The Melaka (Malacca) Rundown
For many, Malaysia is Malacca (or if you please, Melaka in Malay). To prattle on and extend the comparison, a densely compact pocket of prolific multi-ethnic permutations, rife with honest-to-goodness Peranakan and Baba Nyonya culture and the veritable blood, guts and soul ripples that make the country in Southeast Asia so utterly distinct.
The sensorial smorgasbord (perhaps nasi kandar is the more accurate term) that is Melaka is everywhere and wholly complete. Malacca City forms the undeniable nerve centre of what, for all intents and purposes, is a city-state and, area-wise, covers close to one-fifth of Melaka proper. It is here, in the UNESCO World Heritage heart of the former sultanate, where foreign tourism hits critical mass, as backpackers, well-heeled culture-philes and salivating foodie bloggers jockey for position among the mamak stalls, hawkers and landmarks.
Alas, Melaka’s UNESCO World Heritage Site cachet is shared with George Town, Penang, some 500 km up the coast. Yet what these Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca have in common is inimitable; a twin legacy of frenetic European, Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian merchant activity, going back well over half a millennium, the modern apex of which is a wondrous thing to behold.
Melaka’s Top 10
10. A Famosa looks like little more than a diminutive pile of bricks and mortar but, astonishingly, this former Portuguese fortress is the oldest European structure left in Asia.
5. Kampung Hulu Mosque, on the other hand, is as humble a religious structure as you will find. The oldest mosque in Malaysia was commissioned by the Dutch in 1728.
9. Bukit Cina, or “Chinese Hill”, is just outside Malacca City proper but, as the largest Chinese graveyard outside of China, deserves a tour.
4. Cheng Hoon Teng, in the same vein, is the oldest active temple in the country and a core fixture in Melaka’s UNESCO inscription. The Taoist structure dates back to 1645.
8. Jonker's Walk Night Market is an intrepid grazer’s paradise, with copious traditional treats and snacks to tempt and sate the appetite.
3. Malacca Sultanate Palace Museum reaches back in time to unveil for visitors what life was like in the region under the powerful sway of the sultanate.
7. Chitty Museum demonstrates, in vivid fashion, that Peranakan is not the sole cultural iteration in Melaka. After all, more than 2,000 Chitty, or Tamil descendants, still live here as well.
2. Stadthuys or Red Square, is arguably the most photographed point of interest in Melaka. The mid-17th-century Dutch Governor’s office today serves as the state’s excellent Museum of History and Ethnography.
6. Malacca Straits Mosque, the Masjid Selat Melaka, stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the heritage landmarks in the city-state. Built in 2006, the opulent temple appears to float on water.
1. Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum showcases the vital cultural contributions of the descendants of Chinese immigrants throughout the Colonial era.
- Bukit China – The largest Chinese graveyard, it contains 12,500 graves and 20 Muslim tombs sit on 25 hectares of grass.
- St Paul’s Church – Built in 1521 by a Portuguese captain, visited by St Francis Xavier who is said to have performed miracles there.
- Porta de Santiago – Built as a Portuguese fortress in 1511, it was almost destroyed by the Dutch in 1810.
- Chitty Museum – A tribute to one of Melaka’s oldest communities. The museum is small but contains a nice collection of artefacts.
- 8 Hereen Street – This is a Dutch period home that was built in the 18th century and has been recently renovated.
Melaka Art & Culture
- Baba-Nonya Heritage Museum – A unique museum that has been decorated to looking like a 19th-century Baba-Nonya home.
- Villa Sentosa – This home contains a variety of objects, including Ming dynasty ceramics and a copy of the Quran that is over 100 years old.
- History and Ethnography Museum – Contains recreated displays of historical relics as well as Malay and Chinese art.
- Sultanate Palace – This is a recreation of the 15th-century palace.
- Muzium Rakyat – An interesting museum that has exhibits on a variety of things, including top spinning and mutilation for beauty.
- Jonker’s Walk Night Market – A market where you can purchase local foods and watch a kung fu master display his skills.
- Jin Hang Jebat Antique Shopping – A mix of shops in Chinatown where you can find a variety of antiques.
- Orangutan House – A hip T-shirt shop with designs by local artist Charles Cham.
- Top Spinning Academy – An unusual store that sells spinning tops. The owner will give you a lesson.
- Tile Shop – This store sells small-scale replicas of the European tiles found in the colonial buildings around the city.
Melaka Gay & Lesbian
- Pure Bar – A gay-friendly nightclub that is popular with locals.
- Dutch Harbour Cafe – A GLBT-friendly restaurant that serves Chinese and Western foods.
- Libra – A combination of restaurant and cocktail lounge mostly patronized by women.
- Daniel and Lily’s – A restaurant that serves local foods and desserts. GLBT friendly.
- Samudra Massage – Gay-owned spa for men only.
- Menara Taming Sari – An observation tower where you can get a good view of the city.
- Melaka Wonderland – A theme park designed for children.
- A’Famosa Cowboy Town – A 'Wild, Wild West'-themed park with a cowboy show and rides.
- Melaka Butterfly and Reptile Sanctuary – A small zoo with a few reptiles and butterflies.
- A’Famosa Water World – A nice water park with private pool available.
- Hire a bicycle from Jin Fu Shin and bike around the city.
- Take a jog around Bukit China, the largest Chinese cemetery.
- There are lots of places where you can go mountain or motor biking.
- Go swimming or snorkelling in the Malacca River.
- Take in 18 holes of golf at the local golf centres.
The Historic State or Negeri Bersejarah has well-trodden tourist nodes, to be sure, but the state of Melaka has enough elbow room within 1,600 km ² plus to manoeuvre with aplomb. Notably, Sumatra, Indonesia is just across the water, Singapore a mere 245 km away and Kuala Lumpur a short drive north.
Jasin Distrtict is one of three districts in the state and evinces a lot of the telltale charm of Melaka. Durian, rubber, palm oil and tropical fruits flourish here and the ethnic mix is as rich as anywhere in the region. Gujurati furniture barons vie for attention with Chinese curio dealers, Malay restaurateurs and myriad other tradespeople and shopkeepers.
Alur Gajah, another Melaka state district, is decidedly placid in contrast with Malacca City but has a few tourist draws of note, from a theme park and international golf course to a zoological park and British Colonial Graveyard.
The Historic Centre of Malacca City is, rather understandably, where the dominant concentration of tourists gather to take in what amounts, frankly, to the very best of the state. The UNESCO World Heritage quarter is a significant historic district and hub of centuries-old commercial development. As such, all the requisite architectural landmarks, delightfully multifarious in their composition and culture of origin, remain present to this day. On the European side, attractions like Saint Francis Xavier Church and Victoria Fountain come to the fore. Meanwhile, Sri Poyyatha Temple, Geok Hu Keng Temple and Poh San Teng Temple hint at vastly different traditions. Then, of course, there are the many Malay settlements to consider, from Kampung Kling Mosque to Hang Jebat Mausoleum.
Modern Malacca City shoots off on all sides from the historic pulse point of Melaka and, like other modern urban conurbations in Southeast Asia, has many ups and downs from a travel perspective. There is the undesirable commercial sprawl and other development-at-all-cost lowlights, yes, but gems as well. Tanjung Bidara, for one, is a nice beach area and the suburb cum town of Ayer Keroh is home to a lovely forest park and Zoo Melaka.
Melaka Eat & Drink
Food is one of, if not the, primary lure for prospective Melaka visitors the world over. The comestible attractions in the state are manifest, plentiful and hail from a bewilderingly diverse array of cultural traditions. In toto, they combine to form the bedrock of what makes this part of the world, let alone Malaysia and Southeast Asia, so deliciously special.
Nyonya Makko (123, Taman Melaka Raya, Off Jalan Parameswara),serves up drool-worthy Peranakan fusion classics like Assam fish, Ngoh Hiang and Pong Teh chicken.
Nancy’s Kitchen (15 Jln Hang Lekir) is a convivial Nyonya-centric spot, with oodles of comfort food staples on the menu.
Lao Qian Ice Café (San Shu Gong at Jonker Walk) for typical Melaka-style beverages, namely superb iced milk coffee and durian-flavoured cendol.
Restoran Sek Yow Fook (cornerJln Melaka Raya 3 & Jln Melaka Raya 4 Taman Melaka Raya) has something for everyone, which is a good thing. From congee to English breakfasts, cheap beer to Chinese buffet classics, it’s on the menu here.
Kedai Kopi Chung Wah (18 Jalan Hang Jebat), is a prominent pilgrimage point for Melaka’s most ubiquitous dish, chicken rice balls.
Capitol Satay (41 Lg Bukit China) delivers affordable, soulful nourishment in the form of satay celup, a most iconic dish in Melaka.
Teachew Cuisine (55 Jln Hang Kasturi Chinatown) looks slightly worse for the wear on the outside but, happily, the wow factor is all on the plate, or bowl as it were. Order the soft-shell crab.
Coconut House Studio (128, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), for those in the mood for a Western food break. The star of the show here is wood-fired, thin-crust pizza.
Low Yong Mow (Jln Tokong Chinatown) is a breakfast hub par excellence, where everyone gorges on steamed pork buns and other dim sum fare.
Sajian Ummie Seafood Restaurant (Umbai Floating Seafood Village)is a to die for seafood extravaganza, fresh as fresh can be, some 14 km from Malacca City.
The Malacca International Trade Center in Ayer Keroh opened in 2003 and holds concerts, exhibits, special performances and trade shows throughout the year.
The Malacca Archipelago Drum Festival is held in mid-April and has been a staple on the Melaka events calendar since 1998. In past years, troupes and performers from Malaysia have been joined by drummers from countries as varied as Indonesia, Thailand, Slovakia, South Korea and Uzbekistan.
Malacca Carnival takes over the state and capital city the entire month of August. If you like your festivals colourful, folkloric and traditional, this is the time to visit.
Hari Merdeka, or Independence Day in Malaysia, transforms every August 31 in Melaka into a giant street party. The bonus for tourists is that the annual Melaka Sea Carnival is held on the same day.
Malaysia Fest in mid-September features a lot of big blow out sales at stores and malls across Malacca City but, best of all, a host of food events as well. Melaka Tourism Week in March is eerily similar in nature.
The annual San Pedro Festival in June commemorates Melaka’s Portuguese heritage roots and is exceptional within Southeast Asia.
The Melaka Art & Performance Festival, or MAP, is the new kid on the block but with a diverse, avant-garde multi-disciplinary programme, will hopefully be a city mainstay in the years to come.
When To Go
Sweltering is the appropriate word to describe weather conditions in Melaka. The heat and humidity can be oppressive but, thankfully, does waver in intensity at different times of the year. The same can be said for the rain, which is heaviest from April to November.
As a result, January and February are the most popular and recommended months to visit the city-state. With temperatures holding steady between 73°F (23°C) and 90°F (32°C) for the year, however, the weather is amenable year round. In the end, the question of when to visit Melaka often boils down to how much of the rainy season a person is willing to endure. The fact that precipitation is not nearly as abundant as in other parts of Malaysia is certainly beneficial.
What To Miss
The water and amusement park in Alur Gajah is not necessarily for savvy, culture lovers. The rural sections of the state, in general, pale in comparison to Malacca City’s UNESCO World Heritage glory.
The lustre of Pulau Besar has faded significantly and, as a result, the “resort” island is no longer the coveted day trip it once may have been.
Jonker’s Walk can feel like tourist madness at the height of peak season but is well worth the time and effort, despite the jaded indifference of some. Just make sure to stymie any sneaky pickpockets with wisely-stored valuables.
Curiously, Melaka’s main airport, once known as Batu Berendam but now simply Malacca International, only provides service to Medan and Pekanbaru in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Rail service is shoddy at best in Melaka, with no direct service to Malacca City. Train lovers must stop in Alur Gajah, some 30 km away, on the main Kuala Lumpur-Johor Bahru line.
Bus transport, however, is a solid option, especially from the primary gateways to Melaka, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Transnasional is the most popular and reliable company.
Ferry operators run throughout the day between Malacca City and Dumai and Pekanbaru in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Private cars and taxis are always an option from KL, Johor, Port Dickson and Singapore as well, at various reasonable and unreasonable rates of course.
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