If you are a visitor to Johor, you will discover how locals often refer to Johor Bahru as Johor and the way this name is used interchangeably, both for the state and its capital city. So don’t be surprised to hear Johoreans say, “I’m going to Johor,” when they are heading to the capital city.
Over the centuries Johor, the southern-most state in Peninsular Malaysia, drew in traders, travellers and immigrants to its shores and continues to attract visitors here. Let me share with you, some of the must-see sites here to better appreciate the culture, heritage and people of Johor.
My earliest memories of family outings were to the beautifully landscaped park of the Istana Gardens in Johor Bahru that features the majestic Istana Besar or Grand Palace. Designed with two grand entrances, each built with an impressive flight of stairs, the original palace was constructed in 1866 by Sultan Abu Bakar with the help of building contractor, Wong Ah Fook. The palace was recently renovated and is mainly used for royal events and state investitures.
In 1990, the Royal Abu Bakar Museum opened in the palace to showcase a priceless collection of artefacts. An adjacent hall houses the Sultan’s hunting trophies garnered from an era when forests were cleared for pepper and gambier plantations. Nearby, the Dewan Johor stands as a testament to the strong relationship between Johor royalty and the Chinese community here.
Prominently perched on Bukit Redan along Jalan Skudai, the Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque commands a panoramic view of the Johor Straits. Designed in a beautiful blend of English Victorian and Moorish architecture with some Malay influence, the mosque which features four graceful minarets, is a favourite subject for photography enthusiasts. Named after Sultan Abu Bakar who directed the building of the state mosque in 1892, it was officially opened by his son, Sultan Ibrahim (1895 to 1959) for Friday prayers on Feb 2, 1900.
In my school-going years I lived with our grandparents on Jalan Ngee Heng and the land opposite our home was commonly referred to as ‘church property’ because it shared the grounds belonging to the Church of Immaculate Conception.
The original modest structure for the church at Jalan Gereja was first known as the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. Rebuilt with a towering steeple on the site that was presented by Sultan Abu Bakar, the Church of Immaculate Conception dates back to 1883 as the oldest church in Johor Bahru. The marble statue of Our Lady, that still occupies a place of pride in front of the church, was a gift from Sultan Ibrahim.
Just walking distance away on Jalan Trus, stands the Johor Gu Miao or Johor Old Temple. Built in the late 19th century by Chinese community leaders led by Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902), it is dubbed the ‘Temple of Unity’ because deities revered by the five main clans or dialect groups, are housed under-one-roof.
While temples traditionally bear the deity’s name, the Johor Old Temple may be the first Chinese temple in the nation that bears the name of a State, so named to honour Sultan Abu Bakar who presented them with the site to build their temple. The Johor Chingay, an annual deities’ parade which originated as a temple tradition, has evolved into a major tourist attraction traditionally held on the 21st night of the first month in the lunar calendar and is now proudly recognised as a National Heritage.
Indians who arrived in Johor in the early 20th century were mainly employed as labourers or mandore (supervisors) in rubber plantations. A mandore in Sultan Ibrahim’s Pasir Pelangi Estate appealed to him for land to build a temple and a site was granted at Jalan Ungku Puan.
The Sultan also donated a generous sum of $500 – a huge sum in those days – towards its construction. When the Hindu temple was completed in 1911, the word ‘Raja’ was added into the temple’s name, Arulmigu Raja Mariamman Devasthanam Temple, in honour of the Sultan.
In 1922 another place for Hindu worship started as a humble shrine at a site between Jalan Tun Abdul Razak and Jalan Mohd Taib. When the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Temple was rebuilt and opened in 1996, it was designed fully embellished with impressive glass artwork. This glittering temple earned its place in the Malaysian Book of Records in 2010 as the nation’s first and only glass temple. It is open daily for devotees, 7am to 10pm while tourists are welcome, 1pm to 5pm.
Laman Mahkota, Istana Bukit Serene, a public park which features a giant crown and a bank of fountains, was presented by his majesty, Sultan Ibrahim, as a gift to the rakyat to enjoy a relaxing park-like ambience at the doorstep of his official residence. Opened in 2014, visitors may enjoy close-up views of the giant replica of the Johor ruler’s crown, resting on top of arches that resemble elephant tusks. Sometimes the Sultan may come out to mingle with his rakyat, so who knows when his majesty may make an appearance?
If you wish to explore the longest Dragon Tunnel built within a dragon replica, then take a comfortable 1.5 hour drive from Johor Bahru on the North-South Highway to Yong Peng and find it sprawled across more than a hectare of the Che Ann Khor Moral Uplifting Association at Taman Impian. Measuring 107 meters long and designed with 108 steps inside, the air-conditioned belly of the dragon is adorned with Chinese cultural and religious paintings. For good fortune and to ward off evil, take a walk through the Dragon Tunnel from the dragon’s mouth and exit from its tail!
A visit to Johor is not complete without reaching the Southern-most Tip of Mainland Asia at Tanjung Piai National Park, near Pontian. A 1.5 hour drive on the Skudai Highway will lead to the scenic route to Pontian and Serkat, where the national park entrance is situated.
This is where I enjoy a leisurely nature walk on wooden boardwalks that wind through dense mangrove forests to watch mudskippers, crabs, lizards and cockles, thriving in their natural habitat. The park is home to long-tailed macaques and dusky leaf monkeys as well as the occasional wild boar. The boardwalk leads to a concrete platform where a landmark globe and plaque marks the Southern-most Tip! Remember to register yourself to receive a Certificate of Achievement from the park. Open from 9am to 5pm, Monday closed. Park entrance fees apply.