A little guide to Malacca, Malaysia

One of my favourite places in Malaysia is the centuries-old port of Malacca, which the locals spell as Melaka, and which I shall use from now on.

The Melaka officials have gone to some effort to preserve the town’s history, and this is very evident when you enter the heritage area, with historic buildings rejuvenated with fresh paint to give buildings an authentic feel, information signs, plenty of activities for tourists, and a central square area that is very welcoming.

We stayed in Heeren House, which is an histroric guest house located right next to the Melaka River in the Chinatown area, about one minute’s walk across the bridge to the Central Square. The bottom floor of Heeren House consists of a gift shop and small cafe.  Upstairs is the guest’s accommodation.  There are only a few rooms, and we had the double with private bathroom and full river view.

Full river view was exactly what we enjoyed, and we gazed out the windows for hours enjoying the sight of the river cruises tootling up and down, that were sometimes filled with tourists, and at other times practically empty.  We could also see people meandering along the river walk opposite and we overlooked the re-constructed Dutch fortress, which had its guns pointed at our window.

After settling into our room we headed out to explore the local area, which was simple as we were central.  As we were staying in Chinatown we decided to explore it first.  In the few streets that made up Chinatown there were a surprising number of art galleries, temples and museums.  Among the confines of the narrow streets were rows of shophouses.  In the shophouses, the Chinese would trade from the ground floor and live on the first floor.  In its heyday, Chinatown would have been a bustling hive of activity, and one could imagine all sorts of vices being carried out here, but nowadays it has become gentrified, and does seem to cater primarily for the tourist trade.     

We arrived on a Monday so things were quiet.  We had tried to book several places for the weekend but  Melaka comes alive at weekends, when people stream in from Singapore and other parts of Malaysia.  On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Jonker Street becomes Jonker Walk as it closed to traffic and traders set up stalls in the street.  For this reason, many restaurants and businesses close on Mondays.

I’d read about the Panorama Bus, which has a fixed circular route and costs just RM2 for a 24-hour ticket.  We hadn’t been at the bus stop long before the bus arrived, so we hopped on board and enjoyed a pleasant air-conditioned ride around Melaka, staying on the bus until it terminated at the coach terminal Melaka Sentral.

Melaka is a mixture of ancient and modern, with newer buildings in the heritage area erected with a sensitivity for their surroundings.  It’s obvious that much of the waterfront has been reclaimed, and there is a large building program in place.

At Melaka Sentral we discovered there are a couple of panoramas, and some don’t cater for tourists at all, being used as local buses, it’s all part of the Malaysian way of doing things the logic of which is sometimes difficult to understand.  We were advised that we’d need to catch Panorama No.17 bus, which we did, and it did put us back onto the tourist route.  This time we alighted at a large, modern shopping mall that was just past the heritage area.  We ate a snack and enjoyed a juice, and discovered that the mall gave us easy access to some old Portuguese ruins that dated back to the 17th Century.

Melaka was colonised by the Portuguese because it was a great trading port.  The Portuguese built a fort here to control shipping that used Melaka as a stopover through the Melaka Straits.  The area was important because of its proximity to Sumatra, and the fact that it gave protection to ships from the Sumatra typhoon.

We climbed up a steep hill to the ruins of the old St. Paul’s Church.  From here, we got stunning views of Melaka.  It was hot and humid, so we made our way down to a shady park to recuperate.  Next to the park was a revolving tower, so I took a ride in it.  It was air-conditioned, so gave a lot of comfort.  The views from the top of the tower were magnificent, and I went trigger happy for a while as I took lots of photos.

Alongside the river is a maritime museum that is built inside a replica from an old Portuguese ship.

As a museum it was a tremendous concept, and contained a very well designed exhibition that told the story of Melaka and its many eras of being ruled under Portuguese, Dutch and British administration.  Inside the ship there are dioramas, models and plaques presenting the story of Melaka in both Bahasa Malaysia and English.

I really enjoyed Melaka because it has been well preserved and cared for.  Melaka is an easy place in which to get your bearings, but I would recommend that you stay around the old port area so that you are an easy amble away from most of the major attractions.

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