I’ve read that Malacca, or Melaka as it is now more properly known in Malay, will be one of Asia’s hottest travel destinations this year. I have a couple of days free from my work in Singapore, and Melaka is only a few hours’ coach ride away.
But when I leave the air-conditioned bus, I know I’m in a hotspot, and a humid one too. I could easily fill a pith helmet with sweat after a short hop down to the Old Town, picking my way beside a busy road along inadequate broken footpaths covering deep storm-water drains, stepping around stalls where Indian vendors, Bollywood movie music blaring from their stereos, are threading garlands of flowers.
I take my life in my hands and dodge between cars and scooters to reach the Melaka River. After that things slow down. It’s a quiet little stream, where the banks have smart new paving and tourist barges shuttle between the dilapidated backs of houses on one side and café terraces on the other. Nothing is crowded and no-one is in a hurry.
At the square in front of the 18th century Dutch Christ Church a gaggle of trishaws, brightly decorated with plastic flowers, patiently wait for trade. Souvenir stalls sell leather hats, cane back scratchers, wooden foot massagers, flip-flop sandals, sepia photos of old Malacca and kitsch painted kittens. Sure it’s touristy, but there are no hassling hawkers; browsing is a pleasure.
By now I’ve worked out there’s not a lot to do in Melaka. There is shopping of course, but Melaka Mega Mall sells the same stuff you can get anywhere else. I didn’t want to buy it when I saw it in Singapore, so why should I buy it now? When you buy something you didn’t need in the first place, saving 20% = losing 80% in my book.
Most tourists seem to be from Singapore, and I get the impression that once they’ve been photographed in the trishaw they wonder how to fill the rest of the weekend.
What Melaka really has to sell is its history. It took centuries to create, but a day or two will be plenty for me to retrace it at a gentle pace. Melakans are celebrating their World Heritage status, awarded in 2008, and they’ve painted the Old Town red – heritage red of course. It may not be strictly the original décor (most colonial buildings are white in those old photos) but it does make the town attractive.
The old Dutch Stadhuys (town hall) is now a museum dedicated to the history of Melaka, which since the sixteenth century has been colonized by in turn the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese, and St Francis Xavier gave Catholicism a toehold here in 1545.
Smaller, quirkier museums occupy a short row along Jalan Kota, museums of architecture, Islam, stamps and kites. I like the ‘Museum of Enduring Beauty’, dedicated to the suffering people go through in the quest to look good. The sign by the entrance warns me, ‘The different levels of pain one has to endure during the beautification process are shown in full.’ On the staircase there’s another warning: ‘SORRY – AIR CONDITION FAILURE’. The things I’ll put myself through to get a story! And after studying gory details of foot binding, neck stretching, tattooing, teeth filing, scarification, lip implants and ladies’corsetry, I have no stomach left for the mediaeval torture exhibition down the road.
Instead I visit the Museum of Spinning Tops (‘gasing’ in Malay.) I had no idea top-spinning was such a dangerous sport. The traditional rules of the gasing are translated into English and include: “a) Players not allowed to eat in shop within game area until after competition for fear may be poisoned to death. b) Players not allowed to boast or be arrogant. c) players not allowed to stand in doorstep. A Satanic Knot is often placed here by insincere people.”
Across the road in Coronation Park, yellow orioles flit above the ginger plants and frangipani into huge trees dripping with birds nest ferns.The Forbidden Garden of the recently reconstructed sultan’s palace is no longer for princesses only. It’s open to the public, and very beautiful it is too. Massed bougainvilleas and sealing wax palms surround formal ponds, and a group Tai Chi lesson is in progress. Lunchtime. Melaka’s food is excellent and extremely cheap. Calanthe Art Café serves asam pedas, a claypot of spicy stingray and vegetables, West Malaysian coffee and a brilliant mango lassi drink (a fruit, milk and yoghurt mix), all for under $7. Famosa Chicken Rice Balls, a Melakan specialty, cost even less.
As evening falls I take a break on a warm concrete bench beside the river. A breeze has sprung up, the night is balmy, and hundreds of screeching mynah birds roost in floodlit trees. A crescent moon hangs overhead and from the mosque the muezzin starts his call to prayer, singing much better than the contestants on Celebrity Karaoke which flashed across my hotel TV earlier. The muezzin doesn’t have to read the words to an Alicia Keys number off a jerky teleprompter.
The waterfront restaurants fold up their awnings and put out extra chairs on the terraces. Craft stalls appear the length of Jonkers Street, now closed to cars and opened to pedestrians, and the pace is still very relaxed. A gentleman sips a beer while a large green iguana perches on his shoulder. There are a few surprises in Melaka still; like the sudden opening of the heavens. I can’t even shelter in a door step for fear of insincere people with their Satanic Knots.
But the rain soon passes, and my wet shirt is refreshingly cool, like the rest of Melaka.
Getting there: Konsortium Bus from Singapore to Melaka takes just under 4 hours and costs from SGD72 return. easibook.com
Staying there: Hotel Puri near Jonkers Street has double rooms from RM120 hotelpuri.com
Further information : Entrance to all museums listed is RM5 or less. tourism-melaka.com
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney