For centuries, the ancient town of Melaka has been famous for its strategic location along the Straits of Malacca, and it isn’t surprising that people from all over the world landed at this port. Some, like the migrant Chinese and Indians, came for better opportunities, and some, like the Portuguese, Dutch and British, came in order to conquer. In more recent years however, it has gained popularity amongst visitors due to its addition to the Unesco World Heritage List. Eager to understand more about this heritage town, I hopped onto a bus from Singapore and decided to spend the weekend exploring Melaka myself.
After a five-hour bus journey, I reached hungry and curious. I quickly freshened up and made my way to have some of the famed Melaka chicken rice balls. While chicken rice is a common dish across Southeast Asia, in Melaka it is prepared with an unusual twist. The rice is cooked in a flavourful chicken broth with garlic and ginger, and is then tightly rolled into a ball.
According to legend, centuries ago, when fishermen would come to the port to load and unload boats, they needed to grab a meal quickly and conveniently, which gave rise to the concept of these rice balls. Satiated, I walked over to the nearby Mamee Jonker House, where I had signed up for a noodlemaking workshop. Mamee is to Malaysia what Maggi is to India, and this bestselling instant noodle brand had its humble beginnings right here in Melaka. At Mamee Jonker House, I learned how to make noodles from scratch, selected my choice of condiments and even got to take my own personalised pack of noodles home. The only other place in Asia that this experience can be found is Japan.
Since I was already in the Old Town, I decided to walk around and explore the area on foot. Along the cobbled pathways, I soaked in the essence of Melaka—a mixture of the old and the new. On one hand, there were remnants of a Portuguese fort, the old Dutch Square; on the other, boutique shops, restaurants and colourful murals. And then I saw it—a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar with rickety stools and local brews, quietly hidden in an alleyway; and I knew I had found my next pitstop.
Sin Hiap Hin isn’t the kind of place you would generally find in a guidebook. This century-old bar is the kind of place one stumbles upon, and as I stepped in, I felt transported to the early 1900s. I could almost picture the bar in its heydays, when boisterous sailors and soldiers frequented the watering hole. They enjoyed their daily tipple here at the bar, before heading on to other hotspots within this very lane, which used to be the main entertainment district of Melaka, replete with recreational activities that were seldom (if ever) legal.
While all the nearby establishments have withered today, Sin Hiap Hin has stood the test of time over three generations. And as I sat on those rickety stools having drinks by the dram, it became evident that this bar didn’t only serve nostalgia, but also the choicest local brews and a few unexpected ones such as the Gecko-infused liquor, which would sober up even the most mighty hearted. My encounter with history continued as I headed towards the lesser-known Portuguese Settlement overlooking the Straits of Malacca. Walking around, I couldn’t help but notice its striking similarity to another historical Portuguese stronghold back home—Goa.
The smell of freshly-baked egg tarts attracted me to a small roadside stall, where I was greeted by the friendly locals with a smile and a dialect that was audibly different. That’s when I realised that I was interacting with the Kristang, a small community of Eurasians who are descendants of the 16th-century Portuguese settlers.
As the sun set over the horizon, the weekend festivities took over, complete with live music, an extensive and exotic seafood spread across seaside stalls, and local beer. All in all, this was the perfect way to unwind after a long day.
A trip to Melaka is incomplete without a visit to Jonker Street, which is where almost every visitor descends by the end of the evening. At the Jonker night market, you can find clothes, souvenirs, antiques and everything else, along with several local and unique food stalls, lest you feel famished along the way. If you’re exhausted, settle down at one of the nearby cafés with live music, or even shisha.
One of the most interesting things I tried in this street market was the coconut water ball, where an entire ball of coconut flesh was skilfully carved out from the shell, and served with the water inside!
Definitely a great way to stay hydrated in Melaka’s tropical climate, and after several more food stops along the way, I headed for a rejuvenating foot spa to prepare myself for the next day’s adventure. They say the best way to explore a new place is on two wheels, and they are absolutely right. I woke up at sunrise for a cycling adventure through the plantations and villages nearby, and it was nothing like the Melaka I had read about or experienced till then.
As I cycled on narrow dirt paths, I saw plantations of rubber, coffee, and the one natural gift that Malaysia is particularly famous for—palm oil. I was able to get a glimpse into the unique benefits of this super ingredient, and even had the chance to learn about the palm oil extraction process first-hand from a local plantation worker.
Southeast Asia is also naturally endowed with unusual fruits, and along my cycling route through the countryside, I had a chance to taste almost all of them, including the rambutan aka hairy lychee, durian, the smelly king of fruits, and even the juicy mangosteen. Interestingly, the town is named after the commonly grown Malacca or Melaka tree, whose fruit’s none other than the Indian gooseberry—amla. After an incredibly—ahem—fruitful weekend, it was time to make my way back to Singapore. My time in this lively port town with its friendly people had ended a little too soon, but when it comes to travel, I like to believe that there is always a next time. And with Melaka’s rich history and heritage, hidden in the most unexpected places, there will always be more left to explore.
There are many direct flights to Singapore and Kuala Lampur from various Indian cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. The easiest way to get to Melaka is by road from either of these places (150 km from Kuala Lampur and 240 km from Singapore). You can either drive down yourself or hire a taxi. Regular buses also ply to and from Melaka, and bus operators such as Starmart, Delima, KKKL and Sri Maju are all popular choices (approx. INR 1,500). Within Melaka, the cheapest and most convenient way to get around is via Grab taxis.
Where To Stay
>The Settlement Hotel (approx. INR 4,200; thesettlementhotel.com) is a boutique hotel located near the Portuguese Settlement, and less than 15 mins away from Jonker Street and the Old Town area.
>A good budget-friendly, yet reliable, option is the ibis Melaka (approx. INR 2,100; all.accor.com) near the Sam Po Kong Temple.
What to See and Do
>Mamee Jonker House (+6062867666) is perfect if you want to sign up for workshops like Lil Monster Kitchen (noodle making) or Noodle Doodle (personalised cup noodle), or simply grab a meal and buy souvenirs.
>Take a sunset stroll overlooking the Straits of Malacca at the Portuguese Settlement.
>Contact Alias (alias@melakaonbike. com; +60-196525029) for a biking tour of the villages and plantations around Melaka. The trail is over 15 km and often on dirt paths.
>Also visit the Dutch Square, Maritime Museum, and Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum.
Where to Eat and Drink
>Mama Taste Café has authentic fares like Melaka’s famous chicken rice balls. Other popular spots for chicken rice balls are Kedai Kopi Chung Wah and Restoran Famosa Chicken Rice Balls.
>Head to Sin Hiap Hin for local brews in unusual flavours such as pandan/lychee rice wine, gecko/ silkworm whiskey and even tuak, the Malaysian version of toddy.
>The Jonker night market is a must for coconut water balls, quail eggs, sausages, Chinese burgers, and oysters among others.
>Other places to check out are Geographer’s café, Reggae on the River, Me and Mrs Jones Café, and Exodus for shisha.