Johor Bahru sits right next to the national boundary between two inseparably linked countries and has all the blessings and blemishes to show for it. Nowhere else in Malaysia better displays the differences between two intertwining streams of history. Today, the city becomes known as a 'half-price bazaar' for everything from groceries to golf to thousands of Singaporeans, enriched by a strong currency.
Jalan Wong Ah Fook: An Unsavoury Icon of Abritrage
Happenstance and the Johor Bahru's reputation for comparatively inexpensive shopping and entertainment, however, have also made the arterial thoroughfare of Jalan Wong Ah Fook into an extension of the perpetual traffic snarl at the Causeway . Cars bearing number plates of two diametrically opposed vehicular policies rumble past incessantly, sometimes haltingly, and the resultant air quality had one influential writer branding it the 'hanging air of decay'. He must have also meant the soot-stained four-storey shop-houses bordering on the brink of dilapidation at the centre of the scene, where customary and flesh trades call their address. Like it or not, those bristling money-changers, 7-Eleven stores, pirated-VCD peddlers, squalid coffee shops and throngs of hurried people have stuck on like an unsavoury icon of this historic border town.
Decay is seasonally outdated and in retreat, thankfully, with the opening of the sprawling City Square shopping complex, Johor Bahru's latest self-renewal showpiece. A match for the glitziest of shopping malls across the City Square, it is fit to handle the smuggest shopping and coffee tastes at half-price. A sprinkling of older malls, including KOMTAR and Plaza Kotaraya , lies within walking distance, catering to the less well-heeled. Downtown chugs along like the squeaky locomotives leaving the Railway Station in this state of slow-motion tussle between the old and the new, dependable family-run coffee shops and fair-weather bankers, dingy lodges and chrome-plated hotels, humble pre-war shop-houses and swanky towers. Meanwhile, the Sri Mariamman Temple and the Johor Old Chinese Temple cling on precariously in a weakening struggle against unsympathetic commercial development.
Istana Grounds: A Royal Warehouse on Display
One can catch a glimpse of the grandeur and power of the past atop Bukit Timbalan at the Sultan Ibrahim Building , whose unique architecture and commanding facade mercifully rescue the city skyline from the commercial barrenness at street level. Johor Bahru's choicest real estate extends from here northwards along the narrow coastal road, most of it being royally owned. The display of royal possessions begins at the Royal Abu Bakar Museum , housed within the imposing blue-roofed Grand Palace in the vast, manicured compounds of the Istana Garden . Next door, the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque sports some of the best Islamic architecture in the country. The small Johor Zoo resides along the same road--Jalan Gertak Merah.
Further up along Jalan Tun Dr Ismail, flanked on the watery side by the Lido Beach and the War Memorial , Dataran Bandaraya serves as the local centre-stage for National Day celebrations and other public festivities. The Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Mausoleum , the royal burial grounds, lies a short distance inland from the top-notch hotel Hyatt Regency Johor Bahru . Northwards, the home of the living royalty meanwhile nestles at the secluded Istana Bukit Serene, within par-five distance of the Royal Johor Country Club .
Stulang: Seafood and Duty-free Shopping
Directly overlooking Senoko Power Station and the northern green-capped shores of Singapore, Jalan Stulang Laut stretches along a scenic straits-front, considerately equipped with a palm-lined pavement and resting benches. This is seafood and makan (Malay for eating) land. The gastronomic fanfare begins at the popular New Hong Kong Restaurant , just opposite the entrance to the Custom Building. It then proceeds along a disjointed set of shop-houses playing host to some of the best-kept local secrets, including Gerai Mee Rebus, and a motley multi-racial ensemble of coffee shops, finally ending at the massive Free Trade Zone, the site of Eden Garden Hotel , ZON Shopping Complex and Eden Palace Seafood Restaurant .
Taman Sentosa and the Vicinity: Arbitragers' Haunt
The suburban areas host a multitude of urban shopping and entertainment enclaves, such as Taman Century and Taman Sentosa. Locals and Singaporean day-trippers alike flock here for cheap food, copiously available at the Taman Sentosa Hawker Centre, or unbeatable bargains in Sentosa Shopping Complex, or inexpensive entertainment in a myriad of karaoke bars. More options abound at Plaza Pelangi , Crowne Plaza and Pelangi Leisure Mall --some of the popular shopping arcades in town.
Gateway to Johor's Best
Johor Bahru is situated less than two hours by road from numerous traditional Malay villages (especially on the west Johor coast) and untouched rainforest reserves in Endau-Rompin National Park . Also within driving distance is the fishing town of Mersing —a springboard to the delightful Pulau Tioman and its neighbouring islands, which are well sought for diving and other water sports.
Other splendid day-trip choices surrounding the city include the Kota Tinggi and Lombong Waterfalls , stilted seafood restaurants in Kukup and the much-celebrated Desaru beach resort. A golfer's haven, Johor also boasts a collection of world-class golf courses, such as Palm Villa Golf and Country Club and Pulai Springs Resort .
Johor Bahru was once merely a conduit and brief stopover for tourists travelling to or exiting out of Singapore. Today, however, it offers a cornucopia of attractions of its own, luring sand, sea and sun-seekers, eco and agro-adventurers, shoppers, golf-crazies and, last but not least, the dining and drinking crowd. This fortuitous transformation occurred only recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, and coincided with the intensive development of its natural allurement and the growing disparity between the value of the Malaysian ringgit and the Singapore dollar.
In the Hotels
Depending on where you stay, you may not have to venture out to dine, as some of the best dining options reside within reputable hotels. The best Japanese restaurant in the city, ASKA , is located within the Hyatt Regency , which also spots a popular and aesthetically furnished Coffeehouse with good-value buffet dinners, and the Mediterranean Il Pocolo offering open-air dining in beautifully landscaped compounds.
The Puteri Pan Pacific has great choices too. The Hai Tien Lo Chinese Restaurant boasts of a delectable dim sum menu besides good Cantonese cooking. The Selasih Restaurant is highly regarded for its Malay cuisine. The Paolo Restaurant features standard Italian grub, while the lobby-level Newsroom Cafe is nearly always crowded for sought-after buffets and an appeasing menu.
Another hotspot of upmarket culinary action is the Eden Garden Hotel , home to the longest cafe restaurant in Malaysia, the Salt 'n' Pepper Cafe Restaurant , where vintage views of the Johor Straits complement a mixed spread of Western and local dishes. Sharing the same vista is the adjoining Palm Bistro , an unparalleled locale to watch the sun setting over the bustling Causeway to the company of high-tea or a glass of wine. Next door, the expensively upholstered Lotus Garden Shark's Fin and Abalone Restaurant is a top-rate Cantonese restaurant specialising in treasured Chinese delicacies. For Thai food, the Sukhothai within the same premises offers inexpensive Thai buffet dinner daily on top of a comprehensive menu.
Elsewhere, worthwhile options include Nan Yuen Chinese Restaurant and Sushi Kappo Kasuga Japanese Restaurant in the Grand BlueWave Hotel , and the Crystal Court and Sushi Kappo Kasuga Japanese Restaurant in the Crystal Crown Hotel .
On the City Streets
A seafood meal, cooked the local Chinese style, is a time-honoured obsession particularly among weekending or day-tripping Singaporeans. In Johor Bahru, chomping down on succulent chilli crabs comes with a variety of unusual venues. At the Straits View Palace Marina Seafood Restaurant , one sits on the upper deck of a wooden structure on a hill, looking out to the Johor Straits. The expansive Seafood International Market and Restaurant combines a resort club atmosphere with from-the-tank freshness, while flying golf balls are always within sight at the Hollywood Seafood Restaurant . The high-priced Eden Palace Seafood Restaurant features the novelty of dining on an anchored barge.
For the local majority however, value-for-money seafood fare can be had in less glitzy locales. Several well-regarded restaurants are found in Taman Sentosa and along the Jalan Stulang Laut straits-front. The open-air Ocean Garden Seafood Restaurant and the air-conditioned New Hong Kong Restaurant are both of decent standards. Or drive to the fishing town of Kukup , or Asia's most southerly land point, Tanjung Piai , where freshly caught harvests of the sea are served in restaurants on stilts. A walkabout downtown will invariably lead you to the busy thoroughfare of Jalan Wong Ah Fook. Around Jalan Meldrum, the humble chicken rice is given a masterful twist in the hands of Swee Kee Restoran, while Restoran Alif Laila and Cafe does a great dish of the spicy tandoori chicken. Within hailing distance lies House of Sundanese Food , a recent addition to the local dining scene.
Some outstanding Malay-style dishes can be found in this city, such as ikan bakar (barbecued fish) and ayam panggang (barbecued chicken), at Restaurant Z.Z. and Restoran L.C. Catering, and first-rate mee rebus (noodles in thick gravy) and otak-otak (barbecued fish cakes) at Gerai Mee Rebus.
Food centres offer a cross-section of popular Malaysian hawker fare and there are many to be found in shopping centres and residential townships. The Taman Sri Tebrau Hawker Centre ranks among the most popular and also the most congested at all times. The air-conditioned Menara Landmark Food Court features a good selection of hawker stalls in clean comfort.
Downtown Johor Bahru is dotted with many Western-styled cafes. Nearly every established coffee and fastfood chain has a representation here, including the likes of Starbucks, Dome and TGI Friday's . The Coffee Company is a home-grown version which offers coffee, beers and an eclectic food menu under one roof. The Lavender Cake Shop serves delicious cakes and pastries in unique purplish furnishings and its mooncakes are among the best that one can ever buy. Coco Fresh Beverage Chain Store is a juice bar, noted for its wide range of uncommon and tasty concoctions. Kang Seng Bird's Nest and Desserts serves nourishing Chinese desserts and delicacies at a price.
Back home, you can tell your friends you sampled pizza, sushi, sizzling steak, tandoori chicken, dim sum, ostrich soup, gado-gado and more. In fact, you will have done it all in one place—Johor Bahru.