The sleepy Malaysian city of Melaka charms visitors with its mishmash of cultures, ancient religious structures, and simple life. By Susheela Nair
Revisiting memories of pre-COVID vacations with friends and family has become my favourite exercise to cope with the cabin fever and sense of doom evoked by the second wave. One such vacation that keeps cropping up in conversations is Melaka (also spelt Malacca). I vividly remember rambling down the meandering lanes of the Malaysian city a few years ago. It seems surreal now, a vacation without masks or physical distancing.
Melaka is not as flamboyant as Kuala Lumpur, but it abounds in history and architecture. It is no wonder tourists come in hordes to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though it’s small enough to explore on foot, Melaka has sufficient attractions to fill an itinerary of several days.
I wandered at leisure in this ancient city, admiring its old churches, Hindu temples, gilded Chinese temples, grand mosques, opulent mansions, red colonial buildings, and streets lined with tile-roofed louvred shophouses where traders reside. The foreign influences —from early Indian civilisation to Portuguese and Dutch, were discernible. I was, at times, transported to the late 18th century when Melaka was a busy outpost for the British, who stormed this part of the world in search of spices and stayed back to reap the benefits of the lucrative trade.
Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum was my first stop. This private museum, located along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, is owned by the fourth generation of the Chan family. Built during the Dutch occupation, the structure offers a glimpse into the rich and colourful Peranakan lifestyle. “Peranakans are a group of wealthy families who evolved from the intermarriage of Babas, or Chinese traders, and Nyonyas, or local residents. This was once the ancestral home of a Baba Nyonya family,” explained our ebullient guide. The ancestry altar, an archive of costumes, neoclassical furniture, Victorian-era chandeliers, and other artefacts created a delightful time warp in the unique museum.
Walking on Jalan Tokong, or Harmony Street, I came across three of the oldest places of worship in Malaysia. The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia. It rendered me speechless with its ornate, upturned, boat-shaped roof, stunning wood carvings, furnishings, and mythological figures. I spotted visitors lighting incense sticks in front of a gilded statue of the Goddess of Mercy, the deity for whom the temple was founded in the 1600s. Just then, a muezzin’s call pervaded the air. I followed the mellifluous voice to the nearby Kampung Kling Mosque. Built by Indian Muslim traders in 1748, it is a medley of Corinthian columns, Portuguese tiles, Hindu carvings, and a pagoda-like minaret. Down the street, chants emanated from the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, a rectangular structure that stands on land donated by the Dutch and that happens to be one of the first Hindu temples built in the country. On my way back, it hit me why locals called it Harmony Street.
After all that walking in the sweltering heat, I stopped to have cendol, a shaved-ice dessert with green vanilla jelly, coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, toffee sauce, and kidney beans. At twilight, I was on Menara Taming Sari, a 360° viewing tower with a sky-high platform, to take in a panoramic view of the coastal town, twinkling with lights under a star-spangled sky.
An illuminated tricycle rickshaw ferried me to Jonker Street later in the night. In this vibrant heart of Melaka City, old townhouses have been transformed into cafes, pubs, and boutiques. Murals and flags give the area pops of colour, but the street can get a tad boisterous on weekends, with a food and retail market taking over.
The next day, I headed towards Maritime Museum, which is housed in a replica of Flor De La Mar, the famous Portuguese ship that is said to have sank off the coast of Melaka. The museum is divided into different eras—the Melaka Sultanate period, the Portuguese rule, the Dutch rule, and the British rule—and offers a glimpse into Melaka’s seafaring history. I spent hours perusing the display of porcelain, silk, textile, and spices that were brought in by traders from the Arab world, India, and China; collections of model ships; and reading material on Melaka’s history.
After a Duck tour (tours that take place on purpose-built amphibious tour buses) covering landmarks such as the waterfront Melaka Straits Mosque, which appears to be floating on the Strait, I headed to Porta De Santiago, an old gateway located at the foot of St Paul’s Hills. Built by the Portuguese in 1512, it was once one of the four main gates of the Portuguese fortress, A Famosa.
From there, I clambered up a flight of steep steps to the sublime ruins of St Paul’s Church crowning the summit of St Paul’s Hills. I was rewarded with a stellar view of the city and the Straits of Malacca. It was originally a chapel built by a Portuguese sea captain in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for saving his life at sea. The Dutch renamed it St Paul’s Church, and this is where the body of Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier is supposed to have been interred before it was moved to Goa. The tomb remains at the centre of the ruined church.
My next stop was the town square, where hordes of bright trishaws, three-wheeled pedal rickshaws, festooned with plastic flowers and soft toys glided around. At the Dutch Square, also known as the Red Square, tourists posed in front of the salmon-coloured Stadthuys, the former townhall and the most prominent landmark of Melaka. It not only dominates the square but is claimed to be the oldest remaining Dutch colonial building left in Southeast Asia. Today, it houses the Melaka Ethnographical and Historical Museum, which offers a glimpse into the customs and traditions of all the peoples of Melaka. During the Dutch rule, many buildings in Southeast Asia, like the 18th-century Christ Church in Melaka, were painted white. However, in 1911, the Christ Church and the Stadthuys complex were painted red by the British.
On the last day, I embarked on the Melaka River Cruise. My curiosity had been stoked when my guide mentioned that the 1999 Sean Connery movie Entrapment was partially shot here. The recorded commentary on board the 45-minute cruise provides info on the history of the river: how it was widened and made pollution-free, and how the historic monuments on either bank were restored and maintained. I had fleeting glimpses of the simple, laid-back life of the locals on the river banks. The multicultural fabric of the country was palpable as the boat whizzed past historic buildings, old warehouses, numerous bridges, and murals adorning the walls of homes, shops, and cafes. The most interesting sight on the cruise was that of Kampung Morten, a cluster of well-maintained traditional Melaka houses that are over 100 years old. As I watched the illuminated buildings and canals at twilight, Melaka evoked romantic visions of the past. There could not have been a better finale to my sojourn.
Multiple airlines offer connecting flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur. You can take a bus, train, or taxi to Melaka from here. It takes around two hours by road.
Casa del Rio offers Mediterranean-style rooms with a touch of Peranakan flair. Doubles start from INR 6,476; casadelrio-melaka.com
5 Heeren is a polished boutique hotel offering river views. Doubles start from INR 7,908; 5heeren.com