Insider’s Guide to Johor, Malaysia

Johor is still a diamond in the rough: with some spots lacking in polish, but with riches worth digging for. It’s possible to drive from the bottom to the top of the state, which is located in the southern portion of the Peninsular Malaysia, in under three hours. Here’s how to make the most of your time in this intriguing corner of the world.

> When to Go:

At one degree of latitude above the Equator, Johor’s main rainy season is in winter, with some rain nearly every day through summer as well. Summer months offer the best durian and other fruits but Endau Rompin National Park, one of Johor’s main draws, will be more crowded. The park is closed November to March.

> Where to Stay:

Like other regions of Malaysia, Johor lacks high-end hotels outside big cities. That said, few lodgings cost more than $70. Some of the better ones:

> Where to Eat:

Enjoy Johor cuisine best at hawker stalls, such as those in Johor Bahru’s Meldrum Walk area. Ubiquitous Mamak stalls offer spicy mutton stew with rice. Indian corner joints feature flaky, grilled roti canai.

In Johor Bahru’s Old Town, Hiap Joo bakery pulls a dozen kinds of stuffed buns hot from a wood-burning oven, while the facing Kedai Kopi Kin Wah draws morning crowds for its authentic breakfast, which includes kaya toast (bread with a coconut and egg spread). The menu at the modest Myra Bistro, in the M Suites Hotel, lists some hard-to-find Johorean specialities.

On the west coast, in the village of Kukup, the fish restaurants seem dingy but serve shrimp straight from the sea.

Outside Kluang, Zenxin Organic Park whips up dragon-fruit shakes and platters of steamed veggies from its farm.

> What to Read:

Virginia Matheson Hooker provides A Short History of Malaysia, while scholar Farish A. Noor sets out an alternative Malaysian history in What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You.

Preeta Samarasan’s novel Evening Is the Whole Day vividly captures modern-day Malaysia’s diversity.

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> Travel Trivia:

  • With nine hereditary rulers, Malaysia has more sultans than any other country.
  • Malaysia accounts for 44 percent of international exports of palm oil.
  • On the outskirts of Johor Bahru, the Hindu temple of Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman has an interior covered almost entirely in glass mosaics.

This piece, reported by John Krich, first appeared in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler to accompany a feature he wrote for the magazine entitled “Jewel of Malaysia.”

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