I made Bernie’s acquaintance, I read in more than one Disney guide how turning left at amusement parks can cut your time in line by half. Everybody else is turning right, and moving against that pattern keeps you in less occupied parts of the park. I’ve done a completely unscientific study of that claim with an irresponsibly small sample size, but as far as I can tell the trick works. That’s another vote for turning left.

My wife and I grew up 90 miles apart, and met while we were both living in Japan. Twelve years later, we’ve moved to Malaysia for another international adventure. We tell ourselves it’s so our kids can learn what that experience teaches, and this is true – but I’d be lying if I told you were weren’t excited when we started planning and ecstatic to get here. The mission is to stay for two years, get immersed in a new culture, watch this become part of the story our kids tell their future friends and mates, have some epic adventures and eat several metric tons of the best food in the world.

The Floating Mosque

We arrived in Melaka and got an apartment three blocks from the Indian Ocean[1] in one of the Chinese parts of town. The first part was on purpose. The second wasn’t, but it’s obvious from the language local shop signs are in also the fact that almost no women in our building wear the tudon head scarf. Also, nothing smells like curry. My wife teaches English teachers how to teach English. The boys go to an international school alongside students from six continents[2].

On my first unsupervised day – wife at work, kids safely at school – I walk out the front doors to go walkabout in my new city. We’re in the middle of a block, so once I cross the street to the side with the most interesting shops, continuing straight isn’t an option. I have no idea what was in either direction. I’m new, and carrying a map on walkabout is cheating.

I turn left.

When exploring any new city, I don’t just turn left because of Lawrence Block, Robert Frost and Wally World. When navigating any maze – and a new city is a mazy – the most reliable solution is to always turn in the same direction. You’ll double back a lot, turn in a circle at cul-de-sacs, and spend way more time at it than if you just guessed correctly, but you will solve the maze. This is so reliably true that maze makers actually developed three kinds of maze specifically engineered to thwart this technique.Mazes and Melaka

Multiply Connected Mazes consist of multiple mazes nested within a larger maze. The turning left trick leads you to the beginning of one sub-maze, but if they’re designed correctly it won’t move you to the next section. Square city grids are multiply connected mazes: if you keep turning left, you just go in circles.

Island Mazes have one maze inside of another, like a castle and town with a moat between them. Turning left once you reach the moat section just re-enters the outer maze. You’ll travel a long way and make a lot of turns, but never get closer to the center or exit.


Weave Mazes are three-dimensional, like a highway overpass. Parts cross over and under others. As with the multiply connected mazes, you can design them so the crossings defeat the turning left trick.

Between the maze thing and the advice of my favorite fictional cat burglar, I’ve made turning left a philosophy of life. Uncertainty is for the planning and training stages only. Once your feet hit the pavement, hesitation is not an option. Move forward (or left) with purpose and direction.

This applies sooner than you might expect when walking through Melaka.

The traffic mosh here is a spectacle of terrifying beauty. I share a tiny shoulder with chickens, cats, stray dogs, bicycles, mopeds, trishaws, real motorcycles and impatient cars trying to pass. The street itself is a striving mess of autos, vans, buses, cycles, taxis and goats. I hear rumors of water buffalo, monkeys, elephants and crocodiles[3] joining the fray on highways outside the city.

In this merry chaos, lanes are mere guidelines. Stop signs are a formality, seat belts an effete western peculiarity. Drivers do obey traffic lights, but view the first and last few seconds of red as optional.  Pedestrians are not given right of waFucking goats?y, not even in a crosswalk. Western hesitation and courtesy will kill you.

You’ll die colorfully, and quite possibly from high-speed impact with a goat, but you’ll still die. Some other guy will get free beer from people who want to hear the tale.


Indecision is not an option, nor is crossing the street on the perpendicular. Instead, you watch the traffic for a reasonable opening and strike out with confidence. You move without pause and work the diagonal as you move through the stream of steel, aluminum, sandals, helmets and fur. You telegraph your intent and you Do. Not. Stop.

Traffic is sketchy in Malaysia, and the drivers know this. They pay attention. They see you, and they see where you’re going, and they adjust their trajectories to miss you. They don’t stop, and they miss you by inches, but it’s all part of a system that works for everybody. If you stop or hesitate, it throws off all the calculations that make it work.

This would come as no surprise to Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who became an Internet hero a few years back for his unconventional views on traffic control. He designed a major intersection to handle over 20,000 motor vehicles alongside uncounted foot and bicycle traffic…an intersection without a single sign or signal.

Hans Monderman

His theory is that road signals actually make traffic more dangerous[4]. With clear instructions comes a sense of safety, and that’s the last thing you want when in charge of a ton of steel that’s moving faster than any human being lived for the first 200,000 years of our existence. What you really want, Hans would argue, is to drive in a consistent and sustained state of dread. If you are forced to pay attention, you slow down. You scan more carefully. You don’t much on a hamburger or talk on your cell phone. Texting – for the past two years a behavior that kills more people than drunk driving – is out of the question. Hans will walk backwards into his famous intersection at rush hour, with his eyes closed, to prove his point. He has yet to be impaled by a moped-borne goat.

Malaysia’s traffic statistics don’t support his theories: it’s the 20th worst country for traffic fatalities out of the 192 on which the WHO keeps data. If it were a kid taking the SATs in a school of 100 people, it would be smarter than about 11 of them. Driving is safer in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. On the other hand, Holland, Switzerland and Norway – al countries that are increasingly embracing Hans’s theories – are far safer than the sign-happy United States.images (6)

Watching the traffic swarm past me, I suspect Malaysia’s fatality rate is related more to their casual relationship with seatbelts and car seats than to their running-class-five-rapids attitude toward patterns of traffic. I see a boy no older than two standing on his dad’s legs and holding the handlebars of the moped. He wear no helmet, and Dad’s got only flip-flops[5] between his feet and the pavement. It’s a small family, with only the mother and one more child riding on the back. Nobody is carrying livestock.

The neighborhood beside the traffic – the canyon through which this whitewater flows – charms me. That’s a condescending word for a 41-year-old lost in an international city four hundred years older than his nation of birth, but it’s the right  word for this particular job.

I smile as I pass Chinese Hanzi, Arabic calligraphy and the Roman alphabet spelling words in English and Malay, all in the same block. I walk past a Hindu temple, a Buddhist shrine and two mosques before I’ve walked half a mile[6]. People smile to greet me in English, Malay, Hindi, Arabic and two dialects of Chinese.

This is one of the reasons my wife and I chose download (6)Malaysia when we decided to move. It’s a country with staggering diversity of culture, religion, language, race and thought. It’s legally, officially, an Islamic nation but the Indian and Chinese populations are large enough that the economy would fall apart if that majority got too big for their collective britches. In most ways, the country is mellower about being Muslim than many parts of the US are about being Christian[7]. The subcultures have shared this space for centuries in some cases, and they co-exist in a mélange that comes from spending so long living elbow-to-elbow.

Melaka earned its multicultural present download (7)the old-fashioned way: by being invaded and colonized and immigrated into more than its fair share. The region first got colonized in the late 14th century, by a Sultan who had recently lost a war in the region that would become Singapore. He needed to set up a new center of operations, and settled down where a major river flowed into the Java Straits. He named it after a species of tree that grows along the river, after he watched a mouse deer outwit a hunting dog near one of those trees. Don’t ask me why he didn’t name it after the deer.



The Portuguese came in 1609 to visit, then in 1611 with 1200 men and nearly 20 ships to capture the wealthy port after 40 days of fighting. Alphonso de Albuquerque, the commander of the fleet, ordered a fortification built and they maintained a Christian trading port in hostile Muslim territory until 1641 when the city was successfully taken…by the Dutch.

The Dutch ruled Melaka for nearly 190 years, with occasional periods of British control, until it was signed over permanently to the British in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The British managed it right up until 1942, when the Japanese came through the peninsula on their way to the mighty “Fortress Singapore.” After VJ day, the British resumed administration of the region until Malaysia gained their independence from the United Kingdom on August 31, 1957.

The Malaysian population was not alone in suffering through this international game of colonial musical chairs. The Perankan were a mixed group of Chinese who settled in Malaysia during the 1400s. Though partially assimilated into the local population, they maintained many of their customs of culture and cuisine, and to this day are called “Baba” or “Nyonya”[8] by their Malaysian neighbors. Their original settlement, a district near downtown, became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2013. Its new status has sparked something of a renaissance in Melaka’s tourist trade, but it’s too far a walk on my first day.

images (7)

A steady stream of Indian and Western expats over those same centuries has mixed in with the longer-term populations so that my walk is through a vibrant and fascinating city. It’s multicultural in a way Toronto, London and even San Francisco only pretend to be. Sure, their hearts are in the right place, but compared to multiculturalism in Melaka they just haven’t had the practice.

On a purely selfish note, the situation is efficient. My wife and I had originally planned to take our boys back to Japan, but why should they learn about one culture when they can live surrounded by four? My oldest studies English, Mandarin and Malay at schools and has daily opportunities to interact with native speakers of all three.

I have no gift for languages myself, having tried with little meaningful success to learn German, Russian, Spanish and Japanese at different times in my life. I even struggle with Malaysian, which as far as I can tell shares at least half of its words with my native tongue. My wife, by contrast, spoke four when we left North America and is already at four and a half. But I still smile and chat with everybody who’s willing to as I dodge and weave along the road on my first away mission.

Nearly home now, I stop at a fruit stand. I pause at what I think is a durian – it smells bad enough – but I’m told is jackfruit. Durian are spikier and smell even worse. I buy a huge bunch of tiny bananas for my youngest, of which he will eat at least a dozen before bedtime. I find apples and mangos and a big melon that I’m reasonably certain is a casaba.  At the back, I’m faced with two fruits I’ve never seen before. One looks like a tribble, the other like a bunch of oversized grapes with leathery skin. Neither smells of rotting meat.

I choose the one on the left.



This is me. On the beach. In the South China Sea. Thanks for reading about my adventures and the thoughts that come from them. Check out my Facebook and subscribe here if you’d like to see and read more. 


[1] The freakin’ Indian Ocean. I’ve put my toe in three of the four world oceans. I’m looking at you, Arctic. Get ready.

[2] Lookin’ at you, Antarctica.

3] True story. My wife was late to an appointment and her principal worried she had been eaten by a crocodile. She gave no indication she was joking about this.

[4] Pippin Took would agree. “The closer we are to danger…”

[5] Remember when we could call those thongs?

[6] All right…”before I’ve walked 800 meters.” Also, it’s about 27 degrees.

[7] Those parts being Texas, Missouri, Alabama, South Carolina and about one-third of Facebook.

[8] Baba for men, Nyonya for women, because it turns out Muslim culture really cares about that.

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