More than a stay

On the drive to Muar, I’m determined to master the way the locals purse their lips to pronounce “Muo,” the colloquial way, which sounds like ‘mor.’
Facade of Muo Boutique Hotel in Muar, Johor
Emily, my navigator/travel companion is regaling me with local anecdotes as we practice saying “Muo” – me with little success – but she probably got it right because her family lived in Muar between 2001 and 2015. 

As she tells me it’s the norm to eat satay for breakfast in Muar, my mouth is watering because I’m a big fan of satay!

After exiting the Plus Highway from Johor Baru, the drive to Muar is scenic as the map smoothly directs us to the hotel, situated at the corner of Jalan Petri and Jalan Sulaiman. Its whitewashed façade stands out from among the prewar shophouses and I feel a tingle of excitement, eager to see how this boutique hotel will be ingeniously fitted out in the old building.

I’m pleasantly surprised that there is a vacant parking lot in front of the nearby shops, as if it is reserved for us but Emily warns me that we need parking coupons. She promptly hops out from the car, heads into the shops and returns with a booklet of parking coupons, quickly marking out the relevant details before displaying it on the dashboard.

First Impressions

With the car properly parked, I glance at the shop signboard for A.K. Mohamed Ibrahim and read that it was trading here since 1918. Wow! This gives me an idea of the age of the buildings in this area and am fascinated at how well preserved they are.

Reception counter on the ground floor, Muo Bouique Hotel
Natural light pours into the hotel lobby from a series of floor-to-ceiling glass panel windows, giving it a spacious and airy feeling. A white neon tube-light cursive rendition of the word, Muo, adorns the wall as the backdrop to the reception counter.

While Emily is speaking to the receptionist, I take in the lobby décor and notice how classic television sets, transistor radios and video cassettes are featured along with bric-a-brac from a bygone era.

Looking closer, I see interesting artwork displayed on postcards, framed posters on easels and T-shirts for sale as souvenirs. The paintings of local food and scenery on postcards catches my fancy because I can identify popular items like apam balik, assam pedas fish and my favourite – satay!

Local themes in their T-shirt designs!
The print of the word, HOME, on a design against a black T-shirt takes me back to the days when Muarians (that’s what Muar folks proudly call themselves!) wanted to catch programmes from Singapore channels on their televisions.

The artist’s drawing is a loud blast from the past because back in the days before the age of wireless streaming, Muar homes sported tall poles on their roofs to secure TV antennas for the best reception from Singapore broadcasts!

When we tell the receptionist that we parked in front of the shops, she directs us to the carpark across the road and issues us with the hotel complimentary parking coupon with advice to re-park the car and display it on the dashboard at all times.

Cosy Comfort

From the lift lobby to the floor landing, stylish lighting brings out the rustic charm in its simple décor. We find our room with a view of the Muar River and marvel at how the space is maximised to accommodate twin beds with a nightstand in between.

Cosy comfort in a twin-share room
The tagline, ‘More than a stay’ with a clever play on the word ‘more’ which sounds like the colloquial pronunciation for Muar, is repeated on the bed runners. It’s only later when I meet hotel managing director, Max Chia, that I learn the rationale for this tagline.

When Emily shows me the discount vouchers presented as part of the stay package, we agree that food is a priority and following her directions to Jalan Abdullah, we find the Rasa Sayang restaurant.

Our eyes widen at the large portions served but between us, we try to finish as much as we possibly can. Then it’s time for a walk and a short drive takes us to Tanjung Emas, a recreational park fondly called Tanjung, to catch the glowing rays of the setting sun.

We return to the hotel where Emily spends time selecting some Muar gifts from the Muo Concept Store. I hear the receptionist say, “Boss datang,” (Translation: The boss is here) because she saw him through the glass windows. It’s a timely opportunity to meet Chia and after we chatted, he graciously offers to show us the rooftop garden.

Chia explains that guests should sample local food and see their heritage sites so the local art displayed in the lobby are like a guide to these destinations. This is also why they do not have an F&B outlet as guests are encouraged to seek out the local recommendations to discover that the hotel is much more than just a stay but a discovery adventure in Muar!

A short ride up the elevator brings us to the rooftop where we see a group of ladies in the glass-house, decorating it for a surprise birthday party. The rooftop by night, is a spectacular setting for special events and the hotel has successfully hosted several wedding proposals here.

Muar Breakfast

I cannot remember saying “Goodnight” to Emily because I fall asleep quickly on such a comfortable bed. Next thing I know, light is peeping through the curtains and it’s already morning.

Wrought iron sewing machine stand
redesigned to support the bathroom sink!
Eager to be off for a typically Muarian breakfast, we are ready in a few minutes. Soon after we exchange morning greetings with the friendly receptionist, we ask for directions to the recommended satay pagi shop.

We follow her helpful tips, walking in that general direction with my nose sniffing for the aroma of freshly grilled satay but Emily smartly reminds me, “Look out for smoke!”

Once we rounded the corner, we not only see billowing smoke but tongues of fire licking up from charcoal grills. At ZZ Satay Warisan, staff are busy fanning the flames to grill the skewers of meat to serve throngs of waiting diners. We squeeze inside to grab the last vacant table.

I like how we don’t have to place any order but a plate of three varieties of satay just arrives at the table. Then our soon-empty plate gets topped up with satay as we eat!

After having our fill, Emily spots a notice advising diners to count the number of sticks they ate before going to the payment counter. Wow! I just love this element of trust.

The hotel is also an O'Bike docking station
We leave the shop with our clothes and hair smelling of smoke but thoroughly satisfied with the satay pagi – part one of our Muar breakfast.

Taking a slow walk back to the hotel, we see a small group gathered near a stall in a side lane, off Jalan Sulaiman. To satisfy our curiosity, we walk over only to discover they are in a queue patiently waiting for their apam balik orders. 

“Dorayaki,” said the vendor as his busy hands whiz over the open trays where Japanese-style red-bean stuffed pastries and traditional apam balik pancake are cooking. This looks simply irresistible so we place our order and join the queue.

Holding the precious package, we head back to the hotel to savour the still steaming specialties – part two of our Muar breakfast. And as I lick my fingers and agree that the wait was worth it, we begin to understand the hotel’s tagline that our time with Muo is truly more than a stay!

Muo Boutique Hotels
1 & 1A, Jalan Petri, 84000 Muar, Johor
Tel: +606 952 0000
Fax: +606 951 5000

Just 24 rooms in eight different categories designed in contemporary style with clean and comfortable bedding in compact rooms with ensuite bathrooms.

No F & B outlets in-house but walking distance to recommended local food.

Rooftop garden with an air-conditioned glass house, ideal for private parties and romantic proposals.

Walking distance to local attractions like heritage buildings, popular food, 434 coffee-shop, market, express bus terminal and wall murals.

Central location and complimentary-parking across the road with rooftop garden that commands a panoramic view of Jalan Maharani and the Muar River. Stay includes F&B and hairdressing discount vouchers at nearby business partner outlets. Hotel is also a docking station for O’Bike Malaysia bicycles.

Room rates for weekend stays are higher than that on weekdays.

Promotion rates range between RM150 for Superior Twin to RM250 for Double Storey Family Room.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 28 June 2018.

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