Melaka, Home of the Baba-Nonyas

Trip Start Jun 15, 2009
Trip End Jun 14, 2010

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Flag of Malaysia  , Melaka State,
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Our trip to Ipoh had deliberately given us a number of different possibilities for our next move on the way to Singapore. Having talked these through with the seasoned Aussie traveller we met in the Station Hotel, we decided that a trip to Melaka would be our best option. There are direct buses and the description of this old town on the mouth of the Melaka River sounded really interesting. It was founded in the 15th century by a Hindu prince and became an important trading centre, It was attacked and taken over by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 16th century before being taken over by the Dutch in the mid 17th century. Only later , at the beginning of the 19th century was it taken on as a part of the British Empire (swapped for a bit of Sarawak that we didn’t want). It became a part of the British Straits Settlement but its importance quickly declined, being eclipsed in importance by Georgetown and Singapore. It’s also one of those great old colonial names that ring out over the years - ‘sailing the Mallaccan Straits…’

The direct bus service was not quite as direct as we imagined. Jen made a survey of the bus ticket stands and was suckered by the ‘our bus is just about to leave’ number that had been pulled before. Despite all her specific questions and the direct answers she was being given, the 10:30 bus that she had bought tickets for did not leave until 11:15, just like all the other buses. It’s a strange feature that the spirit of enterprise leads to all these bus companies competing for customers but they all run their buses at the same times so that they can move passengers to each other’s buses if their own bus looks like being uneconomic. So buses tend to leave the stations in a convoy, even stopping for breaks at the same spots. The ‘direct’ bus stopped partway through the journey and we had to get out and board another, significantly more derelict, bus to take us the last section to Melaka Sentral bus station , which as usual for such things, despite its name is a long way from the centre of the town.

We had booked into The Baba House Hotel, which looked extremely interesting on the internet and certainly did not disappoint. Formed from a row of rather grander than usual shophouses, the hotel is a maze of shady and open spaces filled with a motley collection of furniture including much of the heavy inlaid furniture beloved of the Baba-Nyonya people who were living in these houses through the 19th and early 20th centuries. (The term Baba-Nonya is used to describe the Straits born Chinese people and the name is derived from their words for man and woman). The whole area around the hotel is now a Unesco Heritage site and there are lots of efforts being made to preserve the buildings in ways that reflect the heritage and the old ways of life. Unfortunately some damage has already been done that is unlikely to be repaired but the general impression is lovely, with temples interspersed within the rows of houses, all ornamented with inlaid brightly coloured tiles and Chinese characters. The area is a further testimony to the Malaysian people’s ability to allow different cultural backgrounds to co-exist; it is no surprise to find Chinese Buddhist and Hindu temples cheek by jowl with the Islamic mosque and just over the road from the Dutch church..

We spent a long time just wandering around soaking up the atmosphere. It’s a quiet place overall despite the obvious tourist presence. The local trishaw riders make a point of decorating their trishaws with flowers and lights, often with an inauthentic sound system blasting out RnB, Michael Jackson or Boney M. The volume of the music that close to your ears is enough to make you know that you don’t really want one of their rides, although occasional coach parties arrive, alight and set of in a caravan of trishaws for their city tour. The trishaws base themselves in the old Dutch town square, which forms a clear central point on the opposite side of the river from the Baba-Nyonya area. We took a walk around these, the oldest buildings including the ruins of the first church at the top of the hill, from where you can look over the town and out to the open Straits. There is an interesting museum inside the Staathuis which gives a lot of background to Melaka and Malaysia as a whole. Melaka is very proud of its heritage and there have been a large number of other museums established including a maritime museum built into a replica of the first Portuguese ship to land there and a museum housing the declaration of Independence which was finally given in Melaka. There is a small Little India area a little further out of town, clearly distinguishable by the change in shops and the change in spice smells as you walk along, not to mention the sudden blasts of Bollywood music into the streets!

We very much enjoyed visiting 8 Heeren Street, further along the road from our hotel. This has been set up as an example of how traditional materials and techniques can be used to renovate the houses and make them more suitable for modern living. The result was a beautifully simple house with large and useful living spaces but also a shady courtyard and useful covered areas for when the inevitable rain falls. The curator showed great knowledge of the history and culture of the area and spoke positively about British planning rules which meant that later houses had to have spaces behind them but this house, being considerably earlier, was build right up to the house immediately behind it. We were also quite taken by the evidence that the house had been rebuilt at a later stage with a higher roof, something that had also been done to our old Georgian house in Newark, which had been built around the same time.

At night, Melaka lights up with lots of coloured lights illuminating roofs and walls and picking out the banks of the river. There are a growing number of western style cafes and eateries but the ambiance is pretty low key. The park near the sea front was one of the few places we found loud blaring music and this was directed a the few groups of local people sitting out and enjoying a late night meal amidst the animals made of lights (very tasteful!).


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mx-5.snob on

My Mum's home
Hey you guys... looks like you are having a great time visiting my mum's home country. I've only been once and was only ten years old.... this blog is inspiring me to get saving and make the trip I've been promising myself for many years.... perhaps in the not too distant future you we will reverse rolls and you will be reading my blog with your own happy memories.

Try not to miss us too much :)

grindrodkaz on

Georgetown and Melaka
Was avidly watching Ricks Steins Eastern Adventure being amazed by Gerogetown and Malaka - the food the nonyas and the choo temple and Campbell St - have fun in Oz

mei mei on

hi, great to read ur blog! i am malaccan, but all your pic seems nicer from what i know..hehe...

jenandtony on

Hi Mei-Mei, good to hear from you and glad you enjoyed our blog. We did really enjoy our time in Melaka although I admit that we have not included many pictures of the scruffier parts of town! The areas by the river and around the old houses were really atmospheric and we certainly felt that we could live there (and there have been a lot of other places we have visited where we wouldn't consider living!)

Chow Wei Hsien on

Hi Jen & Tony,...

I am so glad to hear that you guys enjoyed the magical ambience of Malacca.
I am Malaysian, from near Georgetown in Penang, and visited Malacca last year...
And I share the same feelings like you guys,...beautiful place,...very magical ambience,...and god,....the main historical places of different stories are just next to each other, A Famosa, Stadthuy, St. Paul church,...Museum,...etc etc..

I grew up as someone who loves reading History subjects,...and there had been lots of stories of Malacca,...and now having been there,...and getting it linked to the studies i had...nice..

If you have the chance,...its worth visitng Georgetown, has almost similar ambience,....and do have its nice history as well...
And you can see some very traditional businesses being run in China town,...which is being operated by really old guys...
it makes you really feel like you are living in the past.
And yes,...the food in Georgetown is brilliant

jenandtony on

Thanks for your positive comment. It's good to hear from people who read our blog because it makes us go back and look again at what we did and said!
Regarding Georgetown, we had already visited that city a few days before Melaka (see blogs 17 and 18 on this trip). We did really enjoy it there too although our heart is probably mostly in Melaka! We're back home now and already wondering when we can get travelling again!

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