Johor: Jewel of Malaysia

This month's great read, selected by our editors: A chance encounter on a train sparks a journey into Malaysia's most colorful state.

From the May 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

It all started with an invitation to a palace. And now I’m on a trip to the “End of the Earth.”

That’s what locals once called Tanjung Piai, a coastal nub of mangroves in Johor, Malaysia, that marks the lowest reaches of the lengthy Malay Peninsula and the southernmost point of mainland Asia. The spot is now a postage stamp–size national park with a circuit of boardwalks raised above eerily gnarled roots.

Here horseshoe and fiddler crabs share a mud bath, kingfishers dive into the waters to spear fish, and carved wooden signs convey maxims, in English, such as “Live happily with wilderness!” and “He who conquers his own heart, conquers the world!”

I conquer the equatorial heat to emerge, not quite wilted, from the forest onto the shore of the choppy, green Strait of Malacca, its horizon lined with long-distance oil tankers. A rather rusted globe symbolically marks land’s end. Yet it’s taken me only a little over an hour after exiting Singapore customs to get here.

Separated from its globalized island neighbor by a mere half-mile causeway, Johor is the second largest and most varied of the 11 states that make up Peninsular Malaysia, a crossroads realm crammed with both ecological and ethnic diversity. Fittingly named by Arab traders after their word for “jewel,” this little-hyped destination encompasses Robinson Crusoe–like island havens, barely trampled rain forests, and aboriginal refuges. And though it does import theme parks (hello, Hello Kitty Town), Johor, seat of the ancient Johor-Riau empire, remains fiercely proud of its sweeping history and still powerful sultan: a Magic Kingdom, for real.

I might never have discovered the place or its royal provenance if not for one of those serendipitous travel encounters. Eight years back, I was approached in a train compartment in India by a charming woman in a flowing gown, whose third son mistook me for a Discovery Channel host. Her husband, with elegant military bearing, explained they had come from Malaysia to visit their eldest son, who was serving in the Indian Army. I was about to tell them I lived in Malaysia as well, when a bodyguard in the next row ordered me to address them as “Your Royal Highnesses.” Not long after, I got an invitation to visit Raja Zarith Sofiah and Tunku Ibrahim Ismail, then the princess and prince of Johor. (In 2010, the prince inherited the title of sultan.)

I soon accepted and found myself being feted by the Oxford-educated princess with servant-borne luncheons of jackfruit curries in Johor’s Palace of the Rainbow Sands. “And the people think we eat a whole goat and lamb at one sitting!” the prince joked, nonetheless offering me an exclusive peek at stables of polo ponies and a collection of customized luxury cars and vintage limos, to go with the private jet and yacht, playthings of the world’s richest royals you’ve never heard of. For two years running, I was also given a rare chance to tag along on Tunku Ibrahim’s annual kembara—a Malay word evoking any sort of journey, distant or near, spiritual or dutiful. During four ceremony-packed days each summer, this modern monarch took a motorcycle trip around his steamy kingdom. A mile-long caravan of fellow Harley bikers followed, rumbling through elephant crossings and descending on rural villages like a pack of charitable Hell’s Angels. (The sultan recently switched to private bus for his annual kembara.)

Now I’m attempting my own kembara—in a rented four-wheeler—to find the Johor that’s more unofficial.

Like most travelers, my point of entry is the sprawling state capital of Johor Bahru. With 200,000 Johoreans making the daily commute to wealthier Singapore, “J.B.,” as it’s colloquially called by all its denizens, has long suffered by comparison. Yet this is where I get a first taste of Johor’s genuine flavor. Navigating downtown’s warren of malls on a muggy June night, I meet one of many renegade Singaporeans who abandon their celebrated food courts to seek out less mass-produced fare across the border. Mild-mannered, middle-aged blogger Tony Boey, who calls himself “Johorkaki,” eagerly guides me down through an area called Meldrum Walk to back alleys lined with traditional hawkers. Retired from the Singapore civil service, he has been leading food tours since 2012.

Hopping between wheeled stands with undisguised glee, my guide insists I savor a Teochew oyster cake made with eggs, dark soy sauce, and tapioca flour; confetti-thin noodles in anchovy broth; and hyperfresh stingray grilled in banana leaf and slathered with fiery sambal sauce. “Can you top that?” Boey says, even as he leaps up for something else. “You haven’t been in Johor until you’ve had its not-to-miss dishes!” He presents me with a heaped pyramid of biryani gam, a lamb pilaf covered in a thin tent of omelet, then Johor laksa, a tamarind-tinged fish stew with spaghetti. “It’s said the great Sultan Abu Bakar created the dish himself, as he was always bringing back the best from Europe,” he explains. Feasts fit for a king come cheap here.

As mixed as the cuisine, downtown J.B. is a hot pot of peoples—even by multiethnic Malaysia’s standards. Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu temples line a main street. An Old Town of moldering, pastel-colored buildings finds Chinese bun makers, grandly mustachioed Indian barbers, and Malay bohemian types peacefully coexisting. Locals may identify themselves as Bugi, Javanese, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Tamil, Keralan, and Yemeni; or as Sufi, Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, animist, Christian, or Hindu.

Founded in 1855, the city burgeoned into a showplace for the Anglophile ambitions of the flamboyant Abu Bakar when he became the sultan in 1886. So an assembly of monuments more Victorian than Asian command bluffs overlooking the Johor Strait, built to impress. The gleaming white Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque affords sunset views from its minarets (which were designed to look like Victorian clock towers), and glimpses of solitary worshippers in its vast spaces below. But I find Johor’s main palace, a gracefully colonial compound, closed for renovation (though it has since reopened).

“Everything has to be perfect for the coronation,” explains a court curator, reminding me that Sultan Ibrahim’s official installation, in the works for years, promises to be one of Asia’s most resplendent. (The sultan's coronation took place on March 23, 2015.)

Instead, he points me to a lesser known site for communing with Johor’s past. I get lost on winding roads before I come upon the royal graveyards, hidden behind one of J.B.’s forested hills. The resting places of recent rulers are marked by marble mausoleums, but the fluted headstones of the dynastic founders, etched in Arabic script, have a greater authority and beauty.

To delve into more history, I drive an hour and a half northeast to Johor Lama (“old Johor”). Up a thickly forested hill, I get to an A-framed museum that enjoys a panorama of the wide, sun-dappled Johor River. Constructed in 1540, the fort that once stood here lasted until the Portuguese destroyed it in 1587. Only a moss-covered square remains, like some giant discarded Lego piece.

THIS WHETS MY APPETITE for a drive up the rest of Johor’s east coast. The route along the way is brilliantly green but a kind of tropical trompe l’oeil: Palm oil plantations in endless rows of stunted, leafy trees create an unpeopled landscape both wild and ordered.

I arrive at Mersing, a quiet port town—full of backpacker inns—that serves as a departure point for boats to Johor’s six inhabited islands. But there are no ferries in sight. I negotiate privately with the owner of a small speedboat I hope is seaworthy. The boat bucks wildly at each wave in the South China Sea, making for a breathtaking hour-long cruise to the nearest isle, Rawa. Along the way, I ask to step onto tiny rocky islets that appear straight out of travel agency posters: white sand, transparent waters, a single drooping palm tree placed just so. Rawa, too, is one sweep of sand, where I jump from the dock with snorkel and mask to view colorful fish in the translucent waters. But this all seems too civilized, so I ask the boatman to drop me on an isolated stretch of Pulau Besar, where there is just a long beach and two sets of thatched chalets. Later I’m primed for more island-hopping, and with the far-flung Pulau Aur mainly for serious divers, I backtrack to take a chance on Pulau Tinggi.

Here I find my true Johorean idyll. The waters are robin’s-egg blue, a waterfall is right for plunging, and there’s even a fishing hamlet where the villagers greet me from porches, then run inside to show me their documents. “UN refugee!” they cry proudly. “Myanmar! Myanmar!” The owner of the Warung (“grocery”) Aminah shows off three daughters at sewing machines inside, but bemoans, “They go to school in Mersing. After that, they never come back. The island way is dying.”

With nothing much to do but watch the sunset, locals and visitors alike perk up at the welcome sight of a wheelbarrow being rolled down the beach, fully loaded with huge, spiky grenades that turn out to be durians. (The name derives from the Malay word for “thorn.”) Based on the speed with which Johoreans beg for them to be cut open, I’d say this “king of fruits,” as it’s called throughout Asia, rivals the sultan in terms of sheer esteem. Never mind that the Singapore rail network bans these sulfuric stink bombs. The durian is the symbol of this realm’s fecundity, a carb-loaded caramel that literally falls from the trees. Unable to resist the succulent, kidney-shaped pieces passed lovingly to me, and emboldened by hunger from the day’s swims, I finally get past the smell and get initiated into the cult. Before long, I can’t wait to break the next one open. I learn to wash them down, and wash hands, with water poured from the empty shells.

After returning to mainland J.B. for a change of clothes and a hot shower, I head out along Johor’s more settled west coast. Disdaining Malaysia’s main north-south highway, I stick to lovely two-laners, skirting the sea or cloaked in tall palms. I meander through fishing villages dominated by simple turquoise-domed mosques, past fields of pineapple. Most of the village of Kukup—where tourists dine on crustaceans plucked fresh off a fleet of trawlers—sits atop long piers, its houses, temples, and restaurants wreathed in sea mists and brine.

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Still, no backwater can beat Muar, Johor’s northernmost city. Though this harbor was once coveted by the British, I’m not prepared for such an overdose of past grandeur. A huge mosque, half-Western and half-Moorish in style, guards the mouth of a wide muddy river, where boys dive for dwindling oysters and one creaky ferry carries tourists up and down. An antique clock tower and equally English customs house preside over a ramshackle quay that seems the perfect setting for some Conradian tale of colonizers losing their way in the swampy eternity of the Orient. I gravitate toward a single city block known throughout Johor as “Glutton Street” and eat my way from one fresh Chinese noodle joint to another.

I’m hoping these dishes will power me on a hike through Endau Rompin National Park, 300 square miles of hilly wilderness that straddles the state’s northern border. When your native habitat is the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you don’t enter a hundred-million-year-old rain forest lightly. Not without repellent, anyhow. But exploring Endau Rompin National Park turns out to be a casual, easygoing affair.

I arrive early enough to immediately board a longboat for a relaxed journey over the Endau River’s mini-rapids to the main trailhead of Kuala Jasin. With green hills and heavy underbrush, the scenery here is not so much postcard-perfect as prehistoric.

In the park, young men from the nearby Orang Asli (“original people”) aboriginal village of Kampung Peta serve as knowing, engaging guides. Mine says that, next time, “you come to my house for a true taste of jungle. Special leaves and herbs only we know to find and my mom knows to cook!” Later I’m not surprised when he picks up the scent, and thudding steps, of an elephant herd just out of sight.

I’m content to spot monkeys and boar. I learn to pick leeches from my ankles like a pro. I ford wide streams as I travel along the 16-mile barely worn circuit of trails, which leads to pristine waterfalls through rain forest that becomes cathedral-tall and all-encompassing. In just a day, this place restores my spirit to its pre-anything state.

From the palace to the rain forest, sometimes life, the biggest kembara of them all, takes you to unexpected places—places such as multicultural Johor, unpackaged and unapologetic, a crossroads grab bag where anyone can end up feeling at home.

JOHN KRICH 's most recent travel book is a collection of food writing, A Fork in Asia's Road. He is based in Kuala Lumpur. JUSTIN GUARIGLIA is celebrating his 15th year as a contributing photographer at Traveler.

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