Malacca, Malaysia

Selamat Datang! – the first words which greet you on arrival in Malaysia.

Jo Drake, 1999

Narrow streets are typical of Malacca.

Malacca is the most historically important place in Malaysia.

Malacca’s location, mid way between China and India, with easy access

to the spice islands of Indonesia, made it an important and coveted

port for centuries. It is a popular place to visit, with tourists and

locals alike.

Historical Timeline

  • 1398 – Parameswara, a Hindu Prince from Sumatra arrives in Melaka,

    which soon becomes a thriving port.

  • 1405 – Admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Melaka offering China’s friendship and protection from the Siamese. Early immigrants from China known as Babas and Nyonyas or Straits Chinese.

  • 1400’s – Islam made state religion, importance as port increases

    attracting Muslim traders, Islam spread to Indonesia.

  • 1511 – Portuguese took the city, present sultan fled to Johor.

    Portuguese built A’Famosa, attracted missionaries like Frances Xavier

    who spread the Catholic word.

  • 1641 – Dutch attacked and took the city, built many public buildings. However, less emphasis was placed on Melaka as a port as the Dutch favoured ports in Indonesia.

  • 1795 – During French occupation of Holland, the British temporarily took over Melaka, eventually gaining permanent ownership in 1824.

  • 1824 – Melaka, Penang and Singapore formed the British Straits

    Settlements; Melaka was seen as less important.

  • 15th August, 1957 – Malaysia becomes independent from Britain. Merdeka!

    Food

    Like Penang, Malacca is famed throughout Malaysia for the uniqueness

    of its food. Malacca is home to Baba Nyonya cooking, the cuisine

    invented by the Straits Chinese under the influence of Malay

    ingredients.

    The Laksa served in Malacca is a common example, quite different to the equally famous Assam Laksa of Penang. Unlike the sour tamarind flavoured Penang soup, Malacca Laksa is coconut based. The presence of the Portuguese has also developed some unique dishes, mainly seafood based. Medan Portugis is a good place to try the Portuguese influenced seafood.

    The street leading into the historical district, Jalan Laksamana, has

    a variety of cafes including the aptly named loony planet (!). These

    cafes are aimed at tourists, and serve variations on the local food

    as well as sandwiches and Western style breakfasts.

    If you are looking for vegetarian food, you will find options on most

    menus. There are also plenty of south Indian places where you are

    guaranteed to find a cheap vegetarian meal. On Jalan Hang Jebat,

    formerly known as Jonkers street, one of the antique stores (number

    88) has a vegetarian cafe out the back. This cafe provides a daily

    set meal, of traditional dishes, which is excellent value at 3RM each.

    Colonial Buildings

    Most of Malacca’s historical buildings are within easy walking

    distance of each other. The heritage trail maps are available from

    the tourism office, or your guesthouse, but it is easy to find your

    way around, and each building has a sign in both English and Malay

    explaining its significance.

    The town square is perhaps the most photographed place in Malacca. Very European looking with a clock tower and fountain, and the grand town hall in the background. Gaudy trishaws draped with tinsel cruise around the square, and tourists point cameras in all directions.

    The Dutch built the Stadthuys during the 1600’s as a town hall. Thought to be the largest Dutch building in Asia, it now houses a museum. The Stadthuys is easily recognized by its red colour, a theme repeated throughout the “historical area”, although the Stadthuys was originally white.

    Nearby Christ Church was also built by the Dutch; the bright red

    bricks were actually imported from Holland. The church was converted

    for Anglican use by the British and is still in use today.

    Nathan Donaldson, 1999

    St. Frances poses for the cameras in front of St Paul’s Church.

    Steps lead up Bukit St. Paul to the remains of St. Paul’s Church. The

    Portuguese built this church in 1521, adding further renovations

    throughout the 1500’s. At the front is a statue of St. Frances Xavier,

    a missionary who was entombed briefly here before being taken to Goa

    in India after his death 400 years ago. When the Dutch took over

    Melaka they renamed the church; which was originally called “Our Lady

    of the Hill”. After the completion of Christ Church, the Dutch

    eventually abandoned St. Paul’s. When the British had their turn in

    Melaka they destroyed part of the tower, built a lighthouse in front

    and apparently used the church to store ammunition!

    Nathan Donaldson, 1999

    Christ Church must be Malacca’s most photographed landmark!

    The ruined church is a peaceful place, apart from the hordes of

    tourists and trinket hawkers; perhaps the answer is to visit early in

    the morning. I was intrigued by the diversity of the visitors,

    Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists alike all wander around

    appreciating what is or was obviously a sacred space to those of the

    Catholic faith. Perhaps people of other religions find it acceptable

    to visit because the church is in ruins and no longer an active place

    of worship. The old tombstones are interesting; many of them bear the

    skull and crossbones motif, which seemed rather macabre to us,

    tending to see this as a symbol of either pirates or poison!

    Down the other side of the hill are the only remains of the original

    Portuguese fort, A’Famosa. The fort was constructed in 1512 and after

    the Dutch invasion it was badly damaged and rebuilt. The British

    destroyed all except the Porta de Santiago, or southern gate, which

    is all that remains.

    Every night at 9.30pm (English version) there is a sound and light

    show held near the Porta de Santiago, which illuminates the buildings

    to tell of their history. Admission is 5RM for adults.

    Churches, Temples and Mosques

    Malacca has many more interesting and old churches, notably St.

    Peter’s and St. Frances Xavier. I assume Malacca has a more active

    Christian (predominately Catholic) community than elsewhere in

    Malaysia, and festivals such as Easter would be an interesting time

    to visit.

    There are many Chinese temples around China town including Cheng Hoon

    Teng’s temple, which is the oldest in Malaysia, dating back to 1646.

    There is also a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vinayagar (an

    aspect of Ganesh) that was built at the turn of the century.

    The mosques of Malacca are also old and their architecture is quite

    unique, with evidence of a Sumatran influence. Instead of the

    familiar dome seen on most mosques, they feature tiered roofs.

    Bukit China

    Apparently the largest Chinese graveyard outside of China is located

    on Bukit China (China Hill). The graves are large and ornamental, in

    various states of neglect and while some are supposed to date back to

    the Ming Dynasty, some are fairly recent looking.

    The area itself is pleasant with many trees and birds, and it is quite fascinating to wander around, but bring insect repellent!! Hordes of virulent mosquitoes chased us back down the hill!!

    At the foot of Bukit China is the Hang Li Poh well. This well was built in the 15th Century and was the major source of water for Melaka. The well was poisoned tactically by various invaders over the years and these days the water is permanently undrinkable. The idea that a drink from the well will ensure a return to Malacca has been replaced by the Trevi fountain custom of tossing coins in the water.

    Jalan Hang Jebat (Jonkers street)

    This famous street is a fascinating place to wander, whether or not

    you are looking for souvenirs. Once called Jonkers or Junk Street,

    the area is home to many antique stores and galleries. Old Peranakan

    buildings and fantastic architecture help to make it even more

    photogenic and interesting. Even if you are not intending to buy

    anything, most of the shopkeepers are happy to show you around and

    tell you about their shop, some even inviting you to take photos if

    you wish.

    One well known shop (see the lonely planet) sells beautiful

    handcrafted slippers, and also shoes for bound feet. The man who

    makes these shoes is keen to tell people all about them, and he has a

    scrapbook full of newspaper articles and some graphic illustrations

    of bound feet.

    Euphemistically referred to as the “Golden Lotus” the brutal practice of foot binding was mainly carried out on upper class Chinese women and concubines. The practice has thankfully died out, and the shop now sells the shoes as souvenirs. The last woman to have had bound feet died not so long ago in Melaka and the tiny doll shoes that I held in my hand were made especially for her.

    A more modern gallery and shop is the Orangutan house, a cool place,

    cheerfully bright orange with jazz on the stereo. For sale are

    paintings and T-shirts by local artist Charles Cham. The t-shirts appeal to tourists and are also worn by heaps of Malaysians; at only 20RM they are a great souvenir.

    Nathan Donaldson, 1999

    Watch out for overgrown monitor lizards in the river!

    Getting There from KL

    Buses go regularly from Pudu Raya and cost 7RM each way. As Malacca

    is only 2½-3 hours away it is possible to visit as a day trip from KL if you are short on time.

    Malacca is a popular weekend destination from KL, if you are travelling during a weekend you will need to book your bus ticket in advance. Especially if you are travelling from Malacca back to KL.

    Accommodation

    The majority of the backpackers are found in the area around Jalan

    Taman Melaka Raya (TMR). If you don’t have an idea of where you are

    staying, touts will meet your bus. We were surprised to find them

    quite helpful, giving us directions even when we said we were headed

    elsewhere.

    There are many old Peranakan mansions around Malacca, in various

    states of restoration or decay. Several of them provide accommodation; mostly they are more upmarket places, which have fully renovated rooms and antique furnishings.

    For those on a budget, Eastern Heritage may be a compromise. Located on Jalan Bukit China, this guesthouse occupies an old Melaka house that dates back to 1918. Although it is slightly run down, it has lots of character with original ornamentation, tiling and carved paneling. The rooms are mostly typical guesthouse rooms, freshly painted in a pseudo art deco style.

    An unusual feature were the small square holes with removable plugs in the floors of the upstairs rooms, enabling you to spy on what was going on downstairs.

    Helpful Links

    Malay Tourism

    Visit Malaysia

    Malaysia Directory

    Lonely Planet

    The Author

    I am a Kiwi currently living in Petaling Jaya, a satellite city of Kuala Lumpur. After travelling through South East Asia earlier in the year, my partner and I have returned to live and work in Malaysia.

    We believe that living in another country will provide a different, new and exciting set of challenges. Also we look forward to opportunities for further travel and exploration.

    Apart from travel my main interests include; Art, Wildlife/ Conservation and Eastern religions/ traditions. So don’t be surprised if I focus on these subjects!

    I am currently living in my tevas (it’s too hot for boots here!) and suffering from the curse of Cinderella’s step sisters.

    At intervals I am lured into shoe stores with their tempting arrays of shiny, fashionable and ridiculously cheap shoes, to undergo a kind of consumer torture.

    At the urging of eternally optimistic saleswomen, I attempt to squeeze into shoes which are inevitably two sizes too small!

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