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Melaka: A cultural short break to Malaysia, just a two-hour drive from Singapore

Verne Maree returns to this port-city treasure, which is not much more than a two-hour drive from Singapore.

Much of the Melaka’s charm lies in its colonial architectural heritage. Until the 15th century, Melaka (alternatively spelled “Malacca” by the British) was a Malay sultanate, trading with Arabs, Chinese and whoever else was courageous enough to brave the pirates who lurked in the Straits.

The Portuguese conquered Melaka in 1511, the Dutch seized it from the Portuguese in 1641, and the British wrested it from the Dutch during the late 18th and early 19th century, after which it became part of British Malaya.

Then and Now
Roy and I first visited the city in 2001 and dutifully saw the main sights recommended in our guidebook. My clearest memory of that trip is cruising down the river, hugely entertained by the quirky commentary of an iconic guide, the Portuguese-Eurasian Bernard Goonting.

He told us to take in the sights and remember them carefully, because the river and its banks were slated for transformation in the very near future; a good thing, we thought. As a tourist attraction, the trip down this turgid stream was laughable. Only Bernard’s hilariously inventive commentary – each basking monitor lizard was pointed out and introduced by names such as Arnie, Sean Connery, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner – made it worthwhile.

Bernard today still plies the trade he’s followed for more than 30 years. And his predictions were spot on: the slightly smelly, stagnant stretch of muddy water has been widened and cleaned up, the decaying, ramshackle waterside homes on crumbling stilts either restored or cleared away, the banks fortified and enhanced with paved walkways, and eco-friendly timbered paths laid through mangroves. It’s a huge improvement.

What’s more, it is now much easier to explore this fascinating place by foot. One of the things I love most about the YTL hotels, of which the Majestic Malacca is one, is that they have outstanding, full-time in-house guides who are experts in their fields.

Donovan Louis is of Dutch-Eurasian descent, and can blend his personal experience of growing up in Melaka with the study he has made of its history. If you’re interested in Singapore’s history, you’ll be interested in Melaka’s, too, as they are closely bound.

Tour One
The Route to Melaka’s History
Late on our first afternoon, as the day’s heat slowly receded, Donovan took us walking along the river. He was a mine of information, pointing out:

Jawa trees, once used for firewood but now protected
• 17th-century Dutch heritage buildings, built with cooling lime plaster containing chicken and turtle eggs
mixed with mud from the sea, which have been vacated in order to be taken back by the government
• Flocks of swallows and swifts, lured by recordings of their songs played from these empty buildings to
get them to nest indoors; the nests are harvested for a Chinese delicacy, called “bird’s nest”, that fetches
5,000 ringgit ($2,100) a kilogram
• 19th-century godowns (warehouses) from the English colonial period, used to store slabs of rubber from
plantations in the hinterland
Kampong Jawa Bridge, about 300 years old, where the heads of people slain during the Japanese
Occupation of World War II were impaled on spikes; in memory of the blood that flowed from it into the
Melaka River, it is painted red to this day
• The Jesuit St Francis Xavier church
• The Street of Harmony, so called because it is home to:
– Kampong Kong Mosque, a 1742 building with minarets instead of domes, architecturally closer to a
Hindu temple;
– Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, first built in the 1600s and full of great examples of lime plastering and
giltwork (www.chenghoonteng.org.my); and
– Sri Poyyatha Vinayar Moorthi Hindu temple, which serves the Chitty community, who have been here so
long that they no longer have any Indian language but speak Malay.

Tour Two

Treasures of the Old Melakan Streets
Donovan meets me in the lobby early on our second morning, before the sun or my husband have risen, and takes me back along the river, across Kampong Jawa Bridge, behind the Stadthuys (Town Hall) through the red buildings of the Dutch era. From there, we wander up St Paul’s Hill, to the statue of St Francis Xavier and the ruins of St Paul’s church, then down the hill to the fort gateway, what the Portuguese called Porta de Santiago, which is all that is left of the original fort.

He regales me with some juicy colonial lore:
• The now-Anglican church, built by the Dutch soon after their victory over the Portuguese in one of the Spice Wars, had its floors tiled with glazed granite tombstones ripped from the desecrated Portuguese fort; partly out of vindictiveness, and partly because materials were scarce. They have recently been restored to the ruined fort.
• The red Dutch colonial buildings were originally white, but in protest against the tyranny of Dutch rule, the locals spat thick red betel-nut juice at the walls, or rubbed the red soil into them; the pragmatic Dutch response to this was to paint all government buildings red.
• The more righteous English removed the torture chambers in which the Dutch incarcerated thousands of pesky local sea-bandits, replacing them with courthouses and legal chambers.
• The missing hand of the statue of St Francis Xavier was initially blown off by Japanese bombs. After restoration, it was again severed by a falling branch, after which the authorities decided to leave the handless arm as it was.
• A deep well in the middle of the ruin of St Paul’s is the start of a labyrinth of once-secret tunnels that lead to St John’s Hill, about two kilometres distant.
• The sea used to lap at the shore within metres of the ruined gateway to the original fort, but after a programme of land reclamation in recent decades, the shore is now more than two kilometres away. Recent construction has uncovered part of the seawall built during the Portuguese era, made of laterite stones from the seabed of the Straits of Malacca.

There is plenty of history to see in Melaka, but misguided tributes to nationalism established by the present government detract from its appeal. The original Malacca Club, where the British ruling class slugged gin slings, danced and played cricket, is now a stuffy Memorial to Democracy. A series of ideologically pompous but essentially empty “muziums”, such as Muzium Umno Melaka, the Muzium of Democracy, and the Muzium of Islam, present bland, empty façades.

Hotel Majestic

Steeped in the history that surrounds it, this is the antithesis of a chain hotel. It’s in the heart of the old city, and owner-developers YTL have done their utmost to preserve its structure and historicity intact.

There’s plenty of parking in the front courtyard – in itself a miracle in congested Melaka – and you’re greeted first by the deceptively simple façade of the two-storey hotel and then by cool towels and hot tea in an atmospheric lobby.

Built in 1929 as the private mansion of a prominent Melakan businessman, it was first converted into a hotel in 1955. Restoration began in 2006, and they’ve done a magnificent job. Melaka’s various colonial eras and influences shine through, but subtly, in the splendid original
Portuguese ceramic floor tiles, and in furnishings that make use of teak, leather, rich silk and cool cotton.

Stairs take you to the upper floor, which is entirely devoted to the hotel’s lovely restaurant, The Mansion; what would previously have been bedrooms are now private or semi-private dining areas. All 50 rooms and both suites are in an adjacent wing, built to reflect the proportions and ambience of the main house. We loved our beautiful room. A four-legged pedestal bath took pride of place, but the open-plan bathroom was easily converted into an en-suite by means of a couple of nifty louvred teak panels.

Perana-Spa
My dreams, however, were concentrated more on the hotel’s Spa Village, a major feature of any YTL hotel. The signature experience of the group’s Cameron Highlands Resort, for example, is based on that area’s famous tea and strawberries. The Malacca Majestic has the world’s only spa that bases its therapies on the healing traditions of the Peranakans, or Baba-Nonyas, the culture that resulted from marriages between the earliest Chinese immigrants and the local Malays.

While Roy communed with his cyber-community, I rediscovered my inner sybarite during the course of a pleasantly protracted afternoon of pampering.

I answered a questionnaire from which the therapist was able to deduce whether my energies were cool or warm, according to Peranakan belief and inspired by traditional Chinese medicine. I was declared marginally “heaty”, so prescribed the Shiok-Shiok Sejuk “cooling” signature spa experience: yoghurt-and-guava-leaves body scrum, egg-rolling body therapy (more on this later), and a bird’s-nest facial with star-fruit mask.

Before any other treatment, all spa guests receive a special hair treatment – washing, combing and scalp massage – inspired by the Peranakan pre-wedding ceremony ritual in which the mother of the groom combs the bride’s hair.

I was grateful to the yoghurt-and-guava-leaves body scrub for cleansing away my many impurities, but deeply surprised by the egg-rolling therapy, during which a succession of about a dozen hard-boiled eggs, safely in a sock, were rolled onto my muscles to draw out heat and settle my alleged hyperactivity. The massage that followed was excellent.

The facials are based on the precious bird’s nest that is so beloved by the Chinese and farmed in the empty warehouses on the banks of the river. This type of facial is believed to be wonderfully hydrating, and administered together with chilled slices of star fruit, it felt wondrously exotic.

Great originality and insight have gone into developing this unique menu of spa treatments; undergoing it, I felt as though I was absorbing the generous essence of the Peranakan spirit itself. Be assured that you will not be able to experience anything like this except at this spa, at this hotel.

Perana-Yum

Our first meal in the Majestic Malacca was lunch in the beautiful library, adjacent to lobby lounge, both of which are open all day and perfect for recovering from one foray or planning the next over drinks, cocktails or a light meal. Roy’s choice was an excellent and piping-hot chicken-and-leek pie; mine a good Caesar salad and a pea soup.

The Mansion fine-dining restaurant is an outstandingly lovely venue, comprising the entire upper floor of the old hotel. A piano tinkled agreeably as I slurped seafood soup made with freshwater prawns farmed from a nearby lake. While I enjoyed delicious lamb cutlets with roasted vegetables and parsley mash, Roy built up his strength with a soup of mixed mushrooms infused with truffle oil, followed by blackened snapper.

Out and About

After our first walking tour, Donovan left us at our request in the pedestrianised Jonker’s Walk, lined with colourful Chinese clan houses whose façades date from the Victorian era. Don’t miss the gorgeous Jonker Gallery and, above it, a boutique hotel that commemorates the year of its construction, 1673, in original wrought iron – this was once the home of the Dutch governor of Melaka.

At about 6pm, stalls were setting up for the night market held here every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If you’re in the mood to shop, you’ll find anything from sushi to silverware to antiques and tacky plastic memorabilia. Otherwise, claim a table in or outside Geographér’s Café (yes, I know, the spelling is ridiculous). Order a draft beer and settle in, as we did, for some serious people-watching.

Being creatures of habit, we set off in search of a restaurant we enjoyed on our last trip, and triumphantly found it: Harper’s Restaurant and Lounge, right on the river. It’s on the expensive side for Melaka, but does some good, locally inspired tapas dishes such as salted cod and potato croquettes (which speak of both Portuguese and Dutch influences), delicious lamb meatballs in rich gravy, and Japanese-style baked salmon.

For a table inside, you generally need to book. The service is a little odd, though. Asked what the white wine of the house was, the waiter mumbled “Er, Sauvignon …” and hesitated.

“Yes?” we prompted. “Sauvignon what?”

“Sauvignon Franche!” he blurted. Cruel, aren’t we.
It’s best to visit the Portuguese tourist village in the evening, when the twinkling of fairy-lights softens the tattiness of the surroundings. Being short of evenings, we drove there this time for a snack at the only restaurant that was open for lunch, Ristoran de Lisbon, whose menu boasts “traditional Portuguese seafood (home-cooked style)”. Massive speakers belted out The Isle of Capri, then a series of gospel rock numbers – it was a Sunday, after all. But the beer was bitterly cold, and whole baked chilli fish was scrumptious.

Getting There

On our first visit, we took a coach to Melaka and easily got around the compact city by taxi, trishaw and Shank’s pony. This time, we drove; it’s about 200 kilometres from the border. The Second Link bridge at Tuas is generally less frenetic than the original one at Woodlands, especially during peak hours.

If you’re driving, take Highway 1 and follow the signs for Kuala Lumpur. Make sure you have a reasonably good road map, especially as most of the road signs, which used to be in English, are now, annoyingly, solely in Malay. Also, get good directions from your hotel. We drove around narrow one-way roads for a solid hour in weekend traffic, which was not a good start.

Trifling annoyances aside, if you haven’t been to Melaka, it’s time you did. And if you haven’t visited for a while, it’s worth going there again. Each visit is a different experience that adds to one’s understanding and enjoyment of a remarkable city.

Recommended Reading:
The Golden Chersonese, Travels in Malaya in 1879, by Isabella L. Bird
The Hikayat Abdullah, the autobiography of Abdulla Bin Kadir (1797-1854)

Recommendations:

• Majestic Malacca,    www.majesticmalacca.com
• Teo Soon Loong Chan at 55 Second Cross Street for the best Chinese seafood in Chinatown
(phone +06 2822353 to book)
Geographér’s Café, Jonker’s Walk
• Nancy’s Kitchen, Jalan Hang Lekir (+06 2830699)
• Restaurant De Lisbon, 18 Portuguese Square (+06 2848067)
• Harper’s Restaurant and Lounge, Lorong Hang Jebat

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