Chapter 23: Malacca - Ancient trading port


Danna: “Now to Malacca for lunch.”

Me: “I’m excited. At last I get to go to Malacca.”

Miranda: “What excites you about Malacca?”

Me: “Not much. I’ve just heard it referred to in novels and histories as ‘the ancient trading port of Malacca.’ This has always intrigued me.”

Miranda: “Anything else?”

Me: “Not really.”

After about a 2-hour drive, we arrived. We ate lunch in a restaurant which featured Baba food. This is a delicious mix of Malay and Chinese food. The Chinese intermarried with the indigenous population to create the Baba culture. When the Chinese migrate to most of the rest of the world they keep to themselves. I wondered why here it was different?

Melaka, as it is now referred to, is a sleepy modern city of about 300,000. It reminded me a lot of Santa Barbara, where we come from. It is about the same population with very little high rise, especially compared to Kuala Lumpur. Like Santa Barbara, it seemed tourist oriented with lots of opportunities to shop.

There were also brightly decorated bicycle-cabs for two, everywhere, and all adorned with artificial flowers. Everyone was very polite and friendly. No one seemed rushed or pushy at all. If anything the Melakans seemed a bit slow paced. Negotiations were very mellow, with the vendors many times taking our lowest bid and sometimes taking even less to be convenient. Quite different from Bangkok.

Saint Paul’s ruins

Our first stop was an out door market, like they have all over the world - from Thailand to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Another shopping opportunity.

Danna: “I’ll drop you off here. Meet me on the other side of the hill in about an hour.”

Not knowing what to expect we strolled around the marketplace and then over the hill. On top of this small rise we were surprised to find Christian ruins, the ruins of St. Paul’s church to be specific.

By this time we had seen the Batu caves, the Chinese temple, and the Muslim mosque, indicating vital thriving communities of Hindus, Chinese, and Moslems in Malaysia. Here we find the bare crumbling walls of an old Catholic Church built over 400 years ago by the Portuguese. No local Christian community has maintained it. Indeed there was no visible European presence here despite the fact that Malacca had been run by European powers continuously for over 400 years, from 1511 to 1958, when liberation was achieved.

I was perplexed. Why was the European influence erased so quickly?


In some ways St. Paul’s ruins resembled the construction of the Catholic missions in California - thick walls, within which to retreat, in case of a local uprising. Set up on a hill - to view the surrounding countryside in case of attack. Not set within the city, but on top. It also reminded me of the Norman castle we saw in Carlisle, England - a fortress with thick walls to withstand an onslaught - no frills - just thick tall walls. But here just the crumbling walls were left.

Antique Street

Danna then dropped us off at the entrance to Antique Street. Another shopping opportunity. At the entrance to this quaint area filled with shops was another representation of my Monkey, this time about double life size.

Amazed I greeted my friend: “Monkey, old friend, what are you doing here?”

Monkey: “I represent the heavy Chinese influence in this city.”

Me: “Chinese? I thought this city was founded by the Portuguese.”

Monkey: “Don’t display your ignorance so blatantly.”

Strolling down the street, my eye was caught by a sign advertising ‘Old Coins’.

“Can’t hurt to check it out.”

Inside a dusty crowded shop were some old gentlemen of unidentifiable nationality - maybe some mix of Chinese, European, and Malay.

Vendor: “Would you like to look at some coins?”

Me: “Sure.”

After I had looked awhile at a big catalogue of coins, I got stuck on a coin that was supposedly minted in the late 1400s.

Vendor: “That’s a coin from the Sultanate.”

Me: “The Sultanate?”

Vendor: “They ruled Malacca but were overthrown by the Portuguese.”

Me: “I thought our guide said this port was set up by the Portuguese.”

Vendor: “First the Sultan, then the Portuguese. Perhaps you would like a coin from each.”

Not seeing anything identifiable on the coin from the Sultanate, and a bit confused because I hadn’t seen anything in the guidebooks, which talked about any Sultanate, I continued to look through his catalogue. Not being a real coin collector, I was just looking for a coin that was pretty with a clearly marked date that wasn’t too expensive - a souvenir from the ancient trading port of Malacca.

Me, thinking to myself: “Ah, Here’s one. It’s attractive and clearly marked. 1792 with a coat of arms on the back. And then on the front it has the initials ‘OVC’. I wonder what they stand for?”

Me, to the vendor: “Is this coin Portuguese?”

Vendor: “No that’s Dutch. They conquered Malacca from the Portuguese.”

Me: “But the British ruled all of Malaysia most of the 20th century.”


Vendor: “Yes, they did. Which coin would you like? Maybe a coin from every era. I can offer you a deal. Maybe 500 ringgits for all four.”

Confused by the exchange rate I was still thinking Thai baht, in which case this would have been about $12, not very expensive. Not bothering to negotiate because the price was so reasonable, I handed him 50 ringgits.

Vendor: “500, not 50.”

Embarrassed I suddenly realized that we were not talking Thai baht, but Malaysian ringgit, in which case the asking price was $120, not $12. I just wanted a souvenir, not an investment. I apologized profusely and backed away.

Not to be denied a sale from an interested customer on a slow day, Vendor: “How much do you have?”

Realizing that I had misplaced a zero, Me: “Just 100 ringgits.”

Vendor: “How about two coins for that. Normally 250. But I have lots of coins; you have money and you want my coins.”

Somewhat befuddled by this time, I settled for the Dutch coin for 50 ringgits although it was listed at 180. I was happy that I had negotiated such a good deal. He was happy that a sale had been made. We had reached an appropriate balance.

But now my interest was piqued. None of the guides had mentioned the sultanate. What was this all about?

When we had returned to the van, Me: “I discovered that Melaka has had many rulers.”

Danna: “Yes, at one point it was the busiest port in the world.”

Me: “This sleepy little backwater used to be ‘the busiest port in the world’?”

Danna: “It was visited by peoples of all nationalities.”

Me: “What happened?”

Danna: “I’m not sure. Time changes everything.”


Me: “Hmmm? The quiet tourist town feel of Melaka certainly belies its past history as the busiest port in the world. How did this sleepy little town become an international port visited by traders, businessmen and sailors of all nationalities? And what happened to transform it back to its present condition? And what about this Sultanate? Why did everyone want to conquer Malacca? I must do some research when I get home.”


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