Malacca, Malaysia

My artful interpretation of Jonker Street by night. Click here for more photos of Malaysia.

May 18-19, 2009

"We'd like to take an overnight trip into Malaysia," I told my friend in Singapore. "What place do you recommend we visit?"

"Malacca!" was her instant response.

And so to Malacca (Malaysian spelling: Melaka) we went. Comfortable tour buses (with a/c but no bathrooms) travel back and forth between Singapore, Malacca, and Kuala Lumpur every day at reasonable prices - we rode the Delima Express for about $20SNG there and 20 Malaysian ringgits back. Crossing the Singapore/Malaysia border was an experience in itself. "Be sure to remember your bus," the company operator told us, with good reason: at each border crossing everyone has to file off the bus, go through immigration, walk across the border, and find their bus on the other side - and with so much bus traffic, there's a lot of them! Luckily our Delima bus was fire-engine red and easy to spot, and it appeared our driver was keeping an eye out for us two Western girls. With our American passports we took longer to get through immigration than anyone else. At the Malaysian border crossing they even took us aside for a special health & temperature check; all the authorities we've encountered have been so cautious about swine flu.

Arriving at the Malacca bus station (about 4 hours after leaving Singapore) we wandered around in confusion for a bit before being tipped off to the Panorama bus, which functions as both local transportation and a touring service - all of the scheduled stops are at sight-seeing attractions. We'd heard some reports of ATMs in Malaysia swiping card information and emptying accounts, so we each exchanged $40 (about 170 ringgits) and it was more than enough for two full days.

The Panorama bus dropped us off at Victoria Fountain, right in the heart of Malacca's lovely old quarter, and we went in search of a hostel for the night. By sheer chance we stumbled upon what may be my absolute favorite hostel -
River View Guest House, on Jalan Kampung Pantai right on the Melaka River. The whole building is full of unique charm and character, bright whitewashed walls contrasting with dark wooden beams and floors, large airy rooms and inviting common spaces. It's everything I think a hostel should be. And the owners, Mani and Raymond, are delightful. They both sat us down with a map and noted all the places we should visit, informed us we must try the traditional Malaysian dishes chicken rice ball, baba laksa and celdon, and served us coconut tarts. Mani was somewhat helplessly confused by our lack of luggage. " have no bags?" she kept asking. The guest house had only been open 6 weeks when we arrived, and all the previous guests were backpackers lugging around their massive packs. We, tripping about Malaysia with only large purses, were quite the oddity.

Armed with Raymond's annotated map, we hit the streets of Malacca. After clean, wealthy, developed Singapore, Malaysia was a bit of a shock. Most buildings only had pit toilets, to my dismay. (Say what you will, I simply have not the talent to use them and am determined to avoid ever doing so.) Most of the narrow, winding streets had not even the semblance of a sidewalk, so people essentially amble among traffic. Now that I've been to Vietnam and Thailand walking in the street seems natural, but it was rather nerve-wracking to get used to at first.

Malacca has undergone great effort to build up its fascinating historical
heritage and welcome visitors and it shows. Although the river itself is not the cleanest (and harbors the largest lizards/iguanas I have ever see; they were literally the size of small crocodiles), the riverfront is lovely - wide, well-lit pedestrian walkways have been built along both sides. We took an hour-long river cruise on our second day (only 10 ringgits) and it proved an excellent way to see more of the city. The area around famed Jonker Street (known for excellent antiques) is delightful to wander in despite occasional traffic. At night many of the original colonial buildings, a mixture of Dutch, Malay and Chinese architecture, are dramatically backlit in deep red. The glowing lights pick up on the many Chinese lanterns hung everywhere and the effect is magical. I'm not surprised my friend recommended Malacca as a destination, and I only wish we'd been able to stay longer than two days.