How to spend 24 hours in heritage-rich Johor Baru

Johor Bahru's Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque is a tranquil spot for sightseeing. — TODAY pic
Johor Bahru's Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque is a tranquil spot for sightseeing. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Oct 1 — The city of Johor Baru is our closest neighbour (and the only one connected to us by land), yet while many Singaporeans travel to JB regularly, there is still a lot we do not know about it.

JB has close ties with Singapore, not just geographically, but historically, politically and economically. And there is more to JB-visiting than knowing where to go to satiate our favourite pursuits of eating and shopping. If you had 24 hours in the city, you can do a lot that will teach you about its culture and history. (And, yes, throw in a few choice meals along the way.)

Here are some choice stops.

Istana Bukit Serene

This is the royal palace and official residence of the Sultan of Johor and is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. It has sprawling gardens that have hosted gatherings of the royal family for decades, as it has been the residence for several sultans over the years. Sultan Ibrahim is the current sultan whose coronation took place in March this year (five years after he ascended the throne).

An interesting tidbit about the building is that during World War II, General Yamashita Tomoyuki, who led the Japanese invasion, and his officers stationed themselves at Istana Bukit Serene to plan for the invasion of Singapore; Yamashita used the palace tower as a viewing point. Despite its obvious location, the Japanese general was also confident that the Allied forces would not attack Istana Bukit Serene because it was the pride and possession of the Sultan of Johor, and he felt the British Army would not dare destroy the palace. (He was correct.)

Sadly, the palace is not open to the public these days; but it is worth a stop just to see the majestic entrance: A giant replica of the Sultan’s crown is perched on top of a very impressive arch that resembles giant elephant tusks. Installed just last year, rumour has it that it was financed by a Chinese tycoon who was involved with the reclamation of the land just opposite the palace. Of course, if you want to get the whole picture of the royal palace — albeit on a much smaller scale — there is a model of it in the Johor section of Legoland Malaysia at nearby Nusajaya. It is built using more than 270,000 Lego bricks and even includes the arch at the entrance.

Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque

If the serenity of this mosque perched on top of a hill doesn’t impress you, the view certainly will. It overlooks the Straits of Johor and, thanks to its elevated position, you can, weather permitting, have a clear view of places in Singapore such as the Sungei Buloh nature reserve and, of course, Woodlands. The mosque has a prominent place in the history of modern Johor. The building of the mosque was commissioned in 1892 by the late Sultan Abu Bakar, known as the Father of Modern Johor. It was completed in 1900 and is currently listed as a protected heritage monument by the Department of Museums and Antiquities.

While the design of the mosque has a mix of architectural styles, its Victorian influence stands out the most. Also, this is the state mosque of Johor and can accommodate up to 2,000 worshippers at a time. But just walking around the grounds marvelling at the architecture — and the beautiful view — is good enough reason to visit.

Kampung Melayu

Get a taste of the old days while learning a thing or two about Malaysian culture. If you are old enough to remember the kampungs of yore, this will bring back memories. If you are too young to even know what “kampung” means, this will be a very educational visit.

And if you have never seen Malaysia’s numerous rubber plantations before, this is your chance to get up close to a rubber tree. There are also coffee plants — and a space showing how coffee was made from tree to cup in the past. We got to sample a fresh cocoa drink, served in a pewter cup, which keeps the drink very cold, making it a perfect beverage in our tropical heat.

You can get to know more about Malay music instruments such as the angklong and kompang (and try your hand at them) and watch traditional music and dance performances if you are so inclined. (They have an area set up like a Malay wedding so you’ll get to see that part of the culture too.)

Malaysia is also well-known for batik painting and, for a small fee, you can try your hand at this art form here. Let your imagination run wild and add whatever colours you want.Or you can watch the pros in action, as they expertly and laboriously work on their craft. You can also check out a live demonstration of how tin is melted in the pewter-making process (tin, after all, is another of Malaysia’s top exports) and how they end up as the final pewter product you see in the shops. (Yes, there is a souvenir shop here too, in case you souvenir hunters were wondering.)

Muzium Tokoh Johor

This imposing colonial building was the official residence of the chief minister of Johor, but it has now been restored and turned into a museum dedicated to the Johor Sultanate. “Tokoh” translates as “figure”, so this is basically a museum about the head figure of the state. There are large panels which tell the history of the Sultanate, with photos of members of the royal family at various stages of their lives. And, if you’re not familiar with the family and are curious as to who is who, there is a large family tree you can refer to. (Do note, though, that most of the text here is in Malay so an understanding of the language will give you an advantage.) The plus point: Entry is free.

Rest and relax

An overnight stay in JB is an easy choice. There are loads of hotels to choose from, but for convenience, the five-star Renaissance Johor Bahru Hotel, which is about a 10-minute drive from the Causeway, might just be the ticket. A plus for foodies: Cafe BLD serves scrumptious international cuisine for all-day dining; while the popular Wan Li Restaurant whips up contemporary Cantonese favourites. The Chocolate Cake Company has freshly-baked cakes, breads and pastries, and the R-Bar is where you can spend the night relaxing and enjoying live entertainment. — TODAY