The cultural dondang sayang performance can be traced to as far back as 15th century Melaka. Inscribed in the 2018 Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the practice combines elements of music — chiefly violins, gongs and tambourines — with song and poetry. It is traditionally performed by two singers of the opposite sex, who exchange ballads about love (kasih), kindness (budi) and humour (jenaka) in quatrains. Dondang sayang is still practised today in the Straits Settlements by the Malays, Baba Nyonya, Chitty and Portuguese, and the lively clubs that used to host these performances are the inspiration behind Budi, a popular Melakan watering hole named after one of its main poetic themes.
Budi is tucked above Sin See Tai, a café-cum-roastery by the folks from The Daily Fix. A treacherously steep and narrow staircase opposite the coffee bar leads to an intimate leafy den that bears resemblance to the atmosphere of Botak Liquour in Kuala Lumpur. A second flight of stairs (surely this bodes ill for tipsy patrons!) takes you to the mezzanine, where there are additional seating arrangements.
Local flavours and ingredients play starring roles at Budi. The fan favourite Kedondong started off as the bar’s welcome drink but has since earned a permanent place in the menu. Refreshing and dangerously easy to sip, it melds fragrant kedondong from Budi’s garden with gin, asam boi and lime. While we looked forward to The Kelapa Muda, the cocktail with Bacardi, young coconut, lemon and pandan syrup was not quite the thirst quencher we expected. In fact, the flavours were rather flat and unimpressive. The Nona, however, raised eyebrows. This gin-based tipple is inspired by creamy sugar apples. Its fruitiness is balanced with the tartness and brightness of lemon, and the floral notes of elderflower and jasmine give it a lovely bouquet.
Other things to look out for at Budi are Sahabat Sundays, where they welcome guest bartenders to command the bar. Mixologists who have taken over include Bar Mizukami’s Shawn Chong and Concubine KL’s McKay Jiplin.
16 Kampung Jawa. Daily, 4pm until midnight. Closed on Tues. (017) 718 8269.
Sure, the views of the Melaka River from Kampung Jawa Bridge are great, but the history and lore linked to it? Not so much. Also known as Ghost Bridge, it is said that during the Japanese Occupation, the Kempeitai, or military police, hung the severed heads of locals on it. The bridge links to an alley, Lorong Jambatan or guimenguan, meaning “gate to hell”. This was where the invaders did their torturing and killing. The stories are horrifying, we concur, but these events are well in the past. Once upon a time, people would avoid the passage like the plague. Now, however, the same small lane is a popular haunt (get it?) for locals and tourists alike.
Today, large crowds are drawn to guimenguan to visit the cafés and bars populating it and Tipsy Bridge, a 1960s-themed tavern, commands the most exuberant. Long drinks are priced at a pocket-friendly RM30 and they include the usual suspects — G&Ts, Pina Coladas, Mojitos and Bloody Marys. Signature drinks, such as Soju Special (lime, Ribena, pineapple, gin and soju) and Guinness Special (rum, vodka, gin, tequila, Ribena and Guinness), climb to the RM40s and RM50s, but we recommend asking for the bartender’s choice for a surprise. You also cannot go wrong with cracking a cold one, perfect to have alongside the pub grub from neighbouring joints.
Music is a mixed bag of 1960s and 1970s rock, pop and soul, with some reggae thrown in. Couple that with good vibes and an ebullient crowd — sounds like a great time to us!
14 Lorong Jabatan, Kampung Pantai. Daily, 6pm to 2am. Closed on Wed. (016) 224 6929.
It takes more than a cheap shot to fill up a bar these days. A lesson in libations is better held behind an unmarked door, ideally with a secret pathway so the revelry and reward feel hard-won. To gain entry into The Old Merchant, look for two white columns bearing the sign of a former private bank (Poh Teck & Co) in red Chinese characters. Also known as a piaohao, the company was one of many old remittance service providers set up to help Chinese immigrants transfer money back to their hometowns in China, way before the inception of a proper banking system.
Inside, the rosy glow of a giant retro neon sign illuminates an expansive space decked out with a canopy of Chinese parasols hanging overhead, a wall full of lion-head door knockers, and a mural with chrysanthemum motifs that hark back to 1920s Shanghai. Yet, although the vibe is loose, the mixology is still rigorous. The requisite Cendol Melaka will restore anyone’s faith that a dessert-y concoction, consisting of rum, melaka rice wine, coconut milk and chewy “green worms”, is a cocktail worth ordering. Watermelon leaps from sorbets to sundowners, playing hero in a vodka-based Wo De Mei Ren, a wordplay on the fruit and also means “my beauty” in Mandarin.
The choicest seat can be found outdoors, past the red curtains, overlooking the west bank of the Melaka River, where the original Chinatown thrived in the 17th century. With a coveted view and a roster of nightly entertainment, bar hoppers finally feel they have a new reason to sip back and relax.
88 Jalan Kampung Pantai. Sun-Thurs, 6pm to 1am; Fri-Sat, 6pm to 2am. (019) 627 9020.
Sin Hiap Hin
Melaka’s oldest bar has led us to a time portal before egg-white foam. Its longstanding legacy has lived on mostly in the memories of those who were moved by it. One of them was definitely Sin Hiap Hin’s owner Lee Sian Suan, who took over the bartending business from her father-in-law’s grandfather. Ask the 71-year-old for an unforgettable anecdote and she can recall stories — presumably passed down from her forefathers — of the time European officials drank side by side with labourers exhausted from a long day of work, or the way rowdy Japanese troops knocked back stiff whiskies at the wooden counter in the 1940s.
Unlike modern spiffy watering holes, this drinking institution opens at 9am, perhaps out of habit, as it used to cater to boatmen who would grab a drink before heading out to sea and returning for a second round later. The street outside was much livelier and seedier too — trace the battered walls or ornate sign holder projecting from ceiling and beams, and people will tell you a brothel or gambling den once stood there. Communal imbibing was rife in this part of town, more so in a former opium den such as Sin Hiap Hin, which allowed the intoxicated to drink and puff away into oblivion.
Fans of vintage spirits will be treated not only to a distillation of the past but also local pride, as the bar stocks Melakan rice wine imbued with familiar flavours such as lychee and herbs (made by a booze manufacturer since 1908), Chinese herbal liquor and homemade beers that will cost you only a few ringgit. If you ever need some light entertainment while sipping on pandan-flavoured wine with 27% ABV, simple — just wake the ghosts.
5 Kampung Jawa. Daily, 9am to 6pm.
No other bar in Melaka commands the view of the historical city and its coastline as much as Alto Sky Lounge, and it comes as little surprise this is a favourite pick among the romantics. Perched atop Hatten Hotel on Level 22, it offers a heady mix of cocktails, wines and ice-cold beers that can be savoured slowly against the shimmering skyline.
While most patrons come to the lounge for after-dinner drinks following a languid meal at the Alto Restaurant, which serves elegant European cuisine with a twist, the place is also popular among tourists who want to see the city in its entirety from a higher vantage point or locals toasting to a special occasion.
Besides the mainstays on their menu, the bar crew are known to whip up unique cocktails for different occasions, such as the Valentine’s special Pink Martini or a pair of Love Birds. The latter, a cava crafted from Aperol, homemade berries shrub and bitters, was a favourite libation during the love season.
The Chinese New Year special cocktails were also a big hit. The Red Dates Longan Ice Tea, a lovely mix of red dates-infused whisky, tong sui syrup and bitters, sure made for a refreshing sundowner. Ask for ongoing promotions; the free-flow selections are worth coming for during the golden hour. On certain nights, live performances are thrown into the mix.
The restaurant observes a smart casual dress code but the al fresco lounge welcomes you even if you are clad in slippers, singlets and shorts.
Hatten Hotel Melaka, Jalan Merdeka, Bandar Hilir. Tues-Thurs and Sun, 4pm to midnight; Fri-Sat, 4pm to 1am. (06) 286 9696.
Nothing is as refreshing as a cold pint after exploring the nooks of Jonker Street and the alleys surrounding it. We highly recommend a visit to The Baboon House, where the traffic din just fades away within the biophilic shop lot.
Owned and run by the very low-profile artist Roger Soong, the place is a popular stop for beer and burgers. But it is the calm greenery that patrons stay on hours for. Blessed with a green thumb, Soong tends to his plants daily and they grow wild here. Not even the lush bougainvillea tree hugging the façade prepares you for what is in store.
Here, you will also find a wide range of craft beer from Heart of Darkness Brewery Saigon, Heretic Brewing Company, Collective Arts Brewing and more. If you like sours, the Jon Pom Jovi Pomegranate Sour Ale by Moon Dog Craft Brewery and Jam Up The Mash by Collective Arts Brewing are outstanding picks.
The Baboon House takes pride in offering homemade goodness. The ginger beer is a staple on the menu and, although it contains very little alcohol through fermentation, it is a popular thirst-quencher. The café is currently serving orange beer and, in the past, has served a pineapple version that many could not get enough of.
Waiting lines can be long during weekends and the wait in the heat, although unbearable, is worth it once you step inside and find your spot at the calming courtyards (this place has two!). There is so much soul here you would not want to leave.
89 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. Daily, 10am to 5pm. Closed on Tues. (014) 971 7989.
This article first appeared on May 29, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.