Across the border…
Under the current Malaysian government, Johor Bahru is being transformed into a major world-class city, designed to complement Singapore and the Indonesia’s Riau Islands province. While the initial plans were ambitious – at one point, a mooted passport-free zone for Malaysians and Singaporeans – the plans are more or less, taking shape. Taking on the role as a manufacturing hinterland, and complementing the services-oriented city-state, new residential, industrial and commercial projects are sprawling across the city. Near-term plans even include a planned urban rail service to Singapore, as well as a high-speed line to Kuala Lumpur. All this developments have led the United Nations to dub Johor Bahru an “emerging world city”.
But for most Singaporeans, Johor Bahru is the border city north of the city-state; and due to the currency exchange, is a popular day-trip destination, known for its cheap massages, cheap food and cheap grocery shopping. In fact, Johor Bahru is so popular among Singaporeans, that Malaysia no longer counts land crossings (technically it’s over sea, but you know what I mean) from Singapore as part of its tourist visitorship numbers. Because, if it were included, Johor Bahru would rank as one of Asia’s singularly most popular destinations, edging just above South Korea!
The day-trip several weeks ago with my colleagues was planned, this one however, was not. I don’t have many friends who share the same enthusiasm as me for Southeast Asia beyond the perennial popular ones like Bangkok and Phuket. Yet, language barriers and economies of scale means that solo travel to other parts of Southeast Asia aren’t necessarily economical for consideration. For example, a trip to the idyllic beach destination of Puerto Princessa in Palawan, Philippines, costs as much as a two-week holiday in Japan. So, I texted Titus, a good friend who is perpetually infected with the travel bug, where his next regional destination was.
And he replied “Johor Bahru, right now”, and the rest is history.
Once we crossed, it was on to lunch. And as Titus had to run some errands after, we quickly settled on the well-known Greater Kuala Lumpur chain, Dragon-I. Dragon-I is the Kuala Lumpur equivalent of Crystal Jade, serving the best of Mainland Chinese cuisine. The menu is a delightful delicateseen of well-loved dishes from Sichuan, Shanghai, Beijing and Lanzhou, from the delightful morsels of xiao long bao of the Yangtze River Delta, to the numbingly spicy “Mouthwatering Chicken of the western highlands”, and of course, la mian.
We Singaporeans tend to set our expectations lower on the quality of foreign food served in Malaysia (nobody does Malaysian local food better than Malaysians, obviously), and with good reason. Step into any Japanese restaurant in Malaysia, and you’ll find Malaysians slurping on sushi and tempura drowned in a thick sweet sauce – the regular Japanese shoyu and wasabi are alien to them. Western food such as spaghetti and steak are often served with a local spicy twist, regardless the positioning of the restaurant. So, it was with the honest surprise that I found Dragon-I’s xiao long baos (MYR 10.30) surprisingly delicious, and on a level as good as Crystal Jade and Imperial Treasure.
The Shanghainese-style fried rice (MYR 18) was good, but admittedly, it was a little salty. But for the currency exchange, it was really miles above anything within a similar price range.