The narrow streets are lined with charming and colourful boutiques, spilling out onto the busy paved footpaths. They are housed in decorative terrace buildings that have their detailed pre-war architecture vividly painted. This is what it’s like walking up, down, and around one of the most famous areas in the Malaysian city of Melaka.
Inside are skilled artists quietly honoring long-lost handicrafts, some are family businesses that have been passed down for generations. Ancient arts like paper carving, oil painting, gold-embossed calligraphy woodcarving, pottery, wooden clogs, Peranakan beaded slippers, wooden water barrels and the controversial bound feet (or “lotus feet”) shoes are alive and thriving here. You can watch the craftspeople working in their studios-come-shops. Each of their tedious and complex talent is noble and honest, a joy to watch.
Dating back over 500 years, it is no surprise that this eclectic neighborhood has earned itself a UNESCO World Heritage listing. History meets vogue, this might be one of the most underrated but rewarding cities to visit on the South-East Asian trail.
This is Jonker Walk, a collection of streets in the Chinatown of Melaka (or Malacca), a city that’s almost bang in the middle of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The city stands proud of its eras of Dutch, Portuguese, British and Japanese ruling, all of which have left their mark. It is also the birthplace for an entirely new culture, Peranakan, the descendants of Chinese and Malay bloodlines. More commonly referred to as Baba (for males) and Nyonya (for females).
Scattered amongst the entwined streets is a collection of incredible standing monuments to Melaka’s evolving story; temples and mosques of Chinese, Hindu and Malay heritage (some of the oldest of their kind in Malaysia) still operating here in peace, giving this stretch of road it’s nickname, “Harmony Street”.
Delve deeper, and you’ll see a city buzzing with contemporary culture. The best of which is showcased in seriously beautifully painted street art decorating the backstreets, and the ideal way to take it in is by bike. But if you want to move at a slower pace, a narrated boat ride with Melaka River Cruises will take you down the city’s lifeline where the restaurants and houses along the re-developed Riverfront have been splashed with murals by local University students. As you float by, you’ll share the river with some huge, swimming Monitor Lizards, a native dragon-like reptile.
A highlight was riding bikes to the traditional Malay neighborhood of exquisitely constructed wooden homes. Here, we were welcomed into the home of Sabariah, a passionate home-cook. Her and her family taught us about Malay life, and put on a spread like no other. It was a mouth-watering display of Malay cooking; Asam Pedas (a deep red sour and spicy fish curry), stir-fried Orka (also called “lady’s fingers”), cencaru sumbat (a whole fresh fish baked in a paste of chili, pepper and tomato), fresh whole prawns and steamed rice.
Melaka has an abundance of story-telling museums. But as a first stop, we recommend the newly opened Melaka Stories Hall, carefully curated by a group of passionate volunteers and local business people. Free to visit but by appointment only, the museum paints a picture of the city in bygone days as told by the Hakka people, the Chinese ancestry who have called Melaka home.
Immersed in the buzz of Jonker Walk, we stayed at the family-run Jonker Boutique Hotel. The iconic British colonial building towers over the official entranceway mark the main cultural stage to Jonker Walk. And some rooms even have views right down the lively UNESCO listed streets.
As a gift to AU readers, use the special code JOINAUSATJONKER for a 10% discount on your stay at Jonker Boutique Hotel.
The hotel’s art-deco building has been carefully and painstakingly restored. With plenty of free off-street parking, the aged charm of the building is juxtaposed with the luxury of a lush big bed, fast and free Wi-Fi, a free smartphone lending service and designer towels and bed linen. No two rooms are the same, and the variety means plenty of options for singles to families on differing budgets. The interiors are decked in quality retro and vintage furnishings.
Previously housing a beloved Wan Tan Noodle vendor, the Jonker Boutique lobby is a calming, homely space. Opening into a sunny and sheltered courtyard and café serving quick and cheap local delights.
Street art, museums and crafts aside, no writing on Melaka’s Old Town would be complete without a few food highlights, more specifically the incredible opportunity to indulge traditional and unique eats. The staff at Jonker Boutique Hotel are well versed to give you all the advice. The most famous is Chung Wah Chicken Rice Balls. You may have to line up, but the wait is rewarded with a spectacular take on chicken and rice that is purely and honestly Melaka. (Do as the locals do, don’t hold back on the chili sauce).
Other unmissable dishes are Nyonya laksa, satay celup, and the speciality dessert, cendol. Cendol is a weird but wonderful sweet coconut dish serviced with green starched noodles (often with red beans, grass jelly or creamed corn added), and for the best, grab your cendol right next door to Jonker Boutique Hotel at the Jonker Café.
Also on the sweeter side, the acquired taste of the native durian fruit has been made with love into an ice cream, with plenty of chucks of palatable fresh fruit blended throughout. Try the town’s best at Eha Juice Bar.
Then, save room every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights as Jonker Street comes alive with a flavorful and aromatic night market. It’s a 10-year-old event that locals have become proud of, allowing them to put the city’s culture, cuisine and history on show. Enjoy coffee-roasted chestnuts, baby octopus skewers, fried chicken, dim sum, durian puffs, sea coconuts, satay, sambal clams or liquid nitrogen-infused popcorn. After the markets, Jonker Street is still vibrant with small bars and bustling live music venues overflowing.
Jonker Walk and the Jonker Boutique Hotel is the center point and for any visit to Melaka, a place of history, colour and pride, within a cheap and easy bus ride from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
MELAKA IN BRIEF
Why go: Food, history, street art, craft & culture.
Where to stay: Jonker Boutique Hotel, (84 Jalan Tokong, Kampung Tiga) (As a gift to AU readers, use the special code JOINAUSATJONKER for a 10% discount on your stay at Jonker Boutique Hotel.)
Where to eat: Chung Wah Chicken Rice Balls (18 Jalan Hang Jebat)
Where to drink: Tofu Café, (89 Jalan Hang Kasturi)
Getting there: An 4-5hr bus ride from either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur
Getting Around: Hire a bike from JT Minimart for 3RM a day / 10RM for 24hrs (40 Jalan Tukang Besi)