HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Soaking up history in Malacca

Located about 90 miles southeast of KL, Malacca (also spelled Melaka) is considered the birthplace of Malay culture. Whereas KL was a backwater before transforming into a major, highly developed city over the last 50 years, Malacca is drenched in centuries of history, much of it involving European colonialism.

The abridged history of the city goes something like this: Iskandar Shah arrived on the scene from modern-day Singapore around 1400. He recognized that the area was strategically located on the narrow strait that runs between Malaysia and Indonesia (now called the Straits of Malacca). Shah established a port with good facilities and Malacca quickly turned into a regular stopping point for vessels, especially the legendary old Chinese fleets, crossing from the Pacific to the Indian ocean, or vice versa.

It didn't take long for this location to attract attention from the European empires. In 1511 a Portuguese force sailed from Goa (in India) to Malacca and captured the city. The Hindu, Burmese and Chinese inhabitants were allowed to live in peace, but the Muslim inhabitants were massacred or expelled. The Portuguese built an imposing fortress called A Famosa, but this didn't stop the Dutch from attacking Malacca and successfully taking control of the city in 1641.

The Dutch decided to focus on developing Jakarta instead of Malacca, but they still left an architectural legacy in the city, which I'll get to soon. Malacca changed colonial hands for a third, and final, time thanks to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The British East India Company controlled the city for a time, before Malacca joined Penang (an island off Malaysia's northwest coast) and Singapore in the Straits Settlements and became a Crown Colony. The British were uncomfortable with the formidable A Famosa fortress, so they proceeded to destroy it. Visionary British official Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, visited Malacca in 1810 and persuaded the officials there to preserve one part of the fortress - a gate. It is all that remains today. The Straits Settlements were dissolved in 1946, and Malacca was handed over to the Malayan Union, which eventually became the modern state of Malaysia. This turbulent past means Malacca is home to a wealth of cultural influences, most noticeable in its architecture and food.

The drive from KL to Malacca took less than two hours, and was a reminder of how nice it can be to travel in countries that are more developed than Vietnam. The chaotic disorder of Vietnam's roads is often entertaining, but sometimes it's nice to just get somewhere with no fuss, and Malaysia's excellent highways (which wouldn't look out of place in the West) make that easy. It's much better to arrive somewhere after a comfortable, horn-free bus ride than a stomach-churning, death-defying cannonball run down any of Vietnam's insane 'highways'.  

Malacca's historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Anthony and I were staying in Chinatown (at the fantastic Roof Top Guest House), the heart of the area, for two nights. Throughout the history described above, the Chinese maintained a prominent commercial presence, and this neighborhood is packed with old-school shophouses and restaurants. The Chinese New Year (calm down Vietnamese readers, that's what they call it there) was a few days away, and the streets were all dolled up for the biggest holiday of the year. The roads aren't especially pedestrian friendly since there are few sidewalks combined with a surprisingly large amount of car traffic, but walking is still pretty easy because Malaysian drivers aren't psychopaths, unlike here in Vietnam. Some of them even yield!

Malacca is renowned as a food destination, particularly for its Peranakan (or Baba-Nonya) cuisine. These terms usually refer to descendants of the original Chinese arrivals who intermarried with Malay residents. A number of dishes are considered Peranakan, one of the most famous of which is laksa, a noodle soup dish. Our first stop was Jonker 88, an extremely popular laksa shop. I got the seafood variety, and it was delicious, though I was quickly learning that using chopsticks and other utensils without your right thumb can be a challenge. 
The restaurant had an impressive number of Chairman Mao portraits on display.
After slurping down our soups we ambled over to the quaint Malacca River. We were dismayed to see a brand-new Hard Rock Cafe right next to it. It's always upsetting to see crappy chains (or any chain, for that matter) in historically significant places.
Right across a bridge from the Hard Rock is Malacca's colonial center, home to several prominent Dutch-built buildings.They were actually painted red by the British, the original color was a simple white.
The Christ Church was built in the 18th century and is the oldest functioning Protestant place of worship in Malaysia.
This is the Stadthuys, an old Dutch word meaning city hall. Constructed in 1650, it is believed to be the oldest remaining Dutch building in the East. It housed Malacca's Dutch governor, and its design is a reproduction of a town hall in Hoorn, in the Netherlands.
After hanging around the colonial buildings for a bit it started to rain, so we returned to the guest house for a nap. By dinner time the weather had cleared. We headed to a satay restaurant where you pick what you want and cook it in a steaming peanut sauce kept in the middle of every table. The options included a few vegetables and numerous cuts of meat, some of which looked a bit dubious. An eccentric Dutch woman joined us as we gorged.

After the meal Anthony and I strolled around Chinatown, where red lights illuminate the buildings, creating an eerie nighttime ambiance in addition to making for great pictures. The neighborhood was quiet, and it was clear that this place shuts down early. We returned to the guesthouse after wandering for a while and worked out the plan for our second day in Malacca.

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