Last Thursday, we made a short trip to Johor Bahru, or JB for short. For those not in the know, it is the second largest city in Malaysia, right across the causeway from Singapore. The separation is less than 2Km, and there is a lot of traffic between both countries. Yet despite JB being a short hop from Singapore, it is a bloody pain in the ass to make the crossing because of the perennial jam.
There are lots of talk to make the land travel easier, still, at the end of the day it’s basically NATO (no action, talk only). Because of this, my husband and I try not to cross over unless we have to. Not only is driving in a jam exhausting for him, but the jerky movement of the car causes buddy to have motion sickness and puke.
Anyway, we decided to make the trip last Thursday for personal reason. Though a working day, it was still the day before the long Good Friday weekend, and the immigration department even issued alert of heavy traffic on both Thursday and Friday.
My husband said we should take the advice of a family friend, an expert in travelling between Singapore and JB, to start our journey at 6.00AM. I baulked. 6.00AM??? What about Buddy? Husband said, “we’ll take him from bed and put him in the car seat in his pajamas. He can sleep on the way there.”
Though I am not a morning person (and I dislike getting up really early), I had to agree since I wouldn’t want to get stuck in traffic and risk Buddy puking again, which you can imagine, is a pain to clean up. To make the trip easier, we booked a night stay at the Double Tree Hilton hotel, located in the central business district so that we didn’t have to rush back to Singapore on the same day.
Before the journey, my husband checked an app that provides traffic conditions of the crossing and the route looked pretty smooth. So off we went.
It turns out our friend is an expert for good reasons. For the first time, we experienced a smooth drive all the way from home to the Singapore immigration checkpoint which we passed through in a breeze. Followed by unimpeded crossing over the causeway and no hassle at the Malaysian immigration check. It was especially amazing for my husband, who had made the crossing numerous times before. I noticed that traffic piled up on the other side instead, as Malaysians travel from JB to Singapore for work.
We took an hour from our home to reach JB city center, and that was a record! Previous trip took us nearly an hour and 45 minutes, and that was considered not too bad.
The hotel we booked for our stay, Doubletree Hilton, is relatively new, and most importantly, it is an oasis in the midst of chaos. This was our second stay, and during the first, we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent service provided by the well-trained staff, whether at the reception, concierge desk or restaurant. At check-in, guests are given a large chocolate chip walnut cookie each, which is really yummy. (I had one previously before I discovered my problem with wheat products.)
We opted for a deluxe room with King-sized bed, which is fairly roomy. The hotel also offers different types of pillow for a comfortable sleep. This is a really nice touch because we are used to firm pillows, and we were also satisfied with the firmness of the mattress. Imagine lying on a bed and find yourself sinking into it! As for the facilities, there are a gym and a swimming pool. Our US relatives, who stayed there recently, like the executive lounge access which provides free-flow of snacks and drinks. But we didn’t opt for that as we wanted the flexibility of eating out.
The hotel has two restaurants, Makan (which serves buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and Tosca, that offers Italian cuisine which we did not try. There is also a cafe, The Food Store, but the food sucks though. The crust of the beef pie I had taste like cardboard! Anyway the hotel eateries are halal certified to cater to the Muslims.
Pastries and bread station, and waffles, cereals are available as well.
Chinese station with limited dimsum and noodle. My husband and relatives tried the noodle and they said it was pretty good.
Usually, hotel buffet can be non-descript grubs that you go only for convenience. But at Makan restaurant, the quality is better than expected, especially for the Malay food. In fact, we discovered that food ordered from the ala carte menu is excellent. We ordered some satay and honestly, it was some of the best we ever had. I had the Nasi Lemak and I have to say it does surpass the famous Adam road brand in Singapore.
The hotel staff are very helpful, and takes initiatives. During our first stay, I was carrying Buddy while holding a plate in one hand. A Chef came over and offered to get some food for me, and even took the plate back to our table. Later, buddy needed to poo, and I quickly took him with me to look for the toilet. A wait staff instinctively knew what I was looking for and guided me to the one inside the restaurant.However it was closed for maintenance, and he then took me on the shortcut that leads to the one outside. Seriously, the service surpasses that of many restaurants in Singapore.
My husband ordered the plain Prata set. We had tried the egg prata before, and it was not as well made as the one at Makan restaurant. But one thing I must give to this Indian eatery is that the curry and dips are very good, better than what Makan provides, which is rather limited. My husband had the fish curry with the prata.
We had a masala thosai as well, which comes with yoghurt, coconut curry and dhal dip. The masala filling, curried potatoes with onion, is really yummy. My husband finds it better than what he had in Singapore. I also had a paper thosai which I shared with Buddy. It was not bad, but I prefer the version at Prata Wala back home, which is crispier.
I find that the locals have a high tolerance for sweetness. When I asked for tea with less sugar in Singapore, it’s usually slightly sweetened. But at JB eateries, it tastes like the regular tea in Singapore. So I ended up requesting for tea without sugar. Maybe because sugar is subsidized in Malaysia, and so there is no qualm about dunking teaspoons of it into any food or beverage. But seriously, I think they take way too much sugar for their own good.
That night, we went to New Lucky restaurant, a place which my father-in-law highly recommends. We took a taxi there as parking around the area can be a bitch in the evening. We were there a couple of weeks back with our US relatives, and before that, it was several years ago when I was first brought to the restaurant. Maybe the quality has improved since, because I don’t remember the food being this good before. FIL ordered the salted egg crabs, a steamed fish and a salt-baked chicken again, all of which had previously got the relatives smacking their lips.
I didn’t get a chance to have much of the chicken since it was quickly devoured, but whatever little I had, the meat was cooked to tenderness. I managed to have a good share of the crabs, which was sinfully delicious with the salted egg spicy sauce. When you have crabs like this, you throw decorum out the window, and basically use your hands to pull the claws apart with the help of the nutcracker, and suck the meat out of the claws. The fish was also a hit as it was steamed to perfection. Too bad I was so focused on eating that I completely forgot about taking any pictures until the food was almost gone.
After dinner, I wanted to ask the restaurant to call a cab for us, but FIL said we could hail one along the road. We got into this dinky car with a broken taxi signage, and dropped FIL at his home before going back to our hotel. The driver took a turn into the central shopping district (Lorong Wong Ah Fook), and my husband immediately remarked that it was the longer route, and worse, there was very heavy traffic on it. The driver went on the right-most lane and the taxi slowed to almost a standstill. After some time, while the meter continued to tick, I realized that the bloody driver was going behind traffic that was waiting to enter the carpark of the mall on our right. I pointed out to my husband, who immediately told the driver we were getting out there and then. If we had sat it out, we would probably ended up paying MYR50 for a journey that cost a fraction of that, and even then the fare was more expensive than the journey from hotel to the restaurant, which was less than MYR14.
My husband was furious, “bloody driver knows we are Singaporeans, and wanted to cheat us! He thought we are unfamiliar with the roads!” Actually I am, but luckily my husband is not, and he can also speak Malay. Too bad, in my hurry to get out of the taxi, I forgot to take down the license plate. But husband didn’t think that would help, “Even if you complain to the taxi company, it will just be ignored. There is a culture of dishonesty here!” Of course, it doesn’t apply to everyone because we have experienced honest and competent people. But my husband thinks those are exceptions rather than the rule.
At the mall where we dropped off, I tried to use google map to get the direction back to the hotel. However my husband said, “forget it! Google map doesn’t work here because the roads are in a mess. The government will just close off a road without giving any thoughts for alternatives. Anyway I have a good idea of the direction to the hotel. We just have to cross the road.”
Indeed, one lane was closed off which resulted in heavy traffic. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any pedestrian crossing set up. We noticed some locals crossing through a make-shift parting in the middle of the road and decided to follow suit. And anyway, the slow traffic does make it easy to jay walk. However, once across, there was this row of rundown shops and an eatery at a corner next to a boarded up wall. The other end appears to be boarded up as well. The whole row of shops was in darkness other than the eatery. My husband asked a lady there if there was a way out of the place and she pointed the direction to a back lane.
There was no street lights along the narrow lane, and the path was only dimly lit up by the lights emitting from the back of the houses alongside. Luckily my husband has quite a good sense of direction. I followed closely behind as he turned left to find a way out. Buddy asked, “why is it so dark?” Thank God he didn’t cry or said he was afraid, I guess he felt safe in my husband’s arm.
There was a man who came towards us as we walked along the lane, and I hugged my bag tightly. He was only a passerby, which was a relief because I was actually half expecting a mugger. Though my husband was less worried, “I think any guy would think twice at the the sight of me.” (He does have a presence, especially in the dark.)
Nearing the end of the lane, there was a broken stone path steeped in water. As I stepped on the stones, they wobbled under my feet, and I had to be careful my shoes didn’t slip into the water. Though I guess I should be more concerned about twisting my ankle. After we crossed it, we appeared to reach a dead end. A steep slope with an incline of more than 45 degree stood before us. I couldn’t help blurting out, “Goddammit!”
My husband, unperturbed, went up the slope, which was about 2.5 metre high, without much problem. I hesitated for a moment. WTF! How the hell was I gonna climb up? In the darkness, I could barely made out the steps carved out by others who use the path. But my husband couldn’t help me anyway since he had to carry Buddy. So I gritted my teeth and went up, praying hard I didn’t slip and fall. Both Husband and I were relieved when I made it.
Still, that wasn’t even the end of the journey. We had to cross a couple of roads before finally reaching the hotel. It was like some bloody amazing race! My husband quipped he could join the Spartan race after this adventure. So the lesson learnt is not to hail a cab along the road, but to call a reliable cab company to send a taxi.
We left JB for Singapore in the mid-afternoon the next day. My husband checked the app again before departing; the road was clear again. Instead, it was the crossing from Singapore to JB that was jammed like crazy. He told me that earlier in the day, the estimated time to cross was 3 hours!
So, on a day when Singaporeans were going to JB for the long weekend, we returned to Singapore, and again breezed through checkpoints on both sides.