When I was 18 and visiting Melaka, I met a fellow traveller in his thirties who was adamant that he wanted to “do” the city. Visiting overnight from Kuala Lumpur, he wanted a brief taste of the south Malaysian city so that he could tick it off his list. Melaka is a small city to be sure, with a blend of Portuguese colonial architecture, a Dutch square, and crumbling Chinese shop fronts that stand side by side along the river. However, we had only spent an hour exploring the back streets and the canals when this traveller proudly proclaimed that he had “done” Melaka.
This is one of my pet peeves: the idea that you can “do” a place, especially within such a short time span. Places are not activities that can be completed like a checklist. They are dependent on culture and the nature of the people who live within them. They are constantly evolving and changing, and a place will never be exactly the same when you revisit it. You can experience a location at a certain time, but it’s foolish to claim to have “done” an entire place.
I feel like this comes down to a growing trend among travellers, where they feel like they need to visit as many places as they can, get as many passport stamps as possible, and visit more obscure locations for bragging rights. Now that air travel has become more accessible for a greater proportion of the population, it’s not enough to just travel overseas. Travel is a symbol of status for some and you need to travel faster, younger, and wider if you want to stand out from the pack.
I’m not going to claim that this is a wrong way to travel, but I will say this: that traveller missed out on a lot in his eagerness to be “done” with Melaka. He missed the red lanterns of Jonker Street, where the night markets teem with people and a famous busker can split open a coconut with a single finger. He missed exploring the non-touristy side of the river, where you can sample Nyonya rice dumplings of a brilliant blue colour.
By the waterfront is a bright and garish pirate theme park, where local children run between a haunted house and an outdated pirate ship ride. On a hill above the city, you can explore a traditional Chinese cemetery with trees that drop beautiful red leaves among the crumbling tombstones. In the bemusing Dutch Square, a bright pink church sits proudly next to the river, where only on the opposite side you can spy colonial houses strangled with vines.
Melaka is a sleepy city and at times feels like a ghost town, particularly at night. However, by spending a few days in the city, you can get under its skin and explore some of the more simple pleasures. A lot of cities and towns are like this: they lack big-ticket attractions and so many travellers skip them or rush through them. However, you can always discover more about a place by exploring it on foot and venturing away from the tourist sites.
Not everywhere in the world will fully captivate the imagination, but you have to at least give these places a chance. No one will ever be able to “do” Melaka, but they can catch a glimpse of a unique city that appears lost in time.