Gift of Joy

Mum & dad [seated] with mum's sisters and their spouses
at the banquet for Felicia's wedding on November 15
Christmas is a time for traditions, family reunions and lots of shopping for the perfect gift for our dear ones.  This year, I kept to my tradition of shopping for suitable gifts from as early as August when I was abroad and all through the months before December so that there will not be a mad rush for gift shopping at the last minute.  Presenting beautifully wrapped gifts is also part of the fun so I made sure all the packages are nicely wrapped and tied up with ribbons by the eve of Christmas Day.

Even though giving and receiving nicely packaged gifts is part of the Christmas tradition, I know that some gifts need not be gift-wrapped.  I’m sharing this story because I believe this was the best gift I could present to my dad this Christmas.

Entrance to the clinic at Tiram Duku, near Gelang Patah
Dad’s health was unstable since his 92nd birthday in late October and by God’s grace, he made a gradual recovery to be strong enough to enjoy a lovely family reunion at our cousin Felicia’s wedding on November 15.  Needless to say, I was simply delighted to see him get back to his usual self.  

However in late November, his emotional health took a steep downturn because he was naturally affected by the sad news of three funerals for senior members of the extended family, all in the span of two weeks.  Then he started to talk to me about his own funeral wake.

One day, dad asked me how far is Gelang Patah from JB?  I told him that it’s now just a few minutes by the Kota Iskandar highway.  This question hinted of his desire to visit the district where he once worked with the Government dispensary there.  In 2009 I shared with readers about this dispensary in Gelang Patah with photos of the building as well as the inspiration for travel writing in my story, "Travelling" with Dad

The signage pointing to Kampung Pok with
Kampung Paya Mengkuang listed below!
While I’m aware of dad’s desire to visit Gelang Patah again, I deliberately asked him why he wanted to go there.  He replied simply, “To visit an old lady.”  This stirred my curiosity because I have not heard about such a lady before.  Dad seemed slow to answer when I quizzed him so my mum suggested with a smile, “His girlfriend…”

Dad told me to look into our telephone directory for Anuar Ahmad and the contact number given to him when he met them at Plaza Angsana several years ago.  I found a landline number and wrote it in big bold digits on our notice board so that dad may call them later.  There was no address listed there.  Privately, I was concerned that if this Anuar (I thought it was that lady’s son but it’s actually the name of her late husband!) may have passed on – and that lady too – this revelation would be too depressing for dad.

Kak Hasnah riding the motorcycle, leaving her
warung to lead the way!
I assured dad that I have arranged with our elder sister to go to Gelang Patah for a drive that coming Sunday just to see the place and its development, even if we failed to locate Anuar and his family because we do not have a proper address.  I know I sounded like a wet blanket but I tried not to build up too much anticipation to cushion dad for a possible letdown.

In the next few days, I managed to dig out a few more details from dad about this old lady.  Her name is Wok and when dad was working with the Government dispensary in Gelang Patah, our grandfather or Ah Kong, was based in the Gelang Patah Land Office where this lady was the gardener.  Dad used to prescribe and supply her with vitamins as health supplements because she was often sick.  They were good friends and every year for Hari Raya, mum and dad used to visit her family in their home in Kampung Paya Mengkuang.  After Gelang Patah, dad was transferred to Masai for the next 13 years and over time he lost touch with them until that chance meeting in Plaza Angsana when they gave him their home phone number. 

Kak Hasnah riding the motorcycle to show us the way!
I went to an event in Kampung Pok recently and when I told dad about it, the name must have triggered thoughts about revisiting that familiar area where Kampung Paya Mengkuang was also located.  He probably thought that I know how to get there but I must confess that it was more than Waze technology that got me there and back. 

While we set out that Sunday morning with much anticipation, I gently reminded dad that we will enjoy the drive and try to locate that kampong again because with so much development, the entire landscape has now changed beyond recognition.  Before leaving, we tried to call that given telephone number but it was no longer in service.  I reasoned that with the widespread use of mobile phones, most people have given up their landlines.  The weather was bright and sunny but our next disappointment was to discover that the building for the Government dispensary has been demolished! 

Kak Hasnah speaking to Kak Tom, eldest daughter of
Mak Wok to learn the she was with her youngest daughter
We took a slow drive around the nearby roads to be sure and finally had to accept the fact that we did not miss it but it was just no longer there.  We were quite sure it used to be behind the Shell station and now the area is occupied by new rows of small shops.

Then we headed in the opposite direction to locate Kampung Paya Mengkuang.  I could sense that dad was getting impatient and restless because the area looked too different since the time he was working in Gelang Patah and I tried to pacify him with reassurances that I will somehow track down that destination. 

We scrutinized every passing signboard to get an idea of our location because the Waze and Google maps that my sister was reading, did not give much help.  Finally, dad mentioned Tiram Duku, the name of another nearby village and this info helped to give us an indication that we were in the right area.  Dad wanted me to stop to ask the warung operators but I preferred to seek help from the any Police station. 

Kak Hasnah leading us to the home of Rosidah,
youngest daughter of Mak Wok
When I spotted the sign for Kelinik Desa Tiram Duku, I stopped the car because I felt that the nursing staff here should have a good idea of the area.  (I’m familiar with such clinics because our parents were working with the Health Sub-Centre in Masai.)  Dad attempted to get down from the car too but I stopped him because I was just going to pop in to ask for directions.  This proved how keen he was to find some answers!

Imagine all the patients turning and their eyes riveted on me when I walked into the clinic.  All of them were heavily pregnant women queuing up to be weighed and I paused for a moment because there was no nurse in sight.  In a bit, she came out and I spoke to the nurse in Malay to ask for directions.  The nurse gave me some directions and as I asked questions to clarify what she told me, one of the patients spoke up in English to give me similar but clearer directions.  I realised that we passed that particular junction she was referring to and thanked them before hopping back into the car, quite confident that we were heading the right way.

Dad meeting Mak Wok again!
I turned the car around and drove into that junction and we suddenly spotted the sign for Kampung Pok with other villages listed below including the elusive Kampung Paya Mengkuang!

Mum was quite sure that Makcik Wok’s house should be on the left side of the road, just a short distance away so I stopped and walked around a house that had many cars parked outside but all doors and windows were shut.  I shouted, “Hello!” repeatedly but not a soul responded.  Then I went across the road and asked a lady about the occupants of the house opposite and learnt that it was rented to several tenants.  This explained why there were many cars parked outside as the tenants may be asleep or have gone to work.

Dad and Mak Wok had plenty to reminisce on ...
Mum was still adamant that Mak Wok’s house was situated nearby so I asked mum to come with me to ask a warung or food-stall operator there.  A few customers were eating her food when we approached and asked for help to locate Mak Wok.  The recognition of that name was instant among customers, the stall-holder and other bystanders who know her but someone pointed out that there was more than one Mak Wok in that kampung!

That was when I discovered that Anuar was Mak Wok’s late husband.  By mentioning Anuar, they realised that we were after the Mak Wok wife of Anuar and not the other one.  They know that Mak Wok Anuar lived with her eldest daughter but also goes to her younger daughter’s home located nearby.  The helpful stall-holder, whom we later learnt is Kak Hasnah, asked a young man there to help lead us to Mak Wok’s house but (just as I suspected, the younger generation are not familiar with who the elderly are) he was reluctant to do so. 

While Kak Hasnah was giving instructions to that young man, I was just glad to know that Mak Wok was still alive.  I was deeply grateful that our quest to find Mak Wok for dad was going to be fulfilled – and that was the most important thing!

Rubiah pouring tea for us to enjoy
with snack of freshly fried tapioca
So I got behind the wheel again to wait for the young man to lead the way on his motorcycle, relieved that I could tell dad that we were so close to finding Mak Wok.  As I watched the exchange between Kak Hasnah and that young man, I realised that she was not getting through to him.  So instead of haggling with him, I watched him get off the motorcycle and she hopped on the bike to lead us!

So with her tudung flapping in the wind, Kak Hasnah rode ahead and I followed at a safe distance.  She stopped at the home of Mak Wok’s eldest daughter, Kak Tom, and we learnt that Mak Wok was not there but in the home of her youngest daughter, Rosidah.  I said “Hello” to Kak Tom and asked her to give a call to let them know that we are heading over to meet Mak Wok – so that she would not get too much of a shock!

It was easy for villagers to figure out what “across the road” or “dekat selekoh” [near the bend on the road!] means but as Kak Hasnah hopped on the bike again to lead us on, it was quite a distance away before we turned into a dirt track to see a few houses built in the clearing.  She wound her way around the overhanging branches of a tree, bumped along the path to the house in the middle, with its entrance facing away from us and beckoned me to follow.  Finally, finally we found our way to meet with Mak Wok at Kampung Paya Mengkuang!

Mak Wok, dad and mum [seated Left to Right]
with Rosidah [Left] and Rubiah [Right]
Mak Wok was seated on a plastic reclining chair in the porch, her knees too weak to stand up, and when I brought dad close enough to greet her, she happily declared, “Alhamdulillah!”  [Arabic for: All praise and thanks to God!]  While her legs may be weak, her voice and attitude was strong as she recognised mum and dad instantly.  Two of Mak Wok’s daughters there, the fifth Rubiah and youngest Rosidah, were also thrilled to see us.  They told us how uncanny it was that we turned up in such a timely way because just last night, their mother mentioned dad’s name!

Dia selalu sebut nama uncle,” Rubiah told us, adding that dad was one of three people their mother often mentioned and longed to meet again.  And dad was the only one who turned up so far.  Over sweet black tea and freshly fried chunks of tapioca from their own garden, dad and Mak Wok reminisced about the good old days and reconnected again.  

At age 85, Mak Wok, a mother of five daughters and four sons, is enjoying her retirement in the company of her children and grandchildren.  This Christmas, I know that reconnecting dad with Mak Wok again, is the best gift I can present to him.  Blessed Christmas, dad!


A sketch for me

"Simply Butterflies" by Yap Hanzhen
After my story on Yap Hanzhen, Johor’s gifted special artist, was published in the October 2014 issue of The Iskandarian, I received an email from Yvonne, his mother.  She thanked me for the story and told me that they wanted to suggest an idea to me but was looking for a good time to say it.  And she went on to tell me that Hanzhen would like to draw a sketch especially for me – his guardian angel! 

I was rather taken aback because it’s such a gift to be called his guardian angel – and I’m no angel at that – as it was my privilege to share his story with readers.  I was just deeply touched and quite overwhelmed by the kind offer to draw something for me.
Hanzhen working on my sketch
Yvonne said that I should give him the subject of my choice or describe what I want and let him decide how he could draw it for me.  She said Hanzhen would be able to start on this project in about two weeks so I have some time to think it over.  I know he’s a gifted artist but it was just mind-boggling to come up with something for him to start on!

I knew that since I mooted the idea for him to sketch Johor Baru’s iconic buildings and landmarks for posterity, he was inspired to start on the project and sketched a series of detailed drawings in this collection.  These drawings caught the interest of the property owner of DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru and Hanzhen was commissioned to compile his drawings into a booklet that could be used by visitors to enjoy a discovery trail in a tour of the city or presented as gifts and souvenirs.  [This book has been published and I was delighted to receive my own copy!]

Hanzhen completing the sketch with meticulous detail
Around the same time, Hanzhen also completed a commissioned piece for the Consul-General of Singapore in JB where his art took a leap from sketching single buildings to meeting the challenge of drawing JB’s panoramic skyline and causeway!

In the days since receiving that email, I got caught up with so much work that I hardly spared a thought for the subject for his sketch.  When I remembered, it was already November and I rushed a message off to Yvonne.  I discovered that Hanzhen and I shared a common icon – the beautiful butterfly – as he adopted the butterfly as his trademark and is used on souvenir t-shirts and other premium items.  I asked her if they have seen the spare tyre cover on my car which was custom-made in Australia with my choice of picture and I sent them a photo to show what it looks like.  

Hanzhen [Right] with his brother Zhihan, wearing
the t-shirt printed with Hanzhen's trademark butterfly
My current cover was designed with a coloured picture of a collage of butterflies and my name across the top.  I suggested that Hanzhen create a collage of butterflies in his unique style so that the drawing can later be transferred over as a design for my spare tyre cover.  

Yvonne was delighted with my idea and told me that Hanzhen would be thrilled to do a sketch with a collage of Malaysian butterflies, complete with scientific names and interesting facts because he already has a list of them.  She said that they would let Hanzhen explore the idea further and compose the image own his own.

Hanzhen gave me an outline of the
design with the butterflies' common names 
On November 20, Yvonne shared photos of Hanzhen working on the sketch of butterflies and it warmed my heart to see the progress he was making on my sketch.  This was something new to me because I never had anyone offer to draw something especially for me. 

A few days later, I received another message asking me what I would like to name my sketch and I replied saying, “Simply Butterflies” by Yap Hanzhen.   The Yap family went abroad on a short trip and when they were back, I was invited over for Hanzhen to present the sketch to me!

In addition to the softcopy [to be sent out to create the design for my new spare tyre cover] and the original sketch, I also received a beautifully framed version that now graces a wall at home.  As promised, Hanzhen provided me with an outline of the design with the common names of the butterflies as well as a list of the butterflies’ scientific names with the links to the relevant websites he researched.  From the outline he provided, I could see the Rajah Brooke is in the centre with [clockwise] Paper Kite, Common Tiger, Lime Butterfly, Common Birdwing, Common Rose, Dragontail Butterfly and the Five Bar Swordtail. 

My copy of the book filled with Hanzhen's sketches of
historical buildings in Johor Baru
I appreciate Hanzhen for his effort to create “Simple Butterflies” for me and I’m happy to know that he is well on track to a career in drawing.  The last I heard, he has received a commissioned project from a new hotel in Bukit Bintang to draw iconic buildings in Kuala Lumpur and streetscapes.  As I said in my recent story on Hanzhen, he is blessed with a unique talent and it looks like the sky’s the limit for JB’s gifted special artist!

As the year is coming to a close, this specially drawn sketch that Hanzhen presented me is just one of the many reasons for me to be grateful for the work that I do.  Even though it’s all-in-a-day’s-work for me, I’m glad that what I do turned out to be a blessing to others.  The sweetness is when I get pleasantly surprised to receive a blessing in return!


Added advantage at Sentral JB

Facade of Hotel Sentral JB
I remember this hotel because the last time I was here, my old car refused to start just as I was about to leave.  Instead of trying to tinker around with the engine, I called my trusted mechanic over to sort the problem out.  Now I’m back again, driving my new car and am delighted to see that the hotel is rebranded and refurbished, geared up to give guests a better stay experience.

Soon I learn that staying with Hotel Sentral Johor Baru presents guests with the best of both worlds – the old and the new.  

Its location at Tanjung Puteri, a place of historical significance, is close to the city’s places of interest and heritage attractions.  And as an official hotel partner of Legoland Malaysia, guests have an early entry advantage for more time to enjoy the park attractions!

Legoland Malaysia Execlusive
for Hotel Sentral guests!
General Manager, George Lee, who also looks after the group’s hotel in Malacca, tells me that the Hotel Sentral JB is a popular choice with guests from the Asean region who book their reservations with the Legoland themepark package.  “You only need to book 7 days in advance for the themepark package,” said Lee who also confirmed that the package is valid for 3 months, “which is good news for guests who have to cancel their stay for some unavoidable reason,” he added.

Themepark Advantage

I don’t like waiting in queues and can understand the advantage of entering the themepark half an hour before the 10am opening because it means there will be no crowd and no queues.  And as daily entries are limited into the Legoland Water Park, official hotel partner guests are assured of priority entry.  I have this distinct advantage in mind as I request for an early wake-up call from the night receptionist because next morning, I will be having my own early entry experience at Legoland Malaysia.

A double bed in one bedroom of the 2-bedroom
Executive suite

The wake-up call gets me up to answer the phone but as I roll back under the covers in my comfortable bed, I’m tempted to snuggle down for a few more minutes.  I know it’s a bad idea because I may just doze off again so I’m up quickly to dress for breakfast at Terrace View, the ground floor café.  The hotel van, to ferry guests out to Legoland themepark, will leave by 9am and a quick check on the time tells me I have enough time to enjoy my breakfast buffet with an order for freshly-made eggs.

Twin super-single beds in the other bedroom of the
2-bedroom Executive suite

Wearing layers of sun-block lotion and armed with my hat, I join other guests in the lobby before boarding the hotel van for a smooth drive to the themepark.  When the driver drops us off at the porch of the Mall of Medini, we agree with him for the return pick-up time from the same spot and we walk through the mall to the park entrance.  We remind each other to produce our room key card for the park entry and within moments we are in the park, with almost all the attractions and rides to ourselves because we are the early birds who can explore and enjoy more before the crowd arrives!

City Walkabout

Super-single bed and a double-bed in the 1-bedroom suite
Besides fun in the themepark, hotel guests are also encouraged to have a glimpse of Johor Baru’s heritage sites and city attractions with a walking tour.  

Upon request, reception staff will refer guests to the required tour services or guests can just pick up a walking map and follow the routes to visit nearby places of interest.  I sense that Lee, who is familiar with walking tours in Malacca, is keen for guests to see a bit of old JB and have a more worthwhile stay here.

He did not hesitate to join us, so our city walkabout that afternoon started at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk with a visit to the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum to learn more about Johor’s early development and the city’s former name, Tanjung Puteri.  A walk down the street takes us to Hua Joo, a traditional charcoal oven bakery where third generation Lim family members continue with the business.  Like most visitors, Lee cannot resist buying some freshly baked banana cake so we stop at a nearby coffeeshop for a drink and a taste of the delicious cake.

The children's pool is next to the swimming pool
From the coffeeshop we walk up Jalan Trus, pass the Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Hindu Temple and Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Temple, to the Gu Miao or Chinese Ancient Temple.  Then we cross Jalan Wong Ah Fook to the section of JB formerly known as Kampung Wong Ah Fook, to visit the Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery, housed in the former Cantonese clan house, donated by none other than Wong Ah Fook himself.  

After the walking tour, we head back for a cool dip in the hotel pool and later that evening, we find our way to Jalan Segget and Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk to browse around in the night market or JB Bazaar and fill our bags with souvenirs and other knick-knacks.


Hotel Sentral Johor Baru
No. 17 Jalan Tenteram, Tanjung Puteri
80000 Johor Baru, Johor
Tel: 607 – 222 7788
Fax: 607 – 223 7788

Getting There

Walking distance from JB Sentral, the train and bus terminal from Singapore and the Northern States and accessible by a public taxi transport facilities in the city


A total of 138 well appointed rooms and suites

Main Attraction

It’s location at Tanjung Puteri, a place of historical significance, and close to the city’s heritage sites

First Impression

Cosy and convenient

Overall Service

Friendly and attentive

F&B Outlets

All-day dining at Terrace View cafe and in-room dining


Swimming pools, function rooms, business centre, tour desk services, laundry and dry-cleaning, in-room safe, convenience store, no-smoking floors and high-speed wireless internet connection

Places Within Walking Distance

JB Sentral, JB Bazaar, Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk, Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum, Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery, Gu Miao or Chinese Ancient Temple,  Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Temple, Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Hindu Temple, Masjid India, Johor Baru City Square and Komtar Johor Baru City Centre

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 18 December 2014

Weekend Walkabouts

Most of the shops in Kluang have the year they were built
painted on the top, as seen in these shops along Jalan Ismail
On two weekend jaunts, Peggy Loh discovers charming sights and trading activities which date from days of old.

It all started with our Big Birthday Bash class reunion two years ago.  After having left Convent Johor Baru for many years, we reconnected again and because of our common interest to explore local sites, we made plans for day trips in and around Johor Baru.  My friends may be well travelled but I’m glad they have a keen interest to see some sites in our own backyard. 

Kluang's coffeeshop culture is aptly depicted in this
wall mural

Just browsing around gives us a glimpse of how our forefathers used to live and shop in the old days.  So it is worthwhile to take a walking tour of at least part of the town, to discover charming sights and enjoy a touch of nostalgia which is lost from most cities.  Many businesses have moved into modern malls but markets and traditional family-run stores are still fun to visit. 

Maybe all the reminiscing about bygone days at our class reunion has sparked off a nostalgic quest to explore and have some fun together.  So with our feet shod in good walking shoes, we set off in a car pool for weekend walkabouts on two separate weekends, first to Kluang and then to Kukup.

Generations of Kluang folks grew up playing on this slide in
the Merdeka Park playground
Kluang, the trading post

After we exit the toll to turn to Kluang, we see new shops nearby that stock a wide range of ceramic pottery along with cane, fabric products and other souvenirs.  This may be the spillover of traders from the original market centre in Ayer Hitam.  It also reminds us that Kluang is irrevocably linked to Macap and Ayer Hitam for the quality ceramic pottery and tiles produced under renowned brands like Malaysian Mosaics, Guocera and Claytan. 

Check out this multi-lingual sign!
In Kluang, we cross the railway tracks and turn left into Jalan Station, so named because it is parallel with the KTM railway line that links Kluang to Johor Baru in the south and all the way north to Padang Besar, Perlis and beyond the Thai border.  Back in 1910 when Central Johor was developed with rubber and oil palm plantations, Kluang was the administrative centre and the railway line was established since 1915 to transport fresh produce and labour to cities and ports.  The Kluang railway station remains virtually unchanged to this day and the Lim family, who runs the kopitiam here, continues with the business under their Kluang Rail Coffee brand.

From the railway station, we walk along Jalan Dato Syed Abdul Kadir to Taman Merdeka, the park where generations of Kluang folks must have enjoyed the playground.  Old fashioned concrete benches line the edge of the park at intervals and we can see how the back rests are inscribed with the town council logo and the name of each bench’s sponsor or the UMNO logo and words that commemorate the organization’s Silver Jubilee in 1985.  In the adjacent Dewan Jubli Intan Sultan Ibrahim, we see a tall structure with a square space, believed to be designed for a clock but to this day, no clock was ever installed!

A section of Jalan Station, Kluang
In those days, it was a trend for builders’ to state the year the building was completed because most of the shops in Kluang have the year designed or painted on the top of the buildings.  Along Jalan Ismail, one of the oldest buildings dated 1926 for the Eng Choon Association, is distinguished by its well maintained façade while other shops there and along Jalan Lambak not only sport the year but also a prancing lion figurine atop the buildings.  The presence of several ancient hotels like Man Ten Hotel (1941) Mang Cheong Hotel (1952) and Hwa Lam Hotel (1956) suggests that Kluang was a former trading post where planters and traders came for business and needed a place to stay over before they returned to their respective plantations.
Living Heritage

Shops along Jalan Station were built around the 1920s when the railway station started to transport goods to and from Kluang.  But since the 1970s, businesses here turned predominantly Indian and that’s probably why our presence in their shops gives the merchants some amusement.  This is Kluang’s Little India with garment, jewellery, provision shops, stalls for fruits, flower garlands, fresh meat and goat’s milk, restaurants and even a toddy shop!

From this signboard, we can see that this business is well
established because its original telephone number
only has three digits!
The bright colours of the variety of grains displayed in Letchumi Provision Store caught our eyes and it draws us into the shop for a closer look.  The contrasting shades of beans, corn kernels, dark dhal, rice and other nuts and pulses are not just attractive but it gives us an idea about the ingredients that go into a typical Indian diet.  Among food products like spices and ghee, we discover an interesting range of beauty products including ayurvedic and herbal bath soaps, some created with milk and saffron. 

The whir of grinding mills and the fresh fragrance emanating from the basement hinted of something going on downstairs.  With their permission, I went for a peek and met the father and son grinding team who told me that they have been producing a range of spice blends for recipes to cook briyani rice, fish and meat curries, since 1969.  Their spice grinding business continues in the traditional step-by-step method to peel and cut, slice and chop fresh ingredients before grinding them into a powder blend of spices, ready to be packed and sold for cooking. 

Goh Tian Hock, Executive Director of
Cap Televisyen Kluang Coffee Powder
Another irresistible aroma that beckoned us is that of roasting coffee beans at Kluang Coffee Powder Factory, the producers of the renowned Cap Televisyen special coffee since 1966.  We stand mesmerized, soaking in the fragrance of a toasted blend of Liberica, Robusta and Arabica beans as we watch the workers turn the beans over and over in a huge tray before moving the toasted beans to the cooling area.  In the lobby, we help ourselves to sample cups of freshly brewed Television brand Kluang Coffee from a flask and dip crispy cream crackers into the hot coffee to savour with great satisfaction!

Before we leave Kluang, there is just one more stop to look at street art in the lane behind one of the town’s main roads, Jalan Dato Teoh Siew Khor.  As we admire the wall murals, two obvious themes that emerge are Kluang’s coffeeshop culture and the creative ways the bat is illustrated in various drawings.  It is very encouraging to see how local youths have expressed their creativity in the wall murals and captured the essence of Kluang and what is dear to them, in their art.

Visitors to Kukup Laut village
Kukup, the laid-back port

It’s the weekend and we are prepared for the crowds because on weekends and during the holidays, there are usually more visitors in Kukup.  Most come to shop for fresh or dried seafood and dine in the many waterfront seafood restaurants that are built into the sea.  I remember the town is uniquely situated at the edge of the coast and the road simply ends at the jetty which is now renovated into a ferry terminal. 

From far we can see the traffic and pedestrian congestion that marks the heart of Kukup so we wisely park near the rows of new shops before going for our walkabout to Kukup Laut village. The area around the terminal is always the most congested as Kukup is also the hop-off point for visitors to nearby Kukup Island and the floating fish farms that form part of local tours.  The ferry terminal is also another reason why the town is full of travellers who are either heading to or from Singapore and nearby islands.  

Most of the wooden walkways have been
replaced by concrete paths [Left]
From the sign put up across the lane between two shops, it’s easy to find the entrance to the village.  While most of the wooden walkways have been replaced by concrete paths, this is still an amazing network of paths in a village uniquely built entirely on stilts.  We remind each other to be careful on the narrow paths lest we accidentally slip and fall and it turns out that this is not a far-fetched idea because we soon discover that pedestrians share the paths with motorcycles and bicycles! 

The locals, of course, have the right of way but it is quite shocking to suddenly hear the nonstop ring of a bicycle bell and before we can dodge into any doorways, the impatient biker is screeching to a halt right next to us. This is an early warning for us to be aware of riders, so while we are walking or browsing, we should stay out of the way of any oncoming bikes.  By now the locals are familiar with visitors in the village and many enterprising ones have set up stalls in front of their homes to sell souvenirs, snacks and drinks.

With a modern toilet built within the concrete house [Right],
the wooden outhouse [Left] is no longer in use!
Cooled by salty sea breezes, we explore the 100-year old floating village to find that besides homes, there are schools, shops, restaurants and even a well-renovated temple in a typical Chinese village.  In the restaurants, some tables are occupied by groups of men, some of whom are tanned and topless, and chatting over bottles of beer.  No, they are not our regular beach bums but fishermen who are winding down with a drink after their day’s work. 

Among the old wooden houses, we spot big double-storey buildings that are also on stilts but from the compressors installed outside, we can tell that they have air-conditioning facilities.  My friends are certain that these are holiday homes for hire and to satisfy our curiosity, we went to inspect the premises.  The proprietor happily shows us around the property and gives us relevant information for full board homestay packages.  Before we leave, he made sure that we each get a copy of his name card with contact details so that we can make our reservations!

Stop for local delicacy, Pin Fen
crystal jelly
This is really giving us ideas to organise a homestay trip soon.  We can’t help feeling impressed at how a new generation of enterprising villagers in Kukup Laut is building on their tradition as fisherman to serve guests the freshest home-cooked seafood as holiday home operators.  While new concrete buildings are replacing rickety wooden houses, the future of the village looks good as they also offer visitors a unique holiday experience here.
After discussing food choices for homestay catering, we are feeling rather hungry but before going for our seafood lunch, we pass a house with a sign for Kukup Pin Fen Crystal Jelly and see a refrigerator outside but nobody is around.  We keep calling out, “Hello! Hello!” while helping ourselves to boxes of pretty oval pieces of jelly in a variety of pastel colours, until someone comes out from the house.  We are totally charmed by the laidback attitude of the villagers and are determined to return for a homestay experience where life still goes on at a leisurely pace.

Fast Facts

The 107km drive to Kluang via the Plus Highway takes just under an hour from Skudai to the toll exit at Ayer Hitam (RM9.10).  Then follow the sign to Kluang where most of the roads are dual carriageways.  The 66km route from Johor Baru to Kukup takes you past Skudai to Pekan Nanas before you bypass Pontian and follow the signs for another 20km to Kukup.  Tip: Do not park illegally in Kukup or you may end up with a hefty fine.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 11 December 2014

Iskandar Malaysia in focus

The top three winners with Guest of Honour, Tan Sri Datuk
Seri Shahrir Abd Samad [2nd from Left] and Datuk Syed
Mohamed Syed Ibrahim [2nd from Right]
In the month-long IM klik Photography Competition 2014 that started on Sept 22, more than 1,000 entries were submitted from avid photographers in the theme, “Liveable City of Iskandar Malaysia.”  Organised by Iskandar Investment Berhad (IIB), the competition gave photographers an opportunity to showcase their talents and encouraged students to take up photography as a hobby.  Registered participants also had the privilege of learning the finer points of photography in a workshop conducted by the Nikonian Beyond Photography Academy, with renowned photographer, Andrew Boey and his team to equip them with skills to create better shots.

A sunset view of the MBJB fountain by Anis Syuhada Sukur
when the site still had its natural beauty
The panel of judges comprising teams from IIB led by President and CEO of IIB, Datuk Syed Mohamed Syed Ibrahim and the Nikonian Beyond Photography Academy headed by Andrew Boey, had a challenging time to review and shortlist entries before they could select the winners.  

The competition received overwhelming support not only from local shutterbugs but there were also participants from other states.  Even though some participants submitted multiple entries, they usually had one favourite shot that they knew would catch the attention of the judges.

A precious scene of Danga Bay captured by Yap Chong Kit
“These photographers have given a fresh breath of life to Iskandar Malaysia,” said Datuk Syed as he thanked the participants for supporting the inaugural IM klik photography competition.  He said the camera was like a sketchbook where photographers painted pictures of Iskandar Malaysia.  

“The way faces, emotions and expressions of Iskandar Malaysia have been captured and celebrated by Iskandarians themselves are a testament to the transformation of Iskandar Malaysia into a liveable city,” he added.

Mohd Nazri Sulaiman [Right] with his 5-year old daughter,
Naisha Amani Mohd Nazri, who was featured in his photo
Photographs submitted for the competition captured a wide range of sights and scenes of Iskandar Malaysia that included local landscapes and portraits of people.  

While many entries featured scenes of Kota Iskandar and sites in Nusajaya like Legoland Malaysia Resort, Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia and Puteri Harbour, there were also shots of the iconic Sultan Ibrahim building, Danga Bay, Dataran Johor, Dataran MBJB and places of worship like Masjid Sultan Abu Bakar.  With the theme, “Liveable City of Iskandar Malaysia” photographers had free rein to submit a wide variety of shots that depicted new and old views of a transforming metropolis.

First runner-up, Francis Pay Ah Khee, with is winning entry
Top prize winner, Mohd Nazri Sulaiman who hails from Batu Pahat, is a full-time photographer who submitted 5 entries but he had a gut-feeling that his photograph entitled, Kota Iskandar – Kota cinta hatiku, should score highly.  He said that the haze that prevailed over the Iskandar region during that time deterred him from photographing landscapes so he decided to feature his 5-year old daughter, Naisha Amani Mohd Nazri, in a composition captured in Laman Jauhar, Kota Iskandar.  The child playing with soap bubbles against the backdrop of the Moorish architecture had a unique emotional appeal that rewarded him with the top prize of cash and merchandise vouchers worth RM4,000.

Tan Sri Shahrir admiring the sunset view of Kota Iskandar
by the second runner-up, Sun Kong Wei

First runner-up, Francis Pay Ah Khee, who has photography as a hobby, said his friends nicknamed him the Marathon Photographer because he would often stay at a particular scene for several hours to survey the angles and wait for the right light.  The winning entry among his 6 entries entitled, Harmony at Iskandar Region, featured a view of the Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Temple with buildings on Jalan Trus in the background that was captured about 7.15pm on the eve of Taipusam with a fish-eye lens.  Pay, a father of two daughters, said he took a long time to select from his multiple shots and it was his 17-year old daughter who helped to pick the photograph that became his winning entry.

Visitors enjoying the winning photos displayed at the
IM klik photo gallery during Iskarnival 2014

Second runner-up, Sun Kong Wei, have experienced many sunsets in Kota Iskandar because his work in bridal photography among the magnificent architecture of the buildings here was the inspiration for his entry.  With 15 years experience, first as a graphic designer and then as a bridal photographer, Sun has vast exposure to photography projects at internationally renowned sites in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.  Even though his composition entitled, Sunset in Kota Iskandar, is a familiar scene in his line of work, he is thrilled that it turned out to be a winner!
Tan Sri Shahrir [Left] and Datuk Syed Mohamed [Right]
unveiling the new logo for the
IM klik Photography Competition 2015
“From the experience garnered in the first IM klik, I hope IIB will organise the next competition that allows participants to have more time to find the best images that truly reflect Iskandar Malaysia,” said guest of honour, Johor Baru Member of Parliament, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Shahrir Abd Samad.  “IM klik need not only be a competition of still photography but in future, may include videos, shorties or short movies and even computer-graphics,” he added, clearly hoping that this will be a platform to launch the next level of competition.

Some of the winning entries have truly captured the essence of living in Iskandar Malaysia and reflected the vibrancy of this region as seen through the eyes of the photographers.  Winners of the 50 consolation prizes will receive RM400 each and their photographs will be compiled into a coffee-table book as a valuable resource of the images of Iskandar Malaysia.  At the close of the event, a new logo that symbolises a discovery of new talents was unveiled by Tan Sri Shahrir and Datuk Syed for the IM klik Photography Competition 2015. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 11 December 2014