After three months in Malaysia, and falling head over heels first for Langkawi, then for Penang and George Town and even a little for Kuala Lumpur, I was surprised when Melaka just wasn’t up my alley. Here’s what I learned after ten days in the city.
I tried to like Melaka. I really did.
I extended my stay from three days to ten. I walked for miles. I hung out in her coffee shops. I scoured her streets for food.
And for ten days, the only reaction I could muster was a shrug and a “Meh.”
Whenever I had read and talked to other travelers about Melaka, people would say “Penang’s George Town was nice. But Melaka is amazing!”
I didn’t see it.
Of course, the rain didn’t help. But I’ve been through rainy times on my travels before, like when I went to Northern Vietnam – I usually tend to find beauty between the raindrops. So what is it that was so “Meh” about Melaka?
The Old City – Penang vs. Melaka
I found Penang to be a vibrant, creative melting pot that had turned its ingredients – people from different parts of the world – into magic. The old center of George Town – barely changed in the 2nd part of the 20th century because of rent control – is bustling with life. There are family businesses, small grocery stores, corner tea shops, fancy galleries, cute coffee shops, chic boutique hotels – tourists and locals still share the same streets. Restaurants and coffee shops are done with love and creativity, showcasing traditional and modern influences. When I did a walking tour of the city, the guide explained how the conservation association is now supporting anyone – not just big-time investors – to restore the exterior of their heritage houses faithful to the original. Nyonya culture, the lifestyle of Chinese immigrants to Malaysia and Indonesia, isn’t just something to sell to tourists but is part of many Penangites’ day-to-day lives.
Melaka, which shares the UNESCO World Heritage Status with Penang, on the other, didn’t show much elegance in their efforts to capitalize on the new status. In the old Chinese quarter North of the river, an area known as “Jonker Walk,” there are few businesses left that don’t cater to the tourists. Houses that aren’t empty are souvenir shops, sweet and Nyonya food shops, restaurants, bars, cafés, shops selling the same t-shirts I’d found unique on Bangkok’s Chatachuk Market but have since seen to be a staple in Southeast Asian tourist markets.
When I first arrived in Melaka, my Grab driver told me “People from Melaka never go to Jonker Walk; we never go to the old city. That’s for tourists.”
Melaka’s old town is a show and not even a good one.
Plus, the majority of tourists comes to Melaka from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. They are regional locals looking for a weekend getaway.
Consequently, the shops and cafés and restaurants look empty during the week, some don’t open at all. What might pass as peacefully charming elsewhere seems just sad in Melaka.
Having traveled in several Southeast Asian countries during the past year, I also noticed that Asians – be they from SEA or China or India – usually prefer a different style of tourism than I (who hails from Western Europe) do. I like to explore the history and simple local life.
Melaka is more of a consumerist, kitschy kind of destination.
The bicycle rickshaws pumping K-Pop with the plush, the hearts, and the Miss Kitties cater to the tourists who don’t like to wander and soak up local everyday life. They are for the tourists who prefer to go on a tour following a set route with items to be ticked off a list and photos clogging up smartphones. There is nothing wrong with that. But Melaka caters to this kind of tourist and leaves too little space for surprise encounters.
Where to eat in Melaka
And then there’s the food: while in Penang’s George Town you practically stumble over cheap, plentiful and diverse street food on every corner, Melaka has a Hard Rock Café.
OK. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds.
There is the Jonker Street Hawker’s Center on Jalan Laksamana just off Jonker Walk, a small food court (with mainly outdoor seating) where different vendors – hawkers – sell a range of dishes. Fortunately, I was staying at a guesthouse just a few steps from this local favorite bustling with diners throughout the week. Food is cheap and plentiful, often Chinese inspired. Try the Bak Kee (intestines soup), the Nyonya Laksa, and the Chee Cheong Fun, a dumpling dish the young hawker chef brought back from his travels to Hong Kong.
And on weekend nights (Friday and Saturday after 6), Jonker Street turns into a market where you can find tourist traps, curious household gadgets, and a few street food gems – Nyonya dumpling triangles with their distinctive blue rice (colored with pea flower juice) wrapped in banana leaf, for example, or Mua Chee (a rice flour dessert with sugary peanuts). Karaoke blasts across the whole experience with different spots inviting aspiring singers to give it their all.
Other than those two instances, I didn’t find any hawkers at the street corners or on the sidewalks.
What to do in Melaka
There are plenty of things to do in Melaka, don’t get me wrong.
A path along the city river invites visitors for a stroll and you can go for a short river cruise with illumination along the water at night.
On the other side of the river are the iconic red Stadhyus and the Christ Church on the Dutch Square, named in remembrance of the Dutch history of Melaka. The Dutch conquered the city in 1611 from the Portuguese before ceding her in 1826 to the British in exchange for Bengkulu on Sumatra. Come to the Stadhuys to catch a plush bicycle rickshaw and take a selfie in front of the I ❤ Melaka sign.
Just a short hike up from the Dutch Square lie the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, first built by Portuguese in 1521 and thus the oldest church in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. There is a bit of a view from up here but nothing spectacular.
If you want the full panorama of Melaka, head up the Taming Sari Tower. The viewing platform revolves while it slowly climbs the central tower.
The city is a haven for museum lovers. In Jonker, you’ll find the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, which is a heritage house restored with astounding attention to details. Over on the other side of the river, in I counted at least a dozen different museums from the People’s Museum to the Submarine Museum to the Stamp Museum – there’s bound to be something for everyone. Click here for more info on the Melaka Museums Network.
All in all the sights seem more geared towards the entertainment- and selfie-loving visitor; there is even a “House for Selfie-Taking” (across from the Baba Nyonya Museum).
I want to like Melaka
Now, it’s not all rubbish.
Some of the Heritage Houses in Jonker Walk are stunning architectural gems. But Penang has the same, and better.
I found a few coffee cute and creative coffee shops – I liked especially the dessert art at Miyakori on Jalan Tokong (they have a tea that changes color…), the hippy art flair at Malaysia 13 State Coffee on Jalan Hang Kasturi, and the classy chilled vibe at Relish The Moment on Jalan Kampung Pantai.
The people are as lovely, curious, full of character as anywhere I’ve been in Malaysia.
So I’m not intending to give up on Melaka just yet. You’ll see me again, Strait City. And maybe it will be love at second sight.
PS: Melaka logistics
How to get to Melaka
Melaka is about 150km South of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur and 260km North of Singapore. The city does not have a train station. So the easiest ways to get here are by car or by bus.
Going from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka (and back) by bus
The Kuala Lumpur bus station, Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, is located right next to the metro station Bandar Tasik Selatan Station. Once at the station, you can buy your tickets at one of the numerous counters – they all sell tickets for all companies and will point you to the next bus; buses leave at least hourly. I paid 11 Ringgit (less than $4) one-way. Note, that you are only allowed at the departure gate 30 minutes before the scheduled departure; until then you’ll have to wait somewhere else.
The journey takes 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic.
Melaka Sentral, Melaka’s central bus station, is also not downtown but about 10km outside the center. You can either catch a local bus for a few cents or call a Grab (the Southeast Asian version of Uber). I paid 8 Ringgit ($2) one-way. Note, that the Grab driver cannot pick you up inside the station compound; you’ll have to agree on a spot out on the street.
Going back to Kuala Lumpur (or moving on to Singapore), you can buy your ticket from one of several companies all lined up next to one another. Shop around for the offer you find most attractive.
Going from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka (and back) by train
The closest train station to Melaka is Tampin. You can catch the Batu Caves KTM or Kmuter commuter train towards Tampin from KL Sentral. While trains are absolutely fine and comfortable, the journey will take you a lot longer than directly by bus (2.5+ hours) and at 13 Ringgit one-way just for the train to Tampin, the journey by rail is more expensive.
Tampin station looks vastly over-dimensioned. From here, you can either walk about 500m to the bus station or catch a Grab. The local bus company is called Panorama and buses to Melaka run at least hourly; the ticket will knock you back just under 5 Ringgit. The journey to Melaka Sentral takes about 45 minutes.
Melaka has a small airport with direct flights to Penang and Pekanbaru, Indonesia.
A lot of touristy Melaka is easily walkable. If you would like to venture further, there is a good bus system. However, since Grab (taxi) is so affordable, I recommend that you download the app and just ‘Call a Grab!’
Where to stay
There is a fair amount of choice when it comes to accommodation in Melaka, from super-cheap hostels like $4/night Victors Guest House (it still has an 8.1 rating on Booking) to the swanky The Majestic Malacca Hotel. I stayed at Modern Cave Boutique Stay, a hyper-style guesthouse & hostel just outside Jonker Walk in walking distance to all the major attractions. The Modern Cave has put clean lines, sleek concrete, glass, and plush lounges into a non-descript 1980s townhouse; dorm beds (with a simple 24h breakfast and a free flow of coffee) start at $12/night.
If you want to have at least seen Melaka but not stay for the night, you can organize a day trip from Kuala Lumpur. Since the bus and train will take you a couple of hours, I recommend either renting a car or bookig a guide. Private tours start at only $80.