This catchy catch-phrase coined in 2014 by Government of Melaka State sends an ominous warning to the littering public. Mess-makers beware! Tourists, trash is meant for the trash cans, not the roads and green spaces! So mind your butter fingers – and do let Melaka breathe!
If you relish the old world charm of ramshackle buildings and colonial churches crumbling with age, Melaka is the place to go. This UNESCO world heritage town was first captured by the Portuguese under Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1511 (Just a year after the capture of Goa). Five hundred years later the scenario is one of touts and tourists, locals and foreigners, coming together in a symbiotic frenzy of shopping, eating and entertainment.
The Centuries of Occupation
So what do I know about the history of Melaka before the greedy eyes of the Europeans fell upon it? Located on the southwest coast of the Malay peninsula at the narrowest point of the Malacca Straits, the town was probably founded towards the close of the 14th century. It must have started off as a tiny fishing village inhabited by Malays. A Sumatran prince named Parameswara of Temasek (now Singapore) discovered the location while hunting and named it Melaka. He converted to Islam and thereafter the Malay peninsula came under the Muslim influence. The town grew and prospered and became an international trading post attracting Chinese, Indian and Arab traders.
Melaka had strained relations with Siam but this was not a hindrance to trade. The Siamese junks brought gold, silver, copper, ivory, teak and essential foodstuffs and took back with them slaves they bought in Melaka in addition to tea, silk, porcelain, iron and gunpowder. The Gujarati traders from Cambay usually came in March. "Their main commodities were textile, cotton, opium and camphor." They would also bring goods from Europe and take back supplies to be traded in Venice and other European cities. (Source: Exhibits in Sultan Palace Museum.)
In the mid 15th century a daughter of the Ming Emperor of China married the Sultan of Melaka and came to live here with a retinue of 500 attendants, and all of them married and settled here, giving rise to a thriving Chinese culture.
Soon the Portuguese came by sea, dropped anchor and stayed on for 130 years. When Alfonso de Albuquerque seized Melaka with his 1200-strong army he massacred the Muslims and spared the Chinese, Burmese and Hindu inhabitants. Then along came the Dutch, who had already set up their base in Batavia (now Jakarta). They defeated the Portuguese in 1641, captured Melaka and stayed for 150 years. Next came the turn of the British who occupied Melaka for 120 years (1826-1946) after concluding the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. During World War II, Melaka endured Japanese occupation (1942-1945). So, on the whole it was 435 years of foreign domination. Thanks to the booming spice trade.
What to See and Do
The hustling bustling Jonker Walk (Jelan Hang Jebat) was deserted. Did I pick the wrong time? My cabbie told me the place is busy at night - 365 nights a year - holidays unheard of. But take a look at the pictures and decide for yourself. My visit was during the day, as I was travelling solo. This is the Chinatown area of Melaka, the place for antiques, street food and what not.
The Sultan’s Palace Museum was the highlight of my tour. It delighted, surprised, informed and entertained. I learnt (inter alia) that traders from ‘Gujerat’ in the 17th century used to bring not only textiles and stuff but also opium.
The first fort built by the Portuguese was A’ Famosa. It has all but vanished and looking at the dilapidated walls it is hard to imagine that this is the point from where Portugal defended its far-eastern territories. When the fort passed into Dutch hands they enlarged it and engraved the date (1670) and the coat of arms of the Dutch East India Company, ‘VOC’ for ‘Verenigde Oostindiche Compagnie’. In 1807 the British blew it up.
The Portuguese built St. Paul’s Church. The Dutch built Christ Church and Stadthuys, the red building that now houses a museum. Stadthuys, built in 1650, is believed to be the oldest Dutch construction in the eastern hemisphere. St. John’s Fort was built by the Portuguese and re-built by the Dutch. The canons face inland, as the major attacks came from the land.
The old parts of the city are best explored on foot. You need to walk only a few hundred metres to see all the major structures. At the Red Square and everywhere else the garishly decorated cycle rickshaws (trishaws) were an eyesore.
Virtually every building in the area has a museum, but there was too much to see and learn, and too little time. The Maritime Museum is worth seeing.
New-age joy rides like the 110 metre Menara Taming Sari serve to attract tourists who desire to get a bird’s eye view of Melaka. The tower rotates and rises up at the same time.
The Melaka River cruise is said to be interesting but in the blazing heat of the day I didn’t feel like taking the plunge. I needed to get back to my hotel by night time. I was plonked at the Sama Sama Airport Hotel, which was a 90 minute drive away. Kuala Lumpur is about 150 km to the northwest. Do visit the upside down house if you have kids in your team. It's a fun thing, but not really amazing, and the entrance fee is exorbitant.
Kampung Hulu’s mosque is the oldest in the country, built in 1728 during the Dutch occupancy. So dear old Parameswara didn’t build any place of worship. Nor did anyone else for the next three centuries. I thought that’s rather strange.
I lunched at a roadside stall to get a taste of real Malay cuisine. The fish curry was stomach-curdling and the rice and veggies were good. I bought a few I-love-Melaka t-shirts.
How to get to Melaka
If you’ve already visited Kuala Lumpur and you’re not inclined to shop in the city, the best thing you can do it stay near the airport. You’ll avoid the long drive to KL and have more time for exploring the other exotic locales. You can hire a cab to go to Melaka, though there are other inexpensive modes of transport. ( If you need a cab call Ali on 01128998970. I found him to be an amiable young man, well-behaved and good-natured. His car is spick and span too.) Once you’re in Melaka you don’t really need a vehicle because all the tourist spots are close to each other. However, if you dislike walking there are the designer trishaws to take you around. If you have more than one day, it would be a good idea to stay in Melaka and take the cruise at sunset. I didn’t have that luxury. I had one more day but I decided to go to Putra Jaya instead. Tell you about that later.