Richard Tulloch finds first impressions can be deceiving as he explores the many sides of Melaka.
Malacca. It's a name, like Rangoon, Timbuktu and Mandalay, that evokes the glory days of the British Empire, when chaps went about in pith helmets, swishing malacca canes. A trip to Malacca should definitely involve a steamer, a bullock cart and leather suitcases.
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 real hot spot and a humid one at that. 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 broken footpaths covering deep stormwater drains and stepping around stalls where Indian vendors are threading garlands of flowers with Bollywood music blaring from their stereos.
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, with smart new paving on the banks and tourist barges shuttling between the dilapidated backs of houses on one side and cafe terraces on the other.
At the square in front of the 18th-century Dutch Christ Church, a gaggle of trishaws, decorated with plastic flowers, patiently waits for trade. Souvenir stalls sell leather hats, cane backscratchers, wooden foot massagers, flip-flop sandals, sepia photos of old Malacca and kitsch painted kittens.
By now I've worked out there's not a lot to do in Melaka. There is shopping, of course, but Melaka Megamall sells the same stuff you can get anywhere else.
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 decor (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 16th century has been ruled by in turn the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese. 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 (the practice is called "gasing" in Malay). Before I went, I had no idea top-spinning was such a dangerous sport. The traditional rules of the gasing are translated into English and include: "Players not allowed to eat in shop within game area until after competition for fear may be poisoned to death. Players not allowed to boast or be arrogant. 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 rebuilt sultan's palace is no longer for princesses only. It's open to the public and it's very beautiful. Massed bougainvilleas and sealing wax palms surround formal ponds and a group tai chi lesson is in progress.
It's lunch and Melaka's food is excellent and cheap. Calanthe Art Cafe serves asam pedas - a clay pot of spicy stingray and vegetables - West Malaysian coffee and a brilliant mango lassi drink (a fruit, milk and yoghurt mix), all for less than $7. Famosa chicken rice balls, a Melakan specialty, are even cheaper.
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 television earlier. The muezzin doesn't have to read the words to an Alicia Keys number off a jerky teleprompter, though.
The waterfront restaurants fold up their awnings and put out extra chairs on the terraces. Craft stalls appear along the length of Jonkers Street, now closed to cars and opened to pedestrians. 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 doorstep 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.
Singapore Airlines flies Sydney to Singapore from $1055.90 return. See singaporeair.com.
Konsortium Bus from Singapore to Melaka takes less than four hours and costs from $S72 ($56) return. See easibook.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Puri, near Jonkers Street, has double rooms from RM120 ($39.60). See hotelpuri.com.
Entrance to all museums listed is RM5 or less. See tourism-melaka.com.