Midway between the capital cities of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and at the mouth of the Strait of Melaka, a crucial shipping route connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, Melaka has been a centre of trade and cultural exchange for more than 600 years.
Established at the beginning of the 14th century, Melaka (also spelt Malacca) was set up by a renagade Hindu Prince by the name of Parameswara (also known as Iskandar Shah). He originally hailed from Palembang on Sumatra, which, at the time was a part of the waning Srivijayan empire. The Srivijayans were slowly being conquered by the growing Majapahit Empire and when they took Palembang, Parameswara packed his bags and headed to Temasek (modern day Singapore).
Parameswara spent the next five years in Temasek, before fleeing (this time at the hand of the Siamese) and setting up shop in Melaka. While legend has it Melaka takes its name from a Melaka tree that Parameswara saw a mouse deer under, more sensible people believe its name comes from the Arabic word mulaqa which means 'meeting place'.
Ever since Parameswara arrived, Melaka has been a meeting place. Merchants from the Middle East, China, India, Southeast Asia, and even Europe have been drawn here, and everyone at some stage has wanted to control this important port city.
Control has changed hands many times since Parameswara's time. Portuguese sailors conquered it in 1511 and turned the city into a walled fortress, hoping to take control of the spice and silk trade. From that point, and for the next 400 years Melaka remained under European influence -- the Dutch rose to power in 1641, followed by the British in 1824. With the exception of four years of Japanese occupation during WWII, Melaka remained a British colony until Malaysia gained independence in 1957.
It was also an important hub of immigration and Chinese, Indian, and Portuguese settlements can be visited, each with their own traditional culture and cuisine. Melaka is the centre of Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya culture -- a group created when Chinese immigrants married Malay women and adopted local traditions.
Today, Melaka is a modern city, but one swathed in old-world charm. Its rich heritage has left behind a bounty of relics including Portuguese fortresses, Dutch town halls, Chinese temples and Catholic churches. Dotted around the city's historic quarter, many have been painstakingly preserved as museums of history or culture.
This wealth of attractions makes it one of Malaysia's top tourist draws attracting both package tourists on daytrips from Singapore along with a steady flow of backpackers and independent travellers making their way through Malaysia. Along with Georgetown in Penang, the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
A popular weekend escape for city-dwellers from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, much of the tourism here is of the pre-packaged variety -- tourists come to shop for antiques and stay in resorts in the suburbs. Melaka is largely tout-free and backpackers and independent travellers taking advantage of Melaka's many good guesthouses are unlikely to get hassled â€“ you're not the target market here. Enjoy the break!
Melaka is a reasonably-sized city of half a million people, but the area of interest to tourists is quite compact. The main sights and attractions can be easily explored on foot -- or a trishaw ride if you're feeling lazy.
The Sungai Melaka (Melaka River) runs through the middle of the city, bisecting the tourist area. Development has exploded along the riverbank, and this murky canal has become quite charming, with brick footpaths, public art and an abundance of riverside cafes and guesthouses.
Just south of the river is the colonial quarter, where you'll find the major historic sites including Dutch Square, Christ Church, The Stadthuys and the remains of the Portuguese fort A Famosa.
On the north side of the river is the Chinatown area bisected by busy Jalan Hang Jebat (better known as Jonker Walk). The surrounding streets are loaded with Perenakan shophouses, mini-museums, temples, restaurants, art galleries and souvenir shops selling antiques of questionable authenticity. Scattered through this area you'll also find the bulk of Melaka's guesthouses and hotels.
Melaka's status as a UNESCO World Heritage City has created a distinct "old town" and "new town". The giant shopping malls, five-star business hotels and anything else that looks modern can be found along Jalan Merdeka.
By Tanya Procyshyn.