Malacca & Penang: Exotic Delights

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Trishaw drivers hang outside the Dutch-style Stadthuys, or Town Hall, in Malacca.

Incomparable experiences lurk behind every corner in Malaysia’s eminent destinations.

Malaysia is awash with enthralling spots that can turn a trip there into an unrivaled experience for personal enrichment: The Langkawi Archipelago, for example, is a cluster of 99 islands just below the Thai border. Its unparalleled natural beauty is a potent magnet for those who want to encounter pure Malaysian coastal life. Then there’s Malaysian Borneo—with mountains and caves; orangutan sanctuaries; virgin rainforests where rhinoceros, cloud leopards, strange birds and gibbons are frequently sighted—a wonderland offering singular experiences.

“With such a fantastic array of activities,” says Mazlan Araju, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board’s v.p., Western USA/Latin America, “we offer everything under the sun. Malaysia provides several advantages to tourists, including great value for their money, English is widely spoken and we are a land of friendly people. With such a multicultural and diverse population, Malaysia is truly Asia.”

It’s no surprise that Malaysia is a powerhouse destination, a land where extraordinary experiences are common. But to truly encounter the history, color, food and its well-known multiculturalism, one must spend some time in Malacca and Penang, the storied northern resort.


In fact, Malaysia starts with Malacca. This ancient city is for many the soul of the country—and perhaps nowhere in this tantalizing peninsula that drops like a chandelier earring separating the South China Sea from the Strait of Malacca is the “real” Malaysia more exposed.

In this town of about 800,000, the Malaysian experience and energy is so strong and diverse that if one could harness it, Malaysia would glow for years. You come expecting a typical dog-eared Southeast Asian town and leave with the robust impression that Malacca is one of Asia’s most appealing destinations.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to gain a complete perception of Malacca—or anywhere else for that matter—without having spent considerable time exploring its most intimate nooks to experience first-hand its singular appeal. But those willing to linger for, say a week or two, will have had a savory sample of an incomparable culture.

A whole new world opens upon reaching Malacca.

You know what it smells like when you open an old, dusty trunk that belonged to your grandparents. That’s the smell of Malacca, a city founded on myth and greed.

The myth says that it came to be in 1396 when a Hindu nobleman, a direct descendant of Alexander the Great, fell asleep and dreamed of building a capital for his sultanate. The greed came in 1511 when the Portuguese landed to establish one of the first Western outposts in Asia to monopolize the spice trade. They built a fort on the highest hill to protect the Strait of Malacca so as to keep antagonistic Malay lords in line and other Europeans from intruding.

The Portuguese married Malay women and amassed great wealth until the Dutch drove them out, only to be squeezed out themselves by the British in 1824.

Although it is the oldest city in the country, Malacca is neither Dutch nor British. It’s more Chinese than most cities in China, and yet during Holy Week Portuguese-Malay Catholics hold elaborate processions through the streets, marching past Hindu and Buddhist temples and Moslem mosques. It’s an uncanny spectacle.

There’s no place in Malaysia where the evidence of colonialism is as strong. Parts of it look like they fell asleep centuries ago and refuse to wake up, slumbering in a mishmash of architectural styles from various cultures. Decaying Western-style colonial homes painted in gaudy pastels have Buddhist spirit houses near the front door. A replica of a 16th century Portuguese merchantman is docked between Malaysian fishing boats in the river and women in Moslem hijabs tour the Medan Portugis, the lively square where Eurasian street minstrels sing sad Portuguese songs their grandmothers learned from their great grandmothers.

In the outskirts of Malacca, travelers game enough to see what ancient life was like a century or so ago here should stop in Paya Rumput to visit a castle built in the 1800s and is today a national landmark. It’s surrounded by teak trees and is all fine, hand-carved panels and sliding doors. Not one single metal nail was used in its construction and the sections mesh with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle.