The historical city-state of Melaka (Malacca) is a location definitely worthy of the clichéd tagline ‘up and coming’. The port city’s reputation as the historical hub of Peninsular Malaysia has finally been cemented after being named a UNESCO World Heritage site back in July 2008, and finally, backpackers are starting to take notice.
The city’s turbulent past, which has seen it occupied under Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, has left the town as a wondrous blend of diverse cultures, most clearly recognisable in the city’s intriguing architecture.
However, don’t make the mistake of writing Melaka off as a sleepy city, attractive only to the history obsessed. Whilst the atmosphere here is considerably more relaxed than nearby Kuala Lumpur, the developing China Town area, home to the famous Jonker Street (colloquially known as “Junk” Street due to its sprawling antique shops) is continually attracting big investment, expanding the cities already extensive local food and arts scene.
Bars (often with live music) are also becoming more frequent, and whilst the nightlife here takes on a support role to the cultural appeal of the city, there is certainly fun to be had during the weekend evening market.
Places to stay
Finding accommodation in Melaka shouldn’t prove too much of a challenge with more and more budget hostels opening in response to the area’s growing popularity. The best budget backpacker options are scattered in and around the traditional China Town, with a collection of less desirable, although sometimes cheaper, alternatives located at Taman Melaka Raya, about 10 minutes walk from Jonker Street. Those looking for luxury should head towards the river for an ever expanding choice of high-end boutiques.
- Ringo's Foyer: Conveniently located just outside of China Town, this hostel boasts a variety of cheap and cheerful rooms, complimentary tea and coffee, and a rooftop garden to boot. The owner, Howard, appears to have endless amounts of enthusiasm and energy, regularly taking guests on bike tours and out for ‘authentic Malaysian street food’. If you’re feeling sociable, this could be the place for you. RM 30-50.
- Tony's Guesthouse: A hostel ever popular with the backpacker clientele, located just across the river from Jonker Street. It’s plain and simple but the chilled out, hippie-esque vibe makes it the perfect place to relax and soak up the town’s atmosphere. RM 30-50.
- River View Guesthouse and Hostel: Fantastic location within China Town itself, this converted pre-war shop-house has a reputation for being one of the friendliest backpacker hangouts in town. Rooms are cheap and clean but during high season are often hard to come by. Children aren’t permitted. RM 40-90.
- Samudra Inn: You pay for what you get with this cheap, although somewhat ugly, home stay style guesthouse located in Taman Melaka Raya. Being located outside the town centre means a cheaper price and much quieter atmosphere, if you prefer the sound of chirping birds to the chatter of people then this could be the guesthouse for you. RM 15-30.
- Apa Kaba Home & Stay: A firm favourite for those travelling with children, this hostel is a 10-minute walk from China Town on the opposite side of the river from Jonker Street. The place is very clean and very homely, with a complimentary breakfast adding to the hostel's appeal. Private rooms only. RM 40-100.
Things to do in Melaka
Jonker Street: Despite claims that Jonker and its surrounding streets have fallen victim to tourist demand, guilty of selling the same old standard souvenirs found everywhere; ‘Junk Street’ is still home to a few genuine treasures. Take time rooting through its dark antique shops and you will find everything here from ancient telescopes to worn British sea medals, all hidden away behind fluorescent ‘Angry Bird’ t-shirts.
Jonker Walk Night Market: Jonker Street’s famous night market takes place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from 6 pm until midnight. The large and popular weekend market spurs Melaka into life, where martial arts and dance shows accompany the many colourful stalls.
Guinness World Record Holder 'Finger Coconut Smasher!' in Melaka
Jonker Street Art Galleries: If you’re an art lover Jonker Street is the place to be, with an increasing number of independent art galleries showcasing contemporary and traditional work from both national and local talent. The Orangutan House, studio-gallery of contemporary artists Charles Cham, is amongst the more intriguing choices.
Maritime Museum (Flora de La Mar): This maritime museum itself is a replica of the ‘Flora de La Mar’, a Portuguese ship that sank off the coast of Melaka. The museum tells the fascinating story of Melaka’s troubled history, including rule under its many foreign occupants. The plastic models of angry sailors make the whole experience feel slightly dated, but it’s still worth a visit for the interesting story the museum sets out to tell.
Boats at Malaka's glorious Maritime Museum.
Melaka by Bicycle: A very popular and rewarding activity amongst visitors, many would describe hiring a bicycle and exploring the city on two wheels as the perfect way to see Melaka and its rural outskirts. Bikes can be rented from a number of hostels as well as a few shops on Jonker Street.
Melaka Festivals: Melaka is at its very best during one of its many annual festivals where the packed streets of China Town come alive with people eating, drinking, laughing and dancing. Festivals happen throughout the year but the UNESCO world heritage festival that celebrates the town’s historic accolade is one of the best, usually falling in either July or September.
Taming Sari Revolving “Gyro” Tower: This popular attraction offers visitors a bird’s eye view of the Melaka skyline from 110 meters high. The viewing platform slowly rotates offering 360-degree panoramic views of the streets below. Although only a ten-minute ride, including ascent and descent, most agree it is worth the entry fee (RM 20 for adults) for the unparalleled views of the city.
Architecture: It would be a crime not to mention Melaka’s wondrous architecture that reflects its superbly diverse history. A quick stroll from the town centre will have you casting eyes upon ruins of an original Portuguese fortress, the Chinese built Cheng Hoon Teng temple and the visually striking Christ Church, built by the Dutch. The city really is a smorgasbord of contrasting culture and design free for all to enjoy.
Melaka's architecturally interesting Christ Church.
By far the easiest way to get to Melaka is via bus from Kuala Lumpur, buses leave daily with the journey taking roughly 3 hours. Although Melaka does have a domestic airport, at the time of writing only two routes currently operate to and from it, namely Pekanbaru and Balikpapan, both in Indonesia and both via Sky Aviation Airlines.
The bus network is substantial, however, with busses connecting Melaka directly with much of Peninsular Malaysia including Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru and Kota Bharu as well as Singapore to the south. Melaka does not have a train station, the nearest railway station is located at Pulau Sebang (Tampin), in the Alor Gajah district about 30 km (18 miles) from Melaka. The station is on the main Kuala Lumpur – Johor Bahru line and served by all trains.
If the train is indeed your preferred means of travel, you can take a bus from the nearby bus station that will get you to Melaka in an hour and a half or alternatively take a quicker, but more expensive, taxi.
Where to go next?
It is becoming popular for tourists to take day trips from nearby Kuala Lumpur to Melaka, however, this doesn’t give visitors a real chance to experience everything the town has to offer, especially during the weekend night market.
Melaka is best visited as a mid way stop between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, being located roughly midway between the two and offering a nice change of pace in-between these two modern metropolises. Buy your bus tickets direct at Melaka Sentral bus terminal for the best price, with the trip to Singapore taking roughly 3 to 4 hours from Melaka.
Alternatively, if you are craving the beach after a city break, you can head East via bus to Mersing, which is the ferry port to the modestly idyllic Tioman Island (Pulau Tioman), the journey takes roughly 4 hours by bus with buses leaving daily.
Finally, if you are looking to go a little further afield, close by Kuala Lumpur has flights to pretty much everywhere in South East Asia as well as long-haul international flights, making Melaka the perfect stop to stock up on unusual gifts for family and friends back home.
Written by: Jack Palfrey