Among Malaysia’s most charming cities, Melaka is awash in fascinating history, as well. Travel photojournalist David Bowden pokes around on a walking tour of Melaka’s heritage area and discovers that there is much to learn and much to enjoy.
Melaka (also spelled Malacca) has always been a favourite destination for both local and international travellers. The city centre has a wealth of unique and historic attractions that cannot fail to impress tourists seeking to discover a decent slice of Malaysian history. Both the back alleys and more popular tourist’s attractions like its antique shops,museums and restaurants in the historic heart of the old town are well worth exploring. The heritage zone is best explored on foot as traffic, especially at the weekends, can be a real challenge.
Collectively, Melaka and George Town, Penang comprise a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site (Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca), which puts them up there with the world’s best natural and cultural sites.While both must have some common principles of management, many may wonder, as the two locations appear to be charting very different courses in their development. While Penang appears to be making do with what they have, Melaka has taken the “development must be good” approach in creating attractions. Some would argue that the heritage alone is more than enough to attract tourists and that the challenge for Melaka is to restore, renovate, and refurbish what is there to what it once was.
Melaka is strategically located along one of the busiest waterways in the world. The Straits of Malacca evolved as a place to unload goods from boats travelling from China and the region onto other boats heading to Europe. It was once one of the region’s busiest ports, although visitors today must wonder, as the dock area is quite small. Foreshore reclamation resulted in the coastline being extended well beyond the boundary with the Straits of Malacca and these days, there is little resemblance to the former coastline. Development has been rapid and every skyward on this land and now hotels, apartments and shopping malls confuse many who come to discover the city’s heritage.
However, parts of the historic heart of Melaka have been preserved for the tourists who mainly descend upon the town centre to see the sites that have heritage value. The best place to begin exploring is in the centre of the old town, near the bridge built on the location where Portuguese soldiers made their final assault on the town several centuries ago.
The Portuguese overthrow was one of many colonial incursions into Straits life, as Melaka was once a key port for trading spices, tea from China, and goods from the Melaka hinterland. Melaka remained under Portuguese control for more than 100 years before they were removed by the Dutch. After 150 years of occupation, the Dutch in turn ceded their territory to the British.
The architectural blend of present day Melaka is eclectic, exciting and something new awaits at every road intersection. Chinese structures stand adjacent to Dutch-built churches and Moorish inspired mosques are also evident. All colonial influences are reflected in the architecture of Dutch Square and visitors could well be forgiven for thinking they were in old Amsterdam while standing in front of the Christ Church and the adjoining Stadthuys. The striking brick-red Christ Church is the oldest functioning Protestant Church in Malaysia.
The ruin of the St Paul’s Church, built in 1512, is still a popular tourist attraction and excursion site for local students. At the foot of St Paul’s Hill are the Porta de Santiago, and all that remains of A’Famosa. In the early 19th century, the British East India Company wanted to demolish the fort, but fortunately, Sir Stamford Raffles intervened to save the ruin of Porta de Santiago.
Just across the Melaka River, the historic commercial centre of Melaka is dominated by old two-storey Chinese shoplots. The Melaka River is also an historic landmark and it’s possible to go on river cruise to gain an insight into the lifestyle of the people currently living along the river and to learn about the past. While modern-day commercialism dominates the retailing scene here, there are some stores selling local items that are remotely authentic. Sadly, most of the sarongs, fridge magnets, tea towels and other assorted items are made in China, Indonesia, or Thailand and have little to do with the local culture.
Conversely, antiques stores like Abdul’s, Ying Yang Collectibles, Jacob Antiques and Malaqa House along Jalan Hang Jebat or Jalan Tun Cheng Lock are packed with pieces of antiquity from around Malaysia, China and the region. Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock was once Melaka’s “Millionaires Row” and there are some fine examples of Baba Nyonya-style houses along the street.
Temple Street has been dubbed the “Street of Harmony” as it houses three different religious temples on the same side of the street and all close by. These religious communities have coexisted peacefully here for over three centuries.
While there are many landmark buildings in the historic heart, there are also many others that have yet to make the guidebooks. Some shops look as if the families here have been doing the same economic activity for decades.
Out Of Town
Most visitors will arrive in Melaka via the North-South Highway at the Ayer Keroh toll gate. Several tourist attractions are located near Ayer Keroh including Zoo Melaka, Ayer Keroh Recreational Forest, Crocodile Park, Taman Mini Malaysia, and an Orang Asli Museum. The small zoo has a good selection of animals, including the endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros. The Malacca Butterfly and Reptile Sanctuary is home to butterflies, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, birds, tortoises, and many more species in easy-to-see and visitorfriendly enclosures. Young children will love this as there are several hands-on opportunities and places for photographs.
See Also: KL To Johor Bahru Road Trip
Mini Malaysia and Mini ASEAN is home to miniature replicas of Malay houses, as well as some from around the region. Local games and cultural performances are staged here daily. Just down the road is what must be Malaysia’s largest ten-pin bowling alley with scores of lanes with competitively priced bowling.
Immediately opposite is the Melaka Planetarium which has got to be one of Malaysia’s best-kept secrets. This handson adventure science centre includes a most amazing 15-metre internal dome space theatre to enable kids of all ages to take a 3D journey through space.
Location in choosing where to stay is important as most of Melaka’s historic highlights are best explored on foot. The Hotel Equatorial Melaka overlooks and is within easy walking distance of most of the attractions but in particular the remains of St Paul’s Church, and A’Famosa. The Hotel Equatorial Melaka is well-positioned to capture the enticing views of the Straits of Malacca as well as to access the Old Town district. Its restaurant features typical local cuisine of Nyonya, Portuguese (Cristang), and Nusantara origin.
The Majestic Malacca is an integral part of Melaka’s history, dating back to the 1800s. From the outside, the hotel is a faithful restoration of the original hotel but step inside and you enter a stylish and plush ambiance of teak, silk, and leather furniture. At the rear of the original hotel mansion is a contemporary 10-storey building designed to blend in with the original hotel as best a large building can. Its Spa Village uses traditional local treatments combined with the best international styles. Another peaceful retreat is The Library, with comfortable leather lounges for peaceful contemplation and reflection.
Philea Resort & Spa in Ayer Keroh is a unique log-constructed resort built from imported Russian pine. Step inside one of the 180 villas here and it’s obvious there’s nothing rustic about the interiors apart from the exposed timber and beautiful stonework. All are equipped with plasma television, complimentary wi-fi, and luxurious furnishings.
Another new hotel in Ayer Keroh is The Kahaani, a luxury boutique villa with personalised butler service. Formerly the official residence of the Malacca State Governor, The Kahaani is stylish in offering an irresistibly elegant lifestyle. The mansion is filled with generous and lavish interiors, comprising an allembracing hall, premier and customary luxury suites, deluxe suite, elite private lounge and dining hall, plus fully equipped reading and meeting rooms. Its beautifully landscaped garden is perfected by a beach pool for ultimate leisure. Rooms feature a blend of modern and colonial décor.
Rediscovering Melaka is always a pleasant experience and one that can be done time and time again.
Source: Senses of Malaysia March/April 2014
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