The day begins in Melaka with the call to prayer, at 5.30am. As we lay in bed, trying to sleep my husband and I search for words to describe it: part chant, part prayer, slightly melodic. 10 minutes in, my daughter from the bed next to us whispers in the dark, “I can still hear the man singing.”
After a few early mornings, we decide just to start our day at 5.30am. We miss the 9am breakfast crowd at the hotel’s enormous breakfast buffet and take our time leisurely cruising the many offerings of the buffet. Rising early also means we have the pleasure of walking alone down the river track into the old town as the city awakes.
Melaka, two hours from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia attracted our interest for its mix of cultures and hidden history. It was called the Venice of the East, the ocean alternative to the Silk Road. By 1414, it was a powerful trading port. Sheltered from typhoons, Melaka was the meeting spot between China, India and the Middle East. In the months between November to March, over 2000 ships were in port and 84 languages were spoken. The Chinese sold silk, tea and porcelain, the Persians perfumes, carpets and medicine, and the Indians cotton and ivory. In recent times, it was also the birth place of Malaysian independence with the declaration read in Melaka in 1957, before being given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008.
In 1511 the Portuguese waged war on the local Malaysian sultans to takeover the lucrative trading port. St Paul’s Church on the hill in the centre of town was the site of the original Portuguese fort. The church looks directly out onto the Straits of Melaka and catches the sea breeze. Even today when it is no longer the hub of trade, it is easy to spot 15 cargo ships on the horizon.
A century later the Dutch took over. Further down the hill are the Dutch fortress buildings, the Stadhuys built by the Dutch in 1650. It is a large and imposing red painted complex of offices and meeting rooms, just one of many museums ringing the base of St Paul’s Hill. Inside, the rooms are cool and quiet. It now houses the History and Ethnography Museum. It has a large collection of ceramics and weaponry from the visiting traders of the 14th and 15th century.
Little India sits wedge behind the Stadhuys, with tiny shops squeezed side by side, selling fabric, spices, vegetables and sequins. It feels abandoned in a chaotic, unstructured fashion. Across the river, lies Chinatown with the famous Jonker St running down the centre. While it is busy with local and tourists visiting the Chinese coffee shops and restaurants, its chaos feels unified and engulfing, like walking into old China itself.
Traditional Chinese crafts and trades can still be found on the side streets: lantern making, paper cutting, tin-smiths, and barrel making. There is even a shop producing shoes in the traditional style for Chinese bound feet. The shoes are incredibly tiny but they are quick to reassure us that these are purely collectors’ items these days. Further down Jonker St, the 1781 Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple sits next to the Kampung Kling Mosque built in 1748. The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, built in 1646 is close by.
Over the centuries, Chinese men married local Malaya women forming the Baba-Nonya, with a distinctive but blended culture. The best place to see this, apart from in the food, is at the Baba-Nonya Heritage Museum. A 19th century home for a wealthy trading family, it is a beautiful mix of Chinese design with Muslim custom. Boys born to Baba-Nonya parents were raised Chinese in dress, custom and religion while the girls were raised as Malay Muslims. Customs of seclusion of women were practiced and the house slowly reveals it layers as you walk through. The outer reception rooms were for the men and guests with women holding the inner rooms. The open-air courtyard at the very centre is large, cool and attractive. It was used for cooking, cleaning and bathing, as well as being the family centre of entertainment and relaxation.
A perfect way to see the cultural blend that is Melaka today is the cruise which follows the river up through town. Old and new sit side by side, 18 storey hotels and apartment blocks next to an original and still inhabited Malay village, Kampung Morten. Portuguese churches and Dutch townhouses sit next to Chinese restaurants and Indian spice shops. Twelve ornate wooden painted bridges bring an art nouveau touch to the old town. But as the temperature falls and night arrives, and the final call to prayer sings out across the city, you are left with no doubt to its firm place in Malaysia today.