JB - A Border Town, Johor Bahru, Malaysia - January, 2020

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January 31st 2020
Published: January 29th 2020
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After years of being habitually criticized as a dirty and chaotic border town, Johor’s capital city of Johor Bahru (JB for short) has been repaved and replanted and is well on the way to rebranding itself as a major tourist destination. Most travelers skip southern Malaysia’s largest city in favor of Kuala Lumpur or the Cameroon Highlands up north, but for some intrepid souls, there’s a handful of worthwhile museums, temples, mosques, shopping and even party zones right here. And should these “not be your thing”, JB also has a Legoland where everything is supposedly “awesome”. Personally, I’ll take dibs on the museums and party zones - I’m not a Legoland kind of girl. A massive construction effort is currently in progress which will radically change southern Malaysia over the next decade, and JB is about to undergo one hell of a makeover. Located just 3 miles from the Causeway in the Danga Bay area, one of the five economic zones of the Iskandar Development Project, is poised to become a financial and commercial center. Work on this development began in 2006 and is expected to be completed in 2025. Right now, Danga Bay is simply an ugly construction sprawl.

A little bit of history:

Compared to most world cities, JB is very young…..founded in 1855 and called Iskandar Puteri when the region was known as the Sultanate of Johor, the city was renamed in 1862 when it became the capital of this Sultanate. During WWII Japanese forces occupied the city from 1942 to 1945, as they prepared to invade Singapore and push the British out of the Malay Peninsula. After the formation of Malaysia in 1963, the city retained its status as the state capital and gained city status in 1964. With a population of about 1.4 million in the city and 2 million in the metro area, it makes JB the second most populous city in Malaysia. A bustling city but one with little of interest for the casual tourist, it is a significant regional transport and manufacturing hub. Given its relatively large land space, the town is not as dense as other cities around Malaysia.

Due to its proximity to Singapore, it unavoidably suffers from comparison with its neighbor. Recent clean-up initiatives like greening the city and covering the open sewers that, until a few years ago ran through the center of the city, have made it a more pleasant place to live. However, even up to now, there has been little efforts in maintaining buildings and public facilities and even the city center may seem run-down to some. Though appreciably less organized and much messier compared to the glitz of Singapore, shopping and eating in the city can be a real adventure, with many shopping complexes and a wide variety of food establishments offering budget to fine dining.

Johor Bahru is probably more well known as an industrial city rather than a tourist-friendly town. Many of the world's top electronics manufacturers have at least one plant in Johor Bahru, and after the tough times after the 1997 economic crisis, the town is stirring to life again.

Having arrived in Singapore in the early morning, I had made prior arrangements for a car and driver transfer to the Doubletree Hotel in downtown JB. It began with an easy no-brainer clearance of immigration and customs at the cruise ship terminal and within an hour, I set a record of clearing two more sets of immigration (to leave Singapore and enter Malaysia), before finally arriving at the hotel. It was definitely a first for me: “drive-thru” immigration process? So cool. I reclined in air-conditioned comfort while my driver handed our passports to immigration officers sitting in small booths reminiscent of a Sonic Drive-thru fast food joint, and with a simple glance into the vehicle, we were granted exit and access for both countries. The traffic was so dense, it took 40 minutes to complete the entire double process – evidently crossing this border is an exercise in patience on weekends.

Shortly after noon, I was ushered into the wide lobby of the Doubletree and whisked up to the 29th roof-top floor to check-in at the Executive Lounge. This is one fantastic setting, I see many evenings in here, sipping cocktails and watching sunsets. I’m used to being upgraded and was certainly not disappointed this time. A suite on the 27th floor with living room, kitchenette, dining area, fabulous bathroom and a washing machine! By the end of my stay here, that will come in handy. Fresh fruit, chocolates and water by the bedside completed my satisfaction as a home-away-from-home. Unparalleled views from the bedroom and living room, with sweeping vistas across the city as far as the eye could see. I stopped by the lounge later in the evening to enjoy a delicious dinner buffet spread and then called it a night – time to sink into the famous Hilton Dream Bed.

One of the more popular tourist attractions here is the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple which is a sight to behold! The oldest temple in Tebrau, it has been listed in the Malaysian Book of Records. A creation of Guru Sri Sinnathamby Sivasamy, this unique temple is embellished with 300,000 pieces of red, blue, yellow, green, purple and white glass, including its floors, pillars, and walls. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. As an active place of worship, it is necessary for visitors to dress modestly and maintain location tranquilly. It is open daily for tourists from 1 to 5pm with free admission.

Another “must see” on any tourist list is the magnificent Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque, considered one of the most beautiful old mosques in Malaysia. Boasting of Victorian architecture, the mosque was constructed between the years 1892 and 1900. Commissioned by the ‘Father of Modern Johor’, the late Sultan Abu Bakar, the mosque can accommodate 2,000 worshippers at any given time.

For the very budget-minded tourist, Holiday Plaza is one of the oldest shopping malls in Johor Bahru. If you are not looking for boutique shops to peek in and prefer shopping in less expensive centers, then this is the place for you. The prices are very cheap here, with highlights that include salons, DVD stores, massage centers, and phone accessory stores. The food options are somewhat on the lower side. Open every day from 10 am to 10pm.

I arrived in southeast Asia at the beginning of the longest annual holiday, Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year. It starts this year on January 20th and ends on February 8th, but the actual New Year’s Day is celebrated on Saturday, January 25th. It’s the Year of the Rat and is the first in order of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. According to one folktale, the Jade Emperor decided that the order of the animals would be determined according to the order by which they arrived at his party. This zodiac’s animal cleverly convinced the Ox to give him a ride. Just as the pair arrived at the door, the Rat jumped ahead and landed before the Ox.

Being the most important event on the Chinese calendar, most hotels and restaurants within the city are going full blast with New Year celebrations, and the Doubletree is right in the thick of it. A special oriental feast of five different buffets will be offered in the all-day dining Makan Restaurant, prepared by master chefs, featuring Fortune Feast Buffet Dinner, Prosperity Buffet Dinner, Chinese New Year Eve and Day Dinners, Chinese New Year Day High Tea Buffet and a group dining Reunion table for private banquet events. Prices range from RM98 ($24.18) to RM188 ($46.40) adult. I can’t wait to see what goodies show up in the form of canapes during evening cocktail hours in the lounge.

The weather has not cooperated much since my arrival. Every day it’s hot and humid – to be expected in this region – but frequent (and often heavy) rain showers really put the damper on sightseeing. Sometimes it’s heavy enough to shut down the satellite television broadcast, not to mention swamping the roads and turning them into fast moving streams. Thick white mists blanket the entire city, so dense it’s a virtual “white out” obliterating everything from sight.

Public transportation exists here but is very “iffy” at best. Buses may or may not arrive on time, with bus stops being practically impossible to find. Best way to move around is via taxi or on the ankle express (aka, your feet). Given the everyday heat and humidity, taxis tend to be your best bet overall and they are reasonable cost wise. There are plans to build a light rail transit network in the near future, however I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

New Year’s Day dawned bright and sunny, along with the sound of Chinese firecrackers echoing around the buildings and sounding like AK-47s putting on a concert. The closer to midnight it got, the more firework displays were prominent against the night sky – they continued until the early morning hours as people celebrated in the streets, welcoming in the Year of the Rat. This hotel had been sold out for the entire weekend, but guest count dropped off dramatically by Monday…. evidently not everyone gets two weeks’ vacation during this holiday.

This city is definitely worth a visit if you have kids, if not, not so much. With Legoland and the Angry Birds Park amusements, kids go wild to visit and spend the day – I avoided both. I’m glad I made the trip, but it certainly isn’t one I would make again, it simply doesn’t have the usual tourist attractions which bring crowds of visitors. On the plus side, it’s very affordable. On the negative the weather is crazy, you never know what is coming next – having watched three major storms sweep across the hotel in the past 5 days, complete with lightning, thunder and torrential rains, I can certainly attest to that. And don’t even get me started on lack of public transportation or difficulty of getting around overall.

Now it’s time to head back to civilization, aka Las Vegas. Granted there are many which would debate my city being even in the ballpark for that, but it’s still home to me. Until the next adventure…..selamat tinggal (goodbye) as they say in JB.


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