Somewhere in the antipodes of my mind, Malacca existed before I even knew its name. I know this because it is a city of dreams: rich history, yesterworld architecture, airbrushed murals, exotic smells and textures, sun-bright colors, and spiritually diverse people creating and living together in peace.
I literally stumbled upon the reality of this dream. While searching the net for interesting places to go in Malaysia, I came across the word Malacca (spelled Melaka in Malay.) I read it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and without further research, I immediately booked a bus ticket from Penang (also a UNESCO Site), the first city I crossed into when coming from Thailand. I had no idea what arresting beauty awaited me.
After I arrived and checked into a guesthouse, I took a stroll through the old town area. I was immediately mesmerized by its winding narrow streets of kaleidoscope color and Indian music blasting from the many lemon-yellow rickshaws (known locally as a beca) pedaling along the canal. Local Malay girls, heads wrapped in colorful Muslim headdress, sat chatting in the shade of an old Dutch Protestant church, deep red in the sunlight. I couldn’t help but smile, for the comfort I felt in the surroundings was tranquil and dare I say, as a lone traveler, romantic.
Malacca is a city continually shaped by its historical past. It was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1511, then conquered by the Dutch in 1641, handed over to the British East India Company in 1824, captured by the Japanese during WWII, reclaimed by the British after the war, and finally in 1957 gained independence along with the rest of Malaysia. Also interesting is the huge Chinese influence and population, which was first spread here by the famous Chinese maritime explorer Zheng He, who used Malacca as a central trading, diplomatic hub and restocking port during his seven epic voyages.
You can feel the deep weight of its past as you wander the streets. Cross the canal and you’re in a Chinatown of antiquities, walk 30 meters across another bridge and you’re in spice-flavored Little India, go further and the fragrance of satay and Halal Malay food fills your head as Muslim prayer chants echo long mystery out of a Mosque tower loudspeaker: a fluttering dream of Asia condensed, a little city where people enjoy the bursting colors of art and culture.
The harmony of diverse spirituality and culture is like none I’ve ever seen. This is what left the biggest impression on me. In a world where everyday violence and hatred of “the others” is continually perpetuated, Malacca seems to be a shining gem in a quarry of coal: a model of the humanistic potential to set aside our differences and realize the old anecdote of existence, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Leaving Malacca, I woke up from my dream realizing there’s a place in everyone’s mind that exists in reality. You just don’t know until you find it.