Don’t Mess With Melaka

When you first hit the ground running in Kuala Lumpur, it’s easy to get lost in feeling like you’re at home.  Most people speak English, there are American and British brands everywhere, and (save for the smell of open sewers and traffic that takes street lights as mere suggestions) the city moves along like any other major metropolitan area.

But I knew I wasn’t in familiar territory, and needed to dunk myself in the culture to get a better understanding of the ground I was walking on.

So, on my third day in KL I went to learn more about Malaysia’s history at the National Museum.

Welcome to Malaysia's National Museum.
Welcome to Malaysia’s National Museum.

Despite being a young country (set to mark 60 years of independence from British rule in 2017), Malay history extends back to prehistoric times – and the National Museum chronicles that. However, the storyline which fascinated me most begins with the Melaka Sultan’s conversion to Islam in the 15th century. The religion helped galvanize an identity for the people of the region. Groups would gather to study Islam in homes, businesses – pretty much anywhere. It was a defining cultural moment.

However, the ability of the Malay to determine their own destiny would take a more-than-500-year detour, starting in 1511 when the Portuguese – hungry for an Asian port city – conquered Melaka. This sent the Sultanate packing south to the Johor state as the Portuguese remade Melaka in their own image.

The Malay territory got passed around over the next five centuries more than an orange property during a Christmas marathon game of Monopoly. The Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Japanese all took turns trying to rule over the land. Ultimately, in 1957, the Malaysian people claimed their Independence from British rule (which was achieved diplomatically) allowing them to take control of their future.

Where a good chunk of Malaysian history plays out is in the city of Melaka. Today a home to about 800-thousand Malaysians, Melaka is a modern sprawling city. But in its historic quarter, remnants of a storied past are preserved – which is part of the reason Melaka has earned the designation of being a UNESCO World Heritage City.

With five days in KL under my belt, and a better understanding of the country in tow, I headed to the bus terminal to buy a one way ticket to Melaka. I wanted to see this rich history up close and personal.

On the Road Again

Melaka is regarded by UNESCO as a World Heritage City.
Melaka is regarded by UNESCO as a World Heritage City.

Melaka is a rather quick two hour bus ride from KL in somewhat busy traffic. Upon arriving, you’ll notice that Melaka Sentral – the city’s bus station – is nowhere near the historical district. If you’re staying in Melaka’s historical neighbourhood, you’ll either need to take a taxi, or board a local bus (RM2 from the bus terminal) to get there.

Luckily for me, my hostel was not in the city’s centre, but rather about a 10 minute walk from Melaka Sentral. The crew at Ramarama were fantastic to deal with, and the dorm was a steal for being a brand new place with great beds and a relaxed environment – perfect for older travellers looking to stay inexpensively, but with an upgrade in quality.

There’s History Under Your Feet

A whole lot of history in one small area.
A whole lot of history in one small area.

As the city bus twists and turns through the streets of Melaka, the historical quarter is unmistakable as buildings passing by turn a distinct shade of terra cotta. The bus stops at an unmarked location in an area most guide books call “red square.” In it, three historical landmarks from two occupied eras.

The Stadthuys (on the far right of the picture above) was the town hall built by the Dutch as a replica of the municipal government building in Hoorn, Netherlands. It had a long history of being the administrative building for the town, but today stands as a museum for Melaka’s history.

Across the street is Christ Church Melaka. It was also constructed by the Dutch as a replacement for St. Paul’s Church (the oldest church in all of Malaysia, built on the hill overlooking the city), and today is an active Anglican church.

In the middle of the square is the Victoria Tower.  It was erected during British rule.

Frozen in Time

A Famosa is among the oldest surviving European architectural remains in south east Asia.
A Famosa is among the oldest surviving European architectural remains in south east Asia.

After the Portuguese conquered Melaka, they scurried to fortify their acquisition.  The fortress would survive through Dutch rule, but it was the British who wanted it torn down in the 1800s.  The entire fort – save for the gate pictured above (known as “A Famosa”), along with a small brick platform along the river – was destroyed.

While Western history says it’s because the British didn’t want to maintain the fortification, a placard at the site says the British wanted to move the focus of trade further up the coast to Penang.  It’s something I’ve discovered while verifying the information I found after visiting some of these sights – the placards say one thing, the Internet says another.  Go figure.

St. Paul's Church is nothing more than a roofless shell today.  Over its history, it served as a Roman Catholic church, a Dutch Reformist church, and a munitions hold for the British.
St. Paul’s Church is nothing more than a roofless shell today. Over its history, it served as a Roman Catholic church, a Dutch Reformist church, and a munitions hold for the British.

I think it was while visiting the remnants of St. Paul’s Church (the oldest church in Malaysia) that I had a bit of an epiphany about Melaka and its history.  Over the course of 500+ years, the greed and desire for an eastern trade port drove the Portuguese, Dutch and British to try and make over the city – and in turn the country – in their own image time after time.  It’s like that kid who takes something that another kid built with LEGO, only to destroy most of it and start over again.

What’s amazing about Melaka isn’t that so much history went down here – it’s that the few sites that remain from its past actually exist.  Somehow, through whatever twists of fate, these remnants of the past were saved by each successive group which tried to colonize the Malaysian people in their own ways – and now, with Independence firmly in their grasp, the Malaysians choose to hold on to these pieces of history because they know that – for better or worse – they’re part of their own story.

Melaka Today

What’s notable as you get further away from the historical centre of Melaka is that the city today is just like any other modern city in Malaysia.  There are cars everywhere, massive shopping centres dot the landscape, with a KFC and a McDonald’s pretty much everywhere you turn around.  It’s a growing city, but one that hasn’t forgotten its past.

No matter how much it evolves and grows, however, those looking to gain a better understanding of Malaysia’s path to independence will find some answers as they traverse the historical district of this bustling city.

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