Central Food Market, May 2015. What a strange little place the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru is. Dwarfed by the popularity of its neighboring metropolis Singapore, most people have never even heard of it. I’d certainly had no plans to visit before fate intervened. I was enjoying a three-month trip around South East Asia and was looking forward to visiting my old friend Lisa, who lived on the Malaysian island Pulau Sibu. The original plan had been to go to Sibu directly from Singapore, but then Lisa was unexpectedly called out to Johor Bahru for four days at her company’s head office. So I made the short trip over to JB in the hope that there was enough to keep me busy while she was at work. On that first afternoon I headed out to the network of food markets scattered around my hotel. This stall, selling a mixture of Malay, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, was just one of countless joints in the area. Fine dining it wasn’t, although the slop I treated myself to was hearty enough and dirt cheap. Having spent a few hours eating, drinking and people watching I couldn’t help but wonder: “What now?”
Danga Bay, May 2015. The answer to my question came in the form of Danga Bay, described on its official website as JB’s ‘‘biggest recreation park’’, not to mention Malaysia’s “premier waterfront complex”. Hailing a taxi, I asked to be taken to this seductive city oasis. But unfortunately the driver had no idea what I was talking about and after much faffing around I was dumped outside a closed fairground with rusty rides that looked like they hadn’t been used since the 1960s. Beyond that was a massive construction zone full of cranes, dumpsters and Indian laborers. It took me almost an hour to find the waterfront, where I was met by an unfinished resort called Country Garden. There was a swanky hotel and a half-built commercial zone, with only a café and an empty clothes shop open for business. “Next year is finish!” said the woman, handing me my Latte. I was hoping she meant the construction would be finished, not that they’d already given up. From there I came across a pretty but characterless manmade beach. So this was Johor Bahru’s big draw? Oh dear. Fittingly, the already overcast day was now threatening to break into rainfall; a number of evil clouds converging just in time for this photo.
JCO Donuts, May 2015. I’d been in JB for a couple of days when I completely ran out of ideas for what to do. I’d scaled the food market a dozen times, checked out a pretty mosque and scolded myself for thinking about going back to Country Garden for another latte. In the end I took a wander around a massive indoor shopping centre down by the bus station. It was a predictably soulless affair and after much aimless drifting I stopped in at JCO Donuts for a coffee and a bite. Amusingly, I saw that a few of their donuts had been named after Hollywood actors. There was a questionably-green-looking creation called the Avocado DiCaprio and a chucklesome Al Cappuccino, while the delicious stodge-tastic piece of donut heaven pictured here is the Blue Berrymore. Disappointingly, the Hollywood fun ended there, with the other donuts all having regular names. I couldn’t help but feel they’d missed a massive opportunity! With so many great possibilities, why hadn’t they seen it through?! And so for the rest of my visit, Lisa and I were constantly racking our brains for new donut names. Among our many gems: Benedict CustardBatch, Jean-Claude Van Jam, Gerard Peanut-Butler, CaraMel Gibson and Courtney Six-In-A-Box.
Texas Pub, May 2015. Finding a bar was no easy task in Johor Bahru. In fact, it suddenly hit me that during all my exploring I hadn’t seen a single one! Putting Lisa on the case, she came back from work one day with news. A colleague had told her that JB’s only nightlife neighbourhood was a seedy collection of pubs and clubs known as The Zone. So we took a taxi out there and ended up in a surreal establishment called Texas Pub, a cavernous bar/nightclub with a guitar-playing dude who mingled amongst the customers miming to 80s rock classics. The place was buzzing with people, including an army of provocatively dressed girls who clearly weren’t customers. Every now and then one of them would disappear upstairs with an attached male. Lisa and I were still taking it all in when a trio of Malays joined us at our table to declare instant, unconditional friendship. Hungry for details on whom we were, why we were in JB and where we were going next, a fresh-faced businessman called Ricky Discus treated us to a bucket of Heinekens before excitedly agreeing to this photo. Mr. Discus and friends were exceptionally friendly and when they eventually left an hour or so later, Ricky ordered one more bucket as a parting gift. A very entertaining night!
Hotel Room Sunset, May 2015. It was two more largely uneventful days before I finally left JB for Sibu Island. That last morning, waking up at the crack of dawn for the long journey out to paradise, I caught this wonderful sunset from my hotel room window and suddenly forgave Johor Bahru for all its failings. I supposed that one day Country Garden would be finished and that a city in which Ricky Discus lived couldn’t be all that bad. And finally, if nothing else, I surmised that I’d always have JCO Donuts.
You can also have a look at my various pieces on Singapore.