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The startling spirit of Malacca, Malaysia

Malacca, Malaysia: Just when you think you're ready to write off the Malaysian town of Malacca as a tourist trap, something wonderful and surprising happens.

November 27, 2011|Susan Spano, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kampung Kling Mosque, built in the 18th century with a pagoda-like minaret, is blocks away from a Chinese Buddhist shrine and Hindu temple in old Malacca.
Kampung Kling Mosque, built in the 18th century with a pagoda-like minaret,… (Susan Spano )

Reporting from Malacca, Malaysia — What traveler hasn't landed in a dreamed-of destination and found it crawling with tourists, fast-food franchises, name-brand stores and dollar-a-beer bars? The good bones of Charleston, S.C., which made the World Monuments Fund's list of imperiled cultural sites this year because of cruise ship congestion, may be intact, but when commercial tourism runs amok you've got yourself a tourist trap.

Since 1972, the UNESCO World Heritage program has kept its own list, now 936 properties strong, of cultural and natural sites important to mankind, most of them in some way endangered or underdeveloped. But along with focusing attention and support on listed properties, inscription spurs visitation, with ill-conceived tourist development often in its path.

I found a case in point last year: Malacca, inscribed with its sister city George Town on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, by UNESCO in July 2008. Founded by a Hindu prince who traveled on an elephant and converted to Islam in 1409, the Malacca Sultanate became the crossroads of Asia, passing from hand to hand like a magic lamp.

PHOTOS: Malacca, Malaysia

In 1511, a fleet of Portuguese swashbucklers defeated the sultan to corner the spice trade. Then Dutch East India Co. merchants right out of a Vermeer painting stole it from the Portuguese, governing from a stadhuis, or town hall, that still looks as stalwart as any on the continent.

The English who followed developed Singapore at the former sultanate's expense, almost tearing down A'Famosa, a Portuguese-era gate thought to be the oldest vestige of colonial Europe in Asia.

Malaysia declared independence from Britain in 1957, hoisting its flag from A'Famosa, but after that Kuala Lumpur became the nation's capital and the cavalcade passed by. When the dust settled, the old crossroads of Asia was a curio.

To me it seemed the most exotic place on Earth, so I made it my first stop last fall on a month-long trip to Southeast Asia.

I realize now that I was expecting the Charlie Chan movie version of Malacca, with opium dens, purloined objets d'art, veiled concubines and spy rings. What I found was the Colonial Williamsburg of Southeast Asia, mobbed by weekenders from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur come to snap pictures under A'Famosa, not to be confused with A'Famosa Water World Resort just outside of town.

If I hadn't been so surprised by Malacca's latest incarnation, I'd have been disappointed. But having my expectations confounded is part of the reason I travel. And they were from the moment I landed in Kuala Lumpur and caught a cab to Malacca for about $60 — an eye-opening ride down the superhighway that links KL, as Kuala Lumpur is called, to Singapore, just beyond the tip of the peninsula, in less than 200 miles.

When we reached Malacca the taxi deposited me at the Hotel Puri on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, also known as Heeren Street for the Dutch settlers who lined it with snug, gabled row houses, and then Millionaires Row when it became the envied abode of rich Strait-born Chinese — progeny of Chinese immigrants to the region — who decorated the façades with lanterns and traditional see-through tile windows. Made up of several conjoined residences, the Puri has modern air-conditioned rooms above a courtyard restaurant, a heliconia garden and a fish pond. Endearing little swifts squeaked from cool, dark cubbyholes around the rafters where they built nests made of their saliva, a Chinese soup delicacy commercially produced in abandoned houses around town.

In the steamy heat I studied a map, turning it one way and then another, unable to get my bearings. I knew that the town grew up along a lazy, winding river that drains into the ocean. But no matter where I looked, I couldn't see the Strait of Malacca.

So I set off to find it, walking through deserted weekday afternoon streets until I ran into the river. The old bridge that crosses it leads to the Dutch town square and St. Paul's Hill, surrounded by a massive fort built in the Portuguese era. But I obstinately turned away from these landmarks and kept following the river west. I must have walked for almost an hour before realizing that the wide flatland I was crossing was reclaimed from the sea, meaning that historic Malacca is no longer on the Strait of Malacca.

Along with coastal reconfiguration, high-rise hotels, housing developments, a revolving tower, food courts and shopping malls have transformed the cityscape. In 2000 Jonker Walk, a weekend street fair in the architecturally sensitive commercial district north of the river known as Chinatown, was added to the town's tourist attractions, drawing crowds of partyers from the big urban centers of KL and Singapore.

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