A Surreal Stay in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
A Surreal Stay in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
The story of how I ended up in Johor Bahru is a bit complicated. In April 2015 I embarked on an extended period of solo travel around Thailand. It was a wonderful time to say the least. A carefree period of roaming that had no end date, seeing as I had recently finished a year’s teaching in Beijing.
Unfortunately, the Thai rules at the time only allowed me an initial stay of thirty days. Thus it was necessary to exit and then re-enter for another thirty days. First, I figured on doing a swift in-out. However, on reflection, I thought it wise to take advantage of being in the region. Broaden my horizons and all that. And so it was that I spent a glorious week exploring Singapore.
In Singapore I drew up plans to reconnect with my old friend Lisa, who was lucky enough to be living on the gorgeous Malaysian island of Pilau Sibu. I had never been to a bona-fide tropical island, hence I was buzzing with excitement. I was supposed to go to Sibu directly from Singapore. But then, the resort Lisa worked for called her away from the island to work at head office. “Fancy a few days in Johor Bahru?” she asked. “Then I’ll take you back to Sibu”.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
I had never heard of Johor Bahru. Or simply “JB” as it’s known throughout the region. This was just a touch embarrassing when I realised the city was quite literally a stone’s throw from Singapore. In fact, all you had to do was zip over the Johor Causeway and boom, you were in Malaysia.
Knowing very little about the place, I scrambled online and booked two nights in a central joint called The Citrus Hotel. It was comfortable enough, no complaints, and good value to boot. But with Lisa office-bound during most of my stay, I wondered how I would fill my JB days. Hm, time for a bit of research.
It didn’t take me long to get the picture. Dwarfed by the popularity of its neighbouring metropolis Singapore, Johor Bahru was something of an ugly duckling. A city neglected by the Malaysian government and hampered by a lack of genuinely impressive sights. “The Armpit of Malaysia”, wrote one blogger. “What does JB stand for?” asked another. “Jolly boring!”
Glancing through the city sights, I had to concede that JB didn’t appear to be up to much. One of its biggest attractions was a royal palace called Istana Besar. Built in 1866 by Sultan Abu Baker, this handsome building is a fine example of Ango-Malay architecture and home to a Royal Museum. Well, that’s one sight at least! Later, just before hailing a taxi, I discovered that the palace was closed for several weeks of renovations. Nuts.
Istana Besar (Grand Palace).
Also on JB’s to-do list was a handful of low key temples and mosques. But after a month of temple hunting in Thailand I was not in the mood. Rather, I opted to simply head out into the city and walk. Follow my nose and see where it took me. One thing I’d read was that Johor Bahru had a fine reputation as a Malaysian food haven. True enough, within five minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself swallowed up in a labyrinthine complex of open air food markets and restaurants.
With little experience of Malaysian cuisine, I was keen to try some national dishes. But in truth I found the market scene far too rough for my liking. Cleanliness certainly wasn’t a priority, while many of the school-dinner-hall style slop buckets looked decidedly unappealing. “Mutton curry for breakfast sir?” “Uh… no thank you”.
Some of the seafood options looked better. But again, I wasn’t about to order myself some fried stingray at 10:30 in the morning when what I really craved was a coffee and a sandwich. Hmm.
Finding western style coffee also proved a challenge. So I eventually settled for a local Cup of Joe at an unassuming open air cafe. The coffee was awful, like milky mud. But it was worth getting just to sit and watch the people of JB go about their daily business. I particularly liked the grizzly old men reading their newspapers and doing crosswords while chain-smoking.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
Then I was back to my exploring. Around lunchtime I came across the hugely popular Chinese joint, Kam Long Restaurant. Indeed the queue was already extending out onto the pavement and down the street. As it does every day. Their speciality? Fish Head Curry Soup. Well… the search for food went on.
At long last I reached a restaurant I could play ball with. It had partly named itself after a dish I really wanted to try, Nasi Kandar. So I settled in, placed my order and tried to ignore the man opposite who didn’t stop staring at me, open-mouthed, for about ten minutes. Until I moved to another table and turned my back on him. I guess he could tell I was from out of town.
Nasi Kandar is a northern Malaysian dish that originated in Penang, where it was Introduced by Indian traders. A typical plate involves several varieties of curry served with thick, sticky banana leaf rice. Throw in a bit of stir-fried vegetables too, and a signature boiled egg. Damn good. My Nasi Kandar that day was a mix of beef and chicken, which was tasty but disappointingly served lukewarm. Solid, but not spectacular. Oh JB, you can do better than this, surely?
It was at the restaurant that I managed to do some more reading on Johor Bahru. There were huge development projects underway aimed at transforming JB’s flailing fortunes. The campaign began in 2012 when LEGOLAND Malaysia opened near the city, just a twenty minute drive from downtown. At long last, people had a major reason to come to JB, beyond having a cheap base from which to visit Singapore.
Moreover, there was the ambitious Danga Bay project, a huge in-the-works recreational complex growing along the Johor Straits. There was a park and a fairground, it said. A beach, luxury apartment blocks and an exciting new restaurant, cafe and bar scene unfolding. Quite spontaneously, I paid my bill and jumped into a taxi, simply telling the driver “Danga Bay!”
He deposited me at the edge of an awful construction site. “Danga Bay” he mumbled, and out I went into the overcast afternoon. “Malaysia’s premier waterfront complex!” exclaimed an already discoloured sign, as I followed a dusty road towards the waterfront. As I progressed, a bedraggled dog trotted past me as a giant cement mixer rumbled along in the distance. Then there was another sign, on which a white arrow sat next to two highly misleading words: Theme Park.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
It was a sad looking ghost town. A shut-down collection of antique fairground rides that included a ferris wheel, dodgems and a rusty old carousel wheel. As I stood surveying it all, I barely even registered that it had begun to rain. I remember wondering what grip of madness had inspired me to come here. Feeling a bit like Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, I trudged on.
Distinctly unimpressed and getting wetter by the minute, I was about to admit defeat and grab a taxi back to my hotel. But then I stumbled upon Country Garden, Danga Bay’s up-and-coming real estate beach village that seemed at least partially open. “5-star living for you” stated a sign beneath floor after floor of scaffolding and green netting.
Maybe not a bad place to live when it’s finished, I mused, trying to remain positive. Curious as to how it all turned out, I had a look online while writing this blog. Within seconds I dug up an article dated August 2022 that details how dozens of condominium owners ended up suing Country Garden Danga Bay over a misrepresentation of the building’s facilities! Yikes.
From the apartment blocks, I made my way down a pedestrianised street that led to a beach. There, I came upon an open coffee shop (whoo hoo!) in which I grabbed a decent latte. Otherwise, the street was a festival of nothing, with maybe ten to twelve boarded units dressed in coming soon! signs.
And then I arrived at Danga Bay Beach, at that time an exceptionally modest stretch of sand. It was actually quite pleasant, although clearly suspended in a state of “to be continued”. A scattering of palm trees… some thatched shelters and parasols… pristine obviously imported sand… it had potential.
It was so quiet I hung out for a bit gazing across the water to see if I could pick out the Singapore skyline through the gloom. I could not. Instead, I spent the time admiring the huddled collection of nearby yachts. And being a bit baffled by the ornamental seashells decorating the sand in front of me.
I never did find the park, due to the fact that it didn’t yet exist. “Next year maybe” said a bored security guard, upon my inquiry. So all that was left to do was pick a dusty path back out to the main road and get a taxi home. Along the way, I passed a depressing row of low-rise shacks. This is where the construction workers, who predominantly hailed from India, Sri Lanka and The Philippines, lived in cheerless, cramped studios.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
A short while later, I spotted a bunch of guys bathing in giant vats of murky looking water. And that was my closing memory of Johor Bahru’s grand Danga Bay project, a district evidently aimed at bringing some swankiness to JB’s run down riverfront. Another instance where I had to thank my lucky stars for the chips I’d been dealt in life. Nearly 8 years later, it’s hard to gauge how much of a success Danga Bay has been, judging by its sporadic online footprints.
On day two I woke up late and realised how exhausted I was. By this point I had been on the road for over 5 weeks, a month in Thailand, a week in Singapore and now a few days in JB. So it was music to my ears when Lisa told me that I could get some decent coffee at City Square Mall. I thought yes, let’s just chill out for the day… no plans. Bypassing Starbucks and a few other usual suspects, I took a chance on a place called J.CO Donuts where I hoped to enjoy something deliciously sweet with my cuppa.
Much to my delight, I discovered that J.CO Donuts had had some fun while naming their donut flavours. Some, but not all, had been created with Hollywood stars in mind. Tickled, I ordered a large cappuccino and an Avocado DiCaprio. And what a sight it was, an unusual mixture of sweet avocado, whipped cream and chocolate flakes. Not for everyone I reckon, but I swiftly demolished it, declaring the donut a resounding victory to Lisa by text message.
The Avocado DiCaprio.
A short while later I returned to the counter and went for a Blue Berrymore, a winning concoction of chocolate and blueberries. Drew would be proud, I’m sure, to have such a yummy donut named in her honour. Sadly though, J.CO Donuts had failed to expand on this brilliant idea of naming donuts after Hollywood stars. I remember sitting there thinking what a huge opportunity they’d missed.
That night, as Lisa and I had dinner in a market restaurant near my hotel, we began brainstorming fantabulous donut names. Among the many highlights that made our final list: Benedict CustardBatch, Jean-Claude Van Jam and Gerard Peanut-Butler. Not to mention Caramel Gibson and Courtney Six-In-A-Box. Ah, it’s the simple pleasures….
On our final night in Johor Bahru, Lisa and I wanted to grab some beers in a city that at first glance seemed devoid of bars. Was it possible that there weren’t any? Surely not. So she asked around at work and came back with some interesting news. Basically, JB’s nightlife scene was crammed into one seedy neighbourhood called The Zone. Which sounded like something out of The Walking Dead. Undeterred, we took a taxi to a jam-packed watering hole known as Texas Pub.
The Texas Pub.
It was a surreal place. TV screens played silent sports channels, while a local man dressed as a cowboy walked around singing Malaysian rock tunes on a guitar hooked up to an amplifier strapped to his back. The clientele was mostly Malaysian men. Every now and then we’d see a guy disappearing upstairs with one of the provocatively dressed women who floated from table to table. “Hmm, so it’s that kind of place”, muttered Lisa.
Finding a free table, we were still absorbing the scene when a local businessman approached us, introducing himself as Ricky Discus. We were the only westerners in Texas Pub that night and Ricky wanted to know all about us.
I was a little wary of him at first, but the longer we chatted the more I could see that he was a genuinely nice guy. “Are you from Johor Bahru?” Lisa asked, shouting through the wall of noise and thick cigarette smoke. “Unfortunately yes!” he replied, with a grin.
“Why you come here?” he laughed, “must be business right?”
We chatted with Ricky for over an hour that night. About where we were from, our travels and English Premier League football. About how the Malaysian government wanted Johor Bahru to be the new Singapore, which was “never ever ever gonna happen” according to Ricky. When he eventually made his excuses to leave, he did so with the parting gift of a bucket of Heineken!
The following morning, with a heavy head, I awoke at the crack of dawn to go and meet Lisa. Our private boat to Sibu Island left early, so I had to get cracking. Throwing the various bits and bobs into my trusty backpack, I pulled the curtains apart just in time to see my first and only Johor Bahru sunrise. Overall, it had been a surreal stay in a city still clearly grappling to find its own identity. But despite its many failings and frustrations, I found myself forgiving JB and wishing it all the best. I’m such a sucker when the sun weaves its irresistible magic.
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