Travel Through Writing: Culture, Chaos & Colour of Melaka

The conductor signaled me towards the boarding gate, and I stumbled forward in a hurry, nearly tripping over my feet. Here I was, a naive soul with no sense of direction, about to embark on a journey mere hours away from my home. Mind you, this was my first trip alone, and admittedly - I felt nervous.

In the meantime, whip out your travel planner and jot some notes down because, frankly speaking, you wouldn’t want to miss out on today’s itinerary where I take on one of Malaysia’s famed relic cities down south — MELAKA.

Melaka (also known as Malacca) was considered one of Southeast Asia’s most significant trading ports, beginning as a simple fishing village to a now sleepy backwater city rich with historic relics and landmarks. It’s mostly well known for its unique Nyonya culture and cuisine - being a hotchpotch of Malay, Chinese, Indian, European, and sundry influences. 

TIP #1:

If you’re on a student budget or simply don’t want to invest heavily on transportation, you can book a bus from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan for only RM 10-18! With a travel time of 2 hours, it's a totally affordable and reliable way to travel.

Now, I had a vague idea of history and culture tied to the city after some basic research and several recommendations from friends. But as my bus began to round the corner, I saw that my measly Google searches barely did the place justice. I stepped off the bus in a daze and made my way towards the terminal, a little overwhelmed at how foreign it all looked. This was no Subang Jaya alright.

The terminal was littered with vintage local shops selling all kinds of goodies — handbags, trinkets, I-heart-Melaka t-shirts, souvenirs, you name it.

Phew. Looks like I reached safe and sound. With a sigh of relief, I was ready to begin my trip.

FIRST STOP: The Dutch Square

Now let’s take a little trip down history.

The Dutch Square (also known as the Red Square) is essentially like a carnival ground, surrounded by crimson painted buildings, reflecting different periods of colonial rule in Malaysia. The Stadthuys and Christ Church are old remnants from the 183-year-Dutch administration but the Queen Victoria’s Fountain, sitting right in the middle of the square, is a token from British rule. The Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower standing right in the corner, however, is a token of honour from our Asian brethren — the early Chinese settlers.

TIP #2:

Melaka, besides being a tourist hub, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. So take a peep at the History and Ethnography Museum at the Dutch Square for a real look at classic Melaka and how it retained its patchwork culture up till now.

For only RM 10-16, you’ll witness paintings, models, mannequins, and even old housing structures located within that’ll have you reliving 600 years worth of history in a 20-minute stroll.

It felt like entering a time capsule.

The voluminous red looked oh-so-striking, against the sun-struck grounds. But despite the blinding colour tones, the medieval architecture retained some sense of age and fragility. Almost like living out the pages of a history book. Every building had a story to tell. Housed inside were various Malaysian galleries, historical museums detailing colonial rule, and one too many souvenir shops selling various goodies.

But strangely enough, I was very drawn to Queen Victoria’s Fountain most of all. It morphed me into a child again who learned about Victorian Britain in school and eerily enough, here was a monument of her right in my sight. I felt like I could practically spend the whole day here and still find something unique at every corner I took!

After some exploring and several, several photos later, my body began to droop and my legs felt sluggish. The heat was settling into my skin as sweat slowly began dripping down my neck. Yikes. Bad day to forget sunscreen. Or sunglasses for that matter.

TIP #3:

Acclimate your travel plans to the climate and location. Check the weather report a day or two prior. Stock up on cold drinks or snacks for those dire hunger moments. Dress comfortably and sensibly — e.g. good walking shoes for on-foot travel. And most of all - SUNSCREEEEN to avoid nasty burns.

PS: To evade scorching weather and humidity, November to January seems about the right time to visit than say March to July.

Cue the entrance of Melaka’s trusty transportation mode, the Trishaw.

Unlike those in Penang, these cycle rickshaws were adorned with colourful cartoon characters and had various catchy jingles playing as they rode on. It was a bizarre sight to witness the swarm of colours, especially against the elegant red of the Dutch Square.

Dabbing the sweat off my temple, I muster up the courage to hitch a ride. With the wind in my hair and a smile plastered on from cheek-to-cheek, I whizz off to my next destination — A Famosa.

SECOND STOP: A Famosa Hill

While we saw the likes of British and Dutch colonisation, A Famosa was from the Portuguese era, a fortress built to house the entire Portuguese administration. What remains may be faded whitewashed ruins, but the structure is still a well-cherished relic to Melaka’s long history.

My inner-history geek couldn’t help squeal at the sight of the fortress. Here was a symbol of Melaka, raw and ruined, yet still standing all these centuries. After a good 20 minutes of exploring, I debated on climbing the steep steps up to St.Paul’s Church, another building left behind by the Portuguese. A good huff and puff and, several regrets later, I finally arrived at the top of the hill.

And lo and behold stood the statue of St. Francis Xavier against the roofless, two-storey summit in the distance. The church was immensely large with decaying stone walls and engraved with several tombstones. For some reason, I could feel my heart was thumping hard. The church felt oddly eerie, almost like a walk-in cemetery. 

By the time I wrapped up my hill adventures and trudged down the steps, my stomach began yelping in pain. Ah, perfect timing! What better time to treat myself to some Nyonya delicacies.

TIP #4:

Want to bring back something for your mates or family? Or need something personal to commemorate your journey?

There are tons of local souvenir shops, antique stores, or portrait corners to pop by for something unique to purchase. Take home a piece of Melaka with perhaps, some vintage Nyonya postcards or a sit-down live sketch by skilled artists around the area. There’s enough culture to go around for everyone!

THIRD STOP: Jonker Street Delights

We may be only at our third stop, but rest assured I dined at more than one place along Jonker Street.

  • Baba Nyonya Delicacies @ Jonker 88

The location was tucked away in the corner with several hawker stalls situated inside to choose from. The seating area was glorious, decked with vintage movie posters and propaganda stills from Communist China. But I was all ready to EAT. Now I’d heard raving reviews from almost every Melakan over their Asam Laksa and needless to say, I didn’t need any other reason to welcome another spicy friend into the mix. And boy it did not disappoint. The laksa was truly delicious in every way, down to the thick noodles to the rich coconut flavoured soup. But note to self: really spicy means fire-breathing spicy. I needed to drench my mouth with easily three spoons of cendol before I could take the next bite. My pants were practically bursting at the seams by the time I was done.

  • Desserts @ Baboon House

I’ll admit, I was quite beat after lunch… and just a tad bit sleepy. To freshen up, I made a swift stop at a little cafe not too far from Jonker 88. If Jonker 88 represented old Melaka, then Baboon House definitely showcased contemporary Melaka. Decked in Nyonya finery with the aid of old Chinese fiddle music in the background, the cafe seemed a perfect place to get my strengths up. Wolfing down an apple crumble cake and some rich coffee, I felt ready to continue on my tour.

TIP #5:

Hawker stalls and local artisan shops are the essence of good food in Melaka. Try steering clear of corporate restaurants or food chains that may not live up to the authenticity of praised Melakan delicacies. After all, what better way to explore the city than through the stomach?

FOURTH STOP: River Cruise

Now, if you’ve paraded around the Dutch Square and Jonker Street, you’d definitely have caught sight of the riverside murals on display. But rest assured taking a cruise on Melaka River will definitely give you an up and close look at these visual ecstasies.

If you fancy yourself an art connoisseur or simply want a vibrant take of the city, free of laborious legwork, then the river cruise option is perfect for you. The cruise comes to about RM 25-30, coupled with a cosy little jetty for transport. So why don’t you give those blisters a break, eh?

The weather turned a lot kinder as I settled in on the jetty, a slight wind in the air. But I was preoccupied with the view around me. My fingers hovered over my camera button, clicking away at all the sights whizzing by in a flash. Every turn gave me a fresh, new look at the city, stained with colour and creativity.

Needless to say,  the so-called ‘sleepy’ city retained personality in each corner. The cruise, however, unexpectedly took up a chunk of time and left me a peckish for a bite or two.

TIP #6:

Planning to hit up the cruise on your trip over?

Pick your timings wisely! The cruise operates from 9am to 11.30pm but sometimes the climate has other plans for us. A good look at all the sights means starting before noon, the earlier the better! But if you want to kick back your heels and relax, then sunset/night-time sounds appropriate. Not to worry though, the decorative lighting after night has fallen helps illuminate the experience!

Also, steer clear of heavy or thick clothing that may be uncomfortable to wear after an accidental soak! Airy and light outfits are always preferable.

By now it was about 6pm and dusk was slipping into the horizon. I decided to conserve my energy for the last bit of the tour and cool off after such a fiery day. Giving in to my sugar cravings, I stopped by a mini ice-cream shop on the riverside called Fruit Cones. Made fresh with real fruits and milk, I savoured every bit of my strawberry ice cream, thankful that my wallet didn’t take a hit despite such generous portions of deliciousness.

FIFTH STOP: Jonker Walk Night Market

Ah. What a loooong day, and finally we’re at the last stop.

It’s time for the night festivities! Take a jostle down Jonker Walk Night Market for some eateries, souvenirs, and other knick-knacks. Much like a glorified version of the terminal scene earlier, the night market is lively and filled with fun (albeit chaos too!) Jonker Street had been transformed with stalls occupying every corner, bright overhead lights hanging across coupled with stall owners loudly beckoning interest from onlookers. 

I didn’t know quite where to start. From devouring several quail eggs, chicken rice balls, more cendol, and fried ice cream (haha cavities here I come!) as well as several guilty purchases of I-heart-Melaka t-shirts, I’d safely say this was the highlight of my day.

While my wallet wouldn’t probably echo the same sentiment after that spending spree, Melaka enchanted me in every way, both my soul and stomach.

TIP #7:

There’s always one bad apple in every basket so watch out for pickpockets and snatch thieves! The night market is a perfect location for them to prowl on their victims so best keep your hands secured on your belongings and eyes on the watch for strange activity.

My Final Thoughts?

You’d think I’d have some elaborate last words to say but in all honesty visiting Melaka is a true Malaysian experience, in its rawest form.

Despite reaching home close after midnight, I felt giddily happy and my heart felt immensely full. My only sorrow was not having nearly enough time to cover all the other sought-after spots. Some of these include the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Melaka Straits Mosque, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, and so much more.

While I daresay I’d covered a lot of ground in a day, it didn’t touch half as much as what the city still had to offer. The peace and serenity of Melaka has me craving to come back for a second round, but this time with some of my best mates to join in on the experience too!

So what are you waiting for?

Get educated a little on the nation’s diverse heritage and foundations, snap some great photos for Instagram (of course!), and treat yourself to some authentic delicacies. Book your tickets now! (or perhaps maybe after the RMCO ends because we’re still committed to flattening the curve)

Final Tip:

I had with me RM150 at the start of the trip which also allowed me to indulge in snacks during the journey as well as souvenirs.

If you’re on a tight budget, RM120 would cover your travel and tour expenses (including those extra Grab and trishaw expenses which you’d be grateful for after a long day of walking!)

Karen Grace Prince is currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Communication (Honours) at Taylor's University. She is also the Director of Events Committee for the Taylor's Model United Nations Club (TLMUN) and Director of Ext. Operations for TLMUN 2020 Conference Secretariat Team.