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 Islands Information

Place: Melaka

Melaka: Malaysia's Historical Gemstone.

The old man flashes me a toothless grin. "Welcome to Melaka", he says. "And to Medan Portugis kampung. My name is Manuel Rodrigues." Rodrigues is of mixed Malay and Portuguese descent, and his family, have lived in this small village for four centuries. While our tour bus rests under the shade of a nearby tree, he tells me that the Portuguese Square was built in the 1980's by the Malaysian Government to honour the historical ethnicity of his community. "Look around," he urges, waving me towards the village. "This is what remains of 'our' world." By that I assume he means the colonial world of Portugal's one-hundred-and-fifty-year occupation of Melaka. Today, as I stand looking west across the Straits of Malacca, the sea glints under a blazing sky, and a warm salt-laden breeze wafts against my skin. On this Sunday morning, the settlement wears an air of dreamy tranquillity as it dozes in the sun.

Melaka's past, however, was far from peaceful. Founded by the Sumatran Prince, Parmeswara, in 1400, the city rapidly became the most lucrative trading port in the East. Its prosperity proved to be a double-edged sword. The avaricious Portuguese wrested the city from the Sultan of Malacca in 1511, and built the formidable A Formosa Fort. The Dutch then arrived on the scene in 1641 and took centre stage for the next couple of centuries. The British, in their turn, were paramount from 1826 and, except for the Japanese occupation during World War II, they held Melaka until Malaysia's independence in 1957.

A Formosa Fort suffered damage with each invasion, and the British finally reduced it to rubble. All that remains today is the Porto da Santiago gate which survived thanks to the intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles. I walk through its archway, and up a winding flight of steps to the top of the hill, where the skeletal walls of St. Paul's Chapel lie roofless and open to the relentless sun and rain.

A grilled enclosure at the far end encompasses an open grave-the first resting place of St. Francis Xavier, Portuguese missionary extraordinaire, who died in 1552. The body was removed shortly thereafter to Goa, India where it now lies in a gold casket, miraculously uncorrupted by the passage of time. It is, however, minus a right hand, which was reputedly sent to Rome on the orders of the Pope. Although severed 62 years after St Francis' death, legend has it that blood gushed from the wound, and the hand eventually withered. By curious coincidence, the marble statue of St. Frances Xavier, erected in 1952, just behind St. Paul's Chapel, was toppled by a freak accident (a tree mysteriously fell on it), and though rescued and restored to its pedestal, its right hand, shattered beyond repair, is missing.

Melaka wears its past like a rich cloak around the shoulders of its present. At Dutch Square, trishaws flit past like brightly hued butterflies, their canopies festooned with paper flower garlands, while souvenir, handicraft shops and food vendors line the sidewalks. The backdrop to this contemporary scene is Christ Church, built by the Dutch in 1753-a stolid brick structure with a deep red laterite façade.

Stadthuys Town Hall, which now houses an Ethnographic Museum, also flanks Dutch Square. Completed around 1660, it is one of the oldest examples of Dutch architecture in the East. I pore delightedly over the Museum's display of traditional ethnic wedding costumes, ceremonies and customs. The History Museum's collection of Melaka's old maps, lithographs and photos is equally fascinating. But time, unfortunately, is running out…and I have to get back on the tour bus.

No matter. Melaka has more delights to offer: streets squeezing their way between houses, shops and temples where Peranakan ('Straits Chinese' of Malay and Chinese descent) live, work and worship. Across a bridge spanning the Melaka river, (crammed with ancient looking boats) is the Cheng Hoon Teng temple, with its astonishing array of ornate lacquer work and mythological figures. Nearby too, are the antique treasures of Jonker Street. Much of it, to my untrained eye, is overpriced 'jonk' but I indulge in some haggling just for the heck of it.

Our final stop on the tour is the Hang Li Poh well. I toss in a coin and make a wish which, I am assured, will "definitely come true". Hang Li Poh is the oldest well in Melaka, and has never dried up. Neither, apparently, has its guarantee. So reluctant as I am to say farewell to this city, I know I shall be back. Someday.

©Margaret Deefholts - Visit Margaret's website www.margaretdeefholts.com

IF YOU GO:

Getting There: Regular and frequent buses ply between Melaka and Kuala Lumpur, as well as to and from Singapore. Other bus systems fan out to Penang, Johor etc. Refer: http://www.malacca.ws/info/gettingthere.htm

Staying There: There is reasonably good range of hotel accommodation in Melaka. Visit http://www.malacca-hotels.com/accommodation/index.htm or call Tourism Malaysia at 1-888-689-6872 for further information.

Also Worth Seeing:

* The Bukit China cemetery has interesting historical significance. With 12,500 graves (some going back to the Ming Dynasty) spread over 25 acres, this is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China.

*St. Peter's Church built in 1710, is the oldest functioning Catholic church in Malaysia.

*The Cultural Museum, near the Porto da Santiago is a replica of a 15th century Melaka Sultan's palace. Exhibits include apparel, weaponry, musical instruments and games.

*Baba Nynonya Heritage Museum, designed to appear like a typical 19th century Baba-Nynonya residence, boasts a collection of ceramics, tile and inlay decorated artifacts.

*Sound and Light Show held daily on the field opposite Independence Square (near the Porto da Santiago)