We spent our first week in Malaysia exploring the UNESCO World Heritage city of Malacca. It was a great starting point for us to learn and experience first hand why they call this country a melting pot. The influences on this city’s culture–including food, architecture, and language–are so varied and rich, it is actually a challenge to keep it all straight. This sign for the multilingual services at the historic Christ Church (completed by the Dutch in 1753) is a testament to Malacca’s inherent diversity and Malaysia’s multi-faceted identity as a whole.
Similar to the Vietnamese river town Hoi An (also protected by UNESCO) which we visited in September, Malacca was once a strategic international trading port. First conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch, followed by the British all had a hand in controlling the region at some point. For centuries, Chinese have also settled here, intermarrying with local Malay. Indian influence abounds, as well. Malacca’s well-kept Chinese homes and shophouses were particularly captivating because, unlike tourist-saturated Hoi An, many are still residences and businesses catering to locals. Malacca retains a sense of authenticity one thirsts for while traveling. Chris’ favorite was the bike shop. Mine was the basket seller. Though their shop was closed, you can discern what is sold by items hung at the threshold, an ancient merchant tradition.
As in Burma, Laos and Vietnam, I enjoy seeing European colonial buildings, from the crumbling shells to the gorgeously rebuilt. Not only are they beautiful no matter what state they are in, they stimulate my curiosity and imagination about that time in history when intrepid Europeans traveled vast and treacherous distances to such foreign, inhospitable places. Without AC, bottled water, and bug repellent, this region would be quite tough. Malacca’s main square beside Christ Church (in which every brick was transported from the Netherlands) features a beautiful stone fountain built during Queen Victoria’s reign. The intricately carved tombs of deceased colonials were fascinating. Merle liked the old canons at the Dutch fort nearby and both kids were excited to play pirates on an restored wooden ship.
The best way to explore all great, historic cities is by foot. Wandering is best. With the climate and chaotic scene of most SE Asian cities, this rarely was an option for us. Well, we found our explore-by-walking legs in Malacca! The slow, on the ground pace provided a colorful, exciting, informative and varied picture of this very interesting city. Yes, those are indeed shark fins in the window.
We also met so many friendly people along the way, making us feel quite welcome. Immediately, we found that Malaysians like to inquire about ethnic heritage as a form of introduction. Each time, people guess that though we are American, our ancestors were Dutch. Not quite, but the query certainly shows an awareness and appreciation of their own multicultural roots.
Mathilda loved seeing all the pretty, flowing gowns and veils of the Muslim women, who were also very kind to us. Many requested the kids’ picture with them. Mathilda was always compliant if a bride was involved.
Malaysia as a whole, and Malacca in particular, is a foodie destination, with its endlessly diverse cuisine, accessibility via street food stalls and hawker courts, and affordability. Luckily, at this point in our trip, our stomachs are quite strong. The kids are definitely more accustomed to unfamiliar foods and strange dining situations. In Malacca, they especially liked Roti Cennai and Indian style fried chicken, Hainan boiled chicken with rice balls, fresh homemade soy milk, pay-by-the-skewer satay celup (self-cooked in a hot boiling pot of sauce on the table), and next-level shaved ice with mangoes and coconut cream. Can’t forget that sublime roasted duck soup either, which the kids gobbled up like it was going out of style. We now know Mathilda has a certain penchant for duck fat. Not surprising, since she used to eat grilled salmon skin by the pound.
An iconic way to get around Malacca, besides walking, is by pedicab. I am not talking any old pedicab. Reminiscent of the brightly decorated, gawdy trucks in India, pedicabs in Malacca each have a personal and musical theme based on the driver’s taste, or lack there of. Some of their aesthetics might be based on economics, too. Hello Kitty pedicabs playing Gangnam Style certainly got the most attention from little Miss Mathilda. This guy played some bumpin Bollywood for us.
We had a great time in Malacca. In between sightseeing and eating crazy food, little things like the playground, bubbles, whistles in the park, and go cart rides in the mall went a long way with Merle and Mathilda. Happy kids, happy parents. Next, it’s time to conquer Kuala Lumpur!