When you think of Malaysia, you don’t usually first think of Johor Bahru (unless you’re Singaporean). But therein lies the folly of underestimation, because the truth is that Johor Bahru has more than just Desaru Beach to offer. From heritage alleyways and religious architecture, to animal farms and night bazaars, Johor Bahru can be hipster, boisterous and classy at dizzyingly varying turns. It all depends on how you spend your 48 hours here.
The best way to know any city is to know its history, and we’re not talking about museums. Start your Johorian expedition in the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Street. With rows of colonial-style shophouses that have been converted into cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops, you’ll get to do the heritage thing appropriated for the 21st century. Queue up for your favorite banana bread at Hiap Joo Bakery and enjoy a morning cup of coffee at one of the many boutique cafés. Street food also abounds.
If you’re up for a little feathery fun in the late morning, the nearby Desaru Ostrich Farm is open after 10 a.m, an hour’s drive from town. Here, the large, fluffy, non-flying ostriches are as tall as you are, and their eggs are larger than your head. Even though the farm is small and the tours are simple, you’ll have a chance to get up close and personal with the big birds. Entrance costs RM 15 (USD $3.75).
For lunch, do laksa the Johorian way and pick out your own noodles for the flavourful fish curry broth. Hardcore foodies may choose to brave the hour-long drive back to town for the W.W. Laksa House, but if you’re not averse to ostrich meat, the Ostrich Farm offers yummy ostrich satay, burgers and omelettes.
After lunch, it’s time to work off your meal at the Desaru Fruit Farm, only 30 minutes from Johor Bahru by car. With over 100 tropical fruit and vegetable plantations, this place is as educational an experience as it is a test of physical endurance (you’ll be weathering 30°C heat and humidity). See how mangoes are wrapped in newspaper before they ripen, and how side shoots are cultivated to grow the next generations of pineapple plants. Entrance costs RM 26.50 (USD $6.63) per adult and includes a fruit sampling box.
Can’t feel your legs after the extensive fruit-finding expedition? Try slipping inside one of the many foot massage parlours in town. The Thai Odyssey never disappoints, but if their prices are too steep for your liking, Spa Manja and Soul Asia are recommendable alternatives.
Desaru Fruit Farm, 92, 82200 Kota Tinggi, Johor, Malaysia, +60 12 772 1817
If you’ve done enough ‘street’ activities for the day, clean up nice for the upscale fine dining experience at Amaya Food Gallery. Food is a mixture of East and West, from soft-roasted pumpkin and rare-cooked steak, to Asian favourites like curries and broth-based noodles. Romantic interests are often impressed here on date nights.
Post-dinner is the perfect time to visit the most happening night bazaar in town – Pasar Karat. For the price of your dinner, you can have your pick of fashion accessories, children’s toys, and easy-to-go desserts. If you’re lucky, a live band will be there to liven the mood.
Life doesn’t wait until church service to begin, which means that you’ll have the pre-mass Catholic crowd filling up local kopitiams (coffee shops) for breakfast before 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Those who can play the waiting game should brave it out at Restoran Hua Mui, but those who prefer shorter waiting times will want to visit the Tai Hong Kopitiam. Both offer a similar range and quality of food.
After breakfast, nurture your cultural side and visit the Hakka Heritage Gallery. Check out how the Hakka people used to live some 50 years back, with old farming tools, kitchen utensils and wall clocks that look like they’ve come right out of a movie set. Please call in advance, as you may be turned away without prior appointment.
In Johor, the greatest flights of human achievement tend to be done in the name of God. The Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque is one of the state’s most impressive buildings, featuring 19th century Moorish-Victorian elements and expansive grounds that overlook the glittering turquoise waters of the Straits of Johor. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosque, but the external architecture alone is worth the visit.
Inspiration may lead you on a religious streak to the beautiful Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple. Inspired by Wat Chantaram in Thailand’s Uthai Thani province, the revered Guru Bhagawan Sittar decided to rebuild this elaborate glass temple comprising some 300,000 pieces of coloured glass. This hidden gem in the city regularly attracts visitors for its dazzling — and uniquely multicultural — appearance. Two ceiling murals in the left wing feature artistic displays of everyday multi-ethnic life, furthering the message of racial harmony in Malaysia.
So it’s time to round up your 48-hour experience in Johor Bahru, and what better way to do this than stroll along the wide Desaru Beach. This stretch of fine sand and calm seas attracts both locals and tourists, and you may sometimes see hopeful kite fliers tossing their wau (traditional Malaysian kite) to the wind. It gets dark by 7.30 p.m. here, so you may want to get there before then.
If you’re not totally knackered by now, you also have the option of checking out the most famous quayside promenade in town. The Puteri Harbour serves a variety of restaurants, pubs and retail shops along the walkway, and contemporary sculptures also make a presence for the selfie-inclined. Wind down, chill out, and tap your feet to good old pub music on your final night in Johor Bahru.