I stood in a ruined Portuguese church. Its weathered walls spoke of the numerous generations that had climbed the hill to congregate here.
In the distance I could see the Dutch part of town, its bright red buildings in stark contrast to the neighbouring British architecture.
As the heat shimmered on the rooftops, the minarets of the town’s countless mosques were visible. They jostled for space with Buddhist temples, ancient hallmarks of the Chinese settlers.
Where was this remarkable collection of history and culture that I was viewing?
Malacca — a small town in southern Malaysia — and one of Asia’s most surprising places.
Portugal and the Muslims
Five hundred years ago, a Portuguese fleet sailed from Goa, India. Led by Afonso de Albuquerque, the goal was to capture Malacca and drive out the Sultan and his cohorts.
This mission was successful, and the Portuguese built a fortress around Malacca to defend their new possession. Named “A Famosa”, today only the gatehouse remains. The rest of the fortress was destroyed by the British in 1807 when they took over the town.
The gatehouse survived thanks to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. He visited Malacca in 1810 and ordered the gatehouse be preserved for history’s sake. This collection of brick and mortar is one of the oldest European structures in Asia.
St Paul’s church is another Portuguese relic. Massive tombstones engraved in Latin lean against its walls and transport you to another time and continent.
The church sits atop a hill that commands views over the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Indonesia can be seen in the distance as Arab oil creeps past in supertankers, on its way to pollute the skies of Beijing. It’s a contrast between the old world and the new.
The Dutch and the Napoleonic Wars
In 1641 the Dutch attacked Malacca and drove out the Portuguese. Malacca became an afterthought as the Dutch focused on their possessions in Java. The British were then given control by the Dutch in 1795 after France conquered the Netherlands in the Napoleonic Wars.
Red Square is the lasting Dutch contribution, a collection of red buildings in Malacca’s centre. Like the Portuguese ruins, it’s a surprising sight in a small Malaysian town.
The Chinese diaspora
Not to be outdone, the Chinese influence is strong in Malacca. The best example is Cheng Hoon Temple. Built in 1645, it’s the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. When visiting late one night, I could almost feel the ancestral spirits as I admired the main gate’s artwork.
Nearby is Jonker Walk, Malacca’s Chinatown. The night market overflows with tourists coming to eat the Portuguese-influenced cuisine and traditional Chinese dishes.
One such dish is the chicken rice-ball, a Malacca specialty. As large as a golf ball, the rice is cooked in chicken stock along with garlic, ginger and spring-onion. Firm and savoury, it tastes good, but isn’t worth the trip to Malacca alone.
The hostel in Malacca
With such a fascinating town to explore, it’s embarrassing to admit that I spent most of the time at my hostel. Jalan-Jalan Emas was its name, and it’s a reason in itself for visiting Malacca.
As the daily temperature rose to unbearable levels, it was easier to slump in the hostel common room than go sightseeing. It wasn’t any cooler inside, but it offered respite from the brutal July sun. That, and the chance to drink beer.
After having stayed in many hostels in Asia, it quickly became obvious that Jalan-Jalan is one of the best. The travelers it attracted were interesting and diverse, and countless balmy nights melted into dawn as cultures and worldviews were exchanged.
Our evening ritual involved walking to Little India, having a meal of vegetable curry, naan and chicken tikka, then wandering along the Malacca River for a night of drinking and talk.
It was hard saying goodbye.
The gift of durian
It was my final night in Malacca. We were sitting outside when the Malay guy walked past.
He carried several large durian. Without explanation he dropped one at our feet and walked off. We all stared at it, nonplussed.
Durian is a spiky fruit with soft yellow flesh. It’s infamous and lauded in equal measure, thanks to its strong odour and distinctive taste. Some writers have described durian as being like “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds”. Others have been less kind, comparing its odor to “pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”.
It was with trepidation then that I grabbed a piece and had a bite. While its texture was nice and creamy, it didn’t suit the raw onion flavour that assaulted my mouth.
The rest of the group felt similar, and the ground was littered with half-eaten pieces of durian. Some uninvited guests were soon crawling over the remains.
They clearly had no qualms about the feast on offer. For me, it was just about the only thing in Malacca I didn’t enjoy.
Would you like to go to Malacca? What’s the most surprising place you’ve visited? Leave a comment below
Malacca is two hours from Kuala Lumpur and four hours from Singapore. I traveled from Singapore, paying $3.30 for the Causeway Link bus service. This dropped me at Johor Bahru Sentral in Malaysia where I purchased a ticket to Malacca for 21 ringgit. In total, this cost one-third of the price of taking a bus directly from Singapore.
I stayed at Jalan-Jalan Emas for 16 ringgit per night. This was centrally located in the Old City district and is fantastic.
Good food is everywhere, but I recommend the Indian restaurants in Little India. For 4-7 ringgit you can get a meal that is massive and delicious. Try the banana-leaf or the roti canai. If you are super cheap, you can get a free meal at the Sikh temple. Remember to wash your own dishes afterwards.
Drinking is expensive. The cheapest option is to buy some cans of super strong beer (12-15%) from the liquor stores in Little India. A brand called Phoenix is strong and surprisingly drinkable.