Skip hectic Kuala Lumpur for historic Malacca

Malacca was once the center of Southeast Asia’s bustling marine mercantile. Sheltered from Southeast Asia’s raging development, the heart of old Malaysia can be found here.

We had heard that Malacca, unlike the hectic modern capital city of Kuala Lumpur, has a more relaxed old-world charm that is inviting and tantalizing. So when we thought about where we wanted to hang out (before our flight out of Kuala Lumpur to see the orangutans in Sumatra), we decided to give Malacca a shot.

It was the right call; as Malacca has an old-world charm and rich history that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss on our visit to Malaysia.

Malacca — “multiculti” before the term hit the streets

Malacca, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located on the southwestern coast of the Malay Peninsula opposite Sumatra on the protected Straits of Malacca between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Because of its strategic location and safe harbor, Malacca was an important stopping point for Chinese marine traders centuries ago.

The famed fleet led by Admiral Zheng He made Malacca a regular port of call as early as the 15th century. To enhance relations, he brought the daughter of the Ming Emperor of China (attended by 500 servants) to Malacca to marry the reigning sultan. Her servants soon married locals and settled down, placing an early Chinese stamp on the city.

Over the years, other powerful mariner nations recognized the importance of the port city of Malacca, and it was subsequently conquered and ruled by Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists and even the Japanese during WWII.

Thanks to this multi-cultural background, you can also find all kinds of religions, customs and foods here.

Walk along the Malacca River

The river at the historic quarter of Morten Village/Kampung Morten is a great place to start your tour of Malacca. This neighborhood boasts about 100 historic houses. And while you can still find some gems here, many of these traditional homes are a little too restored and “cleaned up” for my tastes.

Kampung Mortem Village, Malacca

The almost too-perfect historic quarter of Kampung Mortem

As you walk along the river, you’ll pass cafes, restaurants, gift shops and bars housed in historic warehouses, homes and other buildings that date from various points in Malacca’s rich history. You won’t want to look too close at the river, there’s all kinds of stuff floating in there (and it gives off a bit of a stink) – a very common problem in populated places in Asia.

Malacca River walk

Local tourists walking along the Malacca River

Eventually you’ll reach the heart of the city. Back in the “day” you’d actually be standing on the very edge of the harbor. Today, due to years of land reclamation (dumping dredge to extend the coastline), you’re still a good distance from the actual coast. This kind of reclamation is really good practice for the marine environment, but Malaysia’s government is not exactly what I would call eco-minded.

Architecture tells a story in Malacca

Malacca has been passed back and forth between many nations, evidence of which is reflected in the city’s many different styles of architecture.

One of our first stops in Malacca’s downtown was a climb up St. Paul’s Hill (Bukit St. Paul) to the remains of St. Paul’s Church, which was built a decade after the arrival of the Portuguese in 1511.

Around this hill, the old Portuguese fort A Famosa was erected, of which the only remaining structure nowadays is the gate Porta de Santiago. The rest was taken down by the British when they arrived in 1879. Nearby, we explored some excavations and a reconstruction of a watchtower on top of some unearthed remains, pretty cool!

Porta de Santiago, Malacca

All that remains of the Portuguese Fort A Famosa: Porta de Santiago

After the Portuguese were kicked out by the Dutch in 1641, the city underwent a restyling. One can clearly see this in the northwestern side of Bukit St. Paul in Dutch Square (also called Red Square).

When you see this part of the city it’s easy to see why they call it Red Square: all the structure are bright, terracotta-red, colonial Dutch buildings from the late 17th and 18th century. The most prominent one is the Stadthuys (the official residence of the Dutch governors and later used as a town hall under the British), which is right next to the Christ Church Malaka. The square in front of them is dominated by a fountain and a clocktower, both of which are more modern than they look (1904 and 1886).

Red Square, Malacca

The Red Square in Malacca lives up to its name

With the arrival of the Dutch, houses built of narrow bricks suddenly became popular; these bricks were used as ballast on the trading ships on their journey from Europe before they were loaded with Asian goods for the trip back. (Unloaded, they would have likely capsized in heavy seas.)

Another characteristic of this delightful city is that most of the homes in the old quarter are very narrow and only have a few small windows on the front. This was not really an aesthetic design choice but practical, as taxes were assessed by the width of a house and the number of windows.

However, don’t let this diminutive size fool you. They might be narrow, but many are incredible long. We entered a few (a good number of these old homes are now businesses open to the public), and they seem to go on forever with beautiful indoor courtyards and endless rooms.

Chinatown house inside, Malacca

Inside one of the houses in Malacca’s Chinatown that seem to go on forever.

The Peranakans of Malacca’s Jonker Street and its surroundings

One of the most famous streets in Malacca is Jonker Street in Chinatown. Once home to Dutch merchants, wealthy Peranakans eventually moved in and started to do business here.

Peranakans are Chinese who intermarried with Malaysians. They are known for proudly displaying both their newly adopted culture and customs and also their old Chinese heritage. Their houses are often flamboyant and colorful and have rich, detailed facades.

Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum, Chinatown, Malacca

The Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum is a fine example of Peranakan housing in Malacca’s Chinatown district

Today, many of these homes are antique shops where one can find a wide range of items that speak to the many centuries of inhabitants here, such as old maps, wooden desks, treasure chests and paravents. Just be a bit cautious, as not everything they call an antique is really an antique. We actually saw an “antique” LED lamp for sale– although not everything is that obviously fake.

Jonker Walk and its neighboring streets are also known for their many hip bars and restaurants. Besides the traditional shops, there were many organic food bars and an awesome café called Calanthe Art Café that served coffees from all 13 Malaysian states. Micha’s not a big coffee drinker, but she suffered me while a did a bit of a taste test.

The famous night markets of Malacca

No visit to Malacca is complete without visiting the famous night markets on Jonker Street. They take place four times a week, from Thursday to Sunday and are well worth checking out.

You might mistakingly think everyone is a local here, as there are a lot of Asians attending these night markets. However, many of these are actually tourists from other parts of Malaysia and neighboring Asian countries. As Malacca lies one-third the way between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, it’s a hot tourist destination for people from all over the region.

Jonker Street night market in Malacca

Malacca’s Jonker Street fills up during the regular night markets

Of course you can find a lot of useless trinkets and souvenirs at the markets (and yes, you can watch the locals perform karaoke), but it’s actually the food that makes these markets so exciting. Make sure you haven’t eaten before you go, as you’ll want to feast on the countless dumplings, banana leaves filled with mysterious ingredients, dried fish in all types, skewers with pretty much everything grilling on them, sugar cane juice, and so forth.

Jonker Street night market in Malacca

The night markets in Malacca’s Jonker Street are a foodie’s dream

It was a good call to skip Kuala Lumpur and spend our time in Malacca. This city is a true voyage back through Malaysia’s history and culture and a nice break from the hectic modernization that is sweeping Southeast Asia.

Have you been to Malacca? What were your highlights there? Let us know in the comments below!


Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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