Johor Bahru: Bridging Old and New in Malaysia

Not just a cost effective alternative to Singapore, Johor Bahru bridges old and new in Malaysia. Get there before modernization initiatives are complete.

“We’ll be staying across the bridge in Malaysia,” Pete informed me. “We get two weeks in Johor Bahru for the same amount of Hilton points as a single week in Singapore. We’ll just go back and forth during the day.”

Pure no-brainer, then, even though I’d never heard of Johor Bahru before. Seemed easy enough, and no matter: all of the recent traveling we’ve done has made me realize how pathetic my knowledge of world geography is. We’d enjoyed our previous Malaysia stay in Kuantan, so we looked forward to returning.

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Johor Bahru is separated from Singapore by a causeway. Photo Credit:

We arrived in Johor Bahru in the midst of a month-long celebration just after the coronation of HRH Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the 5th Sultan of Johor. The Sultan has actually ruled for several years (coronation isn’t rushed in Malaysia). He has a full military background and impressive educational credentials in diplomacy, law and South-East Asian Strategic Studies from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts. The Sultan is of Malay and British descent, and is passionate about cars and sports.

Daulat Tanku = Long Live the King

Daulat Tuanku = Long Live the King

The Iskandar region in Malaysia is one of the largest in terms of economic development, and its energy is palpable in Johor Bahru. Sultan Ibrahim wants to see “balanced development” benefiting ordinary citizens. He has called for speedier building of 28,000 affordable housing units aimed at first-time buyers, and has ordered the government to address environmental concerns such as air quality and green space.

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Buildings and mandated green space in Johor Bahru

The skyline is filled with construction cranes, and at street level there is nary a block without some sort of work in progress. Johor Bahru is bridging two worlds, the old and new.

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Construction workers using traditional methods

Founded in 1855 as Tanjung Puteri, Johor Bahru is the capital of the Malaysian State of Johor. The city’s population is around 1.5 million. Johor’s first ruler, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim. made the city his administrative headquarters, but it was Ibrahim’s son, Sultan Abu Bakar, who is known as the father of modern Johor. Abu Bakar was an Anglophile, whose interest in Western ways was influenced by his years at a mission school where he learned to speak English and took on the manners of an English gentleman.

Many of Johor Bahru’s historic buildings were the work of Chinese builder Wong Ah Fook, who was employed by Abu Bakar during the city’s formative years. Responsible for at least twenty public works projects between 1887 and 1895, Wong built the state mosque and several palaces.

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State Mosque in Johor Bahru – Photo Credit:

In thanks for his service, Wong was awarded a plot in the center of Johor Bahru, where he constructed a road and village of merchant shops. Today, Jalan (Street) Wong Ah Fook is one of the city’s busiest with modern shopping malls and commercial venues. Characterized as “in transition” since 2005, the contrast between high end designer shopping with ruins and burning trash across the street is stark.

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Old building on Jalan Wong Ah Fook

Sadly, what may have been Wong Ah Fook’s summer home, a 150 year old mansion, was secretly demolished by its current owner in 2013, ahead of anticipated government acquisition at below market value.

Links by rail in 1909 and causeway in 1923 ensured the city’s future economic relationship with neighboring Singapore.

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Historic JB Sentral Train Station – now a museum

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JB Sentral Transportation and Immigration Hub

More than 50,000 motorcyclists commute to jobs in Singapore from Johor Bahru each day across the causeway. Countless others board trains and buses to work in their neighbor to the south.

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Motorbike commuters lined up for Singapore checkpoint

Our hotel, the Hilton Doubletree, opened for business in June, 2014. If you’ve stayed at Doubletree properties in the U.S., you may have preconceived expectations. In our experience, the Doubletree properties in the U.S. are a lower eschelon than Hilton Hotels, so we didn’t expect too much. Boy, were we mistaken! This is a 5 star property with a committed staff and superlative facilities, at a fraction of the price you’d pay for similar across the bridge in Singapore. See more in our tips and information at the end of this article.

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Jalan Ngee Heng in 1965 (the Hilton Doubletree is now where the building on the right stands) Photo Credit:

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Johor Bahru Hilton Doubletree Pool on the 13th Floor

Across the street from the Hilton Doubletree, the Jalan Ngee Heng Shophouses have been repurposed into a thriving restaurant, ONE63 European Bistro and Bar. Developed by the same owners, a new rooftop club and gourmet market have just opened. While we’re fans of Asian cuisine, sometimes you need a change, which ONE63 delivers beautifully.

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Ngee Heng Shophouses now home to ONE63 restaurant, club and gourmet market – Photo Credit:

Ngee Heng Kongsi, after which the shophouses are named, was a “Chinese Brotherhood” type of secret society that arose out of political dissent to organize revenue farmers of pepper and gambier in the early 19th century.

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ONE63 Restaurant Interior – Photo Credit:

Tan Hiok Nee was a leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi Johor community, transforming it from a quasi-military brotherhood into a district-based organization of “kapitans” after Temenggung Daeng Ibrahim opened Johor for development. The Ngee Heng organization led a substantial migration of Chinese farmers north away from land shortages and rent registrations in Singapore. Sultan Abu Bakar felt an affiliation with Ngee Heng was his best hedge against disloyalty and competitive Chinese factions in Johor. Abu Bakar required that all Chinese be members of Ngee Heng which strengthened his political and economic authority.

The Ngee Heng organization instilled a modicum of law and order in the Chinese community until it devolved into criminal behaviors. It subsequently was banned in 1919 without much objection. Chinese merchant leaders preferred to modernize away from the secretive martial and ritualistic aspects of Ngee Heng into a more professional civic association with elected leaders.

Today, the Tan Hiok Nee Shophouses Heritage Walk is being preserved by repurpose, with trendy new restaurants, old style shops and coffee houses in a “Chinatown-like atmosphere.”

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The “Red Building” in the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage District

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Chinese decorations on Jalan Tian Hok Nee in front of the four story shop house that now houses the Chinese Museum

We liked Maco Vintage, a quiet contemporary oasis-like interior in one of the vintage shop buildings.

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Maco Vintage interior

The Indian ethnic influence is strong in Johor Bahru. Wander through the enclave on Jalan Ungku Puan. These storefronts serve the more than 100 year old Raja Maha Mariamman Temple nearby, where incense wafts amid the fragrance of the traditional floral offerings.

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Temple and Indian Enclave juxtaposed with modern JB shopping


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The Sultan Ibrahim Building is at the end of the street. It’s a curious architectural amalgamation, incorporating British colonial, Malay and Saracen elements. Completed in 1941, it was occupied by Japanese forces shortly thereafter from which they planned and executed the attack and invasion of Singapore.

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Indian Enclave with Sultan Ibrahim Building’s Tower in the distance

We could have easily spent additional weeks or even months in Johor Bahru. The city center is walkable with every convenience from moderate to very high end, yet its modernity belies secret worlds tucked away in pedestrian alleyways or behind shop doors. These are the pieces of the city that fascinated us most.

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Alley off Jalan Wong Ah Fook with food tents

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Packaging eggs in an almost-empty storefront one block from our hotel

We would have loved more time in Johor Bahru. Even should we return, we’re sure to find a very different city. The Sultan is determined to make JB “world class” by 2020. While that seems an ambitious schedule, progress is occurring and the old, secret places that resonated with us most will likely be sanitized or disappear altogether. If you’re going to be in this part of the world in the near future, plan to visit Johor Bahru before the modernization is complete.

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Sunrise over Jahor Bahru through the Doubletree Executive lounge window

Tips and Practical Information

The international airport serving Johor Bahru is more than 30 km from the city. It’s just as close, more pleasant and less expensive to fly into Singapore’s Changi (voted the #1 airport in the world). From Changi, tell your taxi driver you’re headed to JB. You’ll be taken into Singapore, arriving at a hub close to Bugis Street, where you will change to a Malaysian taxi which will take you across the Causeway. The process is all very organized and sequential. There are double checkpoints on the Causeway. Your driver will take your passport and Singapore immigration paperwork you received at the airport and pay the checkpoint fees. Fare should be around $30 Singapore to the hub in the absence of traffic, and then another $20 or so across the bridge. To return to Changi from JB, you may want to opt for hotel transportation directly to the airport via the Causeway.

To visit Singapore from JB: JB Sentral has several options. A commuter train leaves early in the morning for the impossibly low fee of 8RM, and returns after the workday ends. A taxi will run you between 50-60RM. Or you can take the bus (#950) from JB Sentral to the Woodlands Checkpoint on the Singapore side. This option has you departing the bus to go through immigration on foot. While this may sound intimidating, it’s really quite seamless. If you are feeling lost or unsure, there are helpful (but likely non-English speaking) employees stationed at each bus queue who can point you in the right direction. We just looked for commuters we had ridden next to and followed them through passport control and into the correct bus queue.

The Doubletree Johor Bahru is located at #12 Jalan Ngee Heng, one exit off the causeway highway within walking distance to JB Sentral and the two enclosed, multi-level shopping centers on Jalan Wong Ah Fook. Hotel transportation (limo: 240RM; bus: 19RM)  to and from Changi is available by pre-arrangement. King guest rooms from 320RM per night, rooms with lounge access (you want this, trust us, the breakfast and happy hour options are amazing) from 460RM per night. Day use rates are half the overnight rate. This property is level 1 in the Hilton Honors system as of this writing. The hotel has several dining options, including an excellent Italian restaurant: Tosca. The main restaurant buffet serves Indian, Asian, Western and Malaysian selections. All the food is Halal compliant. The 13th Floor has a complete exercise room, amazing pool and deck area, men’s and women’s locker room with jacuzzis.

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Tosca Bar Doubletree


    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Marie – While I’d hesitate to use the word “authenticity” – because what does that really mean, exactly? – we did search for it in Singapore and wound up in several interesting, charming neighborhoods. But the grittiness in Johor Bahru resonated more. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  1. says

    D and I spent two weeks driving around Malaysia 29 years ago. We stayed in Johor Bahru for a few nights. There was no Double Tree then and if there was a Hilton we didn’t stay in it. The hotel we did stay in was awful and we were unimpressed with the city – but a lot can changed in 29 years and now you’ve made me want to go back just to see what has. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
    Lyn (aka) The Travelling Lindfields has an awesome blog post here: Medieval and Rennaissance Fairs in AustraliaMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Lyn – I thought of you writing this post. Another mutual blogging friend mentioned a less than stellar JB stay from the past, too. Clearly, JB had a lot to make up for. It’s really done a nice job, but we also appreciated that the re-do is far from complete.

  2. says

    Hi Betsy,

    What a post! I recall meeting a young man from Johor Bahru on landing in Singapore, when we flew from NYC to Chiangi at the beginning of our current trip. He flew with us from NYC, through a weather delay and almost missing the changeover in Taipei. When we arrived and chatted I had no clue this area existed; totally new to me, and I remember him noting it’s right across the bridge.

    Wonderful recount Betsy.

    Tweeting from Bali.

    Ryan Biddulph has an awesome blog post here: 15 Beautiful Photos (Cute Animals Included) I Snapped in Bali (Plus Fab Bloggers to Follow)My Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Ryan – You’re like me: before we visited JB I had no idea it even existed either. It’s a big world we live in and we don’t even realize! LOL You’re kinda in the neighborhood if you’re in Bali – jump on over and see what you think. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Judy – Great to see your comment. I, too, am a visual learner and we are always looking for context in every destination, so that’s what we share. Glad you enjoyed a peek at JB. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Claudia – Thank you for both comments. We found JB more interesting than Singapore in many ways, but each is unique.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Michele – I’d never heard of it either until we went there, and then I could hardly get enough. We loved it.

  3. says

    We came through Johor Bahru about ten years or so ago and it was pretty grotty. Looks like things are changing. We’re going to be in Singapore for a few weeks in August. Do you think it’s worth a day trip to Johor Bahru? We have been in Chiang Mai for 6 months so we are looking forward to the cleanliness of Singapore, to be honest. 😉
    Jessica O’Neill has an awesome blog post here: Memory Lane Retro Diner BlackheathMy Profile

  4. says

    Looks like an incredible place – I would love to visit the old train station that’s now a museum – it’s hard to find gorgeous architecture like that these days.

  5. says

    I have never heard of Johor Bahru, just like you. Boy, do I have a lot of traveling to do. So I guess when I make my first trip to Singapore I can hop across to Johor Bahru. Or maybe stay at the Hilton in Johor Bahru, for a better rate and travel across to Singapore.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Suze – Depending upon your flight arrival, you may need a day to get settled, and you probably want to keep your return day open. When we went into Singapore, we didn’t plan anything else for that day either. If you stay a week, that would give you five days between the two cities. JB deserves 3 of them if you’ve already been to Singapore. Hope this helps. 🙂

  6. says

    Johor Bahru has always been considered the ‘cheaper’ alternative to Singapore. It looks like it has come along in leaps and bounds making it a very attractive destination in itself. I think that this will make it a serious consideration on our next visit there. Great write up
    Paula McInerney has an awesome blog post here: My Tarot Card Reading in Ubud, BaliMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Paula – It really is a delightful city, apples and oranges as to Singapore. You might just prefer it to its neighbor to the south. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Peter – I’m hoping they will find the sweet spot without over-sanitizing. There are some things that definitely beyond restoration and need to go.

  7. says

    Hi Betsy…I mentioned to you before the horrible hotel I ended up in when I stayed in JB. I vowed I would never go back to that city! I think my mistake was only staying 2 nights. For me, getting into Singapore was a nightmare. I was not aware of the commuter train, and maybe it wasn’t even running when I was there a few years ago. JB looks like it is really coming up in the world. I would be tempted to do this again, but would definitely give myself more time, and use the commuter train to get back and forth to Singapore. Thanks for the great post.
    Nancie has an awesome blog post here: Traditional Bali for Travel Photo ThursdayMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Nancie – Yes, I remember your nightmare. 🙂 We didn’t try the commuter train (too early for us), but taking a cab and then on other days the bus worked out fine.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Suzanne – Yes, the temple offerings were like leis, although not circular. The fragrance was mixed with incense, so the Indian enclave was a delightful section of the city to be in.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Donna – Some of the change will not be unwelcome, I’m sure. There are still many pockets which are really not salvageable. But there are other heritage areas where there is awareness, so overall, potential seems positive.

  8. says

    I know what you mean about “geography” — I thought I knew a lot until I really started traveling seriously. It’s a huge world and there’s so much to learn and explore! I’d never even heard of Johor Bahru before. Malaysia is on my bucket list, and your comprehensive descriptions and photos will be very valuable references.
    Patti Morrow has an awesome blog post here: Rio. You Know You Want to GoMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Patti – Glad we could help! You’re right, you start traveling and end up in places you never knew existed. 🙂

  9. says

    Great tips Betsy! We will probably be visiting Singapore in the near future, and accommodations in JB for half the price of pricey Singapore would be very appealing. Culturally it looks like a fun place to visit too.
    Shelley has an awesome blog post here: My Addiction to Korean DramaMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Kay – The car and bus traffic moves along at a good clip. I wouldn’t want to be a cyclist though. They have to take their helmets off to be ID’d at the checkpoints, and breathing all those fumes would be so awful.

  10. says

    A very comprehensive description of Johor Bahru which I found fascinating and very instructive. We did not get there on our last trip to Singapore last December so this will give us another reason to want to return. Thanks Betsy!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Elaine – Yes, you’d probably want an extra several days on top of what you’ve already considered.

  11. says

    You always do such an awesome job of introducing your readers to a new destination. So many details, illustrated with great visuals. Normally, I might start glazing over with all the information, but you have a great way of keeping it interesting and engaging.
    alison abbott has an awesome blog post here: Garlic Scapes 7 WaysMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Alison – Ha! Long-winded, you mean? 😉 Thanks, we really enjoy putting context into what we learn about a place, and we’re glad our readers appreciate it, too.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Nat – Thank you. I’m really a history nerd at heart. JB is definitely interesting and affordable.

  12. says

    I wonder how many other world cities with populations of 1.5 million (or over) that I’ve never even heard of—-and I call myself a travel blogger! Johor Bahru does sound like a great alternative to staying in Singapore and your explanation of the “commuting” possibilities is very helpful, especially the tip about flying into Changi Airport.
    Suzanne Fluhr has an awesome blog post here: G Adventures – Best of Turkey Trip ReportMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Suzanne – I know, right? It’s embarrassing, but at least we can remedy our ignorance with a visit. Before this, the biggest place I’d never heard of that we were going to was Sochi. 😉

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Karen – Singapore’s economy has always been such that Malaysians have commuted from what I understand. But yes, way less expensive cost of living if you work in Singapore and can manage to reside in JB.


  1. […] As well, the multi-story shophouses with street level business space and housing upstairs, tell the tale of commerce at the macro level, which is still done this day. We fell in love with this architecture during a previous visit and discussed it in Johor Bahru: Bridging Old and New in Malaysia. […]

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