In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and the historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.
Malacca looms large in virtually all historical records that detail the history of world trade, the development of Southeast Asian civilisation, and the checkered relationship between aggressive Western powers and Eastern feudalistic kingdoms. The name alone evokes exotic ideas of secretive sultanates residing in grand palaces, European adventurers after glory and gold, and audacious pirates willing to risk it all for their cut.
Such an impressive historical record has been somewhat of a mixed blessing for modern Malacca, as visitors today are sometimes underwhelmed by what the city has to offer. Malacca was eventually supplanted by Penang and Singapore as the most important trading post on the Malacca Straits and thus the old town is not as expansive as those of its usurpers. What it lacks in built marvel, though, it more than makes up for in cultural promise.
For a small corner of the Malaysian island of Penang, Georgetown, the delightful influences on the urban cityscape from Chinese and Indian communities are the most interesting highlights beyond the tourist hotspots. For Malacca, this city is the historical home to the Muslim Malay culture as it is known in Malaysia today – and thus, a visit to the city is an opportunity to get to grips with Malaysia’s largest ethnic group.
I timed my trip to visit friends in Malacca with Hari Raya, which translates as ‘Grand Day’, but is better known by the original Arabic name of Eid al-Fitr. This holiday marks the period immediately after the holy fasting month of Ramadan, during which Muslims are required not to eat or drink during daylight hours. Hari Raya is the most important day on the Muslim calendar, and it’s a time for families and friends to get together and eat monstrous amounts of delicious Malay food.
Even if your trip doesn’t coincide with any holidays, there will still be plenty of opportunities to explore the heart of Malay Malaysia.
During my visits to the mosques in Malacca, I was the only Westerner, and most of the travellers I spoke to in Malacca didn’t even know these mosques existed. So while it seems that these important religious monuments would be on the top of highlights’ lists for the city, they seem to fly under the radar for many visitors. Regardless, they are worth visiting if not for their historical and spiritual significance, then for the contrasting architectural styles they offer.
The Kampung Kling Mosque is an architectural mismatch of styles from across the globe that wonderfully exemplifies Malacca’s cosmopolitan history. The minaret resembles an East Asian Pagoda, the tiling is somewhat European, and the main structure is an amalgamation of different Asian architectural styles including those of China and India.
The Malacca Straits Mosque, which opened in 2006, couldn’t be more different. This white flower of a building is immediately more middle-eastern in its architectural style, but is built out on the water. During high tide, it seemingly floats, and timing your visit with sunset on a clear day makes for incredible photos as the sky darkens and the mosque lights up from within.
These are religious sites, so remember to dress conservatively – robes are available to borrow if needed. Certain areas are not available to non-Muslims and women, and your guide will make sure you avoid any cultural blunders.
Malacca is not synonymous with great food like Penang, but that may be in part due to the fact that Malay food is so underrated. Why Malay food is not considered one of the world’s great cuisines is beyond me, as any plate of Malay fare is bursting with flavour.
The city’s history as a trading sultanate has led to an incredible number of spices passing through, many of which ended up contributing to the dishes we see today. Like Thai food, coconut milk is an important base for many dishes but Malay curries tend to be thicker and sweeter, yet still with plenty of exotic flavours from the likes of lemongrass and galangal.
Your guide will be able to point out where to get the best Malay food in town, but a number of excellent eateries can be found between the Old Town and the Malacca Straights Mosque on Malacca Island. So after you’ve enjoyed the sunset, head back and see what you come across – as always, the best places are the busiest ones, and most have the food cooked already. All you need do is point at what you want and get stuck in!
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