Melaka is a historic colonial city in Malaysia about two hours from Kuala Lumpur and four from Singapore . The city is a melting pot of European and Asian culture and was originally the centre of the Malay world. It’s since been governed by the Chinese, Portuguese,Dutch and finally the British before Malaysia achieved independence.
The city is small enough to walk around, although the heat can be unbearable in the afternoon. The city consists mainly of two districts; Little India and China town.
Melaka’s China town was once home to the wealthy merchants, and is filled with restaurants, shops and backpacker hostels.
Little India is a little bit run down but the food in the area more than makes up for that.
The Dutch ruled Melaka for almost two centuries but Melaka declined in importance during this time, as the Dutch preferred Batavia( know know as Jakarta) as an economic centre in the region. They held Melaka to keep other European powers from gaining a foothold in the area. Despite this, the Dutch built heavily in Melaka and on my first visit, a lot of time was spent re-familiarising myself with European style architecture, after 14 months in Asia.
Dutch Square is the place to head first and from there, St Paul’s Church, the Chinese and Indian districts are all a short walk away.
The architecture and history of Melaka is all very interesting especially the area surrounding St Paul’s Church originally built by the Portuguese in 1521 . It was also the burial place of St Francis Xavier I’d never heard of him but I’ve since learnt he was responsible for spreading Catholicism in India. day after the statue was consecrated, a tree hit it, breaking off its right arm. Spookily, the right forearm of Xavier was also detached in 1614 as a relic.
The church looks impressive in the distance but close up shows its age. Inside the ruins now, only gravestones remain but its definitely worth a look and you get a great 360 view of the city from the hill that the church stands upon.
Food & Culture
In Malaysia, you can spend all day eating, the choice of food is that varied. I found myself having about six meals a day on my second visit. Both times I visited Melaka, I stayed at Jalan-Jalan Emas backpackers. It’s a social hostel with a peaceful atmosphere, only disturbed by the prayers booming out five time a day on loudspeaker from the local mosque. Jalan Jalan is smack bang in the middle of China town and ran by Sam and Lee, who also organise a dinner club every night for anyone feeling social and looking for tips from a local.
For one of these dinner clubs, we were taken to a local Gurdwara. Gurdwara is the name given to the Sikh place of worship. Attached to every Gurdwara is a free kitchen where the food, Langar, is prepared and served. The idea behind this is to provide somewhere free(or very cheap) to eat so the Sikh’s are closer as a community and also interact with other communities. Like the backpacker community!
Following Sikh customs, we all put a head scarf on,washed our feet and then enjoyed a plate of vegetable curry and rice with a cup of the famous Malaysian camomile tea. Sikhs do eat meat but in Gurdwara, only vegetarian meals are served,
We then helped out with the washing up, much to the annoyance of an elderly woman who seemed quite happy doing it herself. I was so impressed I went back for breakfast on another day, although potato cake and ginger that made my eyes water it was that spicy, isn’t my idea of breakfast.
We also went to a famous satay chicken restaurant called Capitol Satay where about 8 of us huddled round a table, chose various sticks of meat and vegetables and dipped them into a giant pot of satay. Word of warning though, get there early as the queue for a table is usually out the door and down the street. I can’t think of anything like it in the western world but if the queue is huge, there’s plenty of other places to eat in Melaka(I feel food in Malaysia deserves a blog post of it’s own in the future).
Celebrations and Ghost Money!
I was lucky enough to be in Melaka for two of the biggest festivals of the year: Malaysian Independence Day and Lunar New Year. Walking around the streets of the Chinese District on Malaysian Independence Day, people were burning paper money in the streets. I was told this was done on all special occasions and it was for the spirits. The idea of this ritual is that because you’ve burnt it in this world, someone can spend it in the afterlife. But for some strange reason, burning real money is bad luck! Whatever the reason,it made Melaka look incredible whilst sipping a beer late at night.
With Malaysia being a young country, having only achieved independence from Britain in 1957, the day of independence is still pretty big deal and there were fireworks, marching bands and just general craziness at night! The music-playing lit up boats were packed out on the canal and people were seemed slightly bemused at us cheering and waving at them.
For me, Melaka was the best place for getting a feel of how Malaysians live and co-exist with people from so many different religious backgrounds in one place. Add to that the relaxed vibe and great food, it makes it unmissable for anyone visiting Malaysia!
Have you been to Melaka? What was your favourite place to eat? Did you get as badly destroyed by mosquitos as I did?
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