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Straits ahead

Straits ahead
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First Published: Fri, Jun 24 2011. 09 20 PM IST

Melting pot: (clockwise from top) The ruins of St Paul’s church in Malacca (Adrin Shamsudin/Thinkstock); worshippers offer incense sticks for prayers (Divya Babu/Mint); and the town’s famous, brightly
Melting pot: (clockwise from top) The ruins of St Paul’s church in Malacca (Adrin Shamsudin/Thinkstock); worshippers offer incense sticks for prayers (Divya Babu/Mint); and the town’s famous, brightly
Updated: Fri, Jun 24 2011. 09 20 PM IST
Iam trying hard not to laugh at my guide. He has been very friendly, chatting in Tamil on the bus to Malacca. He has also organized a vegetarian lunch for me, after he’s recovered from the shock of encountering someone who doesn’t eat meat. The reason I am having trouble is that, talking about the history of Malacca, he keeps mentioning the Chineast and the Portugueast. Finally when he says, “After this, you all get into the bust”, a giggle escapes; I hastily turn it into a cough and end up choking.
Malacca (or Melaka as locals call it) is one of Malaysia’s few Unesco world heritage sites. There is a lot of dispute over when the city was founded but my guide authoritatively says it was in the early 15th century. It flourished as a trading port, attracting the attention of invaders. In many ways, Malacca reminds me of Fort Kochi: Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese influences are scattered around the city.
Melting pot: (clockwise from top) The ruins of St Paul’s church in Malacca (Adrin Shamsudin/Thinkstock); worshippers offer incense sticks for prayers (Divya Babu/Mint); and the town’s famous, brightly decorated trishaws (Charukesi Ramadurai).
My first stop is the Dutch Square, where most of the action is. The terracotta red façade of Christ Church (which gives the surrounding area its name—Red Square) looms large over the neighbourhood. Queen Elizabeth II is supposed to have offered prayers here during a visit in 1972. The narrow street in front of the church is packed with locals and tourists. Obviously, vendors can spot the outsiders at once, and they call out to me to buy their tacky souvenirs, hats, sunglasses, water bottles and camera rolls.
It is a mild day (by Malaysian standards), the kind of day when you are tempted to take time off from work to walk in the open park with its rows of cheerful flowers and antique fountain. So I skip the church visit and sit under the Clock Tower by the fountain, enjoying the bustle around me.
Also see | Trip Planner / Malacca(PDF)
The main road is lined with the brightly decorated trishaws (with plastic flowers—so some would say garishly) that Malacca is famous for. I am not sure of the fares, but in attitude the drivers are comparable with the ones I encounter in my hometown Chennai. I assume they are part of the tourist sights and step closer to take pictures. One rickshaw man grimaces and turns to the other side, one shields his face with his hand, one rides away, one yells at me. What did I do? “If you want to take their picture, you need to pay them,” a local passing by grins at me.
Our guide is clucking impatiently by then, so we head to the other famous church, St Paul’s. There is nothing left of the church but the ruins on top of a hillock. It was originally built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and was known then as Church of Our Lady of the Hill (Nossa Senhora da Annunciada). Under the Dutch, it was renamed St Paul’s and later, when Christ Church was built, converted into a burial space. Its most famous occupant was St Francis Xavier (before his body was moved to Goa). Instead of the Chinese fishing nets that call out to visitors in Kochi, the Eye on Malaysia Ferris wheel winks from a distance, the shimmering straits behind it.
People around me are talking in hushed tones, as if inside a functioning church. It has all been peaceful. So far. As I walk down the steps, I stop to watch the artist with his watercolours till he waves me away, frowning in annoyance. Then I am on the main road, to the blaring beats of Dil toh pagal hai. Another group of trishaws. I am not falling for it this time. But no, these guys are much friendlier and one of them waves to me to come closer.
That is how I meet Bob. He poses for me patiently on his seat and asks me a hundred questions. Turns out, Bob is a fan of Bollywood music. He has never seen a Hindi movie but recites the names of popular heroines and one popular hero. From his Visitors Diary, I see that tourists from as far as Australia and Germany have fallen for Bob’s toothy charm and written nice things about him. I do too; I owe my “tourist on trishaw” photo to him.
The next destination is Jonker Street, the best place, I am told, to experience Malacca’s mixed heritage. The street has a row of squat buildings that shine with brightly coloured balconies and windows. I walk in and out of the antique shops lining the road, thinking again about Jew Town in Fort Kochi. Kitschy kettles and classy ceramics, old brass lamps and shining new framed paintings—all of them are passed off as antiques.
I have read mixed reviews about the Baba Nyonya museum on Heeren Street nearby but decide to pay a visit anyway. The private museum managed by the local Baba Nyonya showcases the lives of the rich, influential Chinese merchants (also known as Straits Chinese or Peranakan) who married local Malay women, creating this community. They speak neither Chinese nor Malay but a unique patois called Baba Malay. My guide speaks English but she is clearly bored and waiting for us to move on quickly. The exhibits are fascinating; I am especially charmed by the ceramics in unusual colours such as pink and yellow and find it easy to overlook her brusque tone.
It is surprising nonetheless since people everywhere else in Malaysia have been easy with their smiles. Even in Malacca, the rudeness of one group of trishaw drivers is set off by Bob’s friendliness. In the latest Bollywood news, I see that actor Shah Rukh Khan is shooting for the sequel of Don in Malacca. I wonder if Bob met him. I wonder if he sang his favourite “Kooch kooch hota hai” to his favourite Khan.
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First Published: Fri, Jun 24 2011. 09 20 PM IST
More Topics: Malaysia | Malacca | Unesco | Heritage Sites | Travel |