Malacca, Malaysia: An Ancient Beauty Frozen In Time

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Malacca, Malaysia: An Ancient Beauty Frozen In Time

To tell you the truth, my wife and I have never heard of Malacca until our son announced he was planning to take us there for a visit. “That’s great!” I said, “but… where is Malacca?”

It turned out that Malacca (or Melaka) is a state in Malaysia located in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, adjacent to the Strait of Malacca. It also turned out that when people say they are going to visit Malacca, they are actually referring to its capital, Malacca City.

So we were off – first, to Singapore to meet up with our son and our pregnant daughter-in-law. Then we hopped on a bus to start our great adventure to the ‘Historic State’ and see for ourselves the Unesco World Heritage capital city of Malacca. Locals proudly say: “Melawat Melaka bererti melawati Malaysia” which literally means “Visiting Malacca means visiting Malaysia.” We were about to find out if this is true.

To do:  The trip may take longer than the expected four hours or so depending on the volume of travelers passing through Singapore and Malaysian immigration and co-passengers asking to be dropped off at other exits. So when the bus makes a mandatory stop at a rest area, try a Malaysian snack at one of the food outlets. We suggest the egg tart or the durian puff. Yummy.

Places of interest

Malacca City is a progressive city –  nice roads, tall hotels, spacious malls and vibrant commerce. However, when we got to the city center, we chanced upon its famed heritage site. It’s a long stretch of old structures; preserved for the world to marvel at and for visitors to feel the stories they tell. It’s almost like Earth stopped its constant motion on this part of the world to savor the place. It is an ancient beauty frozen in time.

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Preserved historical landmarks like this tell a lot of stories of Malacca’s colorful past. PIC: VA

There is no prescribed way or schedule to visit the different locations. One gets drawn to each preserved site much like a child gets pulled to each display shelf in a toy store. One moment you’re taking a photograph of an old doorway and your eyes wander to the right to see another photogenic scenery. It is no wonder that this area is becoming a popular location for pre-nuptial photo shoots.

St. Paul’s Hill is a good first destination. We came here while we were fresh and still had a lot of energy. There’s some climbing involved to get to the top, but it’s worth all the steps up the concrete stairs. On top, we found the old St. Paul’s Church (or what’s left of it). It was built as a chapel by a Portuguese nobleman in 1521, which makes it the oldest church not only in Malaysia, but also in Southeast Asia. It is now a historical landmark where you can still see some artifacts in the church interior.

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St. Paul’s Church, built in 1521, is the oldest building in Southeast Asia. PIC: VA

When we stepped outside of what was once the churchyard, we saw a statue of St. Francis Xavier with a missing right hand. It is told that a day after the statue was consecrated in 1952, a large casuarinas tree fell on it and broke off the hand.

The old churchyard area is also a good vantage point to survey most of the city. From there, we could see the other places to visit and were able to plan our tour strategy. Our advice: don’t forget to take pictures. The old church ruin provides a lot of good background for simple selfies and, of course, professional photos.

To do:  Go to the back of the church and use the old brick wall as a backdrop for a picture. Take a romantic shot with your partner. If you’re with friends, take a wacky groupie. If you’re alone, poor you. Might as well strike a pensive pose and take a self-portrait.

Going down a different stairway brought us to other places of interest. The A’Famosa Fort is another Portuguese occupation memorial. It was built in 1511 and is now one of the oldest surviving European architectural wonders in Asia. Technically, the A’Famosa Fort covers a wide area, but today only its gatehouse, Porta de Santiago, continues to survive. Nevertheless, it still lives up to its name – A’Famosa literally means ‘The Famous’ in Portuguese. It remains one of the most iconic structures in Malaysia.

Aside from the gate itself, visitors have fun posing for pictures alongside the centuries-old cannons that flank the gate. One must have the patience to wait for a turn on the gate’s archway a it’s one of those places where visitors must have a mandatory photograph taken. A quick pose, a quick snapshot and off we were to the next stop.

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The old gatehouse is all that remains of the A’Famosa Fort. PIC: VA

From there, we had several choices. A short walk away was the Malacca Sultanate Palace Museum. It is a modern reconstruction of the Palace of the Melaka Sultanate. The museum showcases the history of the region.

Right in front of the Porta de Santiago is the Proclamation of Independence Memorial. This historic spot is where Malaysia’s first Prime Minister announced the country’s impending independence in 1956. The memorial is located in a building previously known as the Malacca Club, a beautiful structure of mixed Malaysian and British architecture. The building is also a museum that recalls the country’s struggle for independence. Around the grounds are two armored cars used during the Emergency and the popular merdeka (or independence) car, a white 1957 Chevrolet.

We ventured towards the river and found several colonial buildings that have survived the different foreign rulers the city has experienced. One such prominent landmark is the Stadthuys. Originally built by the Dutch to house the Dutch governors and officers, it became a focal point of the succeeding governments. Today, it is also a museum. Its bright terracotta-red walls and roof livens up the scenery and ushers visitors into the must-visit Dutch Square.

The Dutch Square is also known as the Red Square because of the red buildings around it. Calling it the Dutch Square is actually a bit of a misnomer.  The historical nature of the structures serves to point to Malacca’s past foreign rulers. The Christ Church was constructed during the Dutch administration. Queen Victoria’s Fountain was built during the British colonization. The Chinese settlers built the Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower. Across the street by the bank of River Melaka, one can see some ruins of a fortress – courtesy of the Portuguese army.

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The Queen Victoria Memorial Fountain is a favorite meet-up place of visitors. PIC: VA

These days, the Red Square is still symbolic of the many races that occupied Malacca. Malaysian tourists and foreign visitors usually converge in the square to snap pictures. It is swamped with people most of the time. It is noisy, but it is a happy kind of noise. We heard several languages being spoken all around – Malay, Chinese, English, Vietnamese, Bahasa, Indian, Tagalog and Korean. We really didn’t understand most of what was being saying, but we knew from their tone that everyone was enjoying the place. The Red Square is also lined with souvenir shops.

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A group of tourists take a river cruise to see Malacca from the back. PIC: VA

If you have trouble walking along the Melaka River, a good alternative is to take the Melaka river cruise. The 9-kilometer ride along the river provides an excellent way to see the sights at a relaxed pace. The local government has put a lot of effort into preserving the structures along the riverbank. The cruise affords riders a colorful view of the brightly painted buildings along the river. The best time to ride is early nighttime when the lights go on.

To do:  Visit the refreshment store at the river bank in front of the clock tower and try the ‘Original’ watermelon drink. They whisk the insides of a fresh watermelon to convert it to a smoothie and you sip your cooler straight out of the fruit itself. Take a video of the guy preparing it: makes for a good travel documentary footage.

Speaking of nighttime, we rushed to the go-to place when dusk came to Malacca. It’s the Jonker Street Walk right after the Tan Kim Seng Bridge. Every Friday and Saturday, the Jonker Street Night Market transforms the stretch into a bustling festival where everything is sold. You can sample tasty street food and fresh fruits, buy cheap (translation: inexpensive) keepsakes, get a blessing from a monk, sing at a karaoke bar, listen to a street folk singer, pick up a change of clothes and shoes and, of course, enjoy a meal with a beer at a sit-down café.

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One cannot separate Jonker Walk from nightlife in Malacca. PIC: VA

Jonker Street Night Market is budget-friendly. Even so, most sellers gladly let us haggle for an item. A warning though if you are enochlophobic: this place gets really crowded. As in crazy crowded. And although the place is reportedly safe, it’s always a good idea to keep your valuables conveniently secured in your person.

To do:  Look for the stall that sells these loooooong ‘French fries’ and try an order. Deep-fried to their brown perfection, lathered with cheese sauce and mayonnaise and sprinkled with bits of dried seaweed, it’s the perfect on-the-go snack good for a hundred people. Well, maybe less.

Parallel to Jonker Street is a street named Hereen. This stretch of road is an important piece in the history of the city. Presently, it hosts countless old houses that have been converted into restaurants, inns, studios, boutiques and a host of other businesses. Upon stepping into the street itself, I felt like I was teleported back into history. The houses have retained much of their original look and I got a feel of how this place must have been decades ago.

Hereen Street used to be the ‘in’ district for the wealthiest families in Malacca in the old days. Back then, it was dubbed “Millionaires Row.” A visit is in order if you want a taste of history seen from the living areas of the then rich and famous. It is also worth visiting if you want a taste of good food – the area is home to some of the finest cafes in the city.

There are many more places of interest you can visit in the heritage area – museums are a-plenty for those who are into them. There are parks and malls within walking distance of the center.

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A colorful trishaw beckons passengers with its popular theme and loud music. PIC: VA

To do:  Take a ride on one of the colorful becas or trishaws that go around the area. Trishaws are bicycles with a sidecar and can seat three adults, driver included. They are all beautifully decorated and equipped with flashing lights and loudspeakers. You can take your pick from different themes (Hello Kitty seems to be more common than others), the music of your choice (from Malay songs to Katy Perry music) and enjoy a 30-minute ride.

Shopping for bargains

Jonker Walk Night Market is for really cheap items, but do not expect to find popular brands there. If you’re looking to buy a lot of souvenirs to give away, this is the place to go.

However, if you want branded items for yourself, duck into one of the many malls in Malacca. If you have time to spare, say half a day, take a cab all the way to Freeport A‘Famosa Outlet Mall in Alor Gajah District, about 40 minutes away. We did have time, so we went.

This mall has around 70 stores that carry famous brands at discounted prices. The mall itself is a joy to explore with its lake, fountains, carousel and a windmill. No matter what time of year you visit, a sale is always happening. If you get hungry, it’s no problem. Food and beverage outlets are all over.

The mall offers a free shuttle service during certain hours.

To do:  On your way there, stop at one of the durian stands along the road right after getting off the main highway and dare try this delicious fruit. If you can’t stand the smell, just snap a quick pic.

Getting there

Here’s a bit of bad news. You can’t take a plane to get there and taking a train isn’t exactly that convenient. If you are a tourist, you’ll probably be coming from Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru or Singapore. The best way to travel is by car if you can get one.  Next would be via a ‘luxury’ bus (high-deckers that seat only 21-25 passengers and usually only ply point-to-point).

If you’re booking a hotel near the heritage center, the luxury buses will normally make a stop at the hotel. Make sure you ask the bus dispatcher about this service. It will save you taxi money.

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A giant rooster welcomes visitors to the freeport mall. PIC: VA

What you should know

There is little problem with communication here. Most residents can speak English. Wi-Fi service is available in most hotels and malls. Credit cards are accepted in major establishments. Check the weather forecast for the dates you are planning to visit – this is a tropical country that gets its share of rains and storms. Popular app-based transport services are also available here.

We stayed for three days and two nights and they were enough for us to really enjoy the place.

Van Alcazar

Van Alcazar

Van Alcazar is a Business and HR Consultant whose work involves travel. He usually travels with his wife, Jean, and they both love to explore interesting destinations and try different food. Van is also a writer and often writes about his travel experiences to help other travelers get the most out of their trips.

1 Comment

  • Erika
    Erika

    I missed Malacca when I visited Malaysia – I’ll have to go back!

    August 25, 2017 at 7:52 pm
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