Malacca is a delight for the history lovers. Characteristc, brick-coloured Dutch colonial buildings, ruins of churches and fortresses, magnificent merchants’ residences, temples of all denominations, wooden Malay architecture… It takes a few days to take it all in.
Free guided tour
To understand more of Malacca’s past, I joined a 2.5h free guided tour organised by the tourist information centre. I was quite surprised that apart from me there were just 2 other participants.
The tour would have been very interesting on its own but what made it even better was that all my questions were eagerly answered. From the conversations with the guide and other chats with Malaysian people I met over 10 days I could clearly see the ethnic tensions were a big issue in Malaysia.
Dutch Square and around
Dutch Square was the natural starting point of the tour. This small square with a characteristic 18th century red-coloured clock tower, Christ Church (the oldest protestant church in Malaysia) and 17th century Stadthuys or town hall is the most recognisable spot in the city. We didn’t enter Christ Church- I did that later on as the entrance is fee. The town hall was converted into a History and Ethnography Museum.
Bukit St. Paul
The guide led us from the Dutch Square, up the St. Paul Hill to the ruins of St. Paul’s church. It normally costs 5RM to enter but the tour participants were exempted from it. From the top of the hill, we could catch glimpses of the sea while inside the ruins, we could watch old Dutch tomb slates.
From there we moved down to see the Santiago gate- the only remaining part- of the 16th century Portuguese A famosa fortress. Just opposite to the fortress stands a former British club building, now turned into the Independence Museum.
Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum
The replica of 15th century Melaka Sultan’s Palace is just a stone throw away. This elegant building sadly has little to do with reality as the design was based on exaggerated accounts from Malay books.
I paid a visit there on another occassion. Inside, there were a couple of wax figures of the court members and the visiting traders of various nationalities. The ample information on Malay sultanate didn’t seem very objective: all the rulers were depicted wise, just, brave and last but not least pious. Some of the stories (both real and half-legendary) presented were really fascinating so it’s worth to take time to read them.
Along Malacca River
If you have more time, you could also walk to the Malacca River to see the remants of the Dutch Middleburg fortress. Futher down the river towards the sea, past the Maritime Museum housed in a large sailboat, there is a boat jetty and a multi-storied food hall with cheap and tasty Malay buffet meal (including really nice veggie options).
Walking past the Dutch Square along the river in the opposite direction would take you to Church of St. Francis Xavier, a neo-gothic structure in French style. There are lots of cheap Indian eateries in that area.
Even though the guided tour of Malacca focused on its colonial heritage, we did cross the bridge to the China Town and went to the so-called Harmony Street, where a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple and a mosque stand side by side.
We stopped briefly in front of the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple. This colourful, 18th century Hindu temple was built by the Chitty people (Tamils who have adopted Chinese and Malay cultural practices while retaining their Hindu heritage). We also stepped at the courtyard of Kampung Kling Mosque and had an extensive tour of the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia – Cheng Hoon Teng Temple.
The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple was serving Buddhists, Taoists and Confucionists. If not for the guide, I would have never noticed tiny figures of Europeans at the top of the columns at the entrance and other intricate details.
I later visited the Kampung Kling mosque on my own. It looked unlike any mosque I had seen before, with Chinese, European and Malay architecture influences. I had to dress up in a full hijab to enter and I must say it was really hot in this outfit.
Heeren Street and Jonkers Walk
Jalang Hang Jebak, popularly knows as Jonkers Walk is the main touristic artery of old Malacca, cutting through the China Town from Dutch Square and Malacca River to Jalan Kubu Street at the other end. Parallel to it runs Heeren Street, called so as before the Dutch gentlemen used to live there. Later, the wealthy Perenakan Chinese (first wave of Chinese settlers in Malaysia) started building there their splendid residences. One of the grandest residences on the Heeren St is very European looking Chi ancestral mansion.
Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum
As the guided tour concentrated on the colonial history, there was almost no information on Baba-Nyonya community (result of intermarriage between Chinese men and Malay women). Hoping to learn more, I went to the Baba – Nyonya Heritage Museum at the Herren street, housed in the original, 19th century home of Peranakan family.
I had an option to get a printed booklet or a guided tour. I opted for a cheaper version but was glad about my choice when I saw the uninspiring guide rushing people through the rooms. I took my time to walk through the villa. It was beautiful but provided mostly a dry description of the decoration with just a few glimpses into the lives of its inhabitants.
All along Jonkers Walk and Heeren Street you can also find many Chinese Association Houses: a meeting place of the communities coming from particular regions of China.
Other places to see in China Town
China Town’s narrow streets and alleys are worth exploring as there are more interesting buildings scattered around. For example, Kampung Hulu Mosque was built by Chinese Muslims in 1720 which shows in its distinctive Chinese-Malay style.
You can also stumble upon a couple of old tombs belonging to 15th century Malay heros, eg. Hang Jebat’s mausoleum on Jalan Kampung Kuli and Hang Kasturi tomb on Jonkers St.
Kampong Morten – the Malay neighbourhood
The second free tour organised by Malacca’s Tourist Information Centre I was the tour around Kampong Morten – the old Malay district.
Before joining the tour, I almost accidentally arrived at Villa Sentosa. It was open, so I went in and stumbled across and elderly Malay man and two Amerian tourists. The man urged me to stay for a couple of minutes and see the villa belonging to his family. At the end of the tour we were asked for a voluntary donation.
At the fountain- the meeting point of the tour-I met our guide and a young couple. Unlike with the city tour, this time the focus wasn’t on history but on everyday life.
We entered someone’s garden and tasted local herbs, looked at the models of traditional houses made by a local craftsman and visited a still inhabited historical house.
Chitty Village – the Indian neighbourhood
It was a 2km walk from Jonkers Street, partially through a busy road, to the Chitty village– an old South Indian community. There wasn’t much to see there, apart from a few wooden houses and Indian temples. However, the sight of Malay flags together with Happy Dippavali signs, garlands or swastikas alone was worth a walk.
I also walked for around 1-1.5 km from the Dutch Square east to Bukit Cina, the largest and oldest Chinese graveyard outside of China. Just in front of the cemetery there was a small Poh San Teng Temple where I read some information about the old graves. Unfortunately, I struggled to find the entrance to the cemetery. I saw a sign saying: ‘Private property. Entrance at your own risk’ which scared me off. Apparently, there is a very nice view from the top of the hill if you do manage to get in.
Malacca by night
The Dutch square, the neighbouring streets and the riverfront are all beautifully illuminated at night.The tourist thrishaws congragating in front of the church are probably the most tacky vehicles I’d seen in my life. They’re all decorated in hello kitty, superman and the similar designs, play very loud pop and dance music (Western, Indian or Chinese, depending on the clientele) and at night are brighly illuminated.
How to get to Melacca?
There is a small airport in Melacca serving some budget flights from Kota Bahru in Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). It makes more sense to fly to Kuala Lumpur and take a direct bus from the KLIA to Malacca (just 2.5h)
There are direct buses (3-3.5h) from Singapore’s City Plaza to Melaka Sentral. However, it’s cheaper to take a bus from Queen St to Johor Bahru Larkin terminal and take another bus from there (3h).
From Kuala Lumpur:
Take LRT Petaling line to Bersepadu Selatan terminal. Buses to Melacca depart quite often and journey is just around 2h.
Prices [in Malaysian ringit as of September 2018]
15.40 bus Johor Bahru to Melaka Sentral
15 ticket to Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum
11 dorm at the cheapest hostel
10 bus Melaka Sentral to Kuala Lumpur
6.5 buffet lunch at Melaka Sentral station
6 swimming pool with a locker service
5 entrance to the Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum
4-5 meal at a vegetarian restaurant in the old town
2 city bus from bus station to the old town
2 cendol dessert at the local market