While we were in Penang, we bought tickets from Singapore to Yogyakarta (pronounced jog-ja-karta) for a little over a week’s time. We had to do some aggressive planning to decide what to do with our last few days in Malaysia and still allow us with enough time to make our flight. R was interested in getting SCUBA certified so we could do some diving together in Indonesia (I got certified about 5 years ago in Thailand and have gone diving about once every two years since). We considered going to the Perhentian Islands, which are rumored to be some of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world, but basically close down for the intense monsoon season, which we were still in the end of. A call to the dive shop let us know that the sun hadn’t made an appearance on the islands for over a week and they were expecting a typhoon to move in any day now. We had to keep looking.
We decided to head directly from Penang to Melaka, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage City (like the Colonial District and Chinatown area of Georgetown, Penang). We thought we’d only go to one of the two because the selling points are similar: great food, colonial histories (British for Penang, Portuguese for Melaka), Baba-Nyona culture (more on that later) and UNESCO status. We heard that Melaka had cashed in on its own notoriety and the result was an overhyped and sanitized version of what the city was supposed to be. Honestly, we didn’t care as long as the food lived up to expectation. It totally did.
We only had two nights and one full day in Melaka. Our bus from Penang arrived pretty late, so we wandered up and down Jonker Street (the backpacker strip in the heart of Chinatown) and found a pretty great deal on a clean and cozy private room. The proprietress directed us to the nearest night food market and we were eating laksa in no time.
For our one day, we decided to play tourists to the hilt. Our time in Penang kind of drifted by and we didn’t see all the sights because they were more spread out and also because we had enough time that we didn’t feel any rush to see everything. In Melaka, we knew we’d have only one day to get our fix, so we got up early and started with breakfast. Buy dumb luck, we found one of the best thosai (or dosa, depending on who you ask) places of the trip (we have become connoisseurs since we’ve been here). After breakfast, we wandered around the colonial area with all of its Portuguese churches and Dutch administrative buildings. We had the famous Melaka specialty chicken rice balls (chicken with some balled up bunches of rice on the side) and ojak-ojak(some kind of fish cake that tasted way better than it sounds).
After lunch was the highlight of our day of sightseeing. We took a tour of the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, which is a privately owned old mansion that has been transformed into a museum. Baba Nyonyarefers to ‘Straits born’ Chinese people who formed the upper class of colonial Melaka. The first wave of Chinese men who came to Malaysia in the 15th and 16th centuries married local Malay women, but by the time their own children came of marrying age a considerable Chinese population had emerged and their descendants tended to marry newly arrived Chinese immigrants or other Baba Nyonyas. They became economically successful and allied themselves with the British colonizers. Baba Nyonya people were typically bi- or multi-lingual and observed Chinese customs, although their access to traded goods influenced their lifestyle as evidenced by Victorian glass, Indian fabric, and Chinese furniture. It is a culturally rich heritage and the museum was well worth the visit, although we were put out that no photos are allowed inside the museum.
We made a few more food stops as we wandered around town and I even made time to visit the hyper-modern and air-conditioned mall to pick up some toiletries. For dinner, we headed back to the same night market for more food (!) and some cold drinks. We toyed with the idea of staying through the weekend for the lively Jonker Street market that floods the street every Friday and Saturday night, but we were running out of days and the beach was calling to us. Despite our short stay, we got a pretty good feel for Melaka and hit all of the highlights. It is certainly more compact and orderly than Penang, but it has a distinct charm and a more visible colonial element (administrative buildings, churches, windmills). If I was pressed to chose, I’d have to go with Penang for the win, but Melaka is much closer to KL, so anyone finding themselves with a couple extra days on their hands should head to Melaka. Did I mention the food?