MELAKA, MALAYSIA – chilling in a travel hotspot

I’ve read that Malacca, or Melaka as it is now more properly known in Malay, will be one of Asia’s hottest travel destinations this year. I have a couple of days free from my work in Singapore, and Melaka is only a few hours’ coach ride away.

But when I leave the air-conditioned bus, I know I’m in a hotspot, and a humid one too. I could easily fill a pith helmet with sweat after a short hop down to the Old Town, picking my way beside a busy road along inadequate broken footpaths covering deep storm-water drains, stepping around stalls where Indian vendors, Bollywood movie music blaring from their stereos, are threading garlands of flowers.

I take my life in my hands and dodge between cars and scooters to reach the Melaka River. After that things slow down. It’s a quiet little stream, where the banks have smart new paving and tourist barges shuttle between the dilapidated backs of houses on one side and café terraces on the other. Nothing is crowded and no-one is in a hurry.

At the square in front of the 18th century Dutch Christ Church a gaggle of trishaws, brightly decorated with plastic flowers, patiently wait for trade. Souvenir stalls sell leather hats, cane back scratchers, wooden foot massagers, flip-flop sandals, sepia photos of old Malacca and kitsch painted kittens. Sure it’s touristy, but there are no hassling hawkers; browsing is a pleasure.

By now I’ve worked out there’s not a lot to do in Melaka. There is shopping of course, but Melaka Mega Mall sells the same stuff you can get anywhere else. I didn’t want to buy it when I saw it in Singapore, so why should I buy it now? When you buy something you didn’t need in the first place, saving 20% = losing 80% in my book.

Most tourists seem to be from Singapore, and I get the impression that once they’ve been photographed in the trishaw they wonder how to fill the rest of the weekend.

No problem hearing the words in this church in Melaka - excellent diction!

What Melaka really has to sell is its history. It took centuries to create, but a day or two will be plenty for me to retrace it at a gentle pace. Melakans are celebrating their World Heritage status, awarded in 2008, and they’ve painted the Old Town red – heritage red of course. It may not be strictly the original décor (most colonial buildings are white in those old photos) but it does make the town attractive.

The old Dutch Stadhuys (town hall) is now a museum dedicated to the history of Melaka, which since the sixteenth century has been colonized by in turn the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese, and St Francis Xavier gave Catholicism a toehold here in 1545.
Smaller, quirkier museums occupy a short row along Jalan Kota, museums of architecture, Islam, stamps and kites. I like the ‘Museum of Enduring Beauty’, dedicated to the suffering people go through in the quest to look good. The sign by the entrance warns me, ‘The different levels of pain one has to endure during the beautification process are shown in full.’ On the staircase there’s another warning: ‘SORRY – AIR CONDITION FAILURE’. The things I’ll put myself through to get a story! And after studying gory details of foot binding, neck stretching, tattooing, teeth filing, scarification, lip implants and ladies’corsetry, I have no stomach left for the mediaeval torture exhibition down the road.

Instead I visit the Museum of Spinning Tops (‘gasing’ in Malay.) I had no idea top-spinning was such a dangerous sport. The traditional rules of the gasing are translated into English and include: “a) Players not allowed to eat in shop within game area until after competition for fear may be poisoned to death. b) Players not allowed to boast or be arrogant. c) players not allowed to stand in doorstep. A Satanic Knot is often placed here by insincere people.”

Across the road in Coronation Park, yellow orioles flit above the ginger plants and frangipani into huge trees dripping with birds nest ferns.

Forbidden Gardens

The Forbidden Garden of the recently reconstructed sultan’s palace is no longer for princesses only. It’s open to the public, and very beautiful it is too. Massed bougainvilleas and sealing wax palms surround formal ponds, and a group Tai Chi lesson is in progress.

Famosa Chicken Rice Ball restaurant

Lunchtime. Melaka’s food is excellent and extremely cheap. Calanthe Art Café serves asam pedas, a claypot of spicy stingray and vegetables, West Malaysian coffee and a brilliant mango lassi drink (a fruit, milk and yoghurt mix), all for under $7. Famosa Chicken Rice Balls, a Melakan specialty, cost even less.
As evening falls I take a break on a warm concrete bench beside the river. A breeze has sprung up, the night is balmy, and hundreds of screeching mynah birds roost in floodlit trees. A crescent moon hangs overhead and from the mosque the muezzin starts his call to prayer, singing much better than the contestants on Celebrity Karaoke which flashed across my hotel TV earlier. The muezzin doesn’t have to read the words to an Alicia Keys number off a jerky teleprompter.

The waterfront restaurants fold up their awnings and put out extra chairs on the terraces. Craft stalls appear the length of Jonkers Street, now closed to cars and opened to pedestrians, and the pace is still very relaxed. A gentleman sips a beer while a large green iguana perches on his shoulder. There are a few surprises in Melaka still; like the sudden opening of the heavens. I can’t even shelter in a door step for fear of insincere people with their Satanic Knots.

But the rain soon passes, and my wet shirt is refreshingly cool, like the rest of Melaka.


Getting there: Konsortium Bus from Singapore to Melaka takes just under 4 hours and costs from SGD72 return.

Staying there: Hotel Puri near Jonkers Street has double rooms from RM120

Further information : Entrance to all museums listed is RM5 or less.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Budget travel, Malaysia, Travel

11 responses to “MELAKA, MALAYSIA – chilling in a travel hotspot

  1. David Coldrey

    Hi, I went to Malacca some time ago with the MUHC travel club run by Andrew. I think that Francis Xavier may have ended his days there and was buried thereabouts (nothing to do with us , he wasn’t on our tour). The cemetery was interesting with many of the colonial soldiers dying very young probably of malaria. We had a reception in the old Town Hall which was then the Malacca Club made up mainly of non malays. This was shortly afterwards taken over by the government and turned into a museum for all.
    The local HQ of the Hockey club was an old shed on the water front where we encounted bountiful hospitality including that old enemy of the FYA (Fine Young Athlete) the bottomless glass. On a subsequent tour I found that the waterfront had been moved a kilometre or more away from the town centre in a massive land reclaimation project (probably run by the Dutch who are good at that sort of thing). Enjoyed your article – keep up the good work!

    • Yes, I just did a bit of checking. Francis Xavier moved around a lot, even after he died. His body was disinterred and now rests in peace in Goa. Even his statue seems to have moved from down by the old fort gate in Melaka to the hill by the ruins of St Paul’s church – another saintly miracle perhaps?

  2. looks good, maybe i should consider in going there in a month or two from now.

  3. See and rediscover historic Melaka like you’ve never seen it before.

    Melaka from the Top – a book published by Nutmeg Publishing is a first of its kind publication in Malaysia.


  4. Sofian

    Your post just about sums up Melaka – and more. Funny, isn’t it, how visitors never fail to throw in some insight on a locale that the locals never knew. I’ve lived here close to 20 years and had it not been for your post, I would never have known that top-spinning was such serious business.

    I also noticed you are an avid cyclist. Do drop me a note if you’re in the neighbourhood again: we chat about bikes.

    • G’day again from Sydney this time, Sofian. Thanks for the comment, and yes, I’d be delighted to discuss cycling with you. I’ll be back in Singapore in February, and if there are any routes you’d suggest in Malaysia, or websites which discuss them, that would be great to keep in mind. I’m prepared to be very hot, tired and sweaty, but not to risk my life sharing a lane on the road with buses and trucks – so I’d be looking for quiet routes!

  5. Alfred Chiew

    I would like to invite you to write some travelling articles for our travel magazine – Mysiok. We are currently distribute it in major bookstores and Starbucks store’s reading corner at Peninsula Malaysia. Is our honor if u can join us. Hope to hear from you soon…

  6. Spinning Top Museum? Wow. I should head there when I’m in Melaka next time! Great post Richard. Happy Traveling too!

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