Malacca City, the capital of the Malaysian State of Malacca (also spelled Melaka), is a museum of the bustling port city it once was. The buildings and streets have been preserved in their colonial style, giving the city a quaint and charming feel. While you won’t find much modern day culture here, what’s exciting about this city is discovering its rich colonial history and its once pivotal role in European trade. In addition, you can find a mixture of delicious Indian, Chinese, and Malay cuisine, which came to Malacca through the centuries of Indian and Chinese settlers.
And, notwithstanding the corporate eye-sore of a Zara next to the canal, two modern features of the city stand out. The first is its fun street art which plays off its surroundings.
The second are the ridiculously decorated tuk-tuks, which whisk tourists around while blasting music.
Getting There –
I took an inexpensive bus from Singapore to Malacca. The bus cost about $13.00 USD and the trip was about 4 hours long, including a pit stop on the highway. Malacca makes a great first stop in Malaysia if you are coming from Singapore or the south.
Brief History –
Malacca City was founded by Parameswara, who travelled to the small Malay fishing village which became Malacca in 1377. During his first visit, he was resting under a malacca tree and watched one of his hunting dogs get thrown into the river after being kicked by a white mouse deer. He found the event amusing, and, despite it having no real symbolism (at least from what I’ve learned), decided to name the city Malacca after the tree.
With its strategic location on the west coast of the Malay peninsula, and the Malacca River running through the area, the city developed into a major trading port and became the center of the Malay world in the 15th and 16th centuries, and one of the busiest ports in the world. During this time, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Chinese, among others came to trade.
Due to the influence of Arab, Persian, and Indian traders, Malacca turned into an Islamic Sultanate. Siam, the former empire of Thailand, which borders the Malay Peninsula’s northern border, posed a threat to the new settlement. As a result, Malacca formed a relationship with the Ming Dynasty of China for protection, enhancing its Chinese trade and immigrants.
Malacca’s trade and economy flourished, and news of its success reached Portugal, who had an established trade in the Muslim Indian city of Goa. After a failed attempt at establishing a relationship with the Malacca Sultanate, the Portuguese launched an attack in 1511 and captured the city in a day. In 1521, the Portuguese built a chapel on what would become known as Malacca Hill. The chapel is the first Christian church in Malaysia, and Malacca Hill would go on to serve as an important landmark in the city, home to government buildings and military fortresses.
In the 1600s, the Dutch, with the Dutch East India Company (known as the “VOC”, which are the letters of the company’s Dutch name) had begun colonizing and developing trade in the surrounding areas in Indonesia. The Dutch formed an alliance with Johor, a sultanate bordering Malacca, to flush out the Portuguese. In 1641, exactly 130 years after Portugal’s conquest of the city, the Dutch succeeded in taking over the city in what is known as the second capture of Malacca. The Dutch ruled Malacca for over 150 years.
As part of the negotiation during the Napoleonic Wars, Malacca was placed temporarily under British rule from 1795 to 1818 (The Netherlands were controlled by France during this time). The British feared returning the city and its military fortresses back to the Dutch, and consequently destroyed Malacca’s infrastructure. As a result, when Malacca was returned, the Dutch lost interest in the city. Meanwhile, the British had control over the Indonesian Island of Java (ruled by Sir Thomas Raffles, who later founded Singapore). The Dutch and British came to sign the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824, which handed Java to the Dutch and Malacca to the British. With its destroyed infrastructure, the British marginalized Malacca and focused on developing the port cities of Singapore in the south, and Penang in the north.
The Japanese arrived in Malacca in 1942 and occupied the city during the WWII. Malacca was fortunately not damaged at all during the war, as most of the Japanese fighting was focused on British-ruled Singapore in the South. Following the war, the city was returned to British rule, until Malaysia achieved independence in 1957.
Things to Check Out –
Explore the Streets -
The winding streets of Malacca give you the feeling of walking through a colonial time that is long-gone. Mixed with Asian temples, canals, and decrepit buildings, every turn leads to an intriguing artifact from this city's heyday.
St. Paul’s Hill –
St. Paul's Hill is where the Portuguese built the first church in Malaysia. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and named Our Lady of the Hill. When the Dutch arrived, the church was made protestant and renamed St. Paul’s Church, and St. Paul’s Hill. The Dutch also reinforced the walls the Portuguese built, and used them as a fortress. Throughout the Portuguese and Dutch rule, the church served as a mausoleum for dignitaries. Later during British rule, the British raised the Union Jack on the top of the hill and used the church as an ammunition depot for strikes against Java in 1810 to 1811.
The Dutch Graveyard –
If you walk around St. Paul’s Hill, you may stumble upon an old graveyard. This graveyard was first used at the end of the 1600s. Five Dutch and 33 British are buried here.
The Night Market –
There’s a lively night market on the weekends. You can find fantastic seafood, desserts, and Asian treats, such as this man with an average voice singing on a stage!
The Babas and Nyonyas House -
Beginning in the 15th century, Chinese men immigrated to the Malay Peninsula for trade, settling and marrying locals from different cultures. These immigrants adopted local culture while preserving their Chinese identity and heritage. The immigrants and their descendants became known as Peranakan and are a celebrated ethnic group in Malacca, Singapore, and Penang in the north. The Babas and Nyonyas House is a preserved house of a wealthy Peranakan family. "Baba" is an honorable way to address a Straights-born man, and "Nyonya" is an honorable way to address a Straights-born woman. The house was turned into a museum in 1985. It’s filled with ornate decorations and Chinese artifacts, and is a fun way to learn about and experience this culture.
Tours are mandatory - I took a tour that happened to be with a Singaporean school group - I was the only other person! There are also no pictures allowed inside, but I got this shot of the foyer. One fun feature of the house: instead of a peep-hole in the front door, they have a peep hole in the floor of the master bedroom, which extends over the front steps.
Stadthuys Museum -
There are a ton of museums in Malacca! There's a stamp museum, toy museum, architecture museum, jewelry museum, and maritime museum, to name a few. I checked out the Stadthuys Museum, which is Dutch for City Hall. It is located in what is known as the Red Square, which is the center of the old city. The building was built by the Dutch in 1650 as the Office of the Dutch Governor and Deputy Governor. The building currently houses a thorough exhibit of Malacca and Malaysian history.
Whats the Damage -
Malacca, and Malaysia as a whole, is inexpensive. Out of all eight countries I've been to in SE Asia, Malaysia has actual had the lowest average cost per day, however part of this is because it was a less social experience and hence I bought less alcohol. I found a very inexpensive and comfortable hostile in the heart of the old city called Jalan Jalan Guest House, which offers free wifi and coffee for only MYR 16 per night ($3.64 USD)*. The one downside is that the guys that run the hostile are very strict with trivial rules: make sure to take off your shoes, and lights are strictly out at 11pm! The second of these rules was enforced even when it was only one other guy and myself in the room and we were both reading. We told the guy that no one is sleeping and we'd like to keep the light on to read. His response? "It bothers other people outside the hostel". Right. See the chart on the right for the overall cost breakdown.
*The chart shows $2.42/day for lodging because I was there for three days, and hence the cost of two nights was divided by three.