Monday, July 23, 2012

Malacca: Should You Visit?

Malacca is not a major city or economic power. Once, hundreds of years ago, it was very wealthy and the center of trade and cultural exchange for the region, but this hasn't been true since the Portuguese conquered it in 1511 (ironically, their ambition to take over Southeast Asia's trade by capturing its trading center just meant the trading center was destroyed). Today pretty much the only game in town is tourism.
The main square, lined with kitschy tourist shops (the nice ones are elsewhere)
R getting some shopping in
In a way this is nice. It is much smaller and more manageable than Penang, and has a "place that time forgot" feel (sort of like Venice). I'm a little strange compared to most tourists, because while I love history and anything historical, I prefer cities to be bustling, unglamorous, vibrant and modern (one of the reasons I like China). So I preferred Penang; however, many people would probably like Malacca best.
View of the river: you can take a cruise if you like
It is certainly a very popular tourist destination, for Malaysians (because Malaysia is not that poor, there are a large number of local tourists), Singaporeans, other Asians, and Westerners. However, perhaps because of Malaysia's general image problem in the West (though I think it's nicer than many other places in SE Asia), the tourist industry is not really geared for Westerners, meaning that Malacca still has a local feel (unlike most "backpacker" destinations).
Asian tourists hate walking: thus, the trishaw (many play music and have flashing lights too)
For a history buff like myself, Malacca is fantastic. It has some of the oldest buildings in southeast Asia, including Malaysia's oldest Catholic Church, Chinese temple, Hindu temple, and mosque; the first resting place of St. Francis Xavier; and maybe the oldest European building in southeast Asia. We enjoyed touring many of these places (or as many as I could convince my parents and a grumpy toddler to go to, in 100 degree heat).
Perhaps Malacca's most famous building: R and my mom are to the right, to the left is a typical Malaysian family on vacation
Malacca is also interesting for its fusion culture. It's actually the birthplace of the Peranakan culture (they only moved to Singapore in the 19th century, for economic reasons), and still has communities of Eurasians descended from the Portuguese and Dutch. The architecture, like that in Penang, reflects this fusion, and is beautiful.

Malacca's advantages:
--the largest number of museums I have ever seen in a city of its size (we only visited a few)
--many interesting stores selling antiques, local and unique handicrafts not available anywhere else (which are very high quality: we are not talking inept tiedye here!), and other appealing products
--a pleasant cityscape (it's built on two sides of a river, near the coast, with a small forested hill overlooking the historic district)
--a huge number of restaurants selling really excellent food

Me and R enjoying some lime juice by the river
Our view while doing this
Typical cafe/restaurant
It's the kind of place where you mostly wander around the charming streets aimlessly, stopping often to eat or have a little drink, while soaking up the atmosphere.

(It's not for those into "big" sights, nature, active sports, or vibrant street life.) For a weekend getaway from Singapore, though, it's pretty perfect. I would definitely go back!

NB: Malacca is very hot, hotter than Singapore and with less air conditioning. If you are sensitive, this could be a problem.

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