Exploring historic Melaka

A historic port town set on the narrowest point of the MalaccaStrait, Melaka was once the capital of a prosperous sultanate back in the 1400s, then an entrepôt for successive European powers, before coming into its own as a modern-day Malaysian city. Today, Melaka’s history can be experienced first-hand through the city’s many museums and historical sites, which have earned the city recognition as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Trishaws are a common and popular form of transport in Melaka.

Trishaws are a common and popular form of transport in Melaka. Pic: Tourism Malaysia.

All told, 600 years of history has made Melaka one ofMalaysia’s most absorbing museum towns, with plenty of buildings preserved from centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, alongside an entrancing cultural mix of Malaysian Portuguese, Peranakan and Malay communities.

Many of Melaka’s historical structures can be explored within an hour-and-a-half walk through the old town straddling theMalaccaRiver.

Start with the Melaka Town Square, whose Dutch colonial architecture can most clearly be seen in Christ Church and the Stadthuys. The former is the oldestProtestantChurch inMalaysia, built in 1753 with bricks imported fromHolland. The latter is Melaka’s historic seat of government, hosting successive administrations from the Dutch era to 1979, after which it was converted into theMuseum ofHistory and Ethnography. Another Dutch-era building, the post office, now serves as aYouthMuseum and an art gallery.

Stadhuys, Melaka’s historic seat of government.

Stadhuys, Melaka’s historic seat of government. Pic: Tourism Malaysia.

The British left a mark on the town square as well – the Queen Victoria Fountain was constructed here to mark the eponymous monarch’s 60th year of rule.

A few minutes’ walk south from the town square, you’ll find two relics of Portuguese rule standing close together – St. Paul’s Church and the A’ Famosa fortress, both built by the Portuguese in the 1500s, both left in ruins.

St. Paul’s church is closely tied to the Catholic Jesuit saint Francis Xavier, who received the title deeds of the church himself, then was buried on the site before being transferred to Goain 1952. The church was largely abandoned by the time the British took over. A’Famosa used to be a mighty fortress, and was largely demolished by the British until Sir Stamford Raffles intervened. Only the fortress gate, or Porta de Santiago, remains.

Melaka’s history is closely tied with trade and with it the Peranakan way of life. Peranakan is a fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures, emerging from the intermarriage between Chinese traders and local Malay women. Wealthy Peranakan traders built magnificent residences in Melaka, one of which has been transformed into the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum. This establishment, located on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, gives visitors an inside look at how three generations of Peranakans lived under one roof. The interiors are richly furnished with a blend of Chinese, Dutch, and Victorian English décor.

Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum.

Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum. Pic: Tourism Malaysia.

The city’s trading heritage has never really gone away, and you can visit Jalan Hang Jebat, or Jonker Street, to get a good look at how today’s Melakans do business.Jonker Street is lined with a variety of antique stores, souvenir shops, galleries, and cafes. On weekends, a night market opens downJonker Street, hawking handicrafts, local delicacies, and clothing till the wee hours.

Melaka’s food heritage drinks deeply from its history, with an amazing spread of nyonya (Peranakan), Indian, and Portuguese foods available throughout the city. Nyonya cuisine serves savory dishes like itik tim (duck stew) and otak-otak (spicy fish wrapped in banana leaf), all created using a combination of Chinese and Malay techniques and ingredients. The thriving local Portuguese community leaves its culinary mark, too, with dishes like pasu kaemadu (baked fish) and el diablo curry (fiery-hot curry).

Classic dishes like Hainanese chicken rice can also be had at Melaka, but with a twist: the Melakans like their chicken rice served with pingpong-size balls of rice, a relic of the days when laborers needed a convenient way to eat their lunches. The Melakans also do satay differently: satay celup is a local favorite, a “steamboat” style preparation of seafood, vegetables, and assorted meats that diners dunk into boiling satay sauce.

All in all, Melaka is a wondrous city where Malaysian history comes alive. How you choose to experience that history – whether by exploring its buildings, or by stuffing yourself silly with the local cuisine – is entirely up to you.

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