The only time my travels in Malaysia were reminiscent of the Philippines was en route to Melaka.
Generally speaking, ease of travel in and around Kuala Lumpur is miles ahead of what it’s like to get around Manila and its surrounding metropolis. In KL, buses and trains follow fairly exact schedules and straightforward routes.
(That is, “fairly” only if your standard is Japan; otherwise very.)
So when I checked in for my pre-booked bus ride from TBS to Melaka just before 1pm, I was expecting to arrive in this enchanting little town around 3. Instead, I missed the afternoon entirely and got there at 7.
How To Get From Kuala Lumpur To Melaka (And Back) By Bus
Regular buses to Melaka depart from KL’s central bus terminal, TBS. That’s Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, in case you were wondering.
(More on getting around by bus in this post on KL essentials)
- Tickets. If pre-booking online isn’t an option, you can buy tickets on the spot at TBS. Aim to arrive at the terminal an hour early to get a seat on your desired bus. For example, if you want to depart at 1pm, arrive at noon to buy the ticket. If seats are sold out, you’ll have to book and wait for the next scheduled bus.
- Traffic. Be mindful of local holidays and long weekends. While it’s generally a 2-hour trip, travel time could double or even triple with holiday traffic.
- Routes. Be sure to book a direct ticket to Melaka Sentral Bus Terminal. If these are not available, you can take any bus that stops at Masjid Tanah and catch another from there to Melaka. Count on this taking longer, as this second bus can take up to an hour.
At the Melaka Sentral Bus Terminal, you can take a 10-15 minute Grab or taxi ride to Jonker Street. And from here, there’s lots of great stuff within walking distance—ideal for a day trip.
A note on getting tickets from Melaka: I thought the bus terminal in Melaka was just a bit confusing—one of those places where you quickly find yourself going around in circles. When it comes to booking tickets from here, plan to arrive ahead of schedule and ask someone to point you in the direction of the right counter.
So what caused my trip to take 6 hours instead of 2?
Holiday traffic, mostly. I left KL on a Saturday afternoon, not considering that it was the beginning of a long weekend in celebration of Diwali. And it turns out I wasn’t the only one with the idea to head out of town.
On top of that, I and the only other foreigner on the bus—who I’ll refer to as San Francisco—were quite taken aback to be dropped off in a town that definitely wasn’t Melaka.
Having gotten myself a local sim card and data, I was able to keep myself and the clueless young San Fran—a backpacking college grad—abreast of our location.
This bus’ route apparently ended in Masjid Tanah, some 25 kilometers from our end destination. How we both got the impression our tickets would take us to Melaka remains a mystery; we had no choice but to wait for and catch the next bus that would take us there.
This one was local, and very cheap. But it stopped a lot.
So after about 4 hours on the bus from KL, we had to wait half an hour for the next one to take us to Melaka—which took a little over an hour.
Finally at the Melaka terminal, I called us a Grab. We arrived at Jonker Street to find the night market in full swing. And we were hungry.
Despite the delay, I found enough time to cover a number local highlights. Starting with food, of course.
Jonker Street Night Market
When booking a Grab, San Francisco and I discovered we had booked the same hostel—right on the Jonker Walk.
Having bonded through hardship, we agreed to drop our things and explore the night market together.
After a good hour of walking, talking, and eating, San Fran retired to get his beauty sleep. Eager to experience more of the town on this short trip, I wandered back out.
I got in touch with a few other travelers through Couchsurfing and met up with a German-Iranian-aerospace-engineer-in-trainer. (You know, just another one of those people). She was hunting for a space-themed nightshirt to add to her backpacking gear.
Failing to find the right fit, we made our way to the riverside bars in search of another party of couchsurfers. By now, my phone was dead so all we could do was check the bar they had last frequented.
Here we approached a group of foreigners but no, they were not couchsurfers. We had the suspicion, anyway—they weren’t nearly motley enough. But Aerospace, having already been in Melaka for a day or two, lead me to her favorite bar in town, Reggae on the River.
Apparently it was everyone’s favorite because the place was not only packed, it was packed with our Couchsurfing friends. On a balcony with a riverside view, we chatted with a group of Filipinos on holiday from Singapore, another American, a Russian, and a Pole. (No bar joke, though.)
Dutch Heritage: Purple Cows and the Stadshuys
The next morning, I got up just early enough to spend some time wandering the town by daylight. Breakfast was surprisingly hard to come by, at least without a wait. But I grabbed a smoothie at Geographer Cafe on made my way down the Jonker Walk by day, across the river, and to the intriguing Stadthuys.
The name stood out to me immediately as not only being Dutch (it means City Hall, or literally “city house”) but using long-outdated spelling.
Of course, it also makes perfect sense: the building was erected in the 1700s.
The purple cows? Probably not.
A Fascinating History of East Meets West
That brings me, at last, to Melaka (or Malacca)’s fascinating geopolitical history.
First: Why the map says Malacca when everyone in Malaysia uses Melaka.
Melaka or Malacca?
Melaka gets its name from the tree under which a Sumatran prince-on-the-run was resting when he founded the place.
Now, as I understand it, Malacca is just the English spelling of this tree’s name. But the Malaysian government—according to a 2017 news report—will no longer be using it: Melaka is the Malay way, and Google Maps needs to get with the times.
That said, it’s not just a town; “Malacca” is also a strait, running between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Fun Fact: According to Wikipedia, the Malacca Strait is the main channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans and one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.
History of Melaka in a Nutshell
For a hint at the heritage you might discover, here’s a lightning-fast overview of Melaka’s history:
1396 A fleeing Sumatran prince naps under a Melaka tree, watches a (hideously adorable) mouse-deer kick his dogs into a river, deems the place auspicious, and sets up shop.
1414 The prince converts to Islam and becomes Sultan. His city grows into prominent trading ground for India, Arabia, and China. Many Chinese migrants set up shop as well.
1511 The Portuguese come, see, and conquer.
1640 The Dutch capture the port and take over its rule.
1795 The Dutch trade—as they are wont to do—with the British, swapping Melaka for Jakarta.
1957 Melaka, along with the rest of Malaysia, receives independence. (This is celebrated on August 31, by the way; keep that holiday traffic in mind.)
In 2008, the city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here’s a great read on that.