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A century and a half ago, it was a simple fishing village. Since independence in 1957, Johor Bahru, Malaysia‘s southernmost city has prospered and grown. Known as JB, today it is home to 3m people and connected by bridges to Singapore. Johor Bahru is a buzzy place that hosts 16m tourists a year. Here are the must-visit attractions.
Like a giant spider that has lost half its legs, this sculpture-cum-tower is hard to miss. It straddles the driveway to the Istana Bukit Serene, the palace and official residence of the Sultan of Johor. Four arches converge to support a crown that’s the size of a Range Rover. Its magnificence is best seen at night when the “jewels” that embellish it are illuminated.
If you’re travelling with youngsters, this adventure park near the city centre is one of best places for fun in Malaysia. Watch for wading pools with water-spraying animal sculptures, a climbing-frame complex, several playgrounds and a skatepark. For grown-ups there is an outdoor gym and a network of walks in landscaped grounds. The park has a picnic area in a shady grove, while food trucks sell hot and spicy snacks.
This Hindu temple in the centre of Johor Bahru opened in 1911 and still sees near-daily ceremonies as well as Hindu festivals. In contrast to the monochrome modern buildings around it, the temple is a riot of colour and design. Look up at its roofs, covered in vividly painted images of Hindu gods, and soak in the interiors, splashed with gold and often strung with brightly coloured festival decorations.
Less than 30 minutes from Johor Bahru is this vast, muddy playground for girls and boys and their toys. Dirt bikes, quad bikes and buggies scream over jumps and slide around corners, making a mess of everything. If this sounds like your (young ones’) idea of a good time, turn up and get involved. You don’t need your own wheels: vehicles can be rented and training is available. If you’re looking for something less full throttle, an off-road jungle tour promises thrills without spills.
Rumours abound about this ruined colonial mansion in a strip of jungle overlooking Danga Bay. Many believe it’s haunted, and with its vine-wrapped pillars and leaf-strewn floors it certainly has a spooky air. Locals disagree over why it was abandoned though some mention a murderous housemaid or a vengeful father. Either way, do not go exploring in an odd-numbered group as it’s said to upset the spirits.
Based on the mobile-phone game, children can run amok in this indoor park. The activities are inspired by moments from Angry Birds, including the piggy shooting gallery and Captain Black Bird’s ship. Of course there’s more, including a go-kart track, a “space soccer cage”, “anti-gravity” trampolines and a giant foam pit. If the average teenager wants something “awesome”, they’ll find it here.
Located on the waterfront, Danga Bay Park is an old-school funfair with rides including a Ferris wheel, carousel, rocking ship and bumper cars. Evening is the best time to come, when strings of fairy lights jostle with the whirling illuminations on the rides. You pay only for the rides you make, so a wander to take in the atmosphere needn’t cost a penny, so long as you can resist the food carts.
Opened in 1927, this is the oldest Catholic church in the city. You can tell how well it has been looked after: its exterior is as snowy-white as when it was built. It is a working church so you may find services taking place, but you are welcome to join in. This is a great way to gain a sense of the Johor Bahru community, far from the tourist attractions.
Even if you’ve been to Legoland in New York, Dubai or Florida, this one will still thrill you. With more than 20 rides, slides and aquatic games, the water park has its eyes on the needs of small children. The crazy coasters will wow older ones while the virtual-reality rollercoaster will remind everyone, of whatever age, that it’s never too late to let your hair down. There’s also Sea Life Malaysia, an aquarium with shark encounters.
This is the reason Singaporeans make the two-hour journey across the Causeway. They come for the sunrise, sunset and the water scooters in between. Don’t expect the sea to be snorkel-worthy but the sand is as soft as baby talc. If you stay at Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort, it is less crowded. The Sarang traditional Malay massage on its own is a good enough reason to check in.
Durian is the world’s worst-smelling fruit (think gas leak mixed with nappies) but it has a heavenly taste. Nowadays iced and powdered versions are made but here at Desaru Fruit Farm it’s in its raw state – on trees. Luckily durian are not the only fruit at this 180-acre (73ha) agrotourism site, and your tastebuds will tingle with all manner of sweet platters.
This is the biggest farm of its kind in peninsular Malaysia, and a lot of big-toothed beasts are on display. Look on with fascination and fear as the handlers toss chicken and the reptiles snap to it, literally. For RM20 ($5), you can have a go yourself, and you’ll be amazed at the speed at which these creatures move. Children can hold baby crocs while experts tell the adults all about the saltwater species.
Red Chinese lanterns swing in the breeze as crowds shuffle along this traditional street of colonial-era shops and houses. Many of the buildings are now restaurants, so allow two hours to take in the cultural buzz. Stop to snack on braised duck and pork sold by the generations-old food-hawker outlets, or settle in to sip a coffee and watch the world go by in pre-independence fashion.
If shopping until late appeals, you’ll love the night bazaar, or pasar malam. This one features independent clothing brands and live music and starts at about 8pm. The atmosphere is similar to that of a flea-market, indeed the name translates as “rusty market”. It’s sociable and you’ll mingle with regulars as you browse the stalls of T-shirts, electronics and spicy bites. Buy a cup of the local milky tea and go with the flow – drinking in the atmosphere is as important as buying something.
Whether you’re here for the view, the architecture or the prayers, this mosque is a must. Built between 1892 and 1900, it has a remarkable design. The minarets are not the slender Islamic spires you’d expect: the Anglophile sultan wanted Victorian English elements, and so the architect drew inspiration from 19th-century clocktowers. This is the state mosque of Malaysia and it can accommodate 2,000 worshippers. Admire its magnificent setting, on a hill overlooking the distant city and the Tebrau Strait between Singapore and Malaysia.
Rarefied and serene, this gallery brings Johor’s colourful history to the fore. Built in 1910, the elegant two-storey building was a Japanese base during World War II. Now a state gallery, it features a ground floor dedicated to art by the people of Malaysia. On the first floor you will find changing exhibitions of creations by amateurs including children. Entry is free.
Michelle Leong contributed additional reporting to this article.