The air is thick with heat and humidity, and red lanterns sway overhead, casting a scarlet glow on the shouting vendors, honking cars and the steady, neverending stream of people everywhere. We are in the thick of the action, simultaneously side-stepping greasy puddles and politely beating off salespersons selling mobile phone trinkets while watching out for the traffic and keeping a tight hold on our bags. This is Jonker Street night market, in Melaka, a historical town located about an hour and a half from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Melaka’s unique influences, which include Dutch and Portuguese, Chinese and Malay, as well as narrow, winding streets filled with original architectural gems and an eclectic mix of modern and traditional, make it the perfect side trip from KL.
Arrive in Melaka and check into your centrally located boutique hotel or hostel near the Old Town. Dump your bags and if it is a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, head out to Jonker Street night market for your dose of chaos, cheap souvenir shopping and culture. The locals come for the street food. Try satay, (seasoned grilled meat served on a skewer and eaten with a thick, spicy peanut sauce), cendol (shaved ice, green pandan flavoured noodles, coconut milk, condensed milk and caramelly palm sugar – perfect for combating the heat!), ondeh-ondeh (a pandan flavoured dough filled with liquid palm sugar, steamed and rolled in coconut), dodol (durian flavoured sweets), and popiah (spring roll-esque snack made from rice paper sheets and filled with strips of turnip, beansprouts, Chinese sausage and other fillings).
You may also hear the ting-ting sound of the Ting Tong candyman, a old trade from the 1950s not much in evidence these days which brought back memories of my childhood. Candymen would make trays of creamy sweets, using a hammer to break them into pieces and selling them by the bag. Finish your night with a drink at the Geographer Cafe, where wall mounted fans, potted palms and an ice-cold beer will be welcome after your long walk.
Start your day with breakfast at one of the restaurants around your area – will it be noodles, roti canai, congee, or if you’re feeling a little less adventurous, toast with kaya, coconut jam? Then head to Porta Santiago, the gates to A Famosa, the fort built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Walk up the steps leading to the top of the hill, where the ruins of the St Paul church stand in sentinel to the old grave markers lined against its walls.
Take refuge from the heat and find some solace for your soul at Christ Church, which overlooks Dutch Square. It is the oldest Protestant church in the country, and the gently curving ceiling was, amazingly, built without using a single nail. The Stadhuys, or Town Hall, standing deeply pink and almost blushing across the square, were also built by the Dutch. The Stadhuys now house the Museums of Histroy & Ethnography. Choose one of the many brightly decorated trishaws that abound in Dutch Square, and set off (slowly) for the Peranakan Museum, on Heeren Street.
Melaka’s mixed 500 year history resulted in a unique culture when Chinese traders intermarried with local families, many of whom had Portuguese or Dutch bloodlines. These are the Baba and Nyonya, the Peranakan of Melaka. With a distinct vocabulary, cuisine and culture, the Peranakans’ history is preserved at the Baba & Nyonya Peranakan Museum, which is worth a visit. After your group tour has ended, walk down Heeren Street, marvelling at the old intricate facades, tiny shops and preserved architectural details.
If you see a long line of people snaking out of Hoe Kee Chicken Rice Ball on Jonker Street nearby, take your cue from them and join the queue. A Melakan specialty, the chicken rice here comes in compact, ping-pong sized balls. Slurp down with steamed chicken, fresh cucumber and a helping of chilli sauce. After lunch, explore the antique shops of Jonker Street and marvel at the change from last night’s market. Pick up a pair of hand-embroidered beaded slippers, or fall in love with original Nyonya kerongsang jewelry, traditional buttons decorated with semi-precious stones.
Don’t miss Jalan Tukang Emas, or Goldsmith Street, known more colloquially as Harmony Street, so named because on a short stretch of road lies a mosque, a Chinese temple and an Indian temple. Note the gaily decorated roofs of the Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese temple, the elephant sculptures of Sri Poyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple, and the interesting layered roof of Kampung Kling Mosque. Swing by the Orang Utan House at the southern end of Jalan Tukang Emas, and peruse the cheeky cartoons produced by Charles Cham, a local artist.
Get a different perspective of Melaka by going on a river cruise. Originally a port city, Melaka’s development has long followed the flow of the Melaka River and a cruise allows you to see the city from the same viewpoint as the old traders and sailors who made Melaka so important. Tours depart from Quayside Heritage Centre and boats depart every 30 minutes till late. A round-trip is about an hour and twenty minutes. A commentary is often provided; occasionally a tour guide will be onboard. As you sail back upriver on your return trip, the sun sets and the city starts to light up, casting jewel-toned reflections on the water.
Finish your day with some traditional Peranakan food at the Peranakan Restaurant on Jonker Street. White linen adorn tables, pearl and marble inlaid antique furniture sit in corners and old pictures hang on the walls. The ambience is perfect, the service occasionally surly. Order ayam pongteh (chicken and potato stew), ayam keluak (chicken cooked with a slightly bitted fruit), itik tim (a soup of duck and salted vegetable), chap chye (mixed vegetables) udang masak lemak nenas (prawns and pineapple in coconut milk sauce) and a side of fragrant rice.
- The easiest way to get to Melaka from KL is by car or bus. There are no rail connections and flights to the local airport are intermittent.
- Most museums are closed on Tuesdays, so if you’re in Melaka for just one day, don’t make it Tuesday!
- Always ask for the meter in taxis to be turned on. Alternatively negotiate a rate. Trips within the historical centre of Malacca shouldn’t cost more than RM20, depending on how bad traffic gets.
- The best way to get around Melaka is to walk. The historical centre is compact and easy to navigate.
- The going rate for a trishaw ride is about RM40 an hour, but always settle on the price in advance. Our 30 minute ride cost us about RM15, and we tipped the driver RM5 for the excellent, interesting conversation he supplied.
- When in doubt, trust the locals. A particularly large crowd or long line in front of a shop usually means that there is good food to be had at the other end of it. If you’re curious, ask. If the answer makes you even more curious, try.