Dazzling Colonial Melaka

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Flag of Malaysia  , Melaka,
Thursday, August 16, 2012

8/16 Kuala Terengganu to Melaka
470 kilometers by bus, 10 am - 7pm (9 hours)
Chong Hoe Guesthouse -57 RM ($18) for a double with ensuite and air-con

Long Ride on a Comfortable Air-conditioned Bus
No lunch stop on today's bus (Ramadan?). Luckily, we had yogurt and cereal for breakfast at the hotel. Still, it took 9 hours instead of the 8 hours scheduled. The buses we’ve ridden on in Malaysia so far have taken 10% longer than projected. Traffic hasn’t been bad. Is this a case of the bus companies giving the drivers unrealistic targets? Our trip was uneventful without breakdowns or traffic problems. Not even one pothole! In fact, the roads are beautiful. We followed the coast road for well over 3 hours. After leaving the coast, we followed along rolling hills with acres and acres of palm oil plantations. Despite the ecological toll (reduced rainforest, increased greenhouse gases and diminished biodiversity) caused by the plantations, that is where the money is. Melaka is 150 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur.

Good First Impression
First impressions of Melaka are of a world class city. Well groomed planted areas line the highway entering Melaka, large modern shopping complexes and malls are plentiful. The "flow" of traffic around the station leaves a bit to be desired. We appeared to go in circles before we finally entered the bus station.

We arrived 1 hour late. The main bus station in Melaka is on north side of town and we easily found local bus 17, a modern air-con bus which, for 1 ringgit ($0.30), took us to the heart of the historic quarter marked by the clock tower and fountain at the entrance to Chinatown. Like Georgetown, and then some, this place is steeped in colonial history. Of particular interest to me was that the Dutch ruled here for 160 years. We’d soon learned that the straits has a history of serial colonialization; first by the Portuguese (1511 to 1641), then the Dutch (1641 to 1795 & 1818 to 1825), the British ((1895 to 1818 then 1825 to 1957) sans a three year period of the Japanese occupation (1942-1945)) leading to Malay independence in 1957.

Here too, Chinatown is the place to stay with its historical narrow streets teaming with life. We quickly found our Chong Hoe Guesthouse which we had reserved in advance due to the busy holiday period. It is a clean, no frills place across from Kampung Kling Mosque.

8/17-8/20 Melaka
Historic Sites in Easy Walking Distance
We braved the heat and visited many of the historic sites near the river. Our first stop was the Stadhuys (Town Hall) and Old Clock Tower where kitschy trishaws gather to pick-up tourists for short rides. The Stadhuys is oldest Dutch building in the East; built by the Dutch in 1641. It has been turned into a museum with scenes displaying colonial life over the 500 years, weapons, types of dress, housing, etc. Up on the top of the hill, behind Stadhuys, are the walls of St Paul’s church built in 1521 by the Portuguese. Dutch leaders were entombed there as evidenced by huge engraved gravestones. I examined the old Dutch inscriptions. Exiting the backside of the hill, we took the path to the Dutch graveyard. Most of the graves there were British. Go figure.

Other sites on the town square and along the river include Christ Church (nice enough from the outside), Cultural Museum, Melaka Malay Sultanate Water Wheel and an old ship and Maritime Museum. We had satisfied our museum appetite already. We skipped at least a dozen learning opportunities.

A few main arteries of Chinatown are worth a stroll. The main thoroughfare, Jonker Street, is loaded with shops targeting the tourist from snacks to knickknacks. Another street is unofficially known as Harmony Street because it contains the Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese temple, the Sri Poyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple, and Kampung Kling Mosque, the 3 main religions in the region. Connecting the main arteries are small streets and alleys cluttered with homes and business occupied by ethnic Chinese mostly.

He plowed his index finger through a coconut husk!
Friday and Saturday evenings, from 6pm to midnight, the main streets in Chinatown are cordoned off to traffic and converted to colorful street markets. Cafes and bars extend their tables into the street and contribute to the festive atmosphere. We gathered with the crowd where Coconut Kung Fu bores the audience with a long-winded sales pitch for his "miracle oil" before finally getting to the reason we came to watch him, and indeed, he plowed his index finger through a coconut husk and shell. Yup, he really did it! And after applying a little of his miracle oil to the index finger he used to do the deed, it was as good as new.

The crowd grew and it was shoulder to shoulder on Jonker Street. One pass rubbing our way through the mass of bodies was enough. It gets too crowded on the weekends and it becomes impossible to check out what the sellers have for sale here. We headed for the hotel.

Move to 1511 Café Guesthouse
We had reserved at Cheong Hoe Hotel for just two nights. It was already booked out for the Hari Raya weekend. On Saturday we moved to our alternative choice, a nice sounding place with great Trip Advisor reviews, Café 1511 Guesthouse. We had the Attic room which is the best of the six rooms in this history house now converted into a homestay hotel. The website reads "Not Suitable for ELDERLY People" which is an obvious reference to the steepness of the stairs. And they are steep, especially to get to the attic level. The stairs are solidly built and not really a problem but when you get up at night and climb down to the WC, you are wide awake when you get back. We managed. The ultra-comfortable king-size bed filled most of the room and it was a trip down one floor to get to the shared bathroom facilities.This guesthouse is like staying in someone’s well-appointed home. The second floor book nook area is cluttered with reference, travel and other interesting books as well as hundreds of DVD’s. It has a homey feel. We were happy hanging out here between jaunts to explore the town. Or rather, we briefly jaunted to the town in between our time lingering in the hotel. We were happy to have found this place and will stay again if we have the chance.


Melaka River Cruise
We decided to take the touristy 45 minute river cruise. The river is lined by walkways on both sides. The sides of the buildings along the river are decorated with beautifully painted scenes, many depicting local history.

About 5 km up river, we passed a small amusement park and Kampung Morten, named after the Governor who settled there in the 19th century.  The traditional wooden Malay homes were on stilts and built without nails.


Melaka Dining
It was late by the time we got settled in when we arrived in town. We found and open-air food court a few hundred meters outside of Chinatown. The economical Chinese food there was mediocre. We had naively passed a famous Famosa Chicken Rice Ball place when it wasn’t busy. I say naively because whenever we went back on other evenings, the line to get in was impossibly long.

The next evening, we took the bus to Terminal Sentral because this was where the Melaka Bazaar Ramadan is located. It would be our last chance at Ramadan food. It is smaller here than in KT, but now we knew what to look for…. We zeroed in on a stand with honey roasted barbeque chicken dripping in its sweet sauce. That and a tube of bamboo rice was our best meal in Melaka……

Near our hotel, the Orang Belanda Cafe menu promised croquettes like in Holland. I had to give them a try. It’s been awhile since I had the real thing and appreciated these even though they don’t compare. Dave ordered the burrito. He said it tasted like a burrito would taste if the Dutch invented the burrito, a pancake with slightly sweat chunky salsa. It was fresh and tasty, but not a burrito.

On our final night, we returned to the riverfront for fantastic "cottage pie" at Honky Tonk Haven Cafe. It was a delicious change of pace for our palates. 

Melaka vs. Georgetown 
 It is fun being in colonial town that showcases its past history so beautifully. We thoroughly enjoyed colonial Georgetown and its similarly interesting old town. But in my opinion, Melaka, with its longer history has got GT beat in that department.

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