When we first decided to stay across the border north of Singapore in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, we thought it would just be a place to sleep and we would make the commute into the city each day. Johor Bahru, JB for short, is a little gritty, like Jersey to New York City. As the second most populated city in Malaysia and the border town to Singapore, it seems to be a city in transition, but a very slow transition. We took a walk in Johor Bahru, Malaysia to discover the old, the new and the food.
The newly constructed CIQ (Border Control) building and the new, massive, seven-story mall almost seem out of place with the surrounding area a little rough on the edges. Just one street away from all the ‘new’ the scene changes: sidewalks, if they are there at all, are cracked and broken; storefronts are missing signs and crumbling; heavy, unpleasant scents waft through the air. The area is well-developed, just not well-maintained.
But on the flip side, the people are genuine and welcoming, eager to be helpful and always smiling. English is widely spoken and their favorite word seems to be ‘yes,’ which is the first response to any question, regardless of the real answer. When we thought we had found the dobi (laundry shop), we asked a group of construction workers outside if we were in the right place. They all stopped, smiled and said, “Yes, this is not it. Keep going one more block.” And then watched as we went on our way, making sure we were on the right path before they resumed their work. The small, sincere acts of kindness from the locals are the norm, rather than a rare occasion.
Beyond that, beauty can also be found at the hundred year old temples, churches, mosques and other religious buildings that reside in harmony regardless of the close proximity. Religion is an obvious important part of the daily lives of the residents and noticeable by their dress, the frequent visits to temples to pray or light joss sticks and the statues and grottos that have fresh offerings placed in front of them. Prayer times are listed in the local newspaper and we can hear them throughout the city when they are broadcast in the streets.
Unlike other cities, we didn’t have an itinerary, set agenda or list of sights to see – we just set out on a walk in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and discovered the city. The main road from our hotel, Jalan Trus, is just one street away from the mall and the street on which we have spent most of our time while in JB. On this street we found two of the oldest temples just a block apart, the Old Chinese Temple (approximately 150 years old) and the Sri Raja Mariamman Temple (103 years old) among the shops, enclosed car dealerships (not at all like the sprawling lots in America) and restaurants. The landmark Sultan Ibrahim Building, built in 1940, is just one block off Julan Trus, featuring native and colonial style architecture.
We’ve twice taken part in the local food scene, joining in – but, not blending in – with the lunchtime crowd at an open air (non-air conditioned) market with five or six hawker stalls serving up many varieties of the regional cuisine. Unsure of so many things – from what to eat to how to eat it – we are guided along by the friendly owners naming each dish and letting us know if it is spicy or not and what to pile on our plates for the best, classic flavor combinations.
In a place so foreign where we know so little, we have had a warm welcome and have been made to feel comfortable by the friendly residents. Our first introduction to Southeast Asia has only made us more curious – and more confident – as we get ready to head into Vietnam.
We want to know: Have you been to Johor Bahru, Malaysia?
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