This gorgeous town is just a few hours south of Kuala Lumpur, yet it feels a thousand miles away. Melaka is steeped in history and legend: founded by an exiled Sumatran prince, it was passed from one colonial ruler to the next – the Portuguese, the Dutch then the British, with Chinese trade passing though it throughout the centuries.
All of this has left an indelible mark on Melaka, it is now a UNESCO Heritage Site and there is much to see.
At the heart of Melaka stands the town square, the unmistakable terracotta red buildings of the Dutch era (although, interestingly, the buildings were only painted red by the British in 1911, before that they were less-strikingly white).
St Paul’s Church, originally Her Lady on the Hill during Portuguese times, stands in ruins on the hill above the town square. It was built in the 1500’s but fell into disuse when the Dutch built Christ Church. There are good views from the ruins, and a few cute cats.
The Portuguese fort – A Famosa – suffered heavily during the Dutch invasion, all that remains are a few foundations of the fortress walls and the Porta de Santiago.
The Porta de Santiago is one of Melaka’s most photographed sights yet it wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Sir Stamford Raffles (the founding father of Singapore) who stepped in to save the arch when the British were about to flatten it (to prevent Napoleon getting his mitts on the fort).
Probably, the most touristy thing you can do in Melaka is take a trishaw ride. These bicycle rickshaws line up in front of Christ Church and are magnificently, kitsch-ily bedecked with artificial flowers, flags and cuddly toys, one even advertised free WiFi, I’ve no idea how that worked!
The Melaka River has lovely footpaths running along it either side that are linked by bridges and tourist boats cruise up and down, especially popular in the evening.
We found gorgeous afternoon tea and sandwiches at the wonderful Heeren House, a hotel with an attractive cafe, they even had cheddar cheese! We all went in for cake but ended up satisfying our cheese cravings with sandwiches!
To take a break from the colonial side of Melaka, we visited the Sultanate Palace. This palace is a reconstruction of the Sultanate Palace of the 15th Century and it’s built from wood in the traditional construction method: entirely without nails.
Inside, the Palace is a cultural museum dedicated to the Malay story of Melaka and it is a fine example of pre-colonial Malay architecture.
Like George Town, Penang, much of the focus of Melaka’s tourism is based in Chinatown: the pretty streets, covered walkways, tiles and eclectic shops are a joy to wander around.
During one of our afternoon wanders around Chinatown, we popped into the Library on Jonker Street. What a beautiful surprise!
Inside, the library houses a large collection of Buddhist literature in charming surroundings. A local library regular came over to chat with us, telling us a potted history of Melaka, the British influence in Malay politics and the most honest and thought-provoking description of Buddhist I’ve come across.
He was a fascinating man and we chatted until the library was about to close!
Our guide showed us the main historical sights, telling us the stories and facts behind them. We had to wait ages to set off as we picked a torrentially wet morning to join the tour.
He told us the legendary story of how Melaka was founded (we’d actually already heard it from the guy in the Library):
The Sumatran prince was resting under a tree when his hunting dogs came a cross a mouse deer on the river’s edge. The tiny mouse deer looked done for but it fought back, kicking the dogs and sending them packing.
The exiled prince saw this as a great omen and decided to found a city on the site, naming it Malacca after the tree he was sitting under.
After showing us the historical side to Melaka, he then took us into Chinatown to show us the fading industries of Melaka: the last traditional picture framer, the last manual tin product manufacturer, the last lotus shoe manufacturer.
The tiny lotus flower shoes were exquisite yet the thought of them brought tears to my eyes, there were lots of newspaper cuttings on the wall showing bound feet and the lingering, but dying, fashion for it in Chinese culture.
The walk took a rather exhausting two and a half hours, which was maybe a little longer than it really needed to be. I think it would be better having it split into two separate walks: a heritage walk and a fading industries walk.
On Friday and Saturday evenings, Jonker Street in Chinatown transforms into the brightly lit, vibrant Jonker Street night market. Here you can feast on street food and shop for souvenirs and craft items along with hoards of other tourists.
Now, I don’t normally go into much detail about accommodation but Melaka has to be an exception to that. Ringo’s Foyer Guest House has to be one of the most fun, welcoming places I’ve ever stayed at!
Howard, the owner, is an absolute star. He brings people together like no one else I’ve met, within twenty-minute of checking in we were hopping onto bikes for a free cycling tour to a local food market with a bunch of other backpackers staying at the hostel.
The following night we all rode out to Little India for a feast, then had a scenic tour round Melaka, Howard pointing out some of the more obscure sights.
I have never stayed anywhere where I’ve felt so included and embraced, we loved it so much we chose to spend the last few days of our trip back here, returning to Melaka before flying home from KL.
Ringo’s Foyer Guest House has a couple of girls dorms, the rest being inexpensive privates and is located on Jalan Portugis, a short walk from Jonker St.
Riding bikes around Melaka is one of the best ways to get around, especially in the evening when the traffic has dropped.
Howard’s free cycle tours around the city had us tootling along the river, along to the harbour, around to ‘ Red Square’, along the lantern hung streets of Chinatown, down narrow alleys and over quaint bridges, down Harmony Street with its Hindu temple, Buddhist temple and the pretty Kampung Kling Mosque: the harmonious mix of Malaysia’s three main religions.
It was a wonderful way to travel, our little peloton of fun seeking travellers weaving through the town, tringing our bells.
Riding along the river at night revealed some of the street art painted along a stretch of it.
I’m a sucker for these Malacca Straits towns, be it Penang, Melaka, Singapore; I just love the multicultural blend, the Peranakan culture, the colonial history, the modern blending with the old.
Plus, the food to be found in them is well worth travelling for, Melaka is no exception!
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Have you been to Melaka? What did you love about it?
By Rachel A Davis