Malacca: the city that best gives a sense of Malaysia's past

Published
01/21/2016 by

For us, Malacca was the end of a 400-mile cab ride – which is what happens when you get to a railway station and discover that the next train is due in 2010. Fortunately Malaysian taxis are cheap enough to make this an amusing mistake, rather than a costly disaster. Anyhow, it was getting dark, so we checked in and headed out for a meal. Malacca is famous for its fiery Nonya cuisine and this didn't disappoint. Even our 18-month daughter, Polly, seemed to enjoy it.

The next day I got up with Polly and took her out for breakfast. We walked into town heading for one of the stylish-looking cafés. The trouble is, nothing in Malacca seems to open before 9:30. Now, if you're on holiday as an adult, that's fine. But when you're on holiday with a toddler who needs entertaining from dawn, it's not so good.

Still, it gave us a while to soak up the town's historic atmosphere. Malacca was founded at the start of the 15th century by a Sumatran prince and, because of its strategic location on the Malacca Straits, quickly became the most important port in south-east Asia. Chinese merchants settled, and the city's wealth attracted European interest of the sort that arrives heavily armed.

 

In the 16th century, it was conquered first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, who controlled it for over 300 years before ceding it to the British in 1824. The British, however, were more interested in nearby Singapore, and Malacca soon became a sleepy backwater.

The city's decline meant that the beautiful mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and Islamic architecture is largely as it was 100 years ago; earlier this year it was made a Unesco World Heritage Site. In a country where so much is new, Malacca is one of the few places where you feel as if you can get a handle on Malaysian history.

Eventually we found an all-too- authentic-looking Chinese restaurant that was open. So we sat down and ordered, using the international I'll-have-what-he's-having-gestures, in this case, a plate of noodles with pork and some kind of offal. My take on offal is that it's a little like alcohol – good stuff, but you really shouldn't before noon. My daughter had no such qualms and slurped up her noodles and organ bits to the vocal approval of our fellow diners.

Breakfast over, we met my wife back in the Old Town. Malacca is rather confusing in this respect. Its two great attractions are the Old Town and Chinatown (which is also old). The Old Town contains more headline attractions than Chinatown, but it has a whiff of Disney about it, and Chinatown is far more interesting. Nonetheless, we did a whistle-stop tour of the Old Town's attractions, which date from colonial rule. And, after the glitzy neophilia of most Malaysian cities, forts and ruined churches make for an agreeable change.

 

 

Then we returned to our hotel. Initially I'd been a little disappointed by our standard issue high-rise. But that was until 11am. Then I realised Malacca is hot. So hot, in fact that at one point I thought I was sunburnt. But no, it was just the heat of the sun on my neck. So, if there's one thing that's essential when it comes to Malaccan accommodation, it's having a pool to lie by between 11.30am and 2pm. As our hotel (the aptly named Equatorial, for Malacca is two degrees North) had a terrific pool, its aesthetic crimes were forgiven.

After our enforced sunbreak, we walked into busy Chinatown. The streets are almost entirely lined with traditional shophouses – a sort of tropical take on the London terrace – whose charming exteriors all have that faded, distressed look western interior designers try so hard to replicate. Many have been converted into stylish boutiques and cafés, while a fair number are much as they always have been. Their deep interiors and thick walls and beautiful tiled floors are exactly what you need in the city's torrid climate. Interspersed with these were temples, mosques and the odd museum. It is, quite simply, a great place to wander – and there's not much more you can ask of a neighbourhood.

The next day, after a boat trip up the river, we discovered that Chinatown also has a pretty good nightlife, something of a rarity in Muslim Malaysia. That evening we enjoyed the atmospheric night market and bars before heading to a local restaurant for a bowl of the fiery local laksa noodle soup. This was followed by a "typical" pudding: a bowl of shaved ice with green vanilla jelly, coconut milk, toffee sauce and kidney beans (sweetcorn was also available). It was surprisingly good, although perhaps more surprising than good.

En route back to the hotel, we marvelled at the illuminated tricycle rickshaws: Malaccans like to personalise their vehicles, and these bizarre pedal-powered contraptions are like the offspring of a mobile disco and a Mardi Gras float.

On our final morning, we stocked up on cheap jeans and malodorous durian doughnuts at the Melaka Mega Mall (for that's what it's called), and Polly and I ascended the revolving viewing tower. Then we headed into Chinatown for a little more shopping and lunch. Oh, and one more of those extraordinary desserts – this time with kidney beans and sweetcorn.

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Chak Hedik rates this article with

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03/01/2016 - 01:16 pm

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