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Johor Bahru, also spelled Johore Baharu, is the capital of the state of Johor in Malaysia, just across the Causeway from Singapore. A bustling city but one with little of interest for the casual tourist, it is a significant regional transport hub.
Declared a city only in 1994, Johor Bahru — universally called just JB — is a rapidly growing city. Latest census figures indicates that it is fast becoming Malaysia's second largest city with a population of over one million. Due to its proximity to Singapore, it suffers from unavoidable comparison with its more squeaky-clean neighbour. Recent cleanup initiatives like greening the city and covering the open sewer that until a few years ago ran through the center of the city have made it a more pleasant place to live in. Though appreciably less organised and more messy when compared to glitz of Singapore, eating and shopping in the city can be an adventure with a wide variety of food establishments offering budget to fine dining and many shopping complexes.
Most visitors to Johor Bahru arrive from Singapore via one of two land links.
Senai Airport (http://www.senaiairport.com/) (JHB), formally Sultan Ismail Airport (Lapangan Terbang Sultan Ismail), is located 28 km to the northwest of Johor Bahru. Malaysia's only privately operated airport, Senai has expanded aggressively and flights to Malaysian and Indonesian destinations are considerably cheaper than from Singapore. The airport is compact but recently renovated and fully equipped with shops, a restaurant (landside only), WLAN access (ask for free login at information desk), etc.
However, the airport's transport links to Singapore are rather poor, since Singapore has blocked all attempts to provide direct service to what it views as a competitor. The only exception is Malaysian Airlines, which has a direct bus service which runs from the Copthorne Orchid Hotel (214 Dunearn Road) to the airport. The bus fare to Senai Airport is S$12 and the bus ride is approximately 2 hours; note that this service is available only to MAS ticket holders, and you have to call Malaysian Airlines at +65-63366777 to book a seat on the bus. For the flight and corresponding bus schedules, check Malaysian Airlines' Singapore website (http://www.malaysiaairlines.com.sg/prods_high/coach_fr_sin.html).
For other travelers, the cheapest option is to travel to the Kotaraya terminal (S$1 on Causeway Link buses) and transfer to a shuttle bus (45 minutes, RM4, leaves every 30 minutes) via the Senai Airport City Lounge (http://www.senaiairport.com/city_lounge.html). Alternatively, if you're in a hurry, you can take an ordinary Malaysian taxi for RM35 or so after crossing the Causeway. From JB to Senai takes around 30 minutes in good traffic, but schedule in some leeway as rush hour traffic can be quite bad.
If you plan to take an early morning flight from Senai and you are travelling from Singapore, things can get tough as the earliest bus leaves the City Lounge at 5:30 AM and reaches the airport around 6:10 AM, just in time for the early 7 AM departures. You have the option of staying in JB for the night. You also have the option of booking a taxi that takes you directly to the airport or to the City Lounge at Kotaraya, but this will cost you; see By taxi below. It is recommended that you plan these carefully, the variables and the risks involved in this morning rush is pretty high.
The KTM Johor Bahru railway station is located about 5 minutes walk directly north from the Malaysian checkpoint. Train tickets leaving from JB are half price those leaving from Singapore.
KTM trains from Singapore into Malaysia also cross the Causeway, but on separate right of way and are thus immune from the traffic jams. On the flip side, Malaysian immigration is conducted at the Tanjong Pagar station in Singapore, but you will be required to disembark with all your luggage and pass through the Singaporean checkpoint at Woodlands. Trains are also very slow (the trip takes an hour) and very infrequent with only half a dozen services daily, but at RM2.90 one way to central Tanjong Pagar the price can't be beat.
A long-awaited project 1 (http://gsb.jkr.gov.my/en/index.html) to construct a new integrated terminal to replace the old, dilapidated train station is scheduled to be completed in 2006.
The most popular option of all is to cross the Causeway on one of the following buses:
There's a pattern to the madness: Singaporean-operated buses (SBS, SMRT, SJE) can only stop at one destination in Malaysia, while the Malaysian-operated Causeway Link buses can only stop at one destination in Singapore. Terminals aside, all buses make two stops at Singapore immigration and at Malaysian immigration. At both immigration points, you must disembark with all your luggage and pass through passport control and customs, then board the next bus by showing your ticket. On the Malaysian side, the bus stop is to your left as you exit the immigration post. Figure on one hour for the whole rigmarole from end to end, more during rush hour.
Long-distance buses from Johor Bahru to other points in West Malaysia depart from Larkin Bus Terminal, located some 4 km north of the Causeway. Some local services, as well as the Senai Airport shuttle, use the Kotaraya 2 Bus Terminal on Jalan Trus, near the heart of the city.
Normal Singaporean taxis are not allowed to cross into Malaysia (and vice versa). Specially licensed Singaporean taxis permitted to go to a single point in JB can be booked by phone (Johor Taxi Service from Singapore, tel. +656296-7054, SG$ 45.00 one way to fixed point in Johor Baru, Kotaraya), while Malaysian taxis (which can go anywhere in Malaysia) can be taken from Rochor Rd at premium rates. A combination ride from anywhere in Singapore to anywhere in Malaysia can also be arranged, but you'll need to swap cabs halfway through: this will cost S$40 and up, paid to the Singaporean driver. In the reverse direction towards Singapore, you can take taxis from Kotaraya to any point in central Singapore (S$30) or Changi Airport (S$40).
You can also opt to share taxis from Rochor Rd, which usually works out to around S$7 per person with four people. The main advantage here is that you don't need to lug your stuff (or yourself) through Customs at both ends; you can just sit in the car.
The most expensive option is to take a limousine taxi specially licensed to take passengers from any point to any destination, but only a few are available and they charge a steep RM150 per trip. Advance booking is highly recommended, tel. +607-5991622.
Driving a car from Singapore to Malaysia is relatively uncomplicated, although small tolls are charged for both crossing and (for the Second Link) the adjoining expressway. Do be sure to change some ringgit before crossing, as Singapore dollars are accepted only at the unfavorable rate of 1:1.
Entering Singapore with a foreign-registered car is more complicated and expensive. You will need to purchase a S$10 AutoPass (AP) card and use it to pay a Vehicle Entry Permit of S$20 per day (weekdays only) and either rent an In-vehicle Unit (IU) for payment of road pricing charges or pay a flat fee of S$5 per day. See the LTA's Driving Into & Out of Singapore (http://www.lta.gov.sg/motoring_matters/index_motoring_guide.htm) guide for the today's bureaucratic details.
In both directions, note that rental cars will frequently ban or charge extra for crossing the border.
The 700-meter Causeway can also be crossed on foot in about 15 minutes. This can be a very useful shortcut when the Causeway is jammed, at least if you have only a small amount of luggage and you're on the move either very early in the morning or late in the evening (when it's not so hot).
Be careful at the Malaysian end of the causeway, you will have to cross the traffic to get to the immigration/customs building. There is a set of traffic lights that is supposed to stop the traffic to allow you cross, but these are generally ignored by drivers. It's very hazardous, and best attempted in rush hour when everything is jammed to a halt.
Johor Bahru's public transport is limited to a sparse bus network. Various proposals for relieving the chronically congested town's traffic remain on the drawing board.
Traveling by taxi is a fairly cheap alternative, although you are likely to encounter some difficulty in convincing your cabbie to use his meter. With metered starting fares around RM 2, trips around town shouldn't cost much more than RM 5 (A trip to City Plaza costs less than RM 3 using the metered rate. Some drivers who do not use the meters charge about twice the amount).
You can take a bus to move around the city, e.g. to Holiday Plaza or Plaza Pelangi shopping mall. However, there is no clear sign of the bus stops. Just follow the crowds and wait alongside the locals for the bus. Look at the direction sign in the bus and don't hesitate to ask the bus driver directly. Usually the driver asks RM 1 for a trip, although I feel the locals pay less than that.
Most buses in the city centre depart from the Post Office on Jln Ibrahim, from the marked stop on Jln Wong Ah Fook (for Larkin Terminal - very frequent) and from opposite the train station on Jln Tun Abdul Razak (for Holiday Plaza). Fares out as far as Larkin are generally RM 1. Fares further out run up to about RM 1.80. Buses are not very frequent (except to Larkin) but are safe.
There's little point to renting a car for touring Johor Bahru alone, but it can make more sense to rent a car here to explore the rest of Malaysia as car rentals and fuel costs are roughly half that of neighboring Singapore.
Johor Bahru is a remarkably pedestrian-hostile city, although the city core is now mostly navigable via underpasses and walkways.
Johor Bahru is full of shopping malls catering mostly to Singaporean shoppers. Selections are somewhat limited when compared to the island state's offerings, but prices for Malaysian-produced goods can be half price or less.
Johor Bahru is a popular destination for budget-conscious gourmands from Singapore, as most dishes are half price across the border. Most of food stalls and dining spots come alive when night falls over the city. Common dishes include seafood and some Johor specialities like Johor laksa and mee rebus. The adventurous can head for the stalls at Lido Beach and Stulang Laut to try the local favorites and hawker fare.
Do beware of menus without prices, especially when ordering seafood — otherwise you may be in for an unpleasant surprise.
There is plenty of accommodation in Johor Bahru, just look for signs that say Hotel, Chalets, Budget Accommodations or Rumah Tumpangan. The cost of an average room is around RM 50/night, you may get more value for your money outside Johor Bahru though (eg. in Johor Jaya or Kulai).
Singaporeans like to tell horror stories of crimes in the wild, wild North, but you're unlikely to be a target of violent crime unless you owe large debts to the local drug-dealing syndicates. Petty theft is, however, more of a problem than in Singapore.