A Bit of Melaka History
While staying in Kuala Lumpur it is well worth setting aside at least a day (or preferably an overnight trip) to wander down the west coast to pay a visit to Malacca (or Melaka – in Malay). For the sake of a two hour coach journey (train travel isn’t simple to Melaka) you will be greeted by some wonderful sights as well as a refreshing change of pace away from KL city centre.
Melaka has a wonderful and varied history to rival Penang; it also now has UNESCO world heritage status too. During its development from a simple fishing port, it has been ruled first by the Ming Chinese Dynasty, then the Portuguese arrived in the 16th Century and took hold building a walled fortress, the Dutch took hold in the 17th Century and in a fit of pique destroyed much of the Portuguese heritage. They ruled for two centuries until the British added it to their Asian colonial portfolio as a result of some land trading with the Dutch. It remained under British control until the Japanese occupation during WWII. Thereafter, Melaka became part of the Malaysian Union and gained independence in 1963, along with the rest of the Malay states.
The history is worth outlining in brief, because this rich history is what makes Malacca so interesting today. While there is little left of the Dutch and Portuguese buildings, with the exception of some churches and the A Famosa Portuguese gate, the cultural influences of these European conquistadors sre still visible in the houses, food and cultures within the city.
The city is also the centre of Peranakan culture. The Chinese settlers arrived in Malacca to mine, trade and married local brides and adopted many local customs. What you get is a mix of local and Chinese cultures and you will see references to men as Babas and women Nonyas throughout Melaka.
Melaka Day Trip or Tour from Kuala Lumpur
You could see the main sights in Melaka in a day trip from Kuala Lumpur, but you will miss seeing the place at night and this really is half of its charm. There are many tours operating from KL, costing around 190 MYR per person for a day trip. The restoration efforts along the canal and the heritage areas are lit up beautifully in the evening and its worth seeing them by twilight, which you won’t see on a one day tour.
Getting to Melaka from KL is easy
Buses for Melaka leave from the B’spadu Selatan Station, Kuala Lumpur, station a few kilometres out of town. You can get a shuttle bus from the Pudaraya bus terminal near Chinatown for 2 MYR and then the fare from the terminal will cost you around 13MYR ( $4 US) to Melaka. There are quite a few bus companies operating on this route, with varying levels of comfort and prices. Some buses operate a more express service. Buses leave frequently, and as there is plenty of choice, no need to book tickets in advance, just turn up and hop on the next available bus. All the buses terminate in Melaka at the Sentral bus terminal, where you need to catch the local bus into town for 1 MYR. The No 17 bus, drops you off at the main square, which is a short walk if you are staying in the heritage area. Not too far even with a backpack. KL to Melaka town centre will take you just over two and half hours.
Sightseeing in Malacca
There is no shortage of heritage sights and museums to visit in Malacca – here are our highlights. We weren’t in museum moods, as we visited on a Tuesday when some were closed anyhow.
- Cheng Hoon Teng Temple. Claimed to be the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, small but impressive given its age.
- Christ Church – Completed in 1753, another oldest claim….the oldest protestant church in Malaysia. Not very impressive on the inside, and again the ‘no internal photography’ rule grrrr!
- Dutch Square – With beds full of real flowers and trishaws full of plastic ones, this place is the iconic view of Malacca with Christ Church. It is also home to the Beng Swee Clock Tower A ‘Dutchesque’ clock tower built by the British. Stand and watch the trishaw drivers, out kitsch each other with their elaborately decorated transportation.
- Jonker Walk - This is the heritage residential centre of Malacca with its narrow winding streets, stunning (now restored) houses and temples ornately decorated in Chinese and European architectural motifs. Great atmosphere and well worth a slow wander, but watch yourselves down the narrower side streets. The limited lane width does not deter the moto or car drivers from whizzing down these pavement less boulevards.
- Saint Paul’s Church – sat atop the hill (more of a hillock at only about 40 steps up) in the centre of town, originally built in 1521, by the Portuguese and called Nossa Senhora da Annunciada before the Dutch renamed it the more pronounceable St Pauls.
- Stadthuys – built in 1660, is a facsimile of the town hall in Hoorn in the Netherlands, purportedly one of the oldest Dutch buildings in Asia.
Our favourite pastime in Malacca, was wandering down the riverbank which has been developed and paved to allow you to walk the length of the old town from Jonkers (and if you are feeling energetic) up to the Kampung Morten where you will find an original traditional Malay village houses.
The houses along the main part of the riverside have been painted with beautiful murals depicting the different cultures at play in this city. You will also find some very reasonable cafes dotted along the walk to top yourself up with a drink or a snack. We found one serving American breakfast and decided we had to reward them for their ingenuity with our custom.
If you don’t want to walk the whole way up the riverbank, into the East of the city, you can spend around forty minutes on one of the boats that ply the route up and down the river. It’s a great way to see the riverbank on a very hot day without all the exertion. It’s not bad value at 15 MYR each (US $4.50). It will take you all the way up to the monorail station which despite being finished some years ago is still not operational after stranding some passengers 10 metres up on its inaugural journey. If you are lucky on your journey along the river, you will spot some large lizards basking in the sun along the riverbank.
The second touristy thing to do is take the ride up the Menara Taming Sari (360 degree viewing tower) which for 20 MYR (US $6) you get a five minute ride to a height of 110M above Melaka. Yes it’s touristy, and very popular with the locals, it’s also great fun revolving around the city getting an aerial view of some of the old buildings and shop houses below.
We visited the swiftlet birdhouse, which has a rich history and you will be led around the house and told about the swiftlet birds nest soup production techniques. There is a bit of hard sell at the end to have some birds nest soup or buy some other bird nest soup products. They are expensive, but when you see how the nests are cleaned ready for consumption you can see why – it is not known as Asia’s caviar for nothing.
Melaka is a relaxing town (apart from the traffic whose density outweighs its populace) and most things slowly quieten down at around 10pm. You can find a few pleasant bars dotted about the side street off Jonkers walk (Jalan Hang Lekir). We ate in Far East cafe and had some good value local Peranakan food and a few not so good value beers. They are quite pricey here even by Malaysian standards.
There is a very unlikely hero we came across here too his name is Gan Boon Leong and he is the father of bodybuilding in Malaysia. We found at least three statues across town dedicated to him (no doubt there are others). The local hero celebrated his 80th birthday this year, thankfully he no longer competes, but his reputation continues in the local statues and the gym named after him in town. We were told you can sometimes see him outside the gym at around 9pm.
The accommodation here is good value and our recommendation would be to stay in the Jonker street heritage area, so you can absorb the culture while you wander through your ‘tardis’ like heritage Chinese hotel. We stayed at the Baba house hotel and room there cost just $22 per night.