Waiting in line to run our bags through the scanner and cross the border into Malaysia, those living in Singapore longer than my two weeks started listing the things they would buy.
First on the list was of course cigarettes, with a pack costing about $12 to buy in Singapore, which, next to Malaysia’s $1, was excessive. I’d already been warned that I’d be required as a non-smoker to fill my cigarette quota on our way back into Singapore – the entry allowance is one opened pack of cigarettes with one cigarette removed.
Next was chewing gum, a real example of wanting what you can’t have. I haven’t had or thought about gum in ages, but for people who live in Singapore and can’t buy it, it’s another fun element of crossing the border – particularly for the non-smokers.
The list went on, including tiny bundles of gun powder wrapped in tissue paper that explode when you throw them on the pavement, and other exciting goodies. It was reminiscent of the things kids would buy with their allowance at the corner store at recess, but of course these were adults and it was not their parents but the Singaporean government prohibiting such purchases.
We were on our way to Melaka, the historical port city fought over by more colonial powers than I can count and finally settling in the hands of the British before decolonization. Melaka is also a hot tourist destination, famous for its Friday night markets and Peranakan cuisine, a unique blend of Malay and Chinese food that can only be found in Melaka and Singapore. I was invited along on this trip by my Singaporean friend who had planned a getaway with some friends for the weekend. We had rented an Airbnb in town, and it was sure to be a weekend packed with fun.
We arrived into Melaka late on Friday night. I’d come with the late crowd who worked 9-5, and we met up with the rest of the gang at an outdoor patio selling the most incredible satay skewers I’ve ever had in my life. After our snack, it was off to bed for an early morning reservation at the hottest Peranakan restaurant in town.
Lunch was some of the best I’ve ever had. A standout was the Ayam buah keluak, featuring a famous black nut that’s inedible unless prepared exactly right. I’ve never tasted food like it; the cuisine is entirely unique and so worth the trip. We spent the whole morning and early afternoon eating, which, if I’m honest, if my idea of a perfect morning.
After eating more than I imagined was possible of incredible Peranakan food, we slowly made our way back to the house. There were all sorts of little canal-type drains running through the city, and more than once I spotted a komodo dragon slip into one.
Melaka’s architecture is reminiscent of its colonial past as a crucial trading post; this square displays some of the more famous Dutch leftovers from their time occupying the port. A few of us decided to go full tourist and explore the main sights Melaka has to offer. The main square was a good jumping off point, and we wandered around taking in the unique mix of cultures you can’t find anywhere else.
I managed to get separated from the group along with my friend Purnendu after we took a quick ride in a Hello Kitty themed rickshaw. These beauties were everywhere, all dressed up differently but equally tackily. It was a tough choice between this one and the Minions themed rickshaw, but Hello Kitty won out for being so classic. After our quick ride the rest of the group seemed to have disappeared, and being in a foreign country we couldn’t rely on our phones for communication. Purnendu and I ended up exploring the city ourselves, visiting some of the most touristy attractions I’ve ever seen, including a 360 rotating tower with views of the town and a short river cruise down the city’s canal.
We met up with the rest of the team that evening for the main event: a walk down Melaka’s main market. This was by far the best night market I’ve ever been to in my life. They were selling everything from iPhone covers to satay skewers to tiny hairclips with sprouts and flowers coming out of them. I also discovered my new favourite dish: Chinese Carrot Cake. Chinese carrot cake is entirely different from the carrot cake we know and love in Canada; it’s actually a savoury radish dish fried up in little cubes and mixed up with delicious sauces and spices. This guy had the best stuff in town, and man, was it good. I almost ate a whole order to myself, which would have been a mistake if I hadn’t loved it so much. It would have been a mistake only because the rest of the food was so delicious. We got snacks from all over, including plate after plate of cockles that were boiled in a delicious sauce that we had to crack open ourselves. Opening them was definitely a challenge at the start, but after learning from the experts I was popping them open like a pro.
Everyone was so welcoming, and it was such a fun weekend. I think I learned more about Singaporean culture than I did about Malaysia, spending the full two days with Singaporeans. They insisted on teaching me Singlish, or Singaporean English, with phrases like “Can-la” for “yes” and “Cannot” for “no”. There were more examples like that than I can count, although one that stuck was the use of “auntie” or “uncle” for any older woman or man in the street.
Overall, I fell in love with Melaka and with Singapore a bit more, too. I cannot wait to go back. Especially to get another taste of that carrot cake.