For centuries, Malacca (or Melaka in Malay) has been a rich melting pot of cultures. Occupied at various times in history by the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Japanese (briefly during World War 2) and Malays, all were interested in its strategic position on the narrow Malacca Straits (primarily for the historic East Indies trade route).
While the main sights are in the centre of town and on the main roads, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Malacca is a town full of history and a great place to explore on foot. To best experience and to feel Malacca, get off the main roads which swarm with tourists and wander the quieter back streets. Here historic elements of the town remain, an architectural pot-pourri of European, Chinese and Malay construction.
Most striking is the central Dutch Square with its terracotta red buildings including the landmark Stadthuys (Dutch for town hall, top photo) and a cacophony of rickshaws bidding for business. With its impressive wooden doors (with wrought iron hinges), robust stonewalls, louvred windows and elegant edifice, the Dutch governors must have lived well in the Stadthuys. Though most has been reconstructed, one fine room with its intricately carved ceiling is original, the Stadthuys now serving as an excellent museum full of old maps, artwork, weapons, paintings and various Dutch and Portuguese memorabilia.
Other bright red buildings on the square include the Christ Church and the Clock Tower. Stories abound as to the origin of the red colour. One ascribes to a practical decision by the British to paint the whitewashed Dutch buildings in red to stop the naturally red stonework from showing through and the red soils from staining the buildings in the heavy tropical rains. Another describes an antidote against the habits of the local population of spitting the red-coloured chewed betel nuts.
There is little evidence of the historic Portuguese presence in the city. Most of their buildings efforts were razed by the Dutch though the ruinous town gate (Porta de Santiago, the only remaining part of the old fort) and the moving St Paul’s Church remain. Perched on a hill and with its soulful tombstones and rough stone floor now open to the elements, the Dutch also used the church as a place of worship. The British added a lighthouse and a flagpole and used the building to store gunpowder.
The Chinese occupation is mainly sighted through Bukit China (Chinese Hill). The largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, the hill is sprinkled with around 12,000 Chinese graves, a number dating back to the Ming Dynasty (over 500 years ago). The tiny stone graves are sprayed across the hill and boast panoramic views across the straits and excellent feng shui with excellent water outlooks and protection from the winds.
The Sultan’s Well represents the valuable historic source of drinking water with visitor’s today throwing coins into the well to wish for a return to the enchanting Red City.
Chinese influence is also strong in Jonker Street, appropriately translated as Junk Street. Once famous for superb antiques including porcelain, metalwork and furniture, it now turns into a night market filled with glitzy stalls selling typical tourist trinkets and trash under the guise of history, though the food stalls offer a variety of tasty treats. The laksa is especially noteworthy as is the deliciously sweet cendol, a concoction of ice, jelly and coconut.
While there are a large number of museums (or varying qualities) throughout the city (and a variety of Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem and CHristian places of worship), one final worthwhile visit is the wooden Sultanate Palace, superbly and accurately reconstructed using original techniques, meaning the building has no nails.
Along with the refreshing Cameron Highlands, Malacca is a highlight of any visit to Malaysia. Over a couple of days, enjoy the cultural influences of the various ruling powers, avoid the overly touristy places (sadly these seem to be overtaking parts of Malacca) and savour the tasty food from the street stalls or local cafes. Go and paint the town red.