On the surface, Malacca appears to be a great destination for us. Despite not being a large city, there are a lot of things to see and do. The historic downtown area is a UNESCO Heritage Site. It has a lively weekend night market. There are a ton of museums. But it seemed like there was always something a little bit off. Despite staying for a month, we were never able to settle into a local living groove and couldn’t wait to leave.
I don’t want this post to come off as me whining about how rough my extremely privileged life is. I realize that picking a less than ideal place to live for a month is not a big problem in the grand scheme of things. If this is the worst thing that I have to deal with, I’m doing pretty well. But at the same time, I also want to be honest about what we’re seeing and experiencing, because world travel is not always the panacea that Instagram or Facebook paints it as. And when going to the dentist is one of the highlights, it’s obvious that it wasn’t a great stay.
It’s also somewhat comical to me that immediately after deciding to slow our pace of travel that we’ve experienced both the top benefit and biggest disadvantage in back-to-back monthly stays. We really enjoyed our time in Penang and could’ve easily stayed there for another month or more. I think I might have needed to wipe back tears when leaving if we had only stayed two weeks. I’m also sure that at least part of the reason that I didn’t enjoy my time in Malacca was that it suffered in comparison. But there were some serious issues that I just couldn’t get past.
Problems With The City
First and foremost, I never found a local produce market to shop at. We have stayed in 8 places in 3 countries prior to Malacca and all of them had multiple great produce markets supplied with the fresh local bounty. I thought I found one option within walking distance of our rental. Google Maps said it was open from 7am to noon. But when we showed up a little before 11am everything was shut down and there was almost no activity. Maybe it would’ve been different if I had set an alarm to show up at 8am, but that also shouldn’t be necessary in a city of almost 500,000 people. As such, we ended up buying all of our produce from the grocery store and I was denied one of my favorite travel experiences for the entire stay. To make matters worse, the closest decent grocery store was located in a mall, so I ended up at the mall way too often.
In Penang, there are numerous trishaw pedicabs around the tourist zone that offer to pedal you around and show you the sights. We never took one, as we prefer to walk, but it’s a nice quaint option for those who wish to have an expert guide show them the top spots. In Malacca, they attempt a similar experience, but add an annoying flair to it.
All of the trishaws are decked out with a single kid’s theme like Minions, Pokemon, Baby Shark, Hello Kitty, etc. That part is cute enough. But then each of these are also outfitted with a bumping sound system. So no matter where we went within the tourist zone, we were constantly bombarded by bad music played at unreasonable volumes. They bump the shitty house music to attract attention and secure a fare. Then once they reel in a mark, they bump the shitty house music while on the move too. It basically never stops because there are hundreds of these things.
Many attractions in the city seemed like they were down for maintenance or were simply closed permanently and sat in disrepair. There’s a large observation tower near downtown called the Menara Taming Sari that resembles a smaller version of the CN Tower or Space Needle. It was closed for repairs. There is a smaller replica of the London Eye Ferris wheel too. That was permanently closed. The musical water fountain that’s supposed to have a coordinated music and light show had no water in it. The Melaka Alive pirate shows had no pirates or shows. Even the sites that were operational seemed to be missing something or have something wrong with them.
None of these things individually are a big deal, but they combined to offer a continually disappointing experience. A good example is when we went to the Museum of Enduring Beauty that we found via Atlas Obscura. This museum features exhibits of extreme body modification techniques that people do (or have done) around the world in the name of beauty. It showcases things like lip discs, tattoos, foot binding, and the always cringe-inducing teeth filing. The museum directs the visitor experience with arrows pointing along the prescribed route. Most sections had 3 or 4 large signs describing the ritual practices. However these informational placards rarely followed the same route and were seemingly installed randomly. So if I want to read about brass neck rings, I have to read sign 2 then 4 then 1 then 3. As I’m trying to make sense of these out of order signs, trishaws would cruise by on the street below bumping music that rattled the windows.
Problems With Our Apartment
Aside from the issues with the city itself, we also had problems with our accommodations. I’m sure we would’ve left with a better opinion of Malacca if we had chosen a different place to live. Our apartment was right on a six lane thoroughfare, so there was always vehicle traffic and the accompanying sounds. Normally vehicle noise does not bother me, but like the trishaws, it was overly excessive here. This particular section of roadway was a favorite for street racing that was ridiculously loud. Motorcycle engines would scream intermittently all night long as these idiots raced each other right in front of our apartment. While this happened every night, the weekends were particularly bad. As such, it was nearly impossible to get a decent night’s sleep.
The noise was not the only issue though. Walking from the apartment was not very pedestrian friendly. Situated next to a large marshland on the southern edge of town, we were left with only two routes to follow to get anywhere we wanted to go. Option one was to cross the busy street which has a poor crosswalk. We’d often have to stand in the median with cars whizzing by. After crossing, we then had to walk around one mall, through the parking lot, across another busy street (albeit with a better crosswalk), and around a second mall.
Option 2 was to walk parallel to our busy street for 500 yards until we could easily cross under the bridge that takes the traffic over the river. That’s a much more pleasant (and safe) way to cross the main street. But this way took us right next to strings of parked tour buses. We had to walk by a minimum of a dozen idling tour buses spewing out hot, dirty exhaust onto the sidewalk when we squeezed by them. On a muggy day, which they basically all are, having to walk through noxious clouds of bus pollution is even less pleasant than normal.
Obviously this made for a bad combination. When we stayed in, it was loud and we didn’t sleep well. When we went out, every journey started with 15 annoying minutes of either malls and dangerous traffic or tour buses and exhaust fumes. It really killed our motivation to explore more. I think that if we would’ve stayed in an actual neighborhood further from downtown and away from a major highway that we would have enjoyed ourselves more. But there isn’t a large inventory of apartments for rent in this town, as most people prefer to eat out and would rather stay in a hotel with daily cleaning service for a similar price. As such, our options were limited.
Fun Things We Did
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Once we ran the traffic or air pollution gauntlet we found a number of fun things to do. Owing to the seemingly never ending noise of either traffic or trishaws, we loved the time we spent along the riverwalk. It’s an oasis of calm in the loud city and we must’ve undertaken this walk a dozen times. We also visited a fair number of museums. Many of them had at least one part that was interesting, even if they weren’t perfect. Luckily, we also found the House of Museums which turned out to be one of my favorite travel experiences to date.
During our four weeks, we had many opportunities to visit the famous Jonker Street weekend market that runs through the heart of Chinatown. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night they close off the street to vehicle traffic and vendors of all stripes set up along the road. It’s a popular stop that always draws a crowd. The market is mostly contained to one long street stretching for a third of a mile, so it takes at least a half hour to shuffle through.
At the market I tried a new dessert called Dragon’s Beard. I’d describe it as a semi-sweet, stringy cotton candy roll stuffed with a ground peanut mixture. The cotton candy part didn’t have a whole lot of flavor, so it was mostly just like eating a bunch of mildly sweet peanuts. It was decent.
I also tried a firm caramel candy called Gula Ketuk. I watched it being broken off of a giant hunk using an actual hammer and chisel. The piercing “ping” of the metal on metal was audible throughout much of the market stretch from a few different vendors. These smaller nuggets were then gathered up into 50 gram bags and sold for $1. It reminded me a bit of a Slo Poke, as the pieces needed to be sucked on to soften them. Except they added peppermint to the caramel, which I didn’t realize at the time of purchase. It was not a good flavor combination. I ate one and threw the rest out.
My favorite part of the Jonker Street market was at the far end where there is a giant stage with people singing karaoke. This stage could probably hold a full orchestra, but it was usually occupied with only a solitary singer. Older Asian men and women would get up on this giant stage and belt out their favorite traditional tunes as if they were auditioning for American Idol. One time, the singer that we saw even had backup dancers, which was quite entertaining.
Where We Stayed
Our rental apartment was in a combined hotel and condo building. While I was not happy with the street noise or particular location, the inside of the place was pretty decent. There was plenty of space for us to live and it was fairly comfortable. It was also really, really cheap. We only paid $367 for our 4 weeks.
What We Spent
At least we didn’t spend much for this experience. Knowing that we got out on the cheap certainly softens the blow of staying way too long in Malacca. We easily bested our personal spending record for any month as we barely cleared $1200. Our flights to Malacca were $50 total. Our apartment was less than $400. We did have to spend a lot more to get this apartment up to our desired comfort levels, but it was still super cheap even after adding kitchen appliances, extra pillows, and things like that. And besides beer, everything else was pretty cheap too. So in that aspect at least, it was a successful stay.
All in all, we simply never clicked with Malacca. While some parts were nice, they were not enough to make up for the disappointments. They have lots of things set up for tourists, but the lack of markets and a constant stream of tour buses meant that it was hard to find a local experience. As a slow traveler, I expect to settle into a more normal life at some point. But I was never able to find a local living groove here. That combined with the constant loud noises, lack of quality sleep, and less than desirable walking routes meant that I was happy to leave Malacca in the rear view mirror.