Melaka, or Malacca as it is more commonly known, was once the heart of a bustling trading route. Hailed as a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008, Melaka’s vibrant past and multi-cultural influences have all been preserved in the city’s infrastructure. Melaka’s Dutch colonial masters and the buildings they left make them the oldest existing Dutch structures in Southeast Asia today.
I’ve only ever been to Melaka for one reason: food. Jonker Street’s chicken rice balls and Tan Kim Hock’s mouthwatering cendol are my absolute must-haves every time I visit Melaka. Most travel agencies also promote Melaka for its food and shopping. However, not many people recognise the significance of Melaka as a city of intertwined cultures and ethnicities and the richness of its colourful past.
Having been privileged to be part of the Singapore delegation for Tourism Malaysia’s massive annual familiarisation trip to Melaka and Kota Kinabalu, I spent a mere two days in Melaka. The 2 days, however, were enough to make me want to go back in the near future.
1. Visit the Bullock Cart Village
This village is a secret so well-kept even the tour guides didn’t know about it until recently. The story goes that this is the only bullock cart village left in the entire town of Melaka. The village was only recently opened up to the public.
Upon arrival we were welcomed by a troupe of children playing a variety of traditional Malay drums. Such a reception is usually reserved for Malay weddings or to welcome important visitors to their village.
Following which, we were treated to a display of the Malay martial art silat, where I was blown away by the control and discipline exercised by both the veteran and young silat practitioners alike.
You can’t visit a Bullock Cart Village without taking a ride in a handmade bullock cart! We were brought to a little clearing with a tent set up in the middle of the field. There we were treated to ubi kayu or tapioca and sambal as well as fried bananas with a mixture of shredded coconut and gula melaka. On this scorching day we were also given cups of coconut water so fresh they could not be fresher.
A mere 200m from where we were, there was a swamp full of catfish that the villagers were catching using only rattan baskets and their bare hands. These catfish were then skewered and grilled on an open log barbeque. Visitors were also invited to try their hand at catching catfish and to ride a buffalo at their own risk!
2. Deepavali Festival
Melaka prides itself on being a city of multiple cultures, evident in the major celebrations the town conducts annually, including but not limited to Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa, and Deepavali. We were special guests of the Deepavali celebrations, celebrated in conjunction with Melaka’s annual Open House.
It was truly a feast for the senses as citizens from different ethnic backgrounds came together to celebrate the occasion in the true spirit of 1Malaysia, the overriding theme of the celebrations.
Graced by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the festivities kicked off with vibrant dancers in a variety of Indian ethnic costumes with songs and dances that lasted well into the night. We were also offered Indian snacks like muruku and Bombay mix, and treated to basmati rice and various other Indian dishes. In his speech, the Prime Minister even gave special mention to the delegates from the familiarization trip. We felt special!
Even though we were guests the public could also join in the festivities. Just outside the stage area rows and rows of tents were set up with stall holders handing out portions of free food and drink. I could see curries and drinks like bandung and teh tarik being handed around.
3. Take a ride on the River Cruise
The Strait of Malacca, or the Malacca River as it is also known, used to be a bustling laneway filled with ships of goods to be traded. However, the river soon dried up and became too shallow for ships to pass through, leaving it abandoned and neglected.
However, the Melaka council soon saw the importance of the river in the city’s history books and decided to introduce river cruises to educate the public. Visitors can take in the perfectly-preserved architecture of the city while enjoying a serene boat ride. The cruise departs from Muara Jetty and goes as far as Taman Rempah jetty before returning to the starting point.
Tickets cost RM10.00 for adults and RM5.00 for children.
4. Stay in a heritage hotel
Forget fancy hotels and stay in a heritage hotel instead! The Singaporean delegates were put up in the Settlement Hotel, a lovely establishment with a lot of character. This opium bed was auctioned to the owners of the hotel and was constructed from a single piece of wood with no nails or bolts!
The hotel was quaint and perfect for a different experience away from the bustling town centre of Melaka.
Besides the famous Jonker Street, you will find so many other gems in Melaka waiting to be discovered. Take the road less travelled and you will definitely not regret it. I believe the best holiday experiences involve cultural exchanges and I got so much of that from this trip. Thank you to Tourism Malaysia for showing us a different side of Melaka we never knew!
A bus trip to Melaka starts at $21 for a 3-4 hour journey.
This post was brought to you by Tourism Malaysia.