When most people think of Malaysia, they think of Kuala Lumpur, its vibrant modern capital. But drive a couple hours south (or, as in my case, a couple hours north from Singapore), and you’ll find yourself in the city of Melaka (sometimes spelled Malacca), home to some of the richest history in the region.

Kuala Lumpur was founded in 1857. Melaka, on the other hand, started in 1400. Iskandar Shah founded the city and corresponding sultanate after leaving what is now Singapore. It sits at the narrowest point of the Straits of Malacca, the longest in the world. There, he built a city based on trade.

In 1405, the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho (also known as Zheng He) visited Melaka as part of his famed voyages representing the Ming dynasty to the world. In fact, Cheng Ho stopped in Melaka on five of his seven voyages, which went as far as Ethiopia with the largest fleets the world had seen. Melaka became a tributary of China, and Chinese culture took a good deal of hold in Malaysia. Today, there is a museum to Cheng Ho and his voyages in Melaka.

A Koran owned by Cheng Ho was donated by one of his descendants to the museum.

Seeing its potential, both in terms of trade and strategic location along the Straits, Melaka became a focal point of Portuguese expansion in the region, falling to Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1511, and subsequently to the Dutch in 1641. Most of what currently remains of the colonial period in the city stems from this period, including the church in the city’s main colonial square.

This church dates back to 1753 from Dutch colonial times.

In 1824, Melaka was ceded to the British in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. However, development of the city was passed over in favor of the British colonies at both ends of the Straits, feeling that these were more strategic to control. So it faded largely into the background while Penang and Singapore thrived.

With Malaysia’s independence in 1946 (first as Malaya and then as modern Malaysia in 1963), Melaka became a provincial capital. While it is still a decent sized metropolitan area of just under 900,000, the city today is more important to tourism and to the continuation of the unique baba nyonya culture, that of Chinese men marrying local Malay women. (China is also redeveloping the port as a deep water outlet capable of handling a naval facility.)

For those interested in Malay history and culture (and if you aren’t, you should be as it is fascinating), Melaka provides some unique experiences that other more popular destinations in Malaysia don’t. Very little remains from the Portuguese period, though a part of the original fortifications still stands. (Nothing remains from the Melaka Sultanate; however there is a reconstruction of the Sultan’s palace next to that fortification.)

Tourists check out the last remnants of the Portuguese fortifications, dating from 1512.

However, much from the Dutch and English colonial periods can still be seen. In addition to the church shown above, the main squares of the Melaka colony are well preserved. Apparently the red color was added more recently and the buildings were originally white.

The paint may be new, but the buildings are not.

One of the dominant cultures in colonial eras was that of the baba nyonya, Straits-born descendants of Chinese and Malay unions. The name comes from the men, known as babas, and women, called nyonyas. Most of these were fairly prosperous, children of the Chinese plantation class. The Straits Chinese Jewelry Museum in Melaka traces some of the baba nyonya history in a restored home.

The Straits Chinese Jewelry Museum

The house is long and narrow with interior courtyard providing air and light. In Dutch times, taxes on homes was paid according to how wide they were, so practice was to build homes only 10-15 feet wide but hundreds of feet long. The collection of antiques donated by previous owners and collected by the current owner is worth the visit.

The history of Melaka is indelibly connected to the Straits, and its strategic location roughly in the middle of them. While the water can be seen from a fair amount of the city, the Masjid Selat Melaka, or Melaka Straits Mosque, is one of the most beautiful places to view the waterway through which more than 25% of the world’s shipping passes.

A stunning mosque alongside beautiful blue water

This mosque is a new construction, but other older mosques and temples can be seen throughout the older areas of the city, the oldest of which is in the featured photo of this article.

Malaysia is a fascinating mixture of cultures and religions, but nowhere are those – and the history they represent – showcased better than in Melaka. It is a pleasant, perhaps even surprisingly so, excursion for anyone in the region!

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