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As a travel journalist, I’m used to traveling according to a strict schedule. The majority of my press trips follow the same pace — hurried and packed. My days on the road are usually calculated by the hour (or quarter-hour) and planned, in minute detail, from sun up to sun down. It’s an ideal way to see the most of a destination in a short amount of time, but certainly not the best way to really get to know a place, or to interact with the people you meet along the way.
So, when I had a chance to take a vacation earlier this month to Melaka, Malaysia, I was both enthused and slightly befuddled; I didn’t quite know what to do with my time. Lucky for me, I was traveling with my cousin Christina and her boyfriend, Coco, who have lived in Melaka for months at a time these past few years as they’ve traveled throughout Asia and helped to build the Old Town Guesthouse where I stayed.
Aware of my predisposition for trying out new and exotic foods, they decided to construct a laid-back itinerary for me that revolved entirely around local cuisine, from breakfasts of piping-hot roti canai (flat bread served with curry) to lunches of savory laksa (spicy Peranakan noodle soup) and dinners of chicken rice balls.
Needless to say, I gladly stepped up to the plate when it came to my unhurried — and rather gluttonous — travel schedule. It was also in Melaka where I had one of my most memorable and unexpected travel experiences.
On my last full day in Melaka, after enjoying my newfound favorite noodle dish, char kway teow, we decided to take a long stroll along the Melaka River headed toward The Majestic Malacca hotel. On a whim, Coco suggested that we cross a bridge near Kampong Morten. Once we did, we found ourselves on an island that seemed to be filled with traditional Malay houses, a village, or kampong, of red-roofed houses that seemed to be from another era.
Before us was one of those houses, with a huge sign in the front that read “Villa Sentosa: The Malay Living Museum.” Curious to find out more about this living museum, we cautiously walked through its gates, only to hear a booming “Selamat datang” (“welcome” in Malay) as we neared the main door.
There, we were greeted by Abdul Rahim Haji Hashim. Dressed in his navy-blue batik-print shirt and grinning from ear to ear, he eagerly welcomed us into his house and immediately, we felt at home. You see, Villa Sentosa isn’t exactly a museum, per se. Rather, this carefully preserved house, which dates back to the early 1920s during the British occupation of Melaka, is the personal home of Abdul and his family who have lived here for more than three generations.
Removing our shoes, we stepped inside the atrium, which was flooded with light. Abdul gathered us together, pointing to a wall filled with newspaper clippings about the house and its vibrant history. As Abdul began to talk, I couldn’t believe our good fortune: having literally stumbled onto Villa Sentosa and being able to have such a personal, one-on-one experience with someone so intimately connected to the history of Melaka, a city with its own unique story to tell, too.
In 2008, the old town of Melaka was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for good reason. It’s a charming port city located in the heart of the Malaysian state of Malacca, approximately a three-hour drive north of Singapore. During my stay in Melaka, there were droves of tourists, the majority of which were from neighboring Southeast Asian countries. However, I have no doubt that, within the next few years, tourists from the West, including the U.S., will soon be headed there, especially with so many hotels and resorts currently under construction.
Throughout Melaka’s history, the city has been home to a mixture of different cultures, from the Portuguese, Dutch and British to Malay, Chinese, Peranakan and Indian. What’s more, you can see all of these influences at work, even today. At one moment, you might be strolling through the shop houses of Chinatown’s Jonker Street and, crossing a bridge, you’ll find yourself at Melaka’s famed terra-cotta colored Dutch Square, home to the city’s iconic Christ Church.
The Villa Sentosa, in particular, is a prime example of traditional Malay architecture. It’s one of the few kampong houses that still exist in the heart of old Melaka and, even better, you and your clients can tour it with Abdul or one of his siblings on any given day.
During our personal tour, Abdul showed us some of his most prized family treasures, from portraits of his father and grandfather to an exquisite collection of his mother’s shoes. For a 77-year-old man, Abdul was alert and very spry. Throughout our time with him, he chatted enthusiastically with us, getting to know us personally and telling us about the history, culture and architecture that we were seeing firsthand. We posed for pictures where foreign dignitaries and tourism officials had previously sat — on thrones, no less. Later, we signed one of his many guestbooks, just as past guests to Villa Sentosa — Sir Winston Churchill included — had done before.
After I wrote a brief message in his guestbook, Abdul took a closer look at my handwriting, squinting his eyes to read the tiny script I’d left behind.
“I can analyze handwriting, you know,” he told me.
“Really?” I asked. “What does my handwriting tell you about me?”
“Hmmm,” he said. “You’re very organized. You’re very careful. You like to follow plans.”
He paused and then said, “And when you have money, you like to spend it freely but, somehow, it always comes back to you in the end.”
A tour I had expected; an eerily accurate psychoanalysis via handwriting I had not. But what Abdul had told me really stuck with me: I certainly am the kind of person who likes to do things according to plan, who secretly likes following the carefully measured itineraries and schedules set before me, and without hesitation.
Yet here I was, having made an unexpected detour, and overwhelmingly joyful that I did.
Earlier, we had a chance to make a wish and beat the gong in Abdul’s living room, all in the hopes of making our individual wishes come true. I’m not going to divulge exactly what I wished for (otherwise, it might not come true) but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not something I had planned.
A collection of Abdul’s mother’s shoes is on display at the house. // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Coco examined one of Abdul’s many guestbooks in the living room parlor. // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Christina beats the gong to make her wish come true. // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Villa Sentosa138 Kampong MortenMelaka, Malaysia 75300www.travel.to/villasentosa
Visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the week, except Friday. Friday visiting hours are from 2:45 to 5 p.m. Admission is free but donations are welcome.
Where to StayThe Majestic Malaccawww.majesticmalacca.com
Old Town Guesthousewww.melakaguesthouse.com