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Many will tell you to skip this World Heritage Site in Malaysia. But here’s what to do in Melaka city that makes it worthy of a visit.
Melaka (also known as Malacca) is usually the place that people visit in between travel from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and since Malaysia is well known for its stunning beach locations, you will likely come across other travellers heading straight for the islands and bypassing smaller spots on the mainland.
However, setting out on a Melaka trip is worth the short two-hour bus journey from Kuala Lumpur, even if only for a day trip.
A key trading route in the 1400s, numerous European colonial occupations intersected with Malay Islamic culture. These periods of history and heritage have blended with a unity of multiple religions to create a city of contrasting colour, architecture and atmosphere where no two areas look the same.
In Chinatown business booms as people hustle through its long shopping streets, restaurants and temples while the adjacent calm, scenic riverfront receives a sporadic scattering of people seeking solitude. In the historic town centre, earthly red buildings catch your eye, street food sizzles and the smell of sea air passes. The shallow ding of metal hitting the ground can be heard as the trishaw drivers park their flower-covered carts in a row to begin a competitive game of coin throwing, inviting you to join.
If I had listened to the majority verdict on the place, I would never have gone. Instead, Melaka ended up being one of my favourite places in the country and a lesson on the multifaceted Malay culture.
- Is Melaka Worth Visiting?
- What to Do in Melaka to See it Differently
- The Downsides of Visiting Melaka / Melacca
- Getting to Melaka from Kuala Lumpur
- Take a Historical Melaka/Melacca Tour
- Want to Go to Melaka? Pin It!
Is Melaka Worth Visiting?
While not a destination you would probably want to spend days in, spending at least one day in Melaka should be considered.
A compact, easy to navigate and picturesque little town, a Malaka trip is an excellent window into the history of the Portuguese, Dutch and British rule as well as being a quiet, charming spot to relax in between city visits.
Known as the ‘Historic State’ you can expect to stumble upon an array of colonial architecture, the fort remains and churches mixed with temples, mosques, funky art stores and unique clothing shops hidden in the never-ending grid of streets that make up central Chinatown.
While ultra very touristy in places, Melaka has a lot to offer that makes it stand out from the more basic and unattractive towns and cities on the mainland.
Where to Stay in Melaka
If you are looking to stay overnight, my budget suggestion is the Homestay Tidurzzz Bandar Melaka guest house (formerly known as Tidur Tidur) where we stayed. Based in the central Chinatown neighbourhood, it is made up of basic rooms built into an art studio that backs onto the river.
What to Do in Melaka to See it Differently
Tour Melaka Historic Old Town
The most iconic things to do in Melaka is to visit the landmark of Stadthuys – its vivid terracotta red buildings, that glow more salmon pink in the sun, are not hard to find.
Built upon the ruins of a Portuguese fort, The Stadthuys of Melacca is believed to be the oldest surviving Dutch buildings in Asia from the colonial period that dates back to 1660. It’s also where you will find the Christ Church Melaka, also built by the Dutch when they took possession of Malacca from the Portuguese.
The main hall – the seat of successive governments for over 300 years, including the Malay Sultanate and Dutch, Portuguese and British occupations – was converted in 1982 to house the Museum of History & Ethnography. Here you can learn about the rich culture and history of Melaka city.
Take a Trishaw ride – elaborately decorated tricycle rickshaws that are a well-known sight in Melaka. You’ll find the drivers waiting outside The Stadthuys in what is dubbed as the Red Square. From Hello Kitty to Superheroes, each Trishaw is a reflection of the driver’s personality. Or you can enjoy them in a coin game as they while away the time.
In the historical district, as well as the Chinatown area you will also find one of the famous bronze statues of Datuk Wira Dr Gan Boon Leong. A famous Malaysian bodybuilder, he went on to win Mr Universe and Mr Asia and is revered as the ‘Father of Bodybuilders in Malaysia’. His statues are as much a tourist site as the centuries-old sites themselves.
A replica of the 16th-century Portuguese vessel The Flor de la Mar stands as part of the Melaka Maritime Museum. Seen as one of the finest cargo ships of its time, it was lost off the coast of Sumatra on a Portugal to India voyage.
Go to Melaka’s Chinatown
Chinatown’s main thoroughfare, Jonker Street is a good place to start. This antique store-lined street, affectionately known as the Jonker Walk, is centrally located and an easy navigation point. Street murals and hanging flags give this area pop of vibrancy, although it comes to life during the Jonker Street Night Market on Fridays and Saturdays.
The main site here is the Chinese Cheng Hoon Teng Temple whose red-tiled upturned boat-shaped roof is visible from the sandy coloured street walls. This 17th-century structure is said to be the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia, representing the worship of the Three Doctrinal Systems of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Today, it continues to serve as the spiritual centre for the Chinese neighbourhood in Melaka.
Wind Down at Melaka’s Riverside
The Sungai Melaka river is the place to wind down after time spent in the crumbling colonial-era streets. A meandering promenade of stores, hotels and cafes, it is very much a local relaxation point as it is a tourist draw. Since my time in Melaka, the riverside has seen some urban regeneration, including the addition of street art on river-facing walls, shop-front murals to bring life to the tiny side streets, and boutique stores adding some flair to the area’s beautification.
Visit Melaka’s Little India
An enclave of around 30 Indian traders who elicit the smell of spices, dazzle with fabrics and pump to the sound of Indian music beats, can be found at the intersection of the Jalan Bendahara and Jalan Temenggong roads intersection. While this area and its wares serve the needs of Melaka’s Indian Muslim community, it’s a wonderful place to stroll, shop and understand another layer of Melaka’s multi-cultural mix.
The Downsides of Visiting Melaka / Melacca
Getting to Melaka is a Pain
The main downside to Melaka is getting from the end bus stop to the city centre. Taxi drivers in Malaysia are notorious for not using their metres and insist on ridiculous prices. My friend and I spent half an hour trying to convince the drivers at the bus terminal to lower their costs but to no avail. We even decided to hitchhike as a message to the greedy mob hanging outside of the bus station – yet our stubbornness didn’t get us anywhere.
Expect to pay the set price of 20 Ringgit for the short journey into town – being assertive only landed us a 5 Ringgit discount with a battered old taxi, but we felt like we had won the war.
Melaka is a Tourism Hub
Another issue is that this is one of Malaysia’s key tourist centres – both international and domestic tourists – so don’t expect to have any part of it to yourself. There is even a Hard Rock Café in town just to put the cherry on top of the ‘developing’ status.
The best thing to do is concentrate on your surroundings, block everyone out or find a secluded spot by the river away from the central thoroughfares and attractions. Or go and sit with the locals at the hawker stalls and feel like you are the only westerner in town for 15 minutes as well as getting to sample the delicious snacks and dishes.
Getting to Melaka from Kuala Lumpur
It is more accessible to get to Melaka from Kuala Lumpur via bus. Despite the KL Sentral railway station, there are no direct trains to Melaka.
The Available Train Journey to Melaka (via Tampin)
If you are thinking of taking the train, Tampin is the closest town to Melaka with a train station. While the Komuter train to Tampin may be cheaper, the journey is up to four hours long since it stops at every station as part of the commuter belt around Kuala Lumpur city.
There is a local bus from Tampin to Melaka, with multiple stops that take over an hour to reach Melaka. It is a real, local experience, with over-crowding and no air conditioning.
Bus vs Express Bus to Melaka
The easiest way to get to Melaka is via express bus from the TBS bus terminal (Terminal Bersepadu Selatan) in Kuala Lumpur to Melaka Sentral station. Buses leave the city every 30 minutes, cost between RM10 and RM20, with a total journey time of approximately two and a half hours.
Take a Taxi
Driving time to Melaka is around 1 hour and 30 minutes, although you will spend time trying to haggle a reasonable price with a taxi driver to get there. The estimated fare should be around RM150, according to Uber.
Take a Historical Melaka/Melacca Tour
Want to cut the hassle of getting between Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, as well as get local insight on all the top sites? Consider this bestselling full-day Melacca tour with an English speaking guide, a private vehicle and a local lunch. Melaka tours are great for those on limited time, or who enjoy the convenience of having everything organised by an expert.
For around €40 per person, you can embark on a 10-hour round-trip, including pick up and drop-off to your accommodation in KL. You’ll get to experience the best of historical Malacca, including a visit to St. Peter’s Church, the Portuguese settlement, Sultan’s Well, the Chinese Cheng Hoon Teng Temple and other highlights in the port town. There’s also a chance to sample traditional Peranakan food at lunch.
Want to Go to Melaka? Pin It!