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Explore the hidden history of Johor Bahru, the capital of Malaysia’s southern Johor state, and feast on its multicultural heritage.

Words Helen Gray Illustration Maggie Li  

A VIEW OF THE PAST

Johor was the last Malaysian state to accept a British Resident in the colonial era and is the only state allowed to have its own standing army. Johor Bahru is therefore unlike any of the other maritime ex-colonial cities of Malaysia. 

A TASTE OF THE PAST

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Ask any local how they entertain visitors and the answer will inevitably revolve around food. Around the Chinese Heritage Area are numerous small cafés and restaurants. Hipsters will savour sumptuous milkshakes at Shakespeare in Jalan Trus, while traditionalists will enjoy tasty Chinese food in the nearby Restoran Hua Mui, iconic banana bread from Hiap Joo Bakery and pastries from Salahuddin Bakery. And everyone will love the ice cream parlours on Jalan Dhoby. If you are staying at the Thistle Hotel, you can walk to Pisang Goreng Mawar for deep-fried bananas and other delicious lunchtime snacks. 

Take your family to Sedap Corner for traditional Malay dishes and kuih-muih (desserts) to take away. For dinner, go to the row of food stalls that make up Medan Selera Tepian Tebrau. Stop at Stall #1 Top One BBQ Seafood Ikan Bakar for sotong kangkung (squid and water spinach with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce) and ikan bakar (charcoal-grilled fish); try the stingray for something different. Those in need of a curry fix and a special occasion should try Spice Garden in Puteri Harbour or relaxed outdoor dining at Chakra. For foodies, there is no better guide than JB Food on Foot Day Trip by blogger Johor Kaki.

HIDDEN HISTORY

When Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, the rulers of Johor were also the rulers of Singapore. But by 1855, the British dominated Singapore and the Malay ruler Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim had to accept sovereignty over Johor alone, and in 1858, he set up his new capital base in what is now called Johor Bahru. His son, Sultan Abu Bakar, is known as the Father of Modern Johor, and it is his influence that you can still see today on the streets of Johor Bahru – if you know where to look! 

WALK THE STREETS

Much of the history of Johor Bahru can be seen on the streets within walking distance of the Customs, Immigration, and Quarantine Complex (CIQ), and the Amari and DoubleTree by Hilton hotels. The official ‘Tourism Johor’ service is not yet ready for individual travellers using English, but you can pick up a map from the Chinese Heritage Museum or search the Web for inspiration. The Chinese Heritage Museum is an excellent starting point for your visit to Johor Bahru.

Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in the Chinese Heritage Area was named after the most prominent Chinaman of the 1800s, and this area was originally inhabited mainly by Teochew Chinese migrants. Look out for the red banners showing the pepper and gambier plants on which the fortune of Sultan Abu Bakar was made.

Jalan Trus epitomises the multicultural nature of Johor Bahru. Sultan Abu Bakar emphasised the need to promote harmony among the various Chinese communities, insisting they all meet and pray together in one temple. Hence, the Johor Chinese Ancient Temple was established around 1875. The Gurdwara Sikh Temple and the Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Temple soon followed in response to the increasing Indian and Sri Lankan workforce. As a result, you will find a good selection of Tamil movies showing in the City Square cinema and in the newly renovated Broadway cinema along the Segget River.

Wong Ah Fook was a Cantonese migrant who became the main building contractor for Sultan Abu Bakar and was rewarded with a lease of land east of the Segget River, including the landing pier for visitors from Singapore looking for a good time. Visit the Kwong Sew Heritage Gallery for some history of the Cantonese community. 

FOR CULTURE VULTURES

Reserve a slot on your calendar for the annual Johor Arts Festival and for music and fun festivals held at Puteri Harbour and the Edible Park in Medini. Read up on stories of locals on Peggy Loh’s blog, My Johor Stories. Attend a performance of 24 Festive Drums, now recognised as a Malaysian National Cultural Heritage. The co-founder of 24 Festive Drums, Tan Chai Puan, owns the Drums café in Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, where you can learn more about this art form. If you want to take home a souvenir, check out handicrafts at JARO, an organisation providing training and work for physically, intellectually and visually challenged individuals.

FESTIVAL TIME

A must-see event in Johor Bahru is the Chingay Festival and the Night Parade on the 21st day of the Lunar New Year, which traditionally falls in the months of January or February. The five Chinese deities are taken out from the Johor Chinese Ancient Temple and are paraded around the streets to bring good luck and fortune to inhabitants. They are accompanied by dragons, drums, decorated trucks and tens of thousands of Chinese. For the Hindu community, the Thaipusam Festival is an intensely spiritual affair celebrated at many Hindu temples and is a visual feast. The night-time Golden Chariot Parade is a similarly colourful event worth watching. This would be a good opportunity to visit the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple with its stunning wall-to-wall glass mosaics.

DAY TRIPS

Legoland Malaysia Resort Water Park
Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
Children will love a visit to Legoland and its water park, and maybe a morning visit to the Johor Zoo. For families, take a trip westward to Kukup and enjoy a seafood meal and a short boat trip to Kukup National Park to explore the mangroves. Or drive eastward to Desaru for beaches, water parks and much more. Take a boat trip with Sungai Melayu Ecotourism and discover life on the river just a few kilometres from the heart of Johor Bahru. Hikers can head off to Gunung Pulau for a hike and a swim in the waterfalls. Farther afield are the islands off the coast of Mersing, with Pulau Tioman being the most popular.

TRIVIA

Sultan Abu Bakar replaced the traditional rice noodles in Johor Laksa with spaghetti following a trip to Italy.

PRACTICAL TIPS

Best time to visit

Time your visit to coincide with a major festival to get the most out of the city.

What’s on and where to go

The face of Johor Bahru is rapidly changing, so check out activities or destinations of interest in advance. Businesses tend to use Facebook instead of websites, so start your searches there.

Transportation

Johor Bahru has little public transport, but ride-hailing service Grab is readily available if you are car-less. Coaches run frequently to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore from Larkin Bus Terminal. The train from Johor Bahru Sentral to Woodlands is the fastest route across the Causeway to and from Singapore, but tickets must be booked online at ktmb.com.my. If travelling from Singapore Changi Airport to Johor Bahru, book a taxi in advance or pick up a cross-border taxi at Queen Street Bus Terminal. For travellers within Malaysia, use Johor’s Senai International Airport.