A Malaysian's Handy Tips to Explore Malacca
If you're visiting Malaysia, and planning an itinerary from Kuala Lumpur, chances are Malacca (spelled 'Melaka' in local Malay) is in the running. Dubbed Malaysia's Historical City, it is a joint UNESCO Heritage City together with Penang to the north. Easily reachable due to excellent highways and transfer options, it's an easy weekend trip to explore Malacca. Or make it a stop on a west coast road trip!
I have a soft spot for Malacca, because technically I am Malaccan. Although I don't actually have roots in the state, I was born in Malacca when my mother was posted there. But while I never did explore Malacca thereafter like a true blue native (we moved away by the time I was school age), I do end up returning every so often.
This guide is for the traveller who has mostly already decided to make Malacca a stop on their Malaysia itinerary. It is intended as a quick 'rules of thumb' guide based on my experience re-visiting Malacca, to speed up key decisions for your itinerary planning!
- Where To Stay When Visiting Malacca
- Useful Timing Considerations to Explore Malacca
- The Malacca Foods You Can't Leave Without Trying
- Why Malacca is more special than Penang
- Have fun exploring Malacca!
Where To Stay When Visiting Malacca
1. Stay inside Malacca's UNESCO Heritage zone
I'll make this really easy for you, in case you have any doubts whatsoever: stay inside the heritage zone, or at least adjacent. You might possibly find cheaper deals in the newer parts of Malacca city, but you're here maybe once in your life - stay in the heritage zone.
For one thing, the atmosphere is different. For another, in the heritage zone, you're within easy walking distance to pretty much all of the things you will want to see: the remnant of the A Famosa Portuguese fort; the Dutch era buildings; the famous main street, Jonker Walk; the curio shops and antique stores; the street food and cool cafes... you get the idea.
2. Stay next to Jonker Street instead of on the street itself
My second tip is, stay close to, but not on, Jonker Walk itself. This advice goes double if you're sensitive to noise and crowds. The popular Jonker Street is usually slightly more expensive because of name recognition, but it is right on the action. It will be noisier and busier, late into the night.
However, going just one street over and all of that disappears, while being almost as close to the action as makes no difference.
Similar to Penang, there are a lot of options to choose from within the Heritage Area, whatever your travel style and budget. I've tried the gamut from the chic backpacker's The Rucksack Caratel, to the refurbished old Peranakan shophouse Gingerflower Hotel, up to the Portuguese-inspired 5 star Casa del Rio. And yes, this range is all within a street or two of Jonker Walk, and near the river.
Useful Timing Considerations to Explore Malacca
I don't mean the weather, because the West Coast of peninsular Malaysia has fairly steady weather year-round.
Arrive for the weekend to catch the Jonker Street night market
If you have only a couple days, but want to catch the night market scene, aim to arrive Friday-Saturday. The night market is on those nights.
Otherwise, go out at night anyway. The riverfront is pretty with lights.
Visit during Chinese New Year to see the celebration
If you're planning to travel to Malaysia in the January-February time frame, find out exactly when Chinese New Year is that year. Aim for that if you want to see it celebrated in the Heritage Area. (The reason why I can't just tell you when it is, is explained in an article linked here). The streets are decked in red lanterns, firecrackers are lit in celebration, lion dances would be performed, and there might even be Chinese opera somewhere.
Hot tip: If you visit in this timeframe, you could choose to pick up a couple of other Malaysian festivals that typically happen around the same time. You could opt to see Thaipusam celebrated at the famous Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur. Or for something a little off the beaten track, you could sign up to be a guest at the Mah Meri tribe's Ancestor Day festival in their aboriginal territory on the coast of Selangor.
The Malacca Foods You Can't Leave Without Trying
I'm not going to give you a rundown of Malacca cuisine - a proper food blogger should be your go-to for that!
As this is Malaysia, there are numerous eating places. There are artsy places, and there are unassuming all-about-the-food places, there are pretentious speakeasy style places (my colleague's words, not mine!), and there are quaint riverside al fresco places, on the street, inside buildings... you get the idea. Finding them out is part of the fun!
However, there are a few things that any proper Malaysian knows is a Malacca must-eat (aside from Peranakan food, which is among the best of Malaysia's culinary styles).
I will give you just three, and the rest of Malacca cuisine you can explore by yourself.
1. Try Malacca's chicken rice balls
Chicken rice is a Malaysian dish (and Singaporean - put away those pitchforks before someone loses an eye!) of Chinese origin. However, the Malacca version is unique in that the rice part is served as round balls. I personally prefer the more conventional chicken rice, but people rave over chicken rice balls!
Note: Most of the chicken rice ball restaurants are not halal. Muslim tourists need to do extra research. One option is EeJiBan.
2. Cool down with cendol street dessert
This is a local dessert of rice flour jelly coloured green with pandan leaf extract, served in coconut milk, cooled with shaved ice, and sweetened with palm syrup (incidentally, palm syrup's local name is 'Malacca sugar', or 'gula Melaka'). It's super welcome in the Malaysian heat after you've been walking around for a while!
Note: This is a Malacca must-eat that vegans can have.
3. Impress other travellers with asam pedas
Normally missing from more touristy recommendations that usually omit the Malay heritage of Malacca, this is an indigenous Malay spicy-sour chilli dish, usually with fish but sometimes also with chicken. Communities along the Straits of Malacca (the Peranakan Straits Chinese included) have their own versions, but Malacca is known for specialising in asam pedas.
So, you can impress other travellers by even knowing to look for asam pedas in the first place! See if you can find outlets with more innovative versions than just 'fish' or 'chicken'. Or maybe, you'd prefer to stick to the classics? That's good too!
Note: This recommendation is meant for those who can withstand spicy food.
(Note for those who can withstand spicy food: it's not that spicy.)
4. Try an old Malacca dessert: Buah Melaka
Did I say three? Oh, why not throw in another one...
Aside from the many desserts from Peranakan cuisine (which you are trying, right?), Malay cuisine itself has many different sweet desserts. One in particular is synonymous with Malacca. In fact, it is literally named after the state!
Buah Melaka are green doughy balls dusted with coconut shavings (yes, the green is also from pandan leaf). Inside is a chunk of palm sugar, which melts when the balls are boiled in water. So the sugar should pop in your mouth when you chew on the ball. (That's how you know it was proper).
Note: Another Malacca must-have dessert that vegans can have.
Hot tip: If you have a bit of time to venture outside Malacca town itself, go a little further north along the coast to Klebang. Klebang beach is the local place for a day out, with buskers and an almost carnival feel. Try out coconut shakes from a street stall.
(Sustainability tip: have a wide-necked re-useable bottle with you, so that you can ask them to pour it into your bottle instead of a disposable plastic cup).
Why Malacca is more special than Penang
Since Penang and Melaka are joint holders of the UNESCO designation, you could be forgiven for assuming that the two have equal significance to a Malaysian. Both are centres of the unique Straits Chinese community which exists nowhere else in the world. This is the basis for the UNESCO Heritage City classification.
You might assume that this is why Malacca is considered by Malaysians as our Historical City. Or if not that, then perhaps it's because of the colonial Portuguese and Dutch history that you can still see in the heritage buildings.
But for a Malaysian - especially an indigenous Malay - this is just part of the story. The complete one always goes further back than that.
Malacca is the historical city because of what the European colonial powers had come for.
Just prior to the Age of Exploration bringing Europeans to the East, the richest empires in the world were the Chinese and the kingdoms of India. They traded with each other in Southeast Asia, in a harbour city called - you guessed it - Malacca.
Explore the Malacca history that tourism brochures don't tell you
Consequently, by the 15th century, Malacca became likewise extremely rich. She soon commanded an empire encompassing the Malay peninsula and the half of Sumatra island that fringes the Malacca strait.
A golden age ensued as Malacca became the literary and religious centre of the Malay archipelago. It was the Camelot for the Malay people of the peninsula. There was even a legendary brotherhood of five blademen, keris warriors who are regarded in the same sort of mythic sentiment as the Knights of the Round Table.
It is this valuable harbour state that the Portuguese fought to capture - and eventually succeeded.
This is why Malacca today does not have a sultan. The empire collapsed in the years after, for Portugal was only interested in the harbour.
Today, nothing of the empire is left - nothing to show the tourist. Even the Palace Museum is just a re-creation of what the old palace might have looked like.
But no other kingdom in Malaysia has this golden age connotation, nor the fallen glory nostalgia. And that is why Malacca is not just a southern version of Penang.
The Melaka 'tude
You can still see traces of this history though, if you venture outside Malacca town. It's with the common folk. If you came on a road trip and drove in, you might see signs with the somewhat belligerent Malacca tagline: 'Don't mess with Melaka'.
This is not actually any kind of supremacist sentiment - it's just Melaka's way. They remain a proud race - and sometimes kind of 'extra', at least compared to other states.
Read about my road trip quest to explore ancient standing stone sites scattered all over Malacca and extending to the adjacent state of Negeri Sembilan in this article: 7 Megalith Sites of Melaka: The Hunt into Myth
Despite a decided conservatism, Malacca has a streak of experimentation, though not necessarily aesthetics! Where else but in Melaka would someone take in a bunch of old buses and try to make them into en-suite rooms - or bustels?
Another way you could see this flamboyant streak is the gaudy tourist trishaws all over the heritage area. Gaudy pink ones, snowed under by flowers, blinging, with or without music, and/or LED fairy-lighted ones that go about blinking its way at night... but driven with complete seriousness.
You might think that this is an inauthentic aberration, just tourist-pandering. It is tourist-pandering, yes. But, I have to say that it is also so Malacca!
Malacca village architecture
Another way you could see it is in the village houses. The architecture of Malacca's traditional homes are distinct from other states' Malay stilt houses. The stone/plaster staircase is iconic Malacca and it is always completely tiled with vibrant, almost gaudy colours. (The default traditional staircase elsewhere in Malaysia is a wooden step ladder style). The windows are traditionally glass-paned (instead of the default wood), usually with stained glass rendered semi-opaque for privacy.
Today, so little physical trace of the Malacca empire has remained. After centuries of colonisation imposed an inferiority complex as a means of psychological domination of the conquered people, only historians now truly understand the significance of the Malacca Sultanate.
But if you stop and think for a moment, you can still read the signs. You would realise that this inherited architecture tells a secret of the empire's past wealth. Ceramic glazed tiles from China, coloured glass from Arabia.
Luxury goods of yesteryear
Today they are not expensive. But in the middle ages, these represented technology not widely known and jealously guarded by the nations who had it. For much of the world they were rare and expensive. Only the wealthy could afford them, or they were reserved to decorate important public buildings such as cathedrals. It's why you only set out the 'good china' for special occasions.
But in Malacca, these special materials became incorporated into the homes of ordinary folk, so much so that it is what makes Malacca architecture distinct from the other Malay states.
What kind of empire must it have been, to have these medieval luxury items in such abundance, that they became the people's building materials?
Have fun exploring Malacca!
That's it! Now you're equipped with the proper context to visit Malacca and appreciate what the city means in Malaysian culture!