GOING BONKERS FOR JONKER STREET NIGHT MARKETS!
Back when Kuala Lumpur was still a muddy swamp and Penang was yet to become the “Pearl of the Orient”, Melaka was already one of South East Asia’s greatest trading ports. Over time it lost favour to Singapore, but this slow-down in trade helped protect Melaka city from development, ensuring much of the old town is still beautifully preserved. With its mix of Dutch, Portuguese, British, Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences, Melaka’s historic centre is unique enough that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2008. Which is why we’re here!
The bus ride Southwards from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka was relatively short and uneventful and we reached our new home-away-from-home around lunchtime. After a quick bite at a nearby satay snack hut we set off for an afternoon’s exploration of the countryside around Melaka city by bike.
Run by a local cycling enthusiast, the Melaka Eco Bike Tour took us through 20km of rice paddies, palm oil plantations, and rubber tree estates. We learned that Malaysia is one of the world’s leading producers of rubber, accounting for 45% of global productions. As prices for rubber drop, however, many farmers are switching to palm oil crops instead.
It was an easy ride and interesting enough, with ample opportunities to see how life in rural Malaysian is lived. The patchwork of forests, farmland, and plantations was pretty photogenic too.
It was pretty hot and humid, and by the time we finished our 3 hour cycling tour of the countryside and kampungs (i.e. villages) around Melaka, we were in dire need of a shower and a rest! A couple of hours later we re-emerged from our hotel refreshed and re-energised, ready to see some of Melaka by night. Turns out the old town here is even more photogenic than the countryside, with its old colonial-style shop-houses and mix of ethnic groups, religions, and cultures.
The Chinese influence in Melaka was obvious from the red lanterns welcoming people into restaurants and cafés, to the ornate Chinese Buddhist temples we passed. The British, Portuguese, and Dutch influences we could see in some of the old homes and former administrative buildings; and the spicy aromas, curry houses, kopitiams*, and Mosques we passed attested to the fact that there is a substantial Indian and Malay population here too.
*A “kopitiam” is a traditional Malay coffee shop. The word “kopi” is a Malay term for coffee and “tiam” is the Hokkien Chinese term for shop.
One of the highlights of the evening were the illuminated rickshaws we saw driving around. Melaka’s rickshaws, or trishaws as they are known locally, are decorated in the most outlandish fashion, using garlands of flowers, flashing lights, tinsel, and stuffed toys to create these wacky, tacky vehicles. There were Hello Kitty and Doraemon themed trishaws; super hero themed ones; and quite a few decked out in honour of Disney’s “Frozen”. For added effect, some even come equipped with a stereo system, which is turned up full blast as they pedal their passengers around town. They’re definitely a local speciality!
Our main destination for the night was Jonker Street, once home to the Dutch nobility* living in Melaka and today a popular shopping street. The street is flanked with houses dating back up to the 17th century that are now houses shops selling antiques, textiles, handicrafts, and souvenirs. We were there because, on Friday and Saturday nights, the road is closed off and turns in a very popular night market.
*Jonkheer is a Dutch honorific of nobility.
There were stalls selling all manner of things, from leather goods to clothing and souvenirs. There were also many stalls selling all things edible – including some very pungent roasted squid chips and durian* slices that just about made our stomachs turn. Even though we weren’t there to buy anything, the night market was still an undeniably colourful way to spend our evening!
*Durians are big, green, thorny-looking fruits about the size of a watermelon. They are often described as “smelling like hell, but tasting like heaven”. In our opinion it both tastes and smells repulsive. The aroma is so strong and so bad that it’s banned in many hotels and public places. Native to Malaysia and Indonesia, it’s one of those fruits that you either love or hate, there ain’t no in between with durian.
We stopped for dinner at Geographer’s, a local establishment right on Jonker Street famous for its prime location and tasty eats. The curry laksa, mixed vegetables, and beef curry we had were great, and the people watching wasn’t bad either.
We headed home after dinner, keen to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for tomorrow’s full day of explorations around Melaka. Certainly from what we’ve seen so far this should be a fascinating town to tour through!