If you had asked me where the tallest residential building in Southeast Asia is as of 2018 I would have guessed Bangkok or KL. Having got those two wrong, I’m not sure that Johor Bahru would have figured into my top 10 guesses. Indeed, Johor Bahru doesn’t figure much in people’s thoughts in general, but that might be changing as JB is reinventing itself.
[The Astaka (the two towers to the right) are the tallest residential towers in Southeast Asia.]
I arrived in JB via the Causeway Bridge from Singapore. Looking out of the crowded bus I was surprised how much of a skyline has emerged since I was last here. Johor Bahru is turning into a serious metropolis.
Once I made my way through the immigration mayhem I emerged at JB Sentral Station. Inside the station, there were several stands promoting various apartment projects in the city.
[R&F Princess Cove display]
I was visiting JB to expand my Southeast Asia railway coverage. From here you can get the train all the way to the Thai border on the east or west coast side of the Peninsula. But I was also here to see for myself the transformation the city is undergoing.
[The TriTower Residence towers.]
Johor Bahru had a reputation as a seedy border town that shivered in the shadow of its more famous neighbour. Things started changing in the mid-2000’s when the state of Johor set up the Iskandar Development Region (now know as Iskandar Malaysia). The region is modelled on Shenzhen, the city opposite Hong Kong that grew on the coattails of its successful neighbour.
[The Causeway – the bridge that connects Singapore and Malaysia.]
Anyone who has been following the story of the rise of China has heard the legend of how Shenzhen grew from a fishing village to a mega city in three decades. I went to Shenzhen in 2010 and returned again in 2017, and was staggered by the changes. If you haven’t been to Johor for a while then you will also be in for a surprise at the rate of change.
Walking around JB it was easy to see that the city was in mid-transformation. I was there in September 2018, and this blog post is a more historical archive rather than a guide, as the city is changing so fast that a travel guide will go out of date quickly.
Whole city blocks were levelled, and old blocks were boarded up ready for demolition.
The central city area will be home to the Ibrahim International Business District (IIBD). This will include Coronation Square, which will have various office towers and apartments. You can see what is planned at Future Johor.
With Johor Bahru gentrifying the entire inner city and fashioning itself on the Shenzhen model, I call this the Shenzhentrification of Johor Bahru.
In some places, it’s easy to see why it has been called the next Shenzhen. I saw these advertisements promoting the “collaboration of China and Malaysia developing a new blueprint for Belt and Road Initiatives”. A lot of Chinese money has poured into the region, and that was an election issue this year.
Even though the city is just across the Johor Strait from Singapore, that hasn’t stopped developers from bringing JB even closer to the Lion City. Here you can see a land reclamation site that will be home to another mini-city.
Here and there you can see traces of old JB. There are a few run-down hotels still standing that you won’t find on Agoda or Booking.com.
I was amazed to see this toddy shop still hanging in there despite being surrounded by shiny new towers.
And in one photo I have encapsulated the story of JB; an old apartment block surrounded by new towers.
Apart from the “New Johor” I also wanted to see if there was an “Old Johor”. Melaka and Penang are well known for their historic old cities, and even Ipoh is now revitalising its old town, but you never hear about old JB.
There is a small old town here, and it also appears to be undergoing a renewal.
bordering the old town is a canal that follows one of the main roads, and that has been landscaped into a little walkway.
Along the canal is an old theatre and some restored shophouses.
There are also a number of ruined shophouses, though these ones might be too far gone to be renovated.
The centre of the action is Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. This is a designated heritage street with lots of cool cafes and places to eat. There are also lots of opportunities to do it for the ‘gram.
Another thing I found (which shouldn’t be surprising given this is Malaysia), is that it’s a great food city.
I saw a big queue out the door of Restoran Ya Wang. Even without the queue, I would have been stopped in my tracks by the site of the roast ducks in the window.
Another place that was pulling big queues was the Hiap Joo Bakery. If you are in a great food city sometimes it’s best to queue first and ask questions later. Unfortunately, I didn’t take this advice as I figured I will return the next day. The next day they were closed, so I didn’t know the joy of their famous banana cake.
Penang Laksa is famous, but did you know there is a Johor Laksa?
And of course I had to check out the cafes as well. The hipster cafe scene in JB isn’t as developed as KL or Penang, but you can see that a good coffee movement is happening. I suspect there will be more cool cafes in the next few years.
So there are all these great things happening in JB, but the big problem is the traffic. Part of the problem is that the city has built itself around the Customs, Immigration, and Quarantine Complex (CIQ). So much traffic crosses the border every day, and the roads form an impassable barrier in the middle of the city.
While JB is emulating Shenzhen with its vertical growth, there is no comparable plan for public transport. On its way to becoming a 10 million+ people city, Shenzhen has been building out what will be one of the world’s largest metro systems.
JB on the other hand is a jumble of expressways, with Kampungs (villages) caught in between.
In Shenzhen you can walk around your immediate neighbourhood. I went to walk to the Astana Towers (the tallest residential towers in SE Asia) and I got trapped by a motorway.
All these apartment towers are going up around the city but there is no plan for a future metro. So far there has only been mention of a Bus Rapid Transit, and an extension of the metro from Singapore. This would basically serve those who work in Singapore and live in JB. Many of the apartments that are being built are being sold as being close to Singapore. Maybe people who are buying these places don’t care about walkability as they are just going to Singapore every day.
Perhaps the answer to JB’s walkability woes will be skyways. There is already one covered walkway that connects the big waterfront development to the main train station. This 700-metre path bypasses the jumble of broken footpaths below.
There is also another walkway planned to connect the train station to the Coronation Square/Business District area. They will just need to extend this to every major apartment development.
So that was my first proper visit to Johor Bahru. I suspect I’ll be back in a few years to follow up on upcoming railway improvements, but who knows – maybe JB will soon be a destination in its own right.
If you are considering taking the train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, you will need to stop in JB anyway. Get off the train and have a look around. There is also the JB – Woddlalnds shuttle train, which is a better option than the bus.
[Yours Truly at “0KM Starting Point to Asia Continent”.]
Ryan Biddulph says
Isn’t it unreal how quickly some of these places transform James? I see this a bit more every time I visit both Bali and Phuket. Of course both are tourist spots but the difference by the airport in Bali over a few years was eye-popping. In 2011 it still had elements of not being urban. But a few years later, urban and city, all the way. JB is on my list now. I need to see more of Malaysia.
James Clark says
I’m not as a frequent visitor to Bali (every few years on average) so I tend to notice more the changes there (Canggu especially!)
Dick Pellek says
This will be a great before-after reference document sometime in the near future. Great reporting, James. Your travels are interesting and always instructive. I’m a fan.
James Clark says
Hi Dick, thanks for following my stories!
Great post mate. Have visited Bali twice…and have really loved it. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Have been planning to visit Bali…thanks for sharing…this would be a great help.
Henry Collins says
Great article. A lot of transformation going on.
Thanks for the detailed description of your trip. This is quite a trip!
Jacky Tham says
im malaysian and i live in johor bahru city, the transportation construction project is in progress, KTM long distance train line upgrading to ETS train system all the way to kuala lumpur central station (phase 1), and the same time singapore woodland SMRT link to johor bahru bukit chagar RTS station and depots (phase 1), pasir gudang highway(phase 1), 3nd singapore-malaysia link bridge (phase 2), bukit chagar-kulai RTS blue line and galang patah-pasir gudang red line (phase 3), this is massive project, need take some time to process.