MELAKA – Mention Melaka, and most people in Singapore would have an idea of what to expect.
Kitschy Jonker Street, the iconic red buildings of Dutch Square and chicken rice balls that most agree are overhyped, yet manage to draw snaking queues in the afternoon sun.
Getting there, however, can be an adventure in itself if you skip the coach ride and do the four-hour drive to the small Malaysian town. Seasoned drivers going non-stop may be able to whizz there in three hours, but it is more enjoyable to break up the journey with pit stops and a co-driver who can help with navigation and take turns behind the wheel.
For this, I rope in TikTok content creator Nicole Chen (@lielnicole on TikTok and Instagram), 24, who also runs eyelash salon Cuuul.sg. It is our first time driving in Malaysia and, despite the cautionary tales from friends and family, we find the journey manageable.
Other drivers are friendly and, dare we say it, more patient than those in Singapore. Go at a pace you are comfortable with and enjoy the drive.
Stretching from Muar’s otah trail to the good eats in laid-back Batu Pahat, here is a three-day road trip itinerary for your next long weekend.
Day one: Hit the otah trail in Muar
Start bright and early to head across the Causeway. Private-hire drivers who spoke to The Straits Times say traffic on weekday mornings usually starts building up by about 8 to 9am. Once you are across, it takes about three hours to get to Muar.
The small coastal town is best known for its otah, and a quick Google search will throw up some of the most popular outlets in town. Look for Xiao Mei Famous Muar Otak-Otak (str.sg/wjy4) or Otak-Otak Cheng Boi (str.sg/wjyo). Take along a cooler bag to buy blocks of frozen otah paste.
If you do not want to drive around, head to Jalan Haji Abu, where multiple otah vendors hawk from pushcarts near Kim San Public Cooked Food Market (str.sg/wjyU).
The texture, spice and flavour vary from stall to stall, so sample a few to find your favourite. My group of four agree that we like the fish otah from Nice Food Otak-Otak best. Look for the stall with the red banner. Sticks of otah cost between 80 Malaysian sen (24 Singapore cents) and RM1.
Other vendors selling oyster omelette, wonton mee and pastries line the same street, which feels like a more laid-back version of Penang or Ipoh.
Meander along mural-lined lanes nearby. These can be found in almost every Malaysian town, but along Muar’s quiet streets, you do not have to feel embarrassed about striking a pose with a long queue of people watching. Search for Muar Cultural Walk and Muar Street Art on Google Maps.
From Muar, Melaka is about an hour away. Many affordable boutique hotels are located in and around the city centre, and we stay at the industrial-chic Rosa Malacca (str.sg/wjy5), which costs $128 a night for a deluxe room with a king-size bed and courtyard view.
For dinner, head to the string of seafood restaurants along the coast.
The pepper crabs (two for RM120) at Terraces Restaurant (Stall Number 1, 8 Jalan Daranjo, Perkampungan Portugis), coated with a blend of black and white pepper, are clean-tasting and allow the sweet, dense crab meat to shine.
Do get the Portuguese-style fish (RM52 for a 650g fish), cooked in a banana leaf and slathered with a punchy chilli sauce that begs to be mopped up with rice.
Pro tip: If you do not have a car, or would rather not drive your own, taking a public bus or train to Johor Bahru and renting one there is the most economical option. We pay $323 to rent a sport utility vehicle (SUV) from Malaysian company Hawk Rent A Car (str.sg/w9ii) on Klook for three days, including full insurance coverage.
An entry-level sedan from rental company Hertz, rented from Singapore for the same duration, would cost about $612. This includes similar insurance coverage and a daily surcharge of $55 for trips to Malaysia.
Note that Malaysian car models are common when renting cars from Johor – we choose a Honda B-RV or similar SUV, and receive a Perodua Aruz. It is spacious enough for four, though the steering feels light when driving above 100kmh and its brakes are not the most sensitive. Still, we get to our destination and back safely.
Day two: Melaka adventure
What is a holiday without a bit of thrill? Head to Skytrex Adventure Melaka (from $21, str.sg/wjyT) to wobble across rope courses built amid the trees in Melaka Botanical Garden.
Three courses are available, from the family-friendly Little Dino to the advanced-level Extreme Warrior. Hearts in our mouths, we embark on the latter – a 35-obstacle behemoth of a course that takes three hours to complete.
The obstacles grow progressively higher and more difficult, but there is no time to be afraid when you are hanging on a pole and swinging wildly, or attempting to ride a bicycle suspended on a tightrope 70m above the ground.
Ziplines through the trees are the reward, and we fly through at least 10 of them. If it gets too much, there are “chicken exits” built throughout the course. You may wind up weak-kneed and with jelly arms at the end, but the sense of satisfaction is unbeatable.
Take the rest of the day easy by wandering through the heart of Melaka.
Replenish your energy with hearty burgers at The Baboon House (www.instagram.com/thebaboonhouse). Try the Aloha lamb burger (RM35), which comes with double patties, bacon and pineapple. There is an extensive selection of drinks. If you do not know where to start, go for the refreshing, housemade roselle-lavender kefir (RM13.80).
If you enjoy shopping, there are plenty of trinkets to buy. Pick up ceramics from The Clay House (str.sg/wjyG), which also runs pottery classes.
You can also stop by Mamee Jonker House (mameejonkerhouse.com), a concept store that showcases the well-loved noodle snack. The first Mamee factory was founded in Melaka in 1971 and the brand’s shaggy blue mascot has become the city’s unofficial icon. Families will enjoy the Noodle Doodle activity (RM15), where you can design your own cup noodles and watch it being made on a conveyor belt.
Head to liquor store Sin Hiap Hin (5 Kampung Jawa) before it gets dark – unlike most bars, this one keeps to office hours. The family-run joint dates back to the 1920s and serves an array of traditional liquor.
Try Malaysian-made rice wine in flavours such as rose, lychee, pandan and coffee, all of them fragrant and strong. Shots are sold in pairs for RM10 and you can top them up with ice or add a splash of tonic water for a refreshing cocktail.
Across the street, craft cocktail bar Budi (facebook.com/BUDI.Melaka) also opens early. Located above coffee roaster and cafe Sin See Tai, drinks at the speakeasy-style bar are bold and imaginative.
The vegetable-forward menu recasts unpopular veggies such as bitter gourd and eggplant as cocktails. Sounds insane? Founder Phoa Tai Yong admits that some drinks are polarising.
But my group of four picks the velvety smooth Terung (RM50) as our favourite. With charred eggplant, dark rum, pandan and egg white, and garnished with smoky-sweet housemade eggplant chips, it goes down dangerously easy.
Another surprise is the Lada (RM55), which includes roasted red peppers, tequila and chilli liqueur. It is far mellower than one would expect a tequila cocktail to be.
If you have time for only one Peranakan meal in Melaka, have it at Peranakan Mansion (108 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), where the shophouse’s opulent interiors are reminiscent of the mahjong scene in the 2018 movie, Crazy Rich Asians.
We meet the head chef, who, in old-school Peranakan fashion, waves away our choices (“You can get chicken curry anywhere, no need to have it here”) and instead puts together a menu of the restaurant’s specialities.
His selection is spot-on. Get the chilli garam pork (RM28), sambal sotong (RM35), eggplant with shrimp paste (RM18), assam fish (RM85) and pai tee (RM15) – you will not be disappointed. Our meal for four, including tea and dessert, comes to $87, a steal for the quality and setting.
Pro tip: The roads in the Melaka city centre are narrow and parking is scarce. Leave your car at the hotel and book a Grab ride instead, especially if you are planning to drink. Short hops within the city cost between RM7 and RM10.
Day three: Batu Pahat stopover
Start your day with a sweet Melaka breakfast. The Daily Fix Cafe (facebook.com/thedailyfixcafe) is known for its pancakes and draws a queue even before it opens.
If you have time to spare, explore Melaka over two days at a more leisurely pace. Make the time to meander and be surprised. You may, for instance, befriend a pair of pet tortoises that their owners take for regular walks. Or stop for ondeh-ondeh, made fresh along the street and bursting with liquid gula melaka.
Otherwise, do the two-hour drive to Batu Pahat and have lunch at Daddy Village (daddyvillage.com.my), a home-style family-run restaurant. Order the steamed otah (RM15), nasi lemak with blue pea rice (RM10) and kerabu ikan bilis fruit salad (RM18).
A few doors down, the egg tarts (RM3) at Amore Bakery are fragrant and buttery. But skip the breads, which are dense in texture and thin on fillings compared with those from popular Malaysian chain Lavender.
Make one last pit stop to shop at Johor Premium Outlets (str.sg/wjyg), about 45 minutes from Woodlands Checkpoint. With palm trees and open plazas like the ones in North America, it feels a world away.
Do not miss athleisure brand Lululemon, which offers discounts of 20 to 40 per cent at its outlet. Unlike the sales rack in many Singapore stores, there is a good selection of sizes and colours.
Or pick up bags and pouches from American designer brand Kate Spade – there are discounts of 45 to 65 per cent depending on the number of items purchased.
One last perk of a road trip? You do not need to be concerned about baggage limits. Just load up your car boot, and make the journey home.
Pro tip: One advantage of renting a Malaysian-registered car is subsidised petrol prices. During our trip, FuelSave 95 at Shell cost an estimated RM2.05 a litre while V-Power 97, available to foreign-registered vehicles, cost RM3.95 a litre. Fill up the tank before returning your rental car to avoid hefty fuel surcharges.
Stock up on hand sanitiser, wet wipes and tissues for the journey. When you pick up your rental car, wipe down high-touch points such as the steering wheel, gearstick, hand brake and door handles.
You will need a Touch ‘n Go card to pay for tolls, though these cards, typically sold at petrol kiosks in Malaysia, are in short supply. They usually cost between $3 and $10 depending on where they are purchased, though resellers on online platforms Shopee and Carousell are now asking for $22 to $40 a card. Alternatively, borrow one from a friend, and check that it is still valid before your trip.
Download offline maps for navigation in case mobile data is patchy along the road. Go to str.sg/wjyM for instructions.
If you do not wish to drive, hire a private car and driver who can take you to and around Malaysia. A one-way transfer from Singapore to Melaka starts at $400 (str.sg/wjyQ) and you can top up for a half- or full-day rental within Malaysia.
Streetwise is a series on smart travel tips. For more travel stories, go to str.sg/travel.
This story is partially sponsored by Klook.
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