Words & photos by Rena Lim
The best way to get the inside story on a city and to feel its vibes is to walk its many streets with someone who knows its customs, culture, cuisine and history. On a recent walking tour of Melaka’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, I had the benefit of the company of the lovely local guide Peck Choo.
Having checked into the Equatorial Hotel, which is just a stone’s throw away from the A Famosa, I decided that it would be ideal to take in the historical sites first.
On the short walk to the Portuguese fort, I was greeted by colourful trishaws blasting cheerful music in the air. I could have taken a ride on one of these trishaws, but travelling on a shoestring budget meant that walking was a more economical option.
The A Famosa is a favourite subject for shutterbugs, and I too clicked away. Information on the history and significance of the structure can be read on a bulletin board posted nearby.
The fort looks old but sturdy, a cannon stands guard near the entrance, still symbolically serving its original purpose to stave off invaders coming in from the sea. But the new breed of intruders – the tourists – could safely walk in for a closer look and even pose for photographs.
I took Choo’s advice and made the Melaka Sultanate Palace, located next to A Famosa, our next stop. Be made aware that this is a replica of the original palace. After all, wooden structures don’t stand the test of time.
For RM3, you get to tour the inside of the royal abode. It was a construction marvel in its time – the palace was erected without the use of a single nail. Stepping into the palace is akin to walking into a traditional Malay house. The floorboards creak with every step you take.
The Melaka Sultanate Palace also serves as a museum of sorts – relics of the once powerful empire – such as the keris, trinkets and attire – are displayed in there. The royal chamber was a sight to behold. On the ground floor, there is a gallery of paintings and mannequins that depict how the barter system worked and how business was conducted in those early days of Malay civilisation.
Next up was St Paul’s Hill, from where you get an equally spectacular view of Melaka as you would from the top of the revolving Menara Taming Sari.
Walk down the other side of St Paul’s Hill and you will come to the Stadthuys, an old building that used to serve as the Dutch governor and deputy governor’s office. Its red exterior gives it a distinct look.
Next on my jaunt was Jonker Walk, and I was looking forward to it. It was not 6pm yet and most of the stalls had not been set up, but there was still a lot to see. When night fell, Jonker Walk came alive, with restaurants and shops fighting for patrons.
I then crossed the Melaka River to take a pleasant stroll along the bustling, yet clean, streets.
The food here is not to be missed, and you can have it all. From durian puffs, sweet desserts, Nyonya kuih, cold coconut shakes to full Nyonya cuisines and chicken rice, I was spoilt for choice. Ultimately I gave in to the aromatic fragrance of the chicken rice lingering in the streets and settled for a plate of chicken rice balls served by a Hainanese uncle.
Continuing my walk, I found more Peranakan trinkets, kebayas, beaded shoes and Nyonya theme paintings. I walked past the Baba and Nyonya Museum housed in a traditional Peranakan home, and could not stop wondering how quaint it looked.
A 20-minute stroll from Jonker Walk took me to my last stop for the day – the Quayside where a replica of the Flor de la Mar is berthed. This was the ship that the Portuguese general Alfonso de Albuquerque sailed to Melaka to capture the city in the 1500s. It was the finest vessel of its era.
Thanks to Choo, a Melaka resident of 34 years, I learned more about the heritage city than I ever did on previous trips. If you need a local guide, you can reach her on 017-944 4197.
The Straits of Malacca has always been one of the world’s busiest maritime routes. Thanks to its strategic position, Melaka – one of the earliest settlements along this great waterway – quickly established itself as a major trading centre.
It was where Chinese, Arab, Indian and Javanese traders bought or sold spices, silk, porcelain and tea. They brought also along their cultures and practices which intertwined to give Melaka its unique characteristics. The Portuguese, Dutch and British who came later enriched the local culture with their own.
There are many stories of Melaka’s origins – each more fascinating than the one before. Historically, the city was founded by a Palembang prince Parameswara who fled a Majapahit invasion to set foot in the Malay Peninsula in 1400.
He was inspired by the scene of a mousedeer kicking its predator – a dog – into the river. He decided to name his newfound home Melaka, after the tree under which he was resting when he witnessed how the mousedeer turned the tables on the dog.
Along with its history and culture, Melaka is also marked by a unique blend of the architecture of the different communities that have made the city their home.
Where2 explores some of them.
Melaka Sultanate Palace
Melaka has some of the most interesting historical artefacts in Malaysia. Within the confines of the Melaka Sultanate Palace – a replica of the original royal abode – you can catch a rare glimpse of the glory of the once great Malay kingdom.
Inside are the Sultan’s Chamber, King’s Audience Hall, trading materials, traditional attire and objects from the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah. In one of the eight chambers, visitors can sit down for a game of Congkak or Chinese chess while enjoying the nostalgia of classical Malay music.
The palace is a marvel in itself – it was constructed without the use of a single nail. In each chamber the visitor will see trinkets and jewellery used by the royalty, exhibits of traditional Malay attire, musical instruments, weapons and gifts from foreign emissaries. The Melaka Sultanate Palace offers a rare peek into this ancient Malay kingdom like no other.
St Paul’s Hill
Just above the Melaka Sultanate Palace stands a hill rich in Portuguese and Dutch history. Within the ruins of St Paul’s Church there stand tombstones dating back to 1650. Stepping into the old, brick wall structure is like taking a trip back in time. You could almost witness the fall of a once glorious kingdom.
At the edge of the hill facing the Stadthuys, the statue of St Francis Xavier stands guard over his flock. The statue has lost its right arm, severed by a large casuarina tree that fell on it. It is said that on the morning of the statue’s sanctification in 1952, blood flowed from the stump where the arm was detached.
Ironically, the missionary’s right arm was severed and sent to Rome on the orders of the Vatican when he was canonised in 1641, more than 300 years before his stone replica also lost an arm. The Catholic Church had made the demand for the arm that was used to bless his converts.
Stadthuys and the Clock Tower
In the heart of the heritage site and on the riverfront stands a vibrantly bright red building that the Dutch had erected. This is the Stadthuys, believed to be the oldest surviving Dutch building in the East. It once served as the office and official residence of the Dutch governors and officers and became the focus of the British when they took over Melaka from the Dutch.
In 1982, it was converted into the Museum of History and Ethnography. Here visitors can find maps, prints and pictures recounting the city’s rich history. Nonetheless, the chunky doors and wrought iron hinges clearly speak of its Dutch heritage.
In front of the Stadthuys is another relic of historical value – the Tang Beng Swee Clock Tower. Although it bears an unmistakable Dutch design, it was actually built in 1886 by Tan Jiak Kim for the people of Melaka at the request of his father Tan Beng Swee. The Tans were a millionaire and philanthropic family.
In 1982, the original clock from England was replaced with a Seiko, causing an uproar among the locals who were still bitter about their harsh treatment during the Japanese Occupation.
This Portuguese structure has become synonymous with Melaka. Only a gate and a cannon remain of the once formidable A Famosa fort that used to occupy the entire hillside.
The fort was built by the 16th century Portuguese explorer and general Alfonso de Albuquerque. It would later house the entire Portuguese administration, complete with hospitals, five churches, stockades and four key towers.
In 1641 the Dutch captured Melaka and drove the Portuguese out. The new occupants proceeded to carry out massive renovation of the fort. During the Napoleonic Wars, Melaka changed hands once again. In a swap deal, the British surrendered Bencoolen in the East Indies (now Indonesia) to the Dutch in exchange for Melaka.
Based on the fact that the structure has seen so much history, it would be remiss of visitors to just pose for pictures.
Today, the remaining gate of A Famosa has become a gathering point for buskers. Eager crowds would gather to be serenaded by the classic songs accompanied by the strumming of guitars.
Flor de la Mar
The Flor de la Mar, or Flower of the Sea, was a 40-tonne ship that ruled the seas in the early 1500s. The massive vessel had separate areas for the captain’s cabin, the deck and detention room. These have been faithfully replicated and the modern version is now berthed at Quayside. Inside, the vessel is lit by dim orange lights and visitors learn all about the ship through an audio commentary.
This offers visitors a glimpse of what it would have been like sailing back to Portugal in this vessel. Unfortunately, it never made it home. The Flor de la Mar capsized and sank off the coast of Sumatra, with the rumoured massive amount of treasures going down with it. There have been attempts to find the treasure but there has not been a single report of success.
The Flor de la Mar, built in Lisbon in the 1500s, was one of the largest and most beautiful ships in its day. Not only was it a trading vessel. It also saw many sea battles, like in 1507 when the Portuguese attacked Ormuz.
The Portuguese general Alfonso de Albuquerque led the invasion of Melaka in 1511 on board this vessel.
These historical sites are some of the many attractions in Melaka. The cultural scene and local cuisines are equally alluring, and visitors will be taken in by the warmth and chatter among the locals.
Welcome to Melaka!