We've travelled a lot from Singapore, but always by plane. This was the first time we ventured across the border by bus ... and it was very simple and convenient.
Malacca is a UNESCO designated World Heritage City, rich with local Peranakan culture and Portugese and Dutch influence, located about 220 km from Singapore. In comparison, KL is about 350 km north of Singapore. The bus ride was very comfortable and took about 3.5 - 4 hours in total. This included border crossing and a few pit-stops. And although you had to get off the bus and go through immigration on both sides of the border, the whole process was very smooth and painless. We may have been lucky that we left on a quiet weekend, for I have heard horror stories of hours spent in a car waiting to cross the Malaysian - Singaporean border. So timing is everything!
As you cross the Tuas border crossing in Singapore and drive over the causeway bridge, you enter Malaysia and the state of Johor Bahru. The first thing that will astonish you about Malaysia is that their infrastructure is superb. The highways are modern and well-maintained ... nothing like what many people expect. The second surprise is that for the whole 220 km trip to Malacca you will drive by nothing but palm oil trees. This is because this part of Malaysia is nothing but one giant plantation. To give you a statistic ... Malaysia has 74% of global palm oil production. Of course you can hear the environmentalists screaming ... it's killing the bio-diversity, it's a mono-culture, they've razed all their jungles to grow these crops ... but then again, these palm trees have provided a healthy stream of revenues for the Malaysian government and their people. As Robin put it ... Europe also destroyed all their forests and no one says anything about that.
Whatever you may think of this development strategy, I have to admit that the sun reflecting over a sea of palm trees is mesmerizing and beautiful. It captivates your senses when you drive by for it's the ultimate tropical image that a European would have: lush, green, ever-spreading jungle.
Since we took a tour package (was just the simplest option given that our inlaws were with us) ... we of course had the customary tour guide with a lot of anecdotes. For example, we found out that the Malaysian Chinese believe that if you eat bananas directly from a banana tree, you will not get food poisoning. That is why, she claims, in Malaysia they often serve you food on banana leafs. As you drive down the highway, you will occasionally cross plantations of banana tress or other fruit trees like mangoes and papayas. You will notice that the fruits are hanging of the trees in plastic bags. You may ask yourself what is the purpose of this. Well ... the tour guide told us that the farmers put the growing fruits in bags to help them ripen faster and to keep the bugs away. The last anecdote I will share is regarding the palm trees. Once they reach a height of 30 feet (10 metres) they are injected with poison so that they die. This is because the fruits are hand-picked from the palm trees and if they grow to high, the farmers cannot reach them. And since the palm trees grow very fast, it's easier to kill them then to get equipment to reach the taller palm leaves.
True or false? one will never now. The main thing is that the stories sound credible :-)
HOW TO GET THERE:
> Luxury Tours and Travels: we booked the whole weekend trip with this company and were really happy with the outcome. The busses to Malacca were very comfortable in a 2+1 configuration. We were lucky enough to have had an upgraded VIP bus to Malacca that had sleeper chairs, but even the more regular bus back to Singapore was very comfortable for the 3.5 hour ride back. Luxury Tours and Travels also arranged for our hotel (Hotel Equatorial - breakfast included), a lunch and a 2 hour tour through the central historic district for a very, very reasonable price. The busses leave from the back of the Concorde Hotel (previously the Meriden Hotel) on Orchard Road.
WHAT TO DO:
> Historic centre: this was the most intriguing part of Malacca for the architecture and buildings are steeped in local Peranakan and colonial history ... influenced equally by the culture of inter-marriages between the Chinese settlers and the local, predominantly Malay women (namely Peranakan) and the Portugese, Dutch and to a lesser extent British colonialists. There are two main parts to the historic centre: (1) the Dutch square which is surrounded by the Studhuys, Christ Church, a wind mill and many colourful trishaws. You will also notice that all the buildings in this area are red ... made from Dutch bricks? If you walk around this neighbourhood you will also come across St Francis Xavier's Church which is just behind the square. Make sure you visit St. Paul's church which is splendidly sitting atop a small hill also right next to the square. The view from there is lovely. (2) the other part is around Jonker street (also know as Jalan Hang Jebat) ... which is the old chinatown. There are three parallel streets full of shops, museums, temples, artisan shops and you name it. At night, the streets are vibrant and colourful, with red lanterns hanging everywhere ... and a street market. Trinkets galore! And what made me smile? That the whole area is very clean!
> Cheng Hoon Teng Temple: this is the oldest Chinese temple located in Malaya. Located on Jalan Tokong, the plaque at the entrance of the temple states that the temple is equally devoted to the three doctrines: Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese-Buddhism. The interior is full or relics and stories. A beautiful temple to experience.
> WahAik Shoemaker (Temple Street, No. 56 Jalan Tokong, Tel: 06 284 9726): now this was an interesting store that we stumbled across on Jonker Street. It's a shop that specializes in bound feet shoes and old & modern leather beaded sandals. The whole concept of Chinese women having had their feet bound to symbolize wealth ... not being able to move insinuated plenty of domestic help, thus wealth ... and beauty ... hmmm! Seeing the master shoemaker craft these baby sized intricate shoes and the stories surrounding the ladies that wore them definitely found a fascination with me.
> Melaka River Cruise: the 45 minute river cruises start at the river front by the square in front of the Christ Church and the Studhuys. My first fascination with the cruise was that we saw monitor lizards swimming and resting all along the river ... which totally surprised me. They seemed nearly domesticated! Going down the river gives you a different feel for the city, especially if you have an animated tour guide giving you all the historical anecdotes. On that note ... make sure your tour has a tour guide, for we noticed that not all of them had one.
> Trishaw ride: in the old days the trishaws were used for commuting around town ... the taxis of the day. Today, however, they're a purely commercial and tourist attraction. They're decked out with flowers, as well as speakers blasting music and definitely scream "look at me, I'm a tourist!' And that's exactly why you need to go for a ride with them. As an addendum, our driver was a 76 year old Malaccan man full of stories and with barely enough energy to get us to our destination. He insisted on driving us ... and consequently got a big tip from us. He deserved it. After all, he needed the energy for the 35 year old wife that he told us about!!
> Dataran Pahlawan Shopping Mall: located opposite the Hotel Equatorial, this is a full-blown, modern, air-conditioned mega mall. A perfect place to hide from the heat.
> Eye on Malaysia: although I didn't go on it, Malacca also has a giant ferris wheel on the ocean front, from where one would have a great view of the city. But since our hotel room was high up and with a great view ... we didn't bother.
> Kedai Kopi Chung Wah (right across the first bridge from the Christ Church Square and Lorong Hang Jebat): Malacca is renown for chicken rice balls ... and this is a local place that was recommend to us.
> Harper's Restaurant & Lounge (No. 2, 4 Lorong Hang Jebat, Tel: 06 286 6592): We first spotted this restaurant when we were on the river cruise. We passed it and saw a young couple sitting by a table overlooking the river. It looked so romantic that we had to try it. Made for a perfect and comfortable lunch stop.
> Ole Sayang (198 & 199 Taman Melaka Raya, Tel: 06 283 1966): our tour guide recommended this place, our hotel recommended this place so we figured there must be some truth to their suggestions. The restaurant serves delicious traditional Nyonya cuisine in a simple setting. And as I learnt, 'Nyonya' refers to the Peranakan (local born children from inter-marriages) female, while the male is called 'Baba'.
> The Geographer Cafe: located on Jalan Hang Jebat, this is a perfect place to have a drink in the evening and watch the passers-by! There are also several other interesting bars in the narrow lanes around Jonker Street for you to have a pit-stop.
> Hotel Equatorial: it's not the hotel I initially wanted to stay when we went to Malacca, however, I admit, it was the better choice. It's in a great location, walking distance to the historic city centre, very modern and with great amenities. I recommend you 'splurge' on the corner suites for the Club rooms are very large and have great views of the whole city. To me there's nothing like having an aerial view of a place. Moreover, the pool was fantastic!
> Majestic Hotel: now this is the hotel I wanted to stay in. And at the end ... I didn't even enter it. The interior is supposed to be stunning ... colonial, classy, luxurious ... expensive. the front of the hotel is an old colonial building that was beautifully renovated, while the modern tower behind is, I assume, where the suites are. However, the location was nothing to talk about. Right next to the building were two very large and ugly tall structures that in my view, totally ruined the setting. The interior is perhaps fantastic, but the setting/location is a bit disappointing.
> Renaissance Hotel: this Marriott hotel is right next to the Hotel Majestic, but is much bigger. Also a 5-star. But way to big and impersonal given the quaintness of the surrounding.
> Boutique Hotels: now this seems to be the new trend in Malacca. They were finishing off several boutique hotels that were to be opened by the end of 2009. And given the location (right in the historic area) and the beautiful shop houses that they were renovating ... they looked very promising. I have no names though :-( ... and now that it's the end of 2009 I found out that the Courtyard at Heeren has just opened. Next time I go to Malacca, I will give it a try.