As I sat writing this post, I mulled over a series of grabbing titles: “The Best Destination in SE Asia You’ve Never Heard of”, or “Melaka: Malaysia’s Hidden Gem”. In the end, I couldn’t use any of them because the truth is that Melaka (sometimes spelled Malacca) isn’t actually some exciting, off-the-beaten path destination that has remained a blind spot on the tourist radar until now. In fact, most people at our hostel in Kuala Lumpur were planning on making it their next stop, just as Brent and I were.
At the same time, Melaka did give me hints of those chills you get when you find some undiscovered place – I think because I’ve never heard anyone raving about it. It doesn’t seem like most travelers include Melaka on their list of ‘must-see’ places in SE Asia. And now that I’ve been there, I have no idea why this is the case! Here are a few reasons why I think Melaka should be on everyone’s SE Asia bucket list:
More and more, I realize that a major part of traveling well is establishing this fine balance between being open enough to connect with people in different countries, yet not so accessible that I make myself a target for scams. Thus, Brent and I were initially wary when various people in Melaka approached us in the street, asking where we were from, or offering to help us with directions. After all, it wouldn’t have been the first time that “where are you from?” was a precursor to”buy this bracelet!”; and “let me show you the way to your guesthouse” was followed by a request for a big “tip”.
But as I gradually let my guard down, I began to see that these people didn’t have any hidden motives for talking to us at all. They were actually just really friendly, and interested in what brought us to the home that they were so proud of. Of course, like any place in the world, I’m sure there are some not so wonderful people in Melaka too, but everyone we were lucky enough to meet was warm, welcoming and generous.
With winged Chinese temples, elegant mosques, and beautifully-worn-down colonial buildings all within walking distance of one another, it was pretty clear why Melaka was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Glowing paper lanterns hanging in front of weathered shop houses; crumbing churches faded to expose their underlying brick; graceful Victorian lanterns illuminating beautiful street art. I’ve never seen another place quite as quirky and captivating as Melaka.
Melaka was founded around 1400 by a Sumatran prince, and its strategic location quickly made it a centre for trade with India, China, Indonesia, and Siam (Thailand). As one of the wealthier cities in the country, Melaka helped to define Malaysia’s culture. In addition to its distinct Malay culture, Melaka has long been home to a large Chinese community. Over the centuries, it’s also been taken over by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, among others. All these cultures and eras seem to be layered together through time and space in Melaka’s architecture.
The Melaka Tourism Centre offers free guided tours of the city’s highlights on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. You just have to go to the Tourism Centre, which is found between Dutch Square and the Melaka River, around 9am. If I’m being completely honest, our guide’s accented English was a little difficult to understand at certain times, but it was still a great introduction to Melaka’s architecture, plus it was free!
Melaka’s varied cultural influences come together just as amazingly in the city’s food as in its architecture. The Jonker Street Night Market, which takes place in Chinatown on Friday and Saturday nights, is one of the best places to try a little bit of it all, from Portuguese egg tarts to durian puffs.
One of the most interesting dishes I tried was cendol. Supposedly it’s eaten throughout SE Asia, but Malaysia was not only the first place I’ve seen it, but there were a lot of shops selling it, so it’s obviously particularly popular here. It basically consists of coconut milk, weird green jelly noodles, palm sugar, and a whole bunch of optional ingredients (mine came with red beans).
Although Little India is surprisingly one of the more lackluster areas of the city, we ended up eating there multiple times because of the incredible food. Our favourite place was Selvam Banana Leaf Restaurant, which is the big green building on the right after you walk under the gaudy archway that marks the entrance to Little India. The staff laid big banana leaves on the table in front of each of us like a place mat, and then piled them with dhall, chutney, poppadoms, and a bunch of other delicious stuff that I couldn’t even name. It was the kind of casual place where they would come around with a pot, heap a big spoonful of something onto our banana leaves, and then ask if that was enough, or if we wanted more. It was incredibly cheap, and the banana leaf sets were different every day.
Have you been to Melaka? If you haven’t been, what have you heard about it?