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 fa├žade 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

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