M E L A K A

Located on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, overlooking the famed Straits of Malacca with which it shares its name, Malacca or Melaka lies between Sembilan and Johor, some 150km from Kuala Lumpur.
The city state of Melaka began life as an obscure little village whose residents made their living fishing in the coastal waters and maritime trade with the nearby kingdoms. Kampung Kling Mosque, Melaka

Malacca, in its more famous avatar came into being when an exiled Sumatran prince, Parameswara founded the city sometime between 1376 and 1400 AD. Local legend tells us that Parameswara was out hunting when his discovered his hunting dogs at the receiving end of a fight with a tiny white mouse deer or pelandok. So impressed was the prince with the courage of the tiny deer that he established a city on the very same spot and named it Malacca after the tree under which he rested.

As Malacca prospered and grew into a powerful southeast Asian kingdom, it attracted traders from China who paid the king money in order to be allowed to trade in the city. Parameswara had by this time converted to Islam and was now known as the Sultan Iskander Shah. With royal patronage from the Sultan, Islam flourished and became the religion of the Malay Peninsula. By the time Iskander Shah died in 1424, his city had grown into a bustling commercial centre - an international port frequented by Javanese, Indian, Arabs, Persians, Malabarese, Khmers, Thai, Burmese and Chinese sea merchants trading in spices, silks, gold, tea, opium and tobacco.

As stories of Malacca’s wealth and prosperity spread in the region, it attracted the attention of Europe’s imperial powers. The Portuguese were the first to arrive led by Alfonso d’Alberquerque and stayed on for more than 130 years, leaving an indelible impact on the cultural and social heritage of Melaka. The Dutch captured Melaka from the Portuguese in 1641 though Djakarta continued to be their base in the Dutch East Indies. The last of the Malacca’s European rulers were the British who ruled here till Malaysia gained its independence in 1957. The different cultural inputs from the many communities who either traded in or ruled over Malacca have given it a multi-ethnic character that is apparent in the architecture, religious tolerance, social traditions and cultural diversity of the city.

The 658 sq km city state of Melaka is divided into three main regions - Alor Gajah, Central Malacca and Jasin. A trip to Melaka, as it is now called is a walk down history’s memory lane. The city-state is replete with mosques, temples, medieval fortresses and old ruins that showcase it’s rich past. Modern day Melaka is home to a multi-ethnic population comprising Malays, Chinese, Indian Tamils, Nonya or Strait Chinese and Portuguese nationalities. It has lost its raison d etre as a prominent trading port but still retains a quaint charm. A sleepy city with a slow pace of life, tourists are fascinated and enchanted by the sight of junks winding their way past the waterfront, by tightly packed streets full of old temples, mosques and shops that sell some genuine and plenty of fake antiques.

The city of Melaka has a wealth of historical monuments and heritage buildings dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries and each one tells its own story. The Portuguese built their stronghold at A’Famosa in 1511 and soon after the imposing St Paul’s Church on St Paul’s Hill. The Jesuit priest later beatified as St Francis Xavier often visited the island and he was buried at the Gothic St Francis Xavier’s Church before his mortal remains were shifted to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in the Portuguese territory of Goa. Under the Dutch, the church was semi abandoned and used primarily as a cemetery. The British went a step further and used the by now defunct church to store gunpowder!

A little bit of Portugal in Melaka is the Portuguese Settlement dating back to 1930s. Mostly inhabited by Eurasians of mixed Portuguese and Asian descent, it acquires a carnivalesque ambience during feasts and festivals with plenty of music and dance to add colour and gaiety to the event.

The Stadthuys is an imposing pink building built by the Dutch in the mid 1600s housed the town hall. The Stadthuys contains all the features characteristics of Dutch colonial architecture from enormous doors to louvred windows. It is the oldest building of Dutch origin in Asia and now houses the Ethnographic Museum as well as some government offices. The Ethnographic Museum showcases the rich cultural heritage of Melaka. The Dutch left another memorial of their rule in the beautiful Christ Church built in 1753 - it is the best example of traditional Dutch style architecture in the region with its wooden beams and pews. St John’s Fort was the Dutch bastion on the island and gets its name from the chapel to St John built by the Portuguese.

The Maritime Museum is located on Jalan Merdeka - it is a huge replica of a Portuguese ship, the Flor de la Mar that sank in the Malacca Straits. Amongst the more interesting exhibits at this primarily nautical museum are navigational instruments, old maps, models of ancient ships and other marine memorabilia. The Melaka Cultural Museum is housed in the Melaka Sultanate Palace, a wooden building that has been built on the basis of descriptions of the royal palace found in the Malay Annals.

Another fine museum is the Baba and Nonya Heritage Museum located in a house at Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lok. Privately owned, the museum showcases through a fine collection of artefacts and furniture the cultural heritage of an unusual community. The Nonya, Nyonya or Strait Chinese are the descendents of Chinese who came to Melaka in the 15th century as the entourage of a Chinese princess married to Sultan Mansur Shah. The entourage consisted of 500 maidens sent as ‘gifts’ for the Malay men - their Sino-Malay offspring became the Strait Chinese community of Melaka.

With its multi-ethnic population, Melakan society evolved a tolerant personality - evidence of which can be seen in the varied religious architecture in the city. The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in the old city was established in 1648 and is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. Within walking distance of each other are the Kampung Kling Mosque and the Hindu temple Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple.

An integral part of the historical heritage of Melaka are the tombs of 5 great warriors of Chinese origin who served the Sultan of Melaka, Mansur Shah 500 years ago. Hang Tuah Mausoleum at Klebang is dedicated to the legendary Chinese warrior; similarly, another intrepid warrior’s contribution in protecting Melaka from outside attacks is recognised at the Mausoleum of Hang Kasturi. Huang Tuah’s Well and the Princess Hang Li Po’s Well have been transformed into wishing wells for the gullible.

The Melaka River Cruise presents a different view of both the city and its history as the boat slowly sails down the Melaka River. For a more dramatic glimpse of the history of Melaka, check out the Light and Sound Show at Padang Pahlawan (Warrior's Field) on Jalan Parameswara.

Melaka’s other attractions includes the beaches along the coast at Tanjung Bidara and Tanjung Kling and the off shore islands of Pulau Besar and Pulau Upeh. Also interesting are visits to the Reptile Park, Butterfly Farm, Crocodile Farm and Melaka Zoo.

Getting There: Melaka is not too far away from most places on the Malaysian mainland and express buses, chartered tours, trains and rented vehicles are all easily available. Melaka city is 144 km (2.5 hrs driving time) from Kuala Lumpur, 250km from Johor Bahru and 300km from Kuantan. A ferry service operates between Melaka and Dumai in Indonesia. Within the city, the perfect way to move around is to either walk or hire a trishaw- their fares vary depending on both duration and distance.

Accommodation: There are multiple accommodation options available for tourists/visitors to Melaka beginning from excellent hotels in the city to condotels, mid- budget hotels, chalets, beach huts and resort complexes on the islands of Besar and Upeh.

Dining & Entertainment: Melaka offers some terrific food - visitors are indeed spoilt for choice as a veritable feast unfolds before them, be it traditional Malay, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese or western cuisine. Whatever its origin, the food in Melaka is always zesty, spicy and pungent

But the high culinary note in Melaka is undoubtedly Peranakan (Nonya) cuisine. Peranakan is a near gourmet coming together of Chinese and Malay cuisines - the dishes to try out are acar, sambal, otak otak (fish steamed in banana leaf), itik tim or duck served with salted vegetables, satay celup and banana flower buds cooked together with crab in coconut sauce. The best way to wind up a divine meal is with kueh koci, glutinous rice flour parcels filled with tender coconut, steamed wrapped in a banana leaf and served in rich syrup of gula melaka (Melaka palm sugar).

 For detailed country and visitor information, see Malaysia.

Introduction