The first time I set foot in Johor Bahru I was shocked by the decrepit nature of its buildings and the stench of tropical decay. It was my second foreign country and I had just crossed over from my first, ultra-clean and modern Singapore.
The downtown area consisted of run-down shop houses and soot stained concrete shopping centres from another era. Larger colonial buildings housing the government functions that were the reason for our visit looked impressive, but the open drains surrounding them smelled otherwise.
What a change to now! Towering architecturally interesting skyscrapers lit up in neon, gleaming shopping centres with international brands. The old town shop houses converted into trendy restaurants and cafes, craft shops and boutiques with queues of Singaporean tourists waiting to step inside.
But scratch the surface and the old JB is still lurking in the cracks. The Indian sari shops between the malls and the trendy cafes, the bare restaurant with a simple sign and Formica tables. The crumbling roads. The smoky food centres under tin roofs. The dark corridors of the old local shopping centres.
Rather than a shock, this is what we seek out. This is the past Malaysia that B grew up in.
I was a bit sad to leave the Hard Rock Hotel in Desaru. The other two were sick of the breakfast, the limited other food options for lunch and dinner, the lack of genuine sights. Me, I could have just relaxed there longer, fallen into a routine of languidly doing nothing, of sitting on the balcony enjoying a tropical storm or sipping a mocktail at a bar.
We hire a driver to take us to our next hotel. B chats about local stuff, Alex sleeps, and I watch the palm oil plantations change to prawn farms then chemical refineries and shipbuilding. Such industry seems so unfamiliar in Australia these days.
After checking in at the Amari in central JB we go for a walk to find lunch. Kam Long Ah Zai has a long queue of tourists in front of it already when we arrive. This old Chinese restaurant serves only a single dish: Curry fish head.
They are very good at it. The curry sauce has beans, okra, cabbage and bean curd skin in addition to the eponymous fish head.
Across from the restaurant is the old town with its cafes and shops made for fashionable young tourists. But the old shops are still grimy around the colourful Hindu temple with its many gods, the Chinese biscuit sellers, the Malay snack stalls.
We make our way back through interesting looking hawker centres that would make us salivate if we weren’t already full, though the gorent pisang (fried babana in batter) is a temptation too far.
Now the shiny new malls, multiple levels of restaurants, fashion boutiques and cute junk. Alex is excited about the Angry Birds Amusement Centre, but when he gets there is too nervous to go in, saying he wished he had a sibling or friend to share it with him. It’s so sad.
We return to the hotel, play a few rounds of his new Uno Flip game, then fall asleep for an afternoon nap.
It’s 6pm when we awake. One of the reasons B is excited to visit JB are the pasar malams, or night markets. There is one down the road, but she has her sights set on the one outside KSL Centre, only open on Monday evenings. The concierge hires a Grab driver (like Uber) to take us there.
Near the KSL Centre entrance and taxi rank is a durian stall and B has to eat. Unlike in Singapore I find the fruit’s stench nauseatingly strong and can’t sit with her.
The market is around the opposite side of the centre. Individual stalls lined up along a closed street, selling hot food, fresh food and various types of junk and clothes to the crowds that squeeze between then.
B and Alex order a bowl each of sweet-sour Assam laksa, we buy sticks of satay, colourful kueh, queue for “carrot cake” (fried chunks of radish noodle chunks), a bowl of tau fu fat dessert, and apom balik pancakes for me.
Alex needs to use the bathroom, so we cross back into the shopping centre. One unfortunate feature of many Malaysian toilets is their lack of toilet paper. My own supply of tissues in my pocket is insufficient, so I have to buy more for Alex, who also ends up spewing out his dinner due to the stench of the facilities.
We take him to Subway to refill his stomach, something mild and familiar. He is so apologetic. It’s late and the shops are closing soon. We catch a regular taxi back to the hotel, marvel at the night lights of the city, but B is night market sated now. It’s a fun experience.