Melaka is one of Malaysia’s oldest cities – strategically located on the Straits of Malacca – an essential stopover point for trading activity between Asia and Europe for centuries. It’s mainly known for its long, interesting history, but it also has a very accessible birdwatching area outside the city – this was my first experience of nature in the tropical rice fields of South East Asia.
Besides birdwatching, it’s important to give context to Melaka and it’s World Heritage listing, as the city oozes history, great food and a unique culture. It’s mellow equatorial shores experience the ebbs and flows of the gentle tropical tides, in addition to the ebbs and flows of major world powers.
Since the 14th Century, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British empires have successively settled and moved on from this city, which is now part of Malaysia. As a major trading port, each empire transformed the built environment in Melaka, before Singapore took over as a more important city, with better port facilities. The decline in Melaka’s importance as a trading port resulted in most of the city being retained as a living museum. It’s no wonder that the unique beauty of this city was recognised by UNESCO in 2008 when it gained World Heritage status.
The city has embraced their World Heritage Status enthusiastically by maintaining many architectural gems, while also embracing change by repurposing these buildings for the 21st century. Unfortunately, most of the city streets have quite a lot of traffic, but many buildings have been lovingly restored and converted into low key hotels, eating houses and coffee shops.
These new businesses sit next to significant cultural and religious sites: old Portuguese churches, ancient Chinese temples and the oldest mosque in Malaysia. It’s a totally captivating, compact and comfortable city to explore, especially if you are interested in world history and how different cultures can live together in relative harmony. The only downside is the hot humid weather, so early morning or late evening walks are a good idea.
In addition to history and culture, Melaka also has some interesting local birdlife and rural communities on it’s outskirts. The city is relatively compact, so the landscape changes from urban to rural within 10 kilometres of the old city centre. An ebird search sparked my interest in a new excursion to Batang Tiga Rice Paddies.
The day started with a 5:30am wake up call from our hotel in central Melaka. Pitch black outside – welcome to the equator. After a quick shower, it was time to order a Grab (Uber) from the hotel and off we went for a 30 minute drive to the north western rice fields, as the sun made its rapid ascent into the equatorial sky. I have always been amazed how quickly night becomes day in tropical climates – sometimes within 15 minutes. Not like the long gentle dawn in longer longitudes.
At the end of the drive, I was dropped off at Jalan Teruna Jaya, which is on the edge of a local village, surrounded by lush dense tropical forest. Within a two minute walk along the road, heading south, there were huge crashes in the undergrowth – I was on the lookout for some small birds, but I soon discovered a family of clumsy monkeys that were making their way deeper into the jungle. One of those moments where you go, “Hey Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore…”.
After rounding a tight corner on this country lane, the landscape opened up into the rice fields of Batang Tiga. The landscape is flat, with a timeless quality. I got the sense that things do not change around here very quickly, although you can see large high rise apartments on the horizon, as the coastline along the Straits of Melaka is highly developed. This rice growing area has the largest diversity of birdlife in the Melaka area, so it wasn’t very long before I was able to meet some new endemic species of Malaysia.
One of the first and best birds I managed to spot and photograph was a Blue-tailed Bee-eater, which was living up to its name when it caught one of the biggest bees I have ever seen. Perched on a thick electrical cable, it was quite a show-off – I just love the turquoise lining around their eyes. It’s almost like they have a make-up artist. Apparently, bee-eaters smash wasps and bees against a perch in order to remove their sting and break their exoskeleton.
While wandering further through the rice fields, a Black-winged kite was surveying the local area, perching itself in a tree in a farmer’s garden. Although these raptors are quite common in tropical Asia, India and Africa, I’d never seen this bird before. The pure white feathers are quite majestic. It looks like it would be a good emblem for a new airline.
A heron was also playing an elusive game of hide and seek along the irrigation channels that lined the rice fields. I wasn’t able to identify it, as it was clearly aware of my presence and kept moving further away.
Walking through this area is really enjoyable in the early morning, as it’s flat and very easy to maintain your sense of direction. The total area is less than five kilometres in each direction, and its completely rural – great conditions for being able to hear and see birdlife.
As the harsh morning sun started to beat down on the flat surface of the rice fields, it was starting to get a bit uncomfortable, and most of the birdlife seemed to bunker down for another hot day in the tropics. Finch like birds called Scaly Breasted Munias continued to weave through long strands of rice – balancing themselves quickly as they flicked from one rice frond to another. However, I was beginning to realise that most of the other birds and me were soon losing energy as it got hotter and hotter.
By about 8:30am, I’d had enough of the heat. It was well over 30 degrees celcius with high humidity, and the sun was wearing me down. Unfortunately, these flat landscapes in the tropics are great for growing rice, but there was very little shelter. Reality set in, even though I may have had the best laid plans to try and explore as much as possible. I turned west towards the coastline, and enjoyed a 30 minute amble through small villages and farms, before reaching the highway that runs back into Melaka.
As it was about 10 kilometres from Melaka, I was a little concerned about getting back into the city, as there didn’t appear to be any Uber/Grab pick ups in the area, even though this was a coastal highway. There was a bus stop, but I’d just missed it by about two minutes, and the next one didn’t leave for another couple of hours. I didn’t have to worry too much, as I soon discovered that taxi drivers regularly pick up fares along the highway and everyone seems quite happy to share taxis with other passengers. Malaysian people are very practical and relaxed in these sort of matters. It wasn’t long before I was able to stumble back into our air conditioned hotel room and have a late morning snooze!
Getting to/from Melaka
Melaka is 135km from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and 235km north of Singapore. Numerous companies operate regularly scheduled buses from various parts of Singapore to Melaka for about S$15-25 (US$15). As the journey involves a border crossing and meal stop, it takes around 4 hours.
Accommodation in Melaka
We stayed at the Ramada Plaza Melaka, which was really good value – kind of 1990s style hotel but newly renovated, good facilities and centrally located. There are many options for all budgets in Melaka – I’d recommend staying close into the old city area.
Birdwatching near Melaka
Guide to Common Birds in Melaka: Birds of Melaka
E-bird Species List for Batang Tiga Ricefields