Johor Story 1: A Day Trip to Johor Bahru after Border Reopened
On early Saturday morning after the Good Friday holiday, I woke up to thunders roaring outside my bedroom windows. It was raining but not very heavily. I had planned to do a grocery-run in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, this day and was determined to carry it out regardless of the weather.
My last trip out of Singapore was to Johor Bahru on 1st January 2020 — more than two years ago. It was suffocating not being able to travel like I used to before the COVID-19 pandemic. And I was determined not to miss the opportunity to go over the border for a "breather" after it re-opened on 1st April 2022.
Fortunately, the rain stopped before I was out of my house at 7:30 am. I wished that the morning shower would put half-hearted JB-day-trippers back to bed. 😬
Public bus services, like Service 160, 170, 950, CW1-7 and Singapore-Johor Express (SJE), had yet to resume operations to Johor Bahru. The only option left for non-driving travellers to cross the Causeway was to get to Woodlands Train Checkpoint and walk to the departure hall of Woodlands Checkpoint. By the way, the shuttle train service between Singapore and Johor had yet to resume operation too.
(Update: Cross-border Services 160, 170, 170X and 950 was reinstated on 1st May 2022.)
I took MRT train to Kranji Station and switched to bus service 178 (alternative would be service 170 traversing a shorter distance but depends on arrival time too) to Woodlands Train Checkpoint. There were not much crowds since most commuters had crossed the border the day before, which was why I chose the second day of the long weekend to go over. It took about 10-minutes to walk to Woodlands Checkpoint and less than 2 minutes to clear Singapore customs.
One thing different at the Singapore customs was the new facial recognition system (with iris scanner) at the auto-clearance gantry in addition to the fingerprint scanner. I failed the first scan without knowing that I had to look at the camera (with mask off) and place my thumb on the fingerprint scanner at the same time.
After clearing Singapore customs, I put my phone to Airplane mode since I had no data plan in Malaysia and there was no need for it on a weekend trip.
At 8:54 am, I boarded the causeway shuttle service, operated by Causeway Link, for S$2.00 per passenger. It was acceptable to pay the fare in ringgit (RM6 per person). A passenger in the boarding queue in front of me put away his Singapore note and started digging for ringgits. Even though exchange rate was about 1 Singapore dollar to 3.10 ringgit that day, using ringgit to pay the fare would not result in much saving — not to mention that small ringgit notes might come in handy when in Malaysia.
There were hardly any vehicles on the Causeway and the shuttle bus reached Johor Bahru CIQ in less than 5 minutes. There were no queues at the Malaysia customs for foreign passport holders and I was through the immigration in less than 2 minutes.
Around 15 minutes was all it took to clear both Singapore and Malaysia immigrations. Due to the COVID situation, fewer day shoppers were going to Johor Bahru. On top of that, many Singaporeans with expired or expiring passports were still waiting for their new passports. And it would probably take months or even years for closed shops to reopen. Many people would rather "wait and see" a little longer.
At slightly after 9 am, shopping malls, including shops and money changers in JB Sentral, had yet to open for business, so I made my way to the bus terminal on the ground floor. I noted that the food outlet, called Sambal Sauce, beside the terminal was closed, a rare sight to see the usually-crowded eating place being vacated.
I boarded local bus service 39 (or service 208 / 227 ) that was waiting in the bus bay. I was heading to Taman Sri Tebrau, where Pelangi, Sentosa or Dai Mah Garden (大马花园) was located. Unsure if the bus fare was still the same as before, I asked the driver for the price to "Pelangi" like a first-timer taking the service. He used his fingers to indicate RM1.30 — good, no change in the fare.
The bus took less than 10 minutes to reach the bus stop near Crystal Crown Hotel, a stop after Plaza Pelangi, and I made my way to Taman Sri Tebrau (commonly known to Singaporeans as Dai Mah Garden), where I usually had breakfast while waiting for shopping malls to open at 10am.
I went for Hong Kong congee (again) at Kopitiam You Yi (友谊茶餐) and ordered my usual century egg with minced meat congee (皮蛋瘦肉粥), adding an egg and one fried dough stick for a total of RM9.70. The price had gone up a little since 2 years ago as expected. Same for the kopi-o with an increase of 20 sen from RM1.60 to RM1.80.
A QR code was pasted on the table, but I did not notice it until after finishing the congee. I took out my phone and scan the code with the MySejahtera app. It worked even without mobile data in Malaysia. Actually, this would need to be done before entering any shops and shopping malls.
(Update: With effect from 1st May 2022, scanning of QR code with the MySejahtera app at any premises was made optional.)
At around 10am, I made my way to Caring Pharmacy along Jalan Keris to get some medications. Two bottles of nasal decongestants and two boxes of antacid cost me RM50.20 (≈ S$16.40), similar items in Singapore would have cost me S$26. Another pharmacy, BIG Pharmacy, was situated just few doors away.
Another 10 minutes' walk took me to Pelangi Leisure Mall. There were fewer vehicles on the roads than before and hardly any cars in the open carpark outside the mall. Taman Sri Tebrau was far more quieter than it used to be.
I spent about 20 minutes in Mr DIY, on the second floor, browsing for things that could be of use to me. The Pelangi outlet was smaller than the one in Plaza Sentosa, and carried lesser goods. Some of the things that I needed were not available here. I purchased some air refreshers and a small pack of pebbles for planting use. There were no more than 10 shoppers in the shop.
My main objective for the day trip was buying grocery and some household items at Giant supermarket on the ground floor. I picked up a pack of instant noodle (10 pcs), instant coffee powder, pasta sauce, peanut butter, wedge potatoes, chicken nuggets, Yakult, a facial wash and some insect repellants. Not a lot of stuffs but the basket had gotten too heavy — I tried to avoid buying heavy stuffs since I had to lug them across the border. I paid RM130.75 for all the items. No doubt that prices of some items might have gone up a little, Malaysia-made products were still cheaper than in Singapore.
(A reminder that bringing goods worth more than S$100 back to Singapore in less than 48 hours are subjected to 7% GST on the excess amount. Do keep any receipts as proof of purchases.)
It was only 12:20pm when I left Pelangi Leisure Mall. Normally, I would go for lunch in Taman Sri Tebrau before heading back, but I was feeling quite full and decided to give it a miss. I headed straight to KSL City Mall with a heavy backpack on my back. It was a 25 minutes' walk under the hot sun — what happened to the rain?
My next destination was Ming Ang Confectionery near KSL City Mall where I used to get freshly baked pastries, especially their char-siew buns. When I reached KSL City Mall's exit along Jalan Serigala, I noticed a new shop opposite the exit, two doors away from Soon Soon Heng Bak Kut Teh — Ming Ang Confectionery had moved closer to KSL City Mall.
I went into the shop but could not see any of their chicken char-siew buns on the shelves. It was already 1 pm, were they all sold out? The shop assistants were all busy serving other customers so I left without asking. Anyway, I would be back again on the next trip to see if I could get the char-siew buns.
With most of my objectives accomplished, I walked into KSL City Mall to take a look. I did not explore all the levels but took a quick look from the ground floor. Most of the shops were opened and quite a number of shoppers but not as crowded as it used to be. Seemed like KSL City Mall had geared up for the border reopening. Then, I took the Causeway Link shuttle bus to JB Sentral. "S1" smiling bus was renamed to "F100" and I paid RM1.50 for the fare.
Back at JB Sentral, I helped my friend to acquire a Touch 'n Go card for RM65 (the card costs RM15 with a stored value of RM50) at a departmental store besides KFC. I also bought a loaf of bread and an anti-perspirant for my sister, which was imported from Vietnam and was not cheaper than in Singapore.
Just one last thing to do before returning to Singapore. My ringgits had run low and I want to find a money changer. There were two changers in JB Sentral offering 3.095 ringgit for S$1 but I wanted to check out the money changers in KOMTAR JBCC as they used to offer better rates before the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the overhead bridge leading to KOMTAR, I noticed a number of people crowding the entrance to City Square. They were all from Singapore, fumbling with their mobile phones, busy downloading the MySejahtera app, creating accounts and scanning the QR codes that were placed at the entrance. Security guards were there to make sure all visitors scanned the QR codes before entry. I skipped the crowd, walked to KOMTAR, scanned the QR code and went in.
I did not stay long in KOMTAR, all the money changers had closed down, most of the shops and restaurants stayed closed, and lights were off in some parts of the shopping centre. Bigger stores like Brands Outlet and F.O.S. were opened for business. It would probably take some time for all the shops to re-open or for new tenants to move in.
I wondered about the situation in City Square, which was hit the hardest when the border was closed. This could probably be another reason why there were not many day-shoppers from Singapore. I believed that Johor Bahru would still be pretty quiet for some time until the COVID situation improved further and businesses picked up pace.
As a matter of reasoning, if I were a business-owner, I would hesitate to start a new business, especially if it was geared towards Singaporeans, at this point in time as the outcome of the COVID situation was still hard to predict. If a new virus variant materialised and swept through the region, the border might be closed again. There would be losses from rental, renovation, goods acquisition and staff salary if the business was forced to close prematurely.
Back at one of the money changers in JB Sentral, I exchanged S$100 for RM309.50. Not that I needed the ringgits since I was about to head back to Singapore, it was for the next trip since money changers usually opened at 10 am.
The journey back to Singapore was again a breeze. No queues at the immigrations, no queue for the shuttle bus (RM2 from Johor Bahru to Singapore), no jam on the causeway and I was back on Singapore soil in less than 15 minutes.
My total purchases converted to Singapore currency was about S$93.15, so there was no need for me to declare my purchases for tax purpose even though I had kept all the receipts. My purchases was quite high this time due to the additional Touch 'n Go card and medications, otherwise it would normally be around S$40 ~ S$60 per trip for me.
And this ended my first day-trip to Johor Bahru in two years. Apart from being able to "travel" and get some grocery, I also made up for my missed weekend hiking.
Mapped by IPT MapTrail
I made another trip to Johor Bahru for more local food about a month later. Check it out: Johor Story 3: A Day Trip to Pelangi & KSL City for Local Food