We love a good road trip. Listening to music, snacking on junk food, arguing over directions -despite a GPS and scouting for clean public restrooms. What’s not to love! Since we don’t get to drive around in Singapore, we decided to rent a car and drive to Malacca, Malaysia for a quick weekend getaway instead. It was a plan we made on a whim just a few days prior and that’s about as spontaneous as we tend to get with our travels. We’d already seen Kuala Lumpur and Genting, so Malacca was a good option. This was our first time travelling from Singapore to Johor Bahru (JB) or driving in Malaysia in general, so it was an interesting experience to say the least. Read on to find out more
Travelling from Singapore to Johor Bahru (JB)
There are multiple options to reach JB from Singapore. You can drive in a car directly from Singapore to JB or take a bus or train. Find more details at the below mentioned links:
We would have preferred going by train but since our plan was quite last minute we ended up taking a bus from Queen’s Street (headed for Larkin bus terminal) to the Immigration checkpoint near Woodlands. The immigration process was quite straightforward but after this is where it gets a bit interesting.
After the Singapore side immigration, you need to board the same bus that you traveled into the immigration center in to reach the Malaysian immigration center. The bus boarding area can get quite chaotic and if you are new to the whole process it might be a bit confusing so make sure to check the bus numbers.
After the immigration process at JB, you are free to proceed with your journey.
Renting a car and driving to Malacca
We had pre-booked a car from Europcar in JB based on recommendations from friends. Their office is a short walk from the JB immigration point via the JB Square mall. However, there was so much construction going on in that area and not to forget crazy traffic, that we got into a taxi just to avoid walking on the road. The entire process of getting the car was quite smooth though and once we completed the formalities we hopped into our car to start the journey.
Roads in Malaysia are quite well maintained and for the most part we were driving on the highways and 4-lane roads so it was an enjoyable 3 hours. While you won’t see a whole lot of variation in flora and fauna or the landscape, you will find tons of farms and palm trees lining the road that make for a pretty picture.
We reached Malacca just about around our hotel’s check-in time and freshened up a bit before heading out to see the sights.
Things to See and Do in Malacca
Malacca is an important cultural and historical city in the region and that reflects in its UNESCO World Heritage site status. While it has all the trappings of a modern city – hotel chains, malls, fast food joints etc. , the moment you step into the heritage area, you feel like you have taken a step back in time.
Our first stop was St. Paul’s hill. A short steep hike up a flight of steps leads you to St.Paul’s church – the oldest church in South East Asia. Built originally by the Portuguese and later taken over by the Dutch, the building fell into bad state after the British occupation of the region, but seems to have been restored partially since then. You can explore the interior of the church that has exposed brick walls and interesting artifacts. From outside the church, you can catch a glimpse of the Malacca strait and the growing city.
A short walk from St.Paul’s will take you to Malacca’s most iconic attraction – the Dutch Square, also knows as the Red Square because of the colour of the buildings in the area. Flanked by the Christ Church on the left and the Stadthuys on the right, there is always lot of activity and hordes of tourists in this area. The Stadthuys is a huge complex that now hosts a museum and is worth a visit if you are interested in Ethnography or want a quick respite from the heat. The clock tower and Queen Victoria’s fountain in the center of the square are beautiful and a great backdrop for some photos.
After spending some time in the Dutch Square, as the sun was about to set, we crossed a bridge to enter Jonker street – also known as the place where all of Malacca seems to be (just kidding!). While first impressions of the street would lead one to consider this area to be a shopping hotspot, there is so much more to Jonker. It hosts some of the most iconic houses of Malacca offering glimpses into Peranarkan history and culture, but more about that later. As we navigated our way through the narrow and crowded lanes, we saw shops selling food items from all over the region – squid on a stick, rice balls, pancakes, noodles, sweets, crackers and chandol ! Being vegetarians, we had to give most things a miss but the energy and vibe of the place was amazing. If you are crowd-averse, Jonker Street is not for you. It gets very very busy towards the evenings so plan your visit accordingly. If you have the patience you can scout for some interesting handicrafts from one of the bigger shops. Electronics, clothes, footwear, games at throwaway prices are also in abundance, but we didn’t find much of it to be that unique. Also,try exploring the by lanes and side roads branching off the main street since these are less crowded but have the same kinds of shops.
Since we didn’t have a GPS, we just went into random streets and took a turn somewhere that led us to the beautiful Cheng Hoong Teng Temple. Unfortunately, it was closed by late evening but we did manage to catch a glimpse of its beautiful exteriors.
We were quite exhausted after the drive and sight-seeing so we grabbed something to eat and went back to our hotel room to call it a night. The next day we decided to visit the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum which is located a short walk off the main Jonker street. This museum is unlike any I have visited in that it is actually a house, parts of which have been converted to a museum. Baba-Nyonya is a term used to refer to Chinese-Malays or Peranakan Chinese who have lived in these parts for a while now. The architecture of the house is well preserved and offers glimpses into the life of the Chan family that lived here for more than 4 generations starting in the 1860s. The elaborate woodwork and porcelain collection is definitely a highlight but my favorite room was the Thia Besar or Reception Hall that has some beautiful silk embroidery hanging from the walls. All in all, it was an interesting place to visit and the clearly labelled items and descriptions were helpful.
We wanted to leave for JB in the afternoon to avoid the evening rush but not before tasting some delightful local vegetarian cuisine at Veggie Planet. Co-incidentally we ate at their sister establishment the previous day thinking that was the actual Veggie Planet (don’t ask – we were way too hungry to care and didn’t realize there would be that many 100% vegetarian restaurants in Malacca to be honest). The place is a bit away from the center of the city but is well worth the walk or drive if you want to eat good authentic vegetarian Chinese/Peranarkan influenced cuisine.
After a sumptuous lunch we set off on our return journey back to JB. We got stuck in a traffic jam on entering JB given it was evening time and most people were probably returning back to Singapore. We lost a good one hour just sitting in the car waiting for the cars to clear out. The immigration process on the way back was again quite straightforward but there was just too much crowd for the buses and we felt it was not worth going through all this hassle. We will most likely check out the train route if we go back to JB again. But minus this one dampener, the rest of our trip was really good. Malacca was a pleasant surprise and definitely exceeded our expectations in terms of the places it had to offer to a visitor. Now only if I could eat that Chendol again !