When we travel, there is nothing more remarkable than a new destination. The genuine excitement of visiting a new location on this planet is one the best reasons why we travel.
Muar, located on the west coast of Johor, the southern-most state of Malaysia, is perhaps paying the price, for better or worse, of being just 45 kilometres south of the famous town of Malacca, the exotic destination that gives its name to the Strait, the narrow 550 mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra to the south.
Muar is just a 2 to 3 hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and not much longer from Singapore. Snuggled against the Muar River, this historic port town enjoys a year round tropical climate.
Muar is intriguing. Muar is authentic. What Muar lacks in tourism finesse it more than makes for in the feeling of discovering the undiscovered. It is well developed but there are no tourist trishaws pedaling around. The food on the streets and cafes is aromatic and gorgeous but there aren’t the boardwalk, waterfront restaurants of other South East Asian waterfront communities.
Muar is a community that revels in good food, good times and then more good food. Late night markets, street carnivals, car shows and dragon boat racing all take place in the time that I’m there and for the second half of 2017 the pace gets even quicker with the Malaysian leg of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, the Lantern Festival and the Music and Zapin International Festival.
It’s not just the events that are the life of Muar. In 2012, His Royal Highness Sultan Ibrahim proclaimed Muar as the royal town of Johor. This status has ensured that heritage and history of Muar is prominent in the architecture of its buildings and in the hearts of its people.
One of the reasons why a new destination is so exciting is what it does to our senses. Walking the streets of Muar, I was also reminded that food truly is one of the best experiences that a new destination provides.
An early walk around Muar is a satay sensory overload as the Muar breakfast of choice sizzles on curbside cookers and fresh jackfruit is chopped up to order, all while you sip at a strong cup of the rich and renowned Muar coffee.
While exploring the fishing community of Parit Jawa on the outskirts of Muar, I enquire how far out the local fishing fleet has to travel to catch the fish that was cooked for my lunch. The famous Asam Pedas is a sour and spicy fish stew that is very important to the cultural heritage of Muar. The importance of this heritage is made all the more clear to me as a local fisherman volunteers to take me out to his fishing traps. Chugging out into the Strait of Malacca we locate some traps that are extraordinary and ingenious. A large v-shape of wooden poles has been driven into the sea bed and at the bottom of the v there is a net. As the fish encounter the poles they swim along the side of them which effectively guide them into the net.
It’s a genuine opportunity to see where the fish you’ve eaten was caught and have it explained to you by the man who caught it. As we make our way back to shore, more boats are headed out and it’s possible that my dinner tonight, the famous otak-otak, spicy fish cakes wrapped and grilled in banana leaf, has come from the fish traps of Parit Jawa.
Communities that are fun, friendly, safe and interesting, yet remain largely untouched by mass tourism are rare throughout the world. Muar deserves your attention. If you don’t need a guided tour. If you enjoy curbside food. If you enjoy talking to local people. You will love Muar.
I leave Muar and head 30 kilometres east to the little town of Parit Sulong, located on the banks of the Muar River. It was near the bridge at Parit Sulong that nearly 150 Australian and Indian soldiers were killed by Japanese soldiers in January 1942. A simple memorial and well maintained garden are reminders of these tragic events and the local community are very understanding of the importance of the memorial, particularly to Australians who visit the site. The Australian War Graves Commission maintains over 30 memorials and cemeteries throughout the world where Australians have fought and died and this is most likely the least known of them.
I continue my journey across Johor, travelling through small regional communities, palm plantations and pristine jungle and all the while keeping my eyes open for the tapirs that can shuffle across the road without a care in the world. Malaysian tapirs can grow to be over 2 metres in length and weigh in at more than 250 kilograms and while they have a keen sense of smell, their very poor eyesight doesn’t help them cross the road with much awareness of what is around them.
Arriving at Mersing I make my way to the dockside where I have a boat waiting for me. The boat is going to take me to Pulau Rawa for an overnight stay at this island resort.
A few years ago my daughter wanted to have a luau birthday party and I put together a playlist of tracks suitably themed for a tropical island paradise.
As the Pulau Rawa resort boat idled towards the jetty, protruding midway along this little island 16 kilometres off the east coast of Johor in Malaysia, the luau playlist in my head started up. I began singing Island In the Sun by Harry Belafonte and then a Jimmy Buffet mashup of Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes and Margaritaville. Thankfully for everyone onboard we secured our mooring and disembarked before I got started on Key Largo by Bertie Higgins.
At just over 1 kilometre in length and a steep few hundred metres high, this little island sits in the middle of the Sultan Iskander Marine Park, an area covering 8000 hectares and 13 islands. The rules of the marine park are well enforced and include no fishing, jet-skiing or anchoring vessels to coral. These rules have ensured that both above and below the water the view and the life you’ll see is pristine and gorgeous.
During a quick snorkel off the beach, barely twenty metres off shore, I encounter a family of clown fish that hide in their anemone and then come out for a photo, turning for their left side and turning for their right side.
A barracuda streaks past me a few minutes later but thankfully going in a different direction to where my little clownfish family were living. It hovered in front of me but as I lifted the camera to take the shot he flashed me a toothy grin and flashed out of sight.
Pulau Rawa is one of the marine parks islands that is owned by His Royal Highness the Sultan of Johor. A week after my visit to Pulau Rawa I am invited to meet with His Royal Highness and we discuss this amazing marine park and how important it is to him.
The rules are tough for those who want motorized action but those rules have created a marine park that is appreciated by those who want a peaceful island escape. More importantly, the life within the park, including the turtles that are protected by the turtle watch camp on Pulau Tengah, have a chance of life that is difficult to find in the busy sealanes and seaside resorts throughout South East Asia.
The Sultan is pleased that I have seen turtles, clownfish and been slightly bullied by a barracuda. He is a keen underwater explorer and enjoys diving the reefs that surround the islands within the marine park.
We discuss tourism in the marine park and the importance of continued support for turtle and coral conservation, particularly the education of snorkelers who sometimes don’t appreciate just how fragile these forests of the sea can be.
In the afternoon on Pulau Rawa I slowly paddle and drift a kayak around the main beach and watch kids from around the world wizz down a good sized slide that is mounted onto the jetty. On the beach there’s a scuba class for a family taking place and lots of laughter as the mother of the family tries to walk forwards in her fins. A surfcat sits rigged on the shore waiting for a twilight sail as the basics of jibes, tacks and avoiding a swinging boom are explained to a young couple in orange lifejackets.
The only sounds I can hear are people having fun, the occasional peacock that inhabit the island and maybe the clinking of cocktail glasses as toasts are made by what may be a pair of honeymooners or just very relaxed parents.
In the evening there’s my favourite thing about the South China Sea to see, its sunsets. The science of sunsets is something I’ve come to understand but choose to forget every time I see one in this part of the world. The end of the day on the South China Sea is like creation itself celebrating the passing of light. The orange burns deep and lingers long as brush strokes of red and gold set alight the wispy streaks of cloud that appear to descend over the horizon with the sun.
With the remaining light I seek out one of the resorts peacocks to request my wakeup call for 0800.
My room is well appointed with my own private veranda that I only have to share with the peacocks. Most of the accommodation on the island is in the form of timber bungalows with various configurations to suit the requirements of travelers. Some of the bungalows are over the water or on the beach itself while others set in the jungle overlooking the beach.
Currently, the most frequent international travelers to Pulau Rawa are from Singapore. It’s easy to understand how appealing this island is to those on the bustling isle of Singapore. From the causeway linking Singapore to Malaysia, it is an easy two to three hour drive up the east coast of the Malaysian state of Johor to the port town of Mersing. From there the resort boat will meet you at the departure time of your choosing and have you on the island twenty minutes later.
The next morning I take the track literally around the edge of the island and discover a vast timber deck with sunlounges overlooking the sea and islands in the distance with nothing to obstruct your view.
Leaving the island walk path, I choose the jungle trekking option of a path that leads up to the summit of the island. It’s a steep climb surrounded by jungle and only a few hundred metres above sea level and once you get your breath back it provides a breathtaking 360 degree view of the island. It’s no mountain but up there I felt I was on top of the world and the world belonged to me. I couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t hear anyone. I was alone on top of a tropical island!
This is an intriguing island paradise. It’s far from undiscovered but far enough from the discovered to make it a true getaway.
If you want a South China Sea resort with parasailing, jet skis, kid’s pools and swim up bars you could borrow Pulau Rawa’s surfcat and set a coarse eastwards for the west coast of Borneo where you’ll find wonderful coastal resorts to the north and south of Kota Kinabalu, the port city and capital of Malaysian Sabah.
If you want a South China Sea Resort on an island you can walk around and up in a couple of hours, fall asleep on the beach, undisturbed by hawkers, and pick the time of your choosing to swim, sail, kayak, snorkel, scuba or just sit with a Long Island Iced Tea inches away from a sparkling shoreline then this is where you need to be.
As I sit on my duffle bag waiting for the boat to take me back to the port town of Mersing, I am given a message to say that the boat may be a little late. With nothing to do but nothing, I am happy to wait awhile. No man is an island but I am an island guy.
My final destination in Johor is the capital, Johor Bahru, located on the very tip of Johor, overlooking Singapore and linked to it by the ever busy causeway that is just over a kilometre in length.
As an indication of just how good the shopping in Johor Bahru is, the busloads of Singaporeans who come across daily really tell the story, particularly at the Johor Premium Outlets shopping centre featuring 130 premium brands and only an hour’s drive from Singapore.
Featuring designer label shops such as Gucci, Armani, Polo, Burberry and DKNY there’s plenty of time to shop with even the kids if you negotiate a deal to get in some shopping time if you take them to nearby Legoland, Hello Kitty Town or the very active Angry Birds Activity Park, often visited by the Johor Tigers Football Team for training.
Malaysian Airlines fly regularly to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore with great flight deals available throughout the year.
Muar is easy to get to by flying to Kuala Lumpur and arranging a hotel transfer or taxi to your Muar accommodation. For quality accommodation near the waterfront try the new Muo Boutique Hotel and enjoy the view from the rooftop bar that looks over the river to the Strait of Malacca and the setting sun in the evening.
The quickest way to Pulau Rawa is to fly to Singapore and drive to the port town of Mersing, two to three hours up the east coast of the Malaysian state of Johor. Taxi’s permitted to travel between Singapore and Malaysia are available for hire from Changi airport or a search online will offer several private companies from which you can select the vehicle of your choice for a safe, comfortable ride from Singapore to Mersing.
At Pulau Rawa all rooms are equipped with ensuite bathrooms, air-conditioning, wifi and cable television. The restaurant buffet caters for all cultures and ages. The Rawa Island Resort has a range of accommodation packages available throughout the year.
The writer travelled with Malaysian Airlines and was a guest of the Consul-General of Malaysia in Perth, Tourism Johor and Tourism Malaysia.