MODERN Malaysian history began in Malacca nearly 600 years ago when an exiled prince from Sumatra sought refuge in a tiny orang laut fishing village and decreed that a city be built. Prince Parameswara could not have chosen a better location. The village was blessed with a natural harbour but, more importantly, the Straits of Malacca was a strategic crossroads on the trade route between India, China and the Indonesian 'Spice Islands'. Malacca boomed as a centre of Far Eastern commerce controlling the legendary spice route, while Hong Kong was just a sparsely populated rocky outcrop. Early sultans adopted a laissez-faire attitude to trade possibly long before the phrase was invented. In the Far East's greatest commercial emporiums, traders grew enormously rich, exchanging Chinese silk, ceramics and tea, Malaysian tin and Japanese gold as well as highly prized cloves, nutmeg, sandalwood and mace which fetched small fortunes in Europe. They were heady days - and today for an entrance fee of just $30 the visitor can still catch a glimpse of them at Southeast Asia's first 'Light and Sound Spectacular' presented at 10.30 pm every day at Padang Pahlawan. Employing multicoloured lights of changing intensity synchronised with a sound track based on the city's dramatic story, this Son et Lumiere spectacular relives Malacca's historical events and is a priceless introduction to one of the world's most fascinating cities. The trade boom, of course, was doomed - as evidenced by the simple fact that Malacca is now a gentile backwater, a city which has had its day and is now struggling to catch up with the modern world without losing its link to the past. Thriving commerce brought with it envy and religious conflict. Prince Parameswara faced Thai and Indonesian attacks and fled. The Portuguese invaded in 1511 with 18 ships and 800 soldiers to break a stranglehold that Arab traders maintained on the lucrative spice trade. Locals eventually abandoned the city and the rot set in. Next came the Dutch, who invaded after a five-month siege that left the city in ruins, only to abandon it not long afterwards. Finally, the English East India Company took charge, in 1824, although, by that time, the harbour had silted up and Malacca was left in the shadow of Singapore. Malacca's history can be summed up by six centuries of colonisation and conflict, although, ironically, it is mementos of this turbulent past which are the lifeblood of the city's tourist industry today. The few historical monuments that survived this tumultuous past are lovingly preserved and constantly restored. The charming town is filled with architectural relics too big to be housed in a museum. Every street and every monument has a story to tell of conquest or valour, avarice and victory. In this window to the history of the spice trade, start where it all began with Prince Parameswara. In 1459, the Emperor of China granted him official Chinese protection and sealed the alliance by sending his daughter, Princess Hang Li Poh (together with an entourage of 500 ladies-in-waiting), to marry a local sultan. Her residence was Bukit China, or China Hill, which survives today as the largest Chinese graveyard outside the mainland with 12,000 graves dating to the Ming Dynasty. Chinese influences continue today with the Auyin Hill Resort, constructed faithfully on the principles of feng shui. A fascinating garden based on Chinese mythology and legends, the pavilions and gateways are all constructed and positioned according to the principles of geomancy. Of course, forts were a necessity in Malacca, although they are in ruins now. The Portuguese built Porto De Santiago and the Dutch Fort stands 49 kilometres outside the town. The Indian Temple is one of the oldest in Malaysia. Meanwhile, even the social history of colonialists from a bygone era is found in Malacca's ancient walls. The Stadthuys, once the residence of Dutch governors, stands as a reminder to Amsterdam's temporary incumbence. The British, in typical fashion, put most architectural effort into the Malacca Club, which is now the Memorial Hall museum to Malaysia's Independence.