The Southern Gateway: A Historical Look

by Audrey Lim, Feb 21, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia / Johor

My last trip back to Johor took place approximately 18 months ago. That was in actual fact, also my first trip to this southern state. Then I was making my way towards Singapore, however, on the way back, the lure of an unexplored land made me stay longer than I realized and very soon, was captivated with the little gems I find along the way. These gems are not what you might imagine in your mind. For starters, the name of the state "Johor" was influenced by the early Arab traders and derived from the Arabic word "Jauhar", which means "precious jewel". This is something one cannot deny for you will soon find out why Johor is such a precious and important place.

Johor has its fair share of interesting chronicles in the Malaysian history books. Before the state came under the ruling of the 19th century ruler, His Royal Highness Sultan Abu Bakar, the place was not in any way an important locale in the Peninsular Malaysia. It was only after Sultan Abu Bakar took over the running of the place that Johor rapidly transformed into what was known as modern Johor. It was also the said Royal Highness that gave Johor its first constitution for a Malay state and started a proper system of administrative government. With a good government, Johor very soon strived and moved towards stability and prosperity. His Royal Highness Sultan Abu Bakar's contributions to the land was well known during his time and in the year 1885, he was officially elected to be the Sultan of Johor by Queen Victoria. His contributions also earned him the title "Father of Modern Johor". Because of his achievements, all school-going children of Malaysia now read and learn about him in their history books. Indeed, the Sultan of Johor was a fine man during his reign and one who gave Johor a firm hold on the map.

The capital of the Johor Sultanate used to be known as Johor Lama. A historical ground with many past secrets the capital city of Johor was later moved to the current Johor Bahru. For those who are interested in historical sites, you can find a number of them located along the Johor River. There are Panchor, Kampung Johor Lama, Batu Sawar, Kampung Makam and Kota Seberang. Visitors can also see kelongs (little shacks on stilts) near the river mouth.

This state is also such a gem because of its strategic geographic location. It is the southernmost tip of the Asian continent and very definitely, the southern tip of the Peninsular Malaysia. On its west is the Straits of Malacca, east is the South China Sea, and to the south is the Straits of Johor. This is also the gateway for road travelers to reach the neighboring country, Singapore. Its state capital, Johor Bahru is also linked to Singapore via the causeway. In recent years, the government had added a Second Link to Singapore from Gelang Patah to Tuas to accommodate the growing need and to meet the traveling needs of all visitors who frequent the two countries. In fact, Johor plays an important role in the Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle because of its location.

Aside from its geographic location, Johor is also a valuable place for all travelers. It has a rich heritage and culture, yet not lacking in modern amenities like shopping, entertainment and accommodation. The hub of the state lies in Johor Bahru. In fact, many Singaporeans and visitors to the neighboring country tend to make the effort to hop over to Johor Bahru for a round of shopping spree. Indeed, Johor Bahru has become a shopping paradise, thanks partly to its low exchange rate with the Singapore dollars. Besides shopping, you can also see a concentration of historical attractions such as the Istana Bukit Serene, Sultan Abu Bakar Monument, Royal Abu Bakar Museum, Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque, the Royal Mausoleum and the Sultan Ibrahim Building. Judging by the names of most of these buildings/monuments, you can easily tell that Sultan Abu Bakar is indeed a well-liked ruler in his prime.

The Istana Bukit Serene is actually the home to His Majesty The Sultan of Johor. It is located on high land and is marked by a 350 meters tall tower. The high tower perched on the hill is a landmark to all visitors that comes from the north. The Istana Bukit Serene also houses a private zoo and has the state's most beautiful gardens.

The highly respected past ruler of Johor, Sultan Abu Bakar, is immortalized at the Sultan Abu Bakar Monument. The monument is built in the seafront directly opposite the courthouse. The late Sultan Abu Bakar (1864 - 1895) was recognized for his deed as the founder and architect of modern Johor. There is also a bronze replica of the Johor crown on top of the monument.

While in Johor, do not miss the chance to view the Royal Abu Bakar Museum. This is one of the oldest buildings in Johor Bahru, so old that Sultan Abu Bakar was the person who laid down its very first foundation stone in the year 1864. It is a beautiful place where its modern architectural designs were a clear mix of Anglo and Malay influence. It first purpose was as the Grand Palace Johor but now, over the years, the palace has taken on a new role and is also a display area for the royal collection.

Want to see the finest mosque in the whole of Malaysia? There is without a doubt that the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque is the best in the country. It took the contractors 8 years to build the mosque and cost about 400,000 Ringgit Malaysia. Not a newly built structure in actual fact, the mosque was officially opened by the late Sultan Ibrahim in the year 1890. Perched atop a hill, visitors to the mosque will get a grand view of the Straits of Johor. This is also a proud landmark for the people of Johor and a definite tourist attraction.

And of course, the most tranquil, peaceful and serene place in Johor is at the Royal Mausoleum. The Royal Mausoleum is a fine piece of architectural design and gives out an artistic façade of years gone by. It was also the final resting ground for the royal family of Johor. When there, the calming ambience will embrace you leaving you feeling awed and at peace. Certainly, this is a suitable place for someone to rest for eternity...

You must also check out the state's most interesting looking building - the Sultan Ibrahim Building, a huge construction that is located on Bukit Timbalan. From a distance, you can already see the building dominating the skyline of Johor Bahru. It has fine architecture and good mosaic detail. The Grand Hall promises to take your breath away!

For those who do not enjoy shopping or historical sightseeing, do not fret. Golfers will be pleased to know that Johor has one of the largest numbers of golf courses at any one state. In fact, it is number two on the list - the first is Klang Valley. The game apparently caught on very well, for before the year 1992, Johor have only 10 golf courses with most of them sporting only 9-hole course. Today, thanks to the vast land, Johor has about 30 golf courses. Three of these golf courses offer night golfing whilst another three offers 54 holes. Green fees are also considerably cheaper here than elsewhere.

However, if you do not care much for golfing, shopping or sightseeing, then how about agro tourism? Agro tourism is an interesting form of sightseeing. Agro tourism is not available at every state in Malaysia; therefore, do take this opportunity to check it out while in Johor. There are lots of rubber and palm oil plantations as well as local fruit farms for you to see. If time permits, you may even opt for a homestay program where you will be able to stay with a local family and enjoy yourself during the harvesting season. Picking the fruits and watching them being processed is an experience not to be missed. Of course, you may also sample as many as you can pick.

There is also the unique Johor Tea plantation that you can visit. It is a different kind of tea as found in, perhaps Cameron Highlands (in the state of Pahang). Tea aside, orchid lovers will be running wild at the world's largest tropical orchid attraction. This place was first opened in the year 1996 and since then, been a huge attraction by locals and tourists alike. Visitors will be enveloped by a sea of exotic tropical orchids set in a lovely garden setting.

That's not all for Johor. My next article will cover the other attractions including the lovely beaches and islands, national parks, and quaint towns.

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