Melaka – or Malacca as it was previously known – is one of Malaysia’s jewels, a small town on the western side of the peninsula that, in 2008, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage City.
With the Melaka River running through its centre, the famous Jonker Street night market bustling with activity every weekend, and the historic buildings that bear witness to its chequered history, the town is a fascinating place to visit. It attracts millions of tourists every year.
Strategically located on the Strait of Malacca – an important highway for East-West maritime trade – Malacca grew from a small fishing village into one of the most important ports in the world and became the capital of the Malaccan Sultanate.
The town fell to the Portuguese in 1511, and was later colonised by the Dutch and the British. It was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945.
Today, Melaka is a vibrant cultural melting pot. The town is by no means exempt from the inter-ethnic tensions that mark Malaysian society and, as in most places in Malaysia, you are warned to watch out for snatch thieves, but there’s an easy-going atmosphere, and a visible openness in attitudes.
In Jalan Tokong Besi – or Harmony Street – there is a mosque, a Chinese temple, and a Hindu temple. The Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi temple was built in the late 18th century and is the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia, and the Cheng Hoon Teng temple, built in 1645, is the oldest Chinese temple in the country.
The Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum – housed in a beautiful building on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock – gives some interesting insights into the life of the Straits or Peranakan Chinese, also called the Baba and Nyonya (the Baba being the men and the Nyonya the women). These were the descendants of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the south of Melaka, there is a Portuguese settlement where residents speak Kristang, a mix of Portuguese and Malay.
Melaka is famed for its Baba-Nyonya food, and in particular for the traditional chendol dessert, made with coconut milk, jelly noodles, shaved ice, and palm sugar. Its most well-known tourist attraction is the Jonker Street – or Jonker Walk – night market, which has been open since 2000.
Controversy over the market arose in June when the new Melaka state chief minister, Idris Haron, announced that he wanted to open Jonker Street to traffic on weekend evenings and effectively close the market down. Members of the Chinese community joined together in fervent opposition to any closure, and the market remained open, even when the road was officially opened up to traffic.
Some would say Jonkers is just too much neon, noise, and trinkets, and they may have a point, but few would argue in favour of closing down a tourist attraction that brings in so much money to the town.
Protesters against the market closure dismissed the argument of traffic congestion, saying it was a pretext for a racially motivated, political move. Malaysia’s tourism minister Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz appealed personally to Idris not to close down the market, saying it was essential to tourism in the town.
The storm has now abated and Jonker Street is again closed to traffic on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings.
Nazri denied accusations by the opposition Democratic Action Party that Idris had acted in retaliation against Chinese traders who voted against the government in the May 5 general election.
In remarks that sparked shock and outrage, Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak claimed that a “Chinese tsunami” was to blame for the ruling National Front coalition’s failure to regain the two-thirds parliamentary majority it lost in 2008.
National Front politician Mohd Ali Rustam, who had been Melaka state’s chief minister since 1999, was defeated in the state’s Bukit Katil parliamentary seat on May 5 . Idris – also a National Front candidate – won in the safe seat of Sungai Udang, and was appointed to take his place. (The Front did gain a two-thirds majority in Melaka state, winning 21 of the 28 state assembly seats.)
The DPA MP for Petaling Jaya Utara, Tony Pua, said Idris was “willing to sacrifice the interest of the people of Melaka and her economy just to demonstrate his political pettiness to inflict damage to the Chinese community”. Opening the road to traffic had created a serious safety risk, he said.
Ironically, the DAP opposed the cordoning off of Jonker Street to set up the night market, saying the planning was poor, but it is now in favour of keeping the market open.
Battling through the crowds on Jonker Street on a Saturday night, your senses are assaulted by all manner of sights, sounds, and smells: high-volume karaoke, the music from the weekend line-dancing classes, fried food, the patter of hawkers, and the colourful array of stalls selling everything from nail varnish, car fresheners, phone gadgets, and plastic toys to spices, local chocolates, sugar cane juice, and herbal remedies.
With the pineapple tarts, durian puffs, Portuguese egg tarts, radish cake, fried oysters, chicken rice balls, curry fish balls, baked quail eggs, twisty fried potato, peanut soup, Baba Laksa, and the other myriad noodle and fried rice dishes, there is food for every taste. There is even fried icecream.
And there plenty of other exotic delicacies in the Jonker Street shops.
Jonker 88 is a popular place to go for chendol.
Numerous therapies such as reflexology and cupping are on offer, and you can get yourself a temporary tattoo.
I’m a vegetarian so opted for the fabulous pai tee (top hats) from the deservedly reputed restaurant Nancy’s Kitchen (I ask for pai tee without egg), and some lovely veggie spring rolls called popiah. Not all popiah are vegetarian; some are made with pork lard and they often contain seafood, so, if you are a vegetarian, check before you order.
There are some good vegetarian restaurants in Melaka, including Veggié Planet (see below), and the local Indian restaurants serve the banana leaf meal at lunchtimes, which is pretty unbeatable in terms of value for money. Friday is “specials” day when there are even more dishes on offer than usual (ten at the Selvam).
The Selvam is the biggest, best-known restaurant in Little India, but there are smaller places well worth checking out. If you are on a very tight budget you can eat chapati and veg for less than two ringgits, but then you can get a whole banana leaf meal for as little as four.
One evening, I had a delicious Nasi Lemak with tempeh at the very popular Geographer Café (again I asked for no egg), but the meal was not good the second time I went; the rice was badly overcooked.
In Chinese restaurants, vegetarians need to check that a dish isn’t made with shrimp paste. I go infrequently to Chinese vegetarian restaurants in Malaysia as their menus tend to be dominated by mock meat, which I dislike. Some Indian vegetarian restaurants now include this “meal maker” in their menus, but thankfully not all of them do.
Every year, in June and July, there are periods when Melaka is shrouded by the noxious haze that is caused by slash-and-burn fires in the Indonesian province of Riau (see earlier posts for details). This year was no exception.
The smog is a major health hazard, and a blight on tourism, yet the war of words about who is to blame continues, and no concrete actions have been taken to solve what is an annual, and very serious problem.
If you can manage to avoid the burning-season smog, Melaka is a fun place to spend time. It’s small enough to walk around, or you can take a ride in one of the gaudily decorated trishaws.
If you go on the river boat cruise, you get a great view of the town bridges and the art graffiti along the riverside, and can go up to the Kampung Morten traditional village.
You can enjoy good music at the Me & Mrs Jones café, and run into interesting characters like Englishman Stephen Terry who takes his pet iguana Jack out to the bar with him for the evening.
Then there is the café-restaurant and art gallery The Baboon House: a great place to meet people or just hang out and relax. (As a vegetarian, the menu didn’t have much on offer for me, but there is a great selection of teas, coffees and other drinks.)
In 2012, The New York Times newspaper included Melaka in its list of the 45 places to visit worldwide. “With its lantern-lighted canals and silent, narrow streets lined with decades-old ornate temples and shop houses”, few places in South-East Asia conjured up romantic images of the past as effectively as Melaka, wrote Naomi Lindt.
Lindt cites new hotels like Casa del Rio, a Portuguese-inspired luxury boutique property with 66 rooms, and Courtyard@Heeren, a 100-year-old shop house converted into a 14-room hotel, which is considered by tripadvisor.com voters to be one of the 25 best small hotels in Malaysia.
Tripadvisor ranks The Majestic as Melaka’s Number 1 hotel, and places Courtyard@Heeren second. The Majestic and Casa del Rio are two of the 25 best luxury hotels in Malaysia, according to tripadvisor voters.
There are several restaurants I have yet to try in Melaka, and numerous museums and monuments I haven’t yet visited. I haven’t yet made it to Siew Yong Pak’s Zheng He Tea House, which is highly recommended. And it’s a delight to simply stroll around the streets of the town, or sit and watch the river flow, so watch this space for updates after my next visit.
The Portuguese in Melaka
Michael Banerji no longer holds an official position within the Portuguese settlement, but is still the person who gives interviews to visiting students, and shows people around. He’s vice-president of the Malacca Heritage Trust and an expert in the history of the town.
He explains that when the Dutch arrived in Melaka, the Portuguese, who were mainly fishing people, scattered inland. “The British brought them back; the Portuguese spoke English very well so the British gave them very good positions in government.”
The Portuguese settlement was established by two Catholic priests, Father Álvaro Manuel Coroado and Father Jules Pierre Francois, who encouraged Portuguese people to come back to Melaka. “They brought three families here in 1927, then the settlement started to grow,” Banerji said. “By 1930, there were already about five families, and the settlement kept on growing.”
“In those days we called ourselves Kristang, which comes from the word Christian.”
The Kristang language that has developed in the Portuguese community contains elements of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and English. There are actually words in the Malaysian language, like almari (cupboard), bendera (flag), mentega (butter), garfu (fork), and meja (table) that originate from Portuguese.
“We are trying our best to get Kristang down in written form and a couple of books have been produced, including two Kristang-English dictionaries,” Banerji said. “Within the community, English is the most spoken language, but we want to teach Kristang to the younger generation, and the younger generation like to learn it because it’s like a secret language. Most of the families here speak Kristang at home.
“We would understand the Kristang spoken in Sri Lanka, and, in India, the language has a different name, but is essentially the same.”
Asian spices now dominate in cooking in the settlement, but there is still a Portuguese flavour in dishes like the well-known Curry Dabel, made with chicken and potato.
“This is a very active community; in the evenings, all the restaurants are open,” Banerji said.
The Portuguese settlement now has about 1,200 residents. There are rules about the way homes are designed; they have to be single-storey with traditional two-panel doors at the front. There are 132 bungalows, 14 restaurants and two home restaurants, a community centre, a girls’ school, and a museum.
Remembering the past
Banerji says visitors are often surprised when they visit the settlement and don’t see western-looking, white-skinned people. “We may not look Portuguese, but in our blood we are still Portuguese. We call ourselves Portuguese Malaysians.”
Almost everyone living in the settlement is of Portuguese descent. “If a person from the community marries a Malay, they will leave,” Banerji said. “If a resident marries someone Chinese, they can stay, but this is more so if the Portuguese person is a man. If a Portuguese woman marries a Chinese man, they will usually leave.” There are about 2,500 people of Portuguese descent in Melaka, and about 16,000 in Malaysia as a whole.
There are now very few fishermen in the Portuguese settlement (about five percent of the population). Most are either students or are employed in the government or private sectors.
The Baboon House; Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.
Me & Mrs Jones café; N° 3 Jalan Hang Kasturi. Nancy’s kitchen; 7, Jalan Hang Lekir, Off Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. (Has vegetarian options.)
Zheng He Tea House, N° 3, Jalan Kg Kuli.
Veggié Planet; N° 41, Jalan Melaka Raya 8, Taman Melaka Raya. Tel: +60 6 292 2819 http://www.veggieplanet.my/ListProduct.asp?subject=Home
A vegetarian restaurant that has been recommended to me that I haven’t tried yet is Simple Life; N° 150-A, Jalan Merdeka Taman Melaka Raya.
I’ve also heard good reports about the Pak Putra Indian Tandoori restaurant on Jalan Kota Laksamana, but imagine it is more geared to meat-eaters than to vegetarians.
In Melaka, I stay at the Rooftop Guest House, N° 39 Jalan Kampong Pantai, which is fantastic value for money. It’s comfortable, inexpensive, and spotlessly clean. Mani, who runs Rooftop with her husband Raymond, makes very nice cakes that are freely available to guests.
Mani and Raymond also own the nearby River View guest house. (http://www.riverviewguesthouse.blogspot.com/)
I personally prefer Rooftop, but River View is also a great place to stay, not least because it has a terrace overlooking the river.
Bookings for both guest houses are via hostelworld.com.
There are a host of places in Melaka offering therapeutic massage. Mani recommended Beijing Foot Reflexology, N° 34 Jalan Kee Ann, and I was very happy with the treatment I received from Momo, who also does full-body massage.
The nearby fruit stalls are a good place to stock up on mangosteens, dukus, mangoes, rambutans, and papayas.
Melaka is an inexpensive, comfortable, two-hour coach ride from Kuala Lumpur. The coaches leave from the new Bersepadu Selatan terminal at Bandar Tasik Selatan, and there are plenty of them. In either direction, you can book in advance or, outside of particularly busy periods, just turn up and buy your ticket at the bus station. You can also get coach tickets at the Discovery café and guest house on Jalan Bunga Raya.
See the Internet for flight options, and coach services from other departure points.
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