Quiet, sultry, mysterious and alluring… that is Malacca.
Malacca beckons with its promise of cuisine, serenity and historicity. This was the town founded by a Temasek king on the run in the fourteenth century; in the sixteenth it was taken over by Portuguese, in the seventeenth by the Dutch and in the nineteenth by the British… You can see and experience the colonial past in the buildings and life of Malacca still… It seems to have ceded to the West and, yet, has integrated local colors with the past Colonial grandeur. I would see it as a very Nonya city. The Nonyas were a group of immigrants who evolved a distinct culture adapting the best of the East and the West. The cultural blend threw up excellent cuisine, a medley of linguistic adventures and unique architecture and artifacts.
The best way to see the city is to use Grab, the Asian answer to Uber. Rides are cheap, quick and the drivers friendly. As they take you from one place to another, they tell you interesting snippets of Malaccan lore or history. One of the drivers told us that in the Portuguese colony, they still use a dialect which is reminiscent of the old invaders and used uniquely still in Malacca. He claimed the dialect is not spoken anywhere else in the world.
The Portuguese settlement is now a little colony of homes with bars and restaurants that come alive at night to the sounds of music, food and liquor.
In the daytime, as you walk towards the beach, a huge statue of St Francis Xavier stares you in the face. It is stark and white. The sea stretches beyond the settlement to the skies. A beautiful spot for a quiet thoughtful stroll in the morning. The waves are gentle and the muddy beach is filled with huge mudskippers. One has to use the wooden platform and planks. It is impossible to walk on the sand as it is swampy. On the other side of the settlement stretches out the city tempting the visitors with its variety.
The first place to visit is of course, the famous, A Famosa Fort with its gate, canons and resurrected walls. The Portuguese built the fort in the fifteenth century below a little hill. Now all that remains of the original structure are the gates and canons and a church. The ascent from the gate of the fort to St Paul’s church on top of the hill is not difficult as it is sheltered by the shade of trees. The church itself is an empty, roofless structure now with carved gravestones dating back to the sixteen hundreds. There stands a statue of St Francis Xavier in front of the church, looking down at a breath taking view of the little town and the sea.
The statue was built in 1952. Its right arm is said to have broken the day after the statue was consecrated. Evidently, St Xavier’s had his right arm sent to Rome in 1611 before he was canonized in 1622. The tree branch breaking the arm of the new statue is often regarded as a miracle!
As one descends from the hill, there is a government museum of Malayan history with an entrance fee of ten ringgit. The place is a warehouse for expensive wear, furniture and antiquities and gives an excellent view of the church from the staircase. One is forced to return from the museum to the Church to find the way towards town. The descent along the stairs cut into the hill has again an amazing view of the city and the sea.
One of the remarkable sights that lines the sea front is the Maritime museum housed in a wooden ship along the seaside. It is modeled on the Portuguese ship, Flor de Mal, which sank in 1511 while carrying treasures looted from the Malaccan Sultan’s palace back to Portugal. Interestingly, this ship made its maiden voyage under the captainship of Vasco Da Gama’s cousin, Estevao Da Gama. The museum is truly unique structurally. It houses snippets of Malayan history… starting with the legend of Parameswara spotting a mousedeer that saved itself from a hunting dog by kicking the dog till it drowned. This inspired the king on the run to halt and build a city at that spot. He named the port Malacca, after the tree (also known as amalaki or Indian gooseberry) that had sheltered him while he watched the drama between the tiny animal and the dog.
Malacca had a multicultural existence right from the start. The king who founded the city was a Hindu king from the Indonesian Srivijayan Empire. He had a local wife, Arab traders, Chinese help and then, later,came the European traders who colonized as usual in those days in the name of trade.
Near the Maritime museum is a Melaka river cruise center. They take you down for a cruise to show historic sites. Along the ramparts built by the Dutch, who replaced the Portuguese, one can see the lowering water levels over the centuries and, if luck holds, huge iguanas at play.
Lining the river are the Dutch churches and settlements, now colored in bright red. The Stadthuys, built in the 1600s, was the administrative center of Melaka and currently houses a museum of history. It lies at the foot of the St Paul’s hill that housed the church. Most of the sites are within a walking distance of each other. The Stadthuys museum not only houses artifacts but also has murals of historic events, like the one about the first Chinese who visited the first king of Malacca in 1403. Parameswara, later is said to have visited the Ming emperor and got himself a Chinese bride too. The museum has maps and sketches from 1700s too. It was a nice, cool place to spend a hot afternoon after the pleasant cruise.
There is an interesting stone embedded in the red wall outside the museum. It is said to bear the coat of arms of the first king of Portugal who ruled from 1143 to 1185 under the name of Alfonso Henriques First. The stone was found on the hilltop among the archaeological digs.
Restaurants and shops line the riverfront. Some of them have murals depicting Indian and Chinese cultures that have added richness to the unique blend that created Malacca.
One of the most enjoyable foods by the riverfront is a coconut in a cup. The young boy selling the delicacy peeled the coconut whole with dexterity and then tossed it from the shell to the plastic cup and offered it to his customers. We watched the process with fascination as we sipped the cool coconut water from inside the white soft flesh with a straw and then consumed the succulent fruit with a spoon.
Later we saw the same skill exhibited by a vendor in traditional gear in Jonker Street, the night market area, which despite its crowds is a family friendly place. We had a wonderful Nonya dinner in a small restaurant and watched guady rickshaws flash past the roads with loud music, glitter and lights. Jonker Street is also a good place to pick up curios. Here you can truly experience the blending of the different heritages of Malacca. The whole of the downtown area around Stadthuys and Jonker Street takes on a festive atmosphere at night with its lighting, loud music and crowds. Rickshaw drivers, stall and restaurant owners lure the tourists with their goodies as the museums and monuments close their doors to the visitors.
Malacca is a perfect weekend getaway from Singapore by road. The highway linking these two countries is excellent with resting spots, gas stations, shops and cafes sprouting every few kilometers. The town with its picturesqueness, is friendly, interesting and modern and yet quaint, a convenient spot to relax.