The story of Malaysia's Johor state picks up when Melaka was lost to the Portuguese in the early 1500s. Fleeing from the conquistadors, the royal family of Melaka led by Sultan Mahmud Shah, embarked on a circuitous journey, including a stint on Bintan Island which, albeit briefly, became the first capital of the Johor Sultanate.
From Bintan, Sultan Mahmud led a number of forays against the Portuguese in an attempt to retake Melaka, but the Portuguese had none of it and destroyed the Bintan base in 1526. On the move again, Sultan Mahmud headed back to peninsular Malaysia and the Sultanate of Johor was established in 1528 by Sultan Mahmud's son Alauddin Riayat Shah II.
Despite the relocation, peace remained elusive over the following 300 years with the Portuguese, Bugis (from Southern Sulawesi), Acehnese and Minangkabau (both from Sumatra) all battling for control of the region. However, the Sultanate maintained control by forming alliances with neighbouring Malay states and even the Dutch settlers (who they helped to seize Melaka in 1641). At the peak of its power, the Sultanate of Johor also included part of Sumatra, the Riau Islands and Pahang State.
A visit by Sir Stamford Raffles to a Johor village in 1819 ushered in the age of British influence. Raffles was scouting locations for a new British East India Company trading post and struck a deal with the village Temenggung (Chief of Defence): In exchange for exclusive trading rights on a small island now known as Singapore, the British would offer Johor their protection and an annual payment.
With the security of Johor assured, the present-day state capital Johor Bahru was founded in 1855. At the time its name was "Tanjung Puteri", but this was changed in 1886 by Temenggung Abu Bakar who also appointed himself as Johor's Maharaja and Sultan. Some refer to Bakar as "The Father of Modern Johor" for modelling the state's infrastructure and administration after the British system and opening the economy to Chinese entrepreneurs.
During World War II, Japanese forces occupied Johor Bahru. After the war the British returned but were unable to regain control -- Johor joined the Malayan Union in 1946 and achieved full independence as a part of Malaysia in 1957.
Modern Johor Bahru,usually referred to by its initials JB, is now Malaysia's second largest city. Although JB only reached official city status in 1994, the urban population is now almost a million and growing. The economy is strong and JB is one of Malaysia's most important industrial centres with refineries, electronics factories and a major seaport.
Many Johorian businesses rely on economic spillover from Singapore, and every weekend thousands of Singaporeans cross the 1 km Causeway that links the two cities to shop and dine using their stronger currency. Similarly, thousands of Johorians cross the Causeway on their motorbikes each morning to earn Singapore dollars before returning home that night. Not surprisingly, traffic on the Causeway can be a nightmare during peak times, weekends and holidays.
As the nearest escape from squeaky clean Singapore, central JB has embraced its sleazy side. Its reputation as a hotbed of crime and prostitution is exaggerated by sheltered Singaporeans, but not entirely untrue: Visitors should be wary of bag-snatchers and sex workers, as well as cheap cigarettes, questionable herbal tonics, and liquor, which are all openly touted on the street.
For most travellers JB is little more than a transportation hub and they linger just long enough to catch the "Causeway Express" bus to Singapore. If it's late, consider spending the night -- you get more bang for your hotel buck here than in Singapore.
Central JB doesn't have much charm, but it's possible to visit intriguing Indian and Taoist temples or shop at one of the new mega-malls. About 1 km west of the Causeway is one of Malaysia's top museums, the Royal Abu Bakar Palace, where you can soak up some colonial extravagance in the Victorian-mansion-turned-museum and take a stroll through the former Royal Gardens.
Johor does have more to offer than Johor Bahru, particularly for nature lovers. You can dive off the coral-fringed islands of the Seribut Archipelago, conquer Gunung Ledang mountain, or go jungle trekking in Endau-Rompin National Park, home to elusive rhinos and tigers.
Bisecting Johor Bahru is Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, a heavily trafficked road that cuts through the centre of the city and eventually leads up to the Causeway. One street west is Jalan Wong Ah Fook, the major commercial street, where you'll find large shopping malls like Johor Bahru City Square and Komtar. The majority of hotels, restaurants and banks can be found here or along the side streets.
Jalan Ibrahim runs along the waterfront west of the Causeway and will take you to the Royal Museum and Sultan Abu Mosque. Continuing west you'll find waterfront dining and shopping.
Larkin long-distance bus terminal is 5 km north of the city centre and the new Sentral train station is beside the Malaysian Customs Complex before the Causeway.
By Tanya Procyshyn.