Coming more and more into its own with every passing year, Johor is evolving into a legitimate tourist destination. Beyond the capital city of Johor Bahru, the southern state offers luxurious resorts, family-friendly themed attractions, world-class golf, and idyllic island retreats. Photojournalist David Bowden serves up a curated overview of what to do and where to go in this fascinating Malaysian state.
Johor, the southernmost state of Peninsular Malaysia, is much more than merely a place to travel through on the way to Singapore, as it has many tourist sites in the capital Johor Bahru (or simply ‘JB’), two leading themed attractions, beaches, golf courses, shopping, dining, and even agrotourism destinations. In addition, the offshore Johor Islands in the South China Sea are remote but tranquil and considerably less visited than Malaysia’s popular islands.
Downtown on Foot
The capital’s historic downtown is best explored on foot despite the traffic, heat, and lively pedestrian traffic. Exploring any destination is generally best done on foot, and JB is no exception. In this sense, as well, it does not disappoint.
While many visitors, especially those from Singapore, follow well-developed routines of shopping and dining, first-time visitors will find more than enough to distract them here for a couple of days. (Singaporean shoppers head across one of two crossings en masse at the weekend, and the immigration and customs facilities at the Causeway and the Tuas crossing can get very crowded, particularly if a holiday is in the mix.)
While new international hotels have opened in the capital and Danga Bay, well-established hotels like the five-star Thistle Johor Bahru retain the best city location with impressive views over the Straits of Johor towards Singapore. One of the most interesting areas is Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, where old Chinese shoplots look mostly unchanged over the decades. This street is a heritage oasis surrounded by a sea of ever-rising tall buildings. I have often wondered how the street might retain its character in the future, as developers no doubt have their sights trained on the area. The historic enclave is still popular with the locals who come to chat over their richly brewed local coffee or slurp down a bowl of Johor laksa.
Chinese food is popular in several kopitiams, with Teochew and Hokkien regional cuisines dominant in the city. Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factorylocated here is joyfully trapped in a time warp, not least in their use of a huge, wood-fired oven to bake the freshest breads, richest cakes, and tastiest pastries.
This is a JB baking tradition that is over a century old, as its blackened interior walls testify. The locals are happy to queue for baked buns filled with kaya, red bean, and coconut. These buns are delicious, with a slightly smoky flavour from the unique bread-baking technique adopted. The shop, however, is perhaps most famous for its moist banana cake and, like all its products, no preservatives are used.
Traditionally, kopitiams dominated Johor’s coffee scene, but these days, trendy young urbanites have more sophisticated palates. While international coffee concepts have made an impact, several vibrant coffee outlets cater to more sophisticated palates.
Faculty of Caffeine is one that stands out. Equipped with a sophisticated La Maazocco coffee machine, the staff brew rich cups of coffee accompanied by light snacks (waffles plus bacon and eggs). Its walls are decorated with modern art and there is a cosy outdoor section.
I also enjoyed similar rich brews at Chaiwalla & Co., Malaysia’s first ‘container café’ concept, as the shops are fashioned into shipping containers! Additionally, Doi Chaangcoffee, from the hills of northern Thailand, has several outlets in JB and its coffee is one cut above those found at most international concepts.
What to Do, Where to Stay
Families will doubtlessly enjoy travelling to JB to visit Asia’s first LEGOLAND theme park. This popular, themed attraction has 40 rides, shows, and displays to keep children entertained. There are exhilarating rides, 4D films, and – unsurprisingly – myriad opportunities to design, create, and build LEGO objects.
Tollways and a network of new roads constructed in tandem with the development of the massive Iskandar Malaysia project now enable visitors to reach destinations beyond the capital much faster than before, with the drive from central JB to the Desaru Coast taking about an hour. The tranquil East Coast beaches at Desaru have been developed to complement existing facilities and those at Sebana Cove.
Desaru Coast is the latest mega-recreational initiative that includes a massive waterpark, hotels, restaurants, conference facilities, and shopping. Hotels here include Hard Rock Hotel, The Westin, Anantara, and the soon to open, One&Only. For fun-filled diversions, Desaru Coast Adventure Waterpark appeals to families, and two 18-hole Els Club golf courses will tempt golfers with their challenging, scenic layouts.
The 275-room Westin Desaru Coast Resort has sweeping panoramic views of the South China Sea. Guests can dine or drink in The Beach Bar, Prego, MIX Lounge, and Splash. The Heavenly Spa offers Western and Asian therapies while the Westin Fitness Studio is open around the clock. At the Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast, meanwhile, all 365 rooms boast rock star interiors and spacious verandahs. Specially curated music, videos, and feature film playlists are screened in the room. The hotel wraps around Desaru Coast Adventure Waterfront, just metres from the white sands of the near-deserted Desaru beachfront.
Anantara Desaru Coast Resort and Villas is part of Desaru Coast, which spans over 16 sq km along a pristine 17km-long beachfront. The resort has 108 rooms, comprising 90 deluxe rooms in low-rise buildings that overlook the gardens, lagoon and sea, and an additional 18 villas and residences, offering the ultimate luxury. Facilities include Sea.Fire.Salt (specialty grill and seafood restaurant), an all-day dining restaurant, observatory bar, beach pool bar and Dining by Design (private dining in secluded settings).
Desaru Coast is near Iskandar Malaysia and is easily accessible via a 45-minute drive from Malaysia’s Senai International Airport, or slightly over an hour from central JB.
A Vision Beyond Desaru
Offshore, several islands attract guests seeking laid-back, Robinson Crusoe-style escapes. The islands of Rawa, Sibu, Besar, Tinggi, Aur, and Tengah all have accommodation ranging from luxurious to rustic and especially appeal to divers and those who really want to get away from it all.
Johor’s grand Iskandar undertaking is driving development in the state and tempting foreigners to invest in various real estate offerings. There are several mega-developments in the state including Iskandar and Danga Bay. The latter is an integrated development that includes commercial, residential, and leisure areas. Known as the ‘Vision City of the South’ it also incorporates a marina, convention centre, and residential estates, as well as restaurants and cafés.
Kuala Lumpur residents can drive down the North-South Expressway to JB, taking just under four hours. Driving directly to the Desaru Coast from KL takes only slightly longer. An alternative is to take the KTM train to JB (and onto Woodlands in Singapore). The other alternative is to fly from KL to the airport in JB, and then rent a car to explore the state.
Beyond the immediate downtown area, JB is not a great walking city; however, taxis or Grab make life easier.
Johor has a plethora of hotels catering mostly to Singaporeans. Choose to stay in the Thistle Johor Bahru, Amari, DoubleTree by Hilton, Puteri Pacific, Renaissance Johor Bahru, Berjaya Waterfront and LEGOLAND Malaysia in and around the capital. In Desaru Coast, book into the Hard Rock, The Westin, or Anantara. On the Johor Islands, choose Rawa Island Resort.