Don’t Mess With Melaka

Despite being designated a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008, I’d never heard of Melaka (or Malacca) until I started researching this trip. But it turned out to be a pleasant city with a compact and attractive centre and an interesting history, as well as being close to a stop on the Kuala Lumpur to Singapore railway line. Or so I thought.

I got the train from KL Sentral at 11am on Saturday morning and was surprised to find it pretty much empty, with only a handful of other passengers in my carriage. The train was a shiny new express service to Gemas, a town 3 hours south-east of KL where Malaysia’s two long-distance railway lines meet. It had airline seats and information screens showing a Harry Potter films with no sound and, that prized Malaysian indicator of wealth and prosperity, bone-chillingly cold air conditioning. But it was a pleasant journey and two hours later I arrived at Pulau Sebang-Tampin, from where I had been told I could get a bus to Melaka. This was accurate, broadly speaking, but a few details had been overlooked; the fact that I had to walk for 20 minutes to the bus station with 20 kilos on my back in the midday sun, for example. But I made it and, finding there was no bus schedule or information at all, followed the example of the local passengers and sat on the floor, waiting for someone to tell me when a bus to Melaka arrived. This strategy worked a treat and ten minutes later I was on the local bus on the hour-long, 35km drive to the city.

On the journey we drove through Tampin, a quiet crossroads town not unlike Khok Kloi, with its hardware stores, food shops and a Singer shop selling sewing machines and motorbikes. We then passed by small villages with red painted wooden houses raised on stilts with steep roofs shaped like this _/\_ , which I later found out were traditional and typical of this region. Arriving at Melaka Sentral bus station, I then got a second bus to the town centre and walked to my hostel, checking in two hours after departing the train.

The port city of Melaka was of great strategic value to the colonising nations and, prior to the development of Singapore, was the most important port and trading post on the Malayan Peninsular. It was colonised first by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, and later by the Dutch and finally by the British in the 19th Century. Each of these powers made their mark on the city’s architecture and culture and as it faded from prominence, dwarfed by Singapore and later Kuala Lumpur, its historic centre was preserved. The town square, or Dutch Square or Red Square as it is also known, is home to a fountain in honour of Queen Victoria, the Dutch-built Stadthuys dating to 1650 and the Christ Church. Many of the surrounding structures, formally colonial civic buildings, have been painted a dusty red colour to match the buildings on the square, and many have been turned into museums, about anything from architecture to Islamic history to stamps. The area is also the site of St Paul’s Hill, with a ruined church (Portuguese) cum fort (Dutch) cum storage building (British) at the top.

Across the river from the colonial centre is Chinatown, full of temples, restaurants and guesthouses, and founded in the 15th Century by Chinese traders . The buildings here are traditional Chinese shop-houses, terraces of narrow but deep buildings with shops on the ground floor and living quarters above. With their painted wooden shutters and charming quiet streets, the buildings reminded me a little of small French towns and, like in Europe, the history of these old buildings here were very much alive; restored, maintained and part of everyday life, just as they always had been.

Apart from its cultural heritage, Melaka is also famous for its food, which draws on the cities cultural influences over the centuries. I tried Laksa, a hot and sour noodle soup, as well as a dish called Rojak, a mix of cucumber, a pineapple-ish fruit, chunks of something the texture of tofu, and big pieces of crunchy stuff that was somewhere between honeycomb and pork scratchings, all mixed up and covered in a sweet barbecuey sauce. I have no idea what that was all about. That evening I visited the Jonker Street Night Market, which had all kinds of food on offer, from dried barbecued cuttlefish, to grilled breaded quails eggs that looked just like mini scotch eggs. My street food dinner reflected the variety of Malaysian culture; reconstituted fish balls in curry sauce, fried pork dumplings with soy sauce, and chicken satay skewers with peanut sauce, all washed down with sugar cane juice in front of a huge gilded stage which was hosting some kind of public OAP karaoke session.

However, my best meal in Melaka came the following evening, when I went to a famous local restaurant, Capitol Satay. Now in its fourth generation, it began as a street stall after the war when its founder, an immigrant from southern China, put a unique spin on the Malaysian classic of barbecued meat skewers served with spicy peanut sauce. The idea is a bit like cheese fondue; you sit at a round table with a bucket of molten peanut sauce in the middle, heated from below by a gas burner, and you help yourself to raw skewers and dumplings and chuck them in the sauce for a few minutes until they’re done. I tried skewers of pork, prawns and what I later found out was pig heart, as well as a selection of dumplings and vegetables. So peanutty, so filling, and sooooo good. About as far from a Sainsbury’s chicken satay stick as you can imagine.

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Capitol Satay

PS I almost forget to explain the name of this post; as I walked around the city I kept seeing brightly coloured posters with the ominous tagline ‘Don’t mess with Melaka’. No explanation, no clear visual message, just a mildly threatening reminder of this charming city’s penchant for violent retribution. Or maybe an anti-litter campaign.

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