For centuries Melaka was one of the most sought after ports in Asia. A hub on the spice-route, it attracted a succession of merchants and colonial powers, including Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English. The architecture they left recently resulted in World Heritage listing. Visitors can take in the sites on a half-day walking tour.
Start your heritage walk at the imposing auburn-red complex that the Dutch built in 1650 to house their colonial governors is the unofficial heart of Melaka. Originally white- and built with bricks shipped from the Netherlands- the striking buildings were apparently painted red to match the Christ Church in the same compound, but locals say it was to disclose the stain of betel-nut spat onto the walls. Each day busloads of tourists flock to have their pictures taken in front of the old cannons and wander through the Melaka History and Ethnography Museum (9 am- 5 pm weekdays, 9 pm weekends; $1.50), with its impressive collection of Arabian ceramics salvaged from the surrounding waters, and upstairs, a provocative analysis of colonial mêlée and other misbehaviors. While there, don’t miss the Queen Victoria fountain, a gift from the local Chinese population to the British throne for favoring them during the days of British rule.
St. Paul’s Hill
Next, climb up to the top of St Paul’s Hill, a knoll scattered with the crumbling ruins of St. Paul’s church, a Portuguese chapel built in 1521 by Duarte Coelho to thank the heavens for his ship’s lucky escape from pirates operating in the South China Sea. Commanding sweeping views over the coastline, this fortified hill once graced two palaces, a castle, Council meeting rooms and five churches within its cannon-strength walls. All were razed by Dutch and British hostilities, leaving only the front gate- and apparently a network of secret underground tunnels. Crumbling, rickety and shaded by Amazonian Rain Trees, it’s a favorite spot for local teenagers to watch the sun set.
Clamber down the hill to A’famosa, the original fort gate and a string of museums. On your left is the Melaka Sultanate Palace (Bandar Hilir, +60 62827464; open 9-5:30 daily, $0.60), a replica of Sultan Mansur Shah’s palace, the last ruler of Melaka, whose rein stretched from Sumatra and Borneo during the 15th century. Swoop back along the bottom of the hill to a whole string of museums, including the quirky Museum of Enduring Beauty (Level 2, People’s Museum, Kompleks Warisan Melaka; +60 62826526; open 9-5:30 daily, $0.60). This has documented the meaning of beauty according to different cultures, including the odd and somewhat gruesome lengths taken by some women- bound feet, mass piercings, coiled necks- to look more attractive.
Cross the canal and stroll down Melaka’s most famous strip, Jalan Hang (better known as Jonker Street), which has undergone a small renaissance in recent years. It’s famed for its fine collection of Sino-Portuguese shop-fronts, many of which have been restored into shops, galleries and cafes. Browse for old lamps, gramophones and hand painted floor tiles at Syarikat Abdul’s superb collection of dusty antiques (26 Jonker Street; +62 823633; www.syarikat-abdul.com), or perch on a stool with a fresh mango lassie at Limau Limau (49 Jalan Hang, +62 126984917, lunch for two $15) and watch the passing parade. If you’re in Melaka on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening, head to Jonker Street’s bustling market (from 6 pm). Alongside cheap souvenirs, there is a range of local delicacies to sample, like pumpkin and radish cake served with a feisty chili-sambal.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
Built in 1673, Cheng Hoong Teng Temple (25 Temple Street, www.chenghoonteng.org.my) is the oldest Chinese temple on the Malay Peninsula and is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. Legend says that it wasn’t until after a sacred stone tablet was laid into the foundations of the temple that Chinese commerce in Melaka flourished. Note the tribe of phoenixes, dragons and lions guarding the temple and trace the adventures of Lao Tzu painted on its walls. Restored according to traditional techniques, the temple recently picked up a Unesco Asian Pacific award for conservation.
A blend of Fujian and Portuguese cooking styles with Malay and Indonesian spices, Malacca’s rich Nyonya food is undisputedly one of the best cuisines in South-East Asia. Stop off to recharge the batteries with a quick bowl of laksa– a creamy coconut based soup with noodles- at one of the many Nyonya restaurants surrounding Cheng Hoon Teng temple, or street-side for a plate of char-guatiao (thick rice noodles stir fried with bean-sprouts and seafood, similar to Thailand’s Pad Thai).
A traditional Malay village in the heart of the city, Kampong Morten is a collection of brightly coloured wooden houses huddled beside a canal. Ramble through Villa Sentosa (138 Kampong Morten; +60 2823988; open from 9am -1 pm and 2-5 pm daily except Fridays from 3-5pm; by donation), a lime green stilted house once the home of the former village chief, now kitsch museum. Don’t miss the impressive gong which you can clang three times for good luck.
St. Francis Xavier Church
Portugal’s most famous colonial missionary, known as the Apostle of the East, St. Francis Xavier, was buried in the grounds of this impressive French gothic-style church before being moved to Fort Cochin in southern India.
Five Foot Way
Stroll back to the Stadthuys under the five-foot-way, British-designed arched pathways found on many Sino-Portuguese shop-fronts that protected shoppers from both the traffic and the elements. Note the number of windows on each house- in the olden days there was a tax on windows; hence the more windows, the wealthier the occupants.
When to Go
Only three degrees from the equator, Malacca is hot and humid year round. The monsoon sweeps down past the southern Malay Peninsula in September and October, although rainfall is not severe.
Where to Eat
Nonya restaurant Ole Sayang is renowned for its laksa- a coconut based soup (189/199 Taman Melaka Raya; +60 62831966; lunch for two, $15)
Geographer is a trendy pub and diner in the throb of Jonker Street (83 Jalan Hang Jebat; +60 62816813; www.geographer.com.my; drinks for two, $8)
Where to Stay
The lobby in the 54 room Majestic Malacca is set in a 1920’s Eurasian mansion (188 Jalan Bunga Raya; +60 62898000; www.majesticmalacca.com; Rooms from $300++)