Johor Story 2: A Day Trip to Pekan Muar (麻坡) for Food, Coffee & Street Arts
Singapore-Malaysia land border had re-opened in April 2022 and I decided to revisit Muar (麻坡), specifically Pekan Muar, the royal town of Muar District in northern Johor, West Malaysia. This would be the first of my series of day trips to visit various districts (Kluang, Pontian, Batu Pahat, etc) in Johor in upcoming months.
On 25th May 2022, a Wednesday, I woke up at 6am and prepared for my trip to Muar. The journey from Johor Bahru to Muar was expected to be about 2.5 hours, so I would need to start the day early to reach Muar before lunch.
I reached Kranji MRT Station at 7:50am and boarded a waiting SBS Transit Service 170X to Woodlands Checkpoint. I was through Singapore Immigrations in less than 10 minutes.
Traffic on the Singapore-Johor Causeway was ultra-smooth on a weekday. I was through Malaysian Immigrations in another 10 minutes and walked to the bus bays below JB CIQ for Service 170 to Larkin Sentral. No buses were at the bus bays so I joined the short waiting queue.
A Causeway Link Service CWL arrived shortly at the bus bays opposite us and everyone in the queue rushed over to the bus. Most of the boarding passengers, including me, was surprised by the fare — RM2.60! It used to be RM1 in 2018, RM1.50 in 2020, went up to RM2 and now RM2.60. That actually made switching to CWL more expensive than continuing on Service 170. The time was 8:20am, I decided to wait a little longer for Service 170 — keeping my fingers crossed.
At 8:27am, Service 170 was still nowhere in sights but another CWL arrived. Seeing that I might miss the 9am inter-city bus to Muar if I waited too long, I boarded the CWL and paid the RM2.60 — to buy time.
The bus reached Larkin Sentral at 8:40am and I hurried to the manned Centralised Ticketing System counters to get the next ticket to Muar (passport required). There were short queues at all the counters. Automated ticketing machines were available as well that accepted “IC / Passport” but I was not sure if they would accept foreign passports (I will try that next time when not pressed for time).
I bought a 9am ticket for a Mayang Sari 30-seater bus at RM16.70. If I were to miss this bus, the next bus would be at 10am. I would not want to loiter around Larkin Sentral for an hour. After a quick visit to the washroom, I boarded the bus just 2 minutes before it departed at 9am after accounting for all its passengers.
All passengers were expected to sit according to their assigned seat numbers, but since I knew that the bus would not be full and would not be picking up more passengers along the way, I took another seat further from other passengers. Just a note that putting on a face mask at all time on the bus was mandatory.
The journey to Muar was approximately 170Km, taking about 2.5 hours. Time to relax. I recounted my objectives for this trip:
Eat mee bandung
Try / buy mee siput
Eat at Glutton Street
Buy otak-otak from Otak-Otak Cheng Boi
Have coffee at Kopi 434 & buy coffee powder
The bus arrived at Terminal Bentayan Muar (or Bentayan Bus Terminal) at 11:20am — 10 minutes earlier than expected.
The last time I was in Muar, about three years ago, the small town was flash-flooded after a heavy rain and I had to cut short my trip just after lunch. Apart from being marooned outside a closed shop for about an hour, I had to wade through knee-deep muddy water to get to the bus terminal to "flee" the water town. Seeing the cloudy sky, I hoped that it would not rain heavily this time.
I noted that Cafe 434 (or Sai Kee Kopi 434) was situated right opposite the bus terminal. The cafe was one of my objectives in Muar, and I would be visiting it towards the end of my tour, to have a coffee-break before taking the bus back to Johor Bahru.
There was an overhead bridge right beside the bus terminal for crossing Jalan Maharani, a rather busy road, but I decided to check out some nearby sights and skipped the overhead bridge.
The bus terminal was situated right beside the Muar River, which split Muar district into two. There were fishing boats moored along the riverbanks. Following Jalan Maharani towards the old town, I came to Sultan Ismail Bridge that spanned across Muar River. This bridge led to Malacca. Facing Sultan Ismail Bridge was Muar Clock Tower, less than 100 metres away in a roundabout.
Lazy to walk back to the overhead bridge, I crossed the busy road near the roundabout, walked passed the clock tower and proceeded to the historical town.
Muar was proclaimed as the royal town of Johor by the Sultan in 2012. It was a small town with well-preserved pre-war structures. Comparing to Malacca Old Town, Muar Old Town was less touristy, less crowded and more "local". Most tourists visited Muar for pilgrimages and the cheap local food here.
Following Google Maps on my phone, I walked to Wah San Kopitiam (华山咖啡店) where the famous Abu Bakar Hanipah stall was located. Once inside the shop, I ordered the Muar-originated mee bandung for RM7.00, 4 sticks of daging (beef) satay for RM1.00 each and a cup of traditional coffee (RM1.60).
The yellow noodle dish was added with dried shrimps, a boiled egg, some vegetables, bits of dried beef and topped with a sauce made from finely-ground spices. The thick gravy was well-blended so it would not be too spicy, too sour or too sweet. I had tried Abu Bakar Hanipah's mee bandung once before but I could not remember its taste after 3 years.
Apart from the noodle dish, the tender daging satays were nice too. They were grilled with a sweet sauce and served with a unique satay gravy that contained finely-ground peanuts and not spicy. The gravy was light-tasting and enhanced the meat rather than overpowering it. Was it Muar-style? Singapore's satay gravy used coarser peanuts and in Malacca, pineapple puree was added.
After finishing my food, the time was 12pm, I took to walking around the old town to look for murals and to digest the food — Muar was not a tourist town, so food, cafes and murals were probably the most common things tourists could do.
A large number of murals had appeared around Muar town over the last few years. I found some backlane artworks along Jalan Othman. The street arts were mostly about local culture and lifestyles. (I will just post one here.)
I revisited some of the murals that I discovered previously. The "Ferry" mural had a real-life row boat that had stayed intact over all these years. I also went to check out all the huge murals of Muar, starting with the "Action Actress" (刀马旦) hidden behind Kwong Siu Building (麻坡广肇会馆). The colours had started to fade but still as amazing as ever. Next was "The Bond" mural by Sabek, a Spanish street artist. Similarly, the colours were fading. And the very touching "Loving Sisters" by Julia Volchkova, a Siberian artist.
Not far from the "Loving Sisters", there was a (new?) Muar Cultural Walk with more murals on both walls along a narrow road.
It took me just one hour to go one round around the old town to rediscover the large murals and finding some of the new ones. But it was not my objective to look for all the murals this day.
As mentioned earlier, Muar Old Town was not a touristy town, so tourists would not find shops meant for them. i would explore the “new“ town of Pekan Muar on the next trip.
And I came to Jalan Haji Abu, right in the middle of the old town, where "Glutton Street" (贪食街) was located. There were stalls selling satay, wanton noodle, otak-otak, rice dumplings, pastries, traditional drinks, etc. There were two coffee shops offering more foodstuffs at each end of the Glutton Street. I was told that food could be purchased from the stalls and consumed in the coffee shops.
I had wanted to try some foodstuffs here but was still feeling quite full. The short walk had not helped me to digest. After walking up and down the street thrice, I finally settled for a you tiao (fried dough, RM1.20) and fried sweet potato (RM1.20) and a bottle of home-brew longan drink (RM3). I would be sure to feast at Glutton Street on my next day-trip to Muar.
At a pastry stall, I spotted some mee siput (麻坡螺面), which I had not tried before, and asked the stall owner about them. He showed me 3 types of the popular Muar snack: sweet (RM3/pack), less-spicy (RM2.50/pack) and spicy (RM2/pack). So, cheaper ones would be the most spicy? I bought 4 packs of the less-spicy ones to try at home (and it turned out to be quite spicy, I wondered how "spicy" would taste like).
I also bought some home-made sun cakes (太阳饼, RM5.50 for 5 pieces). I tried a piece of the sun cakes (later) and liked it very much as it was mild-sweet.
After loitering around Glutton Street for about 40 minutes, I decided to head over to Otak-Otak Cheng Boi to get some of their famous otak-otak. On the way there, I stumbled on a couple more artworks near to Muar Cultural Walk — I had missed them when I turned into the cultural walk. The unique feature of this mural was that it was engraved before being painted, giving it a 3D effect.
I found my way to Otak-Otak Cheng Boi (阿梅麻坡烏打) but it was closed. A quick check on Google Maps showed that it closed on Wednesday — sigh... I didn't do my homework. This was the second time I had missed the famous spiced fish paste wrapped in nipa palm leaves. The flash-flood during my last Muar visit had stopped me from going near the premise and this time, it was closed.
I had not tried the otak-otak at Glutton Street because I wanted to try the ones here. And ended up with me not being able to try any of them this day. Regret... (means I will be back!)
It was already slightly after 2pm when I came to Kopi 434 cafe. I had less than an hour to relax here, had a coffee before boarding the 3pm bus out of Muar. I ordered a cup of their elephant beans traditional coffee (RM4) and also their mee siput (RM4) to try.
(The locals often use the term "elephant coffee beans" to refer to the less-common liberica beans due to the larger size of the beans. It is also more expensive than arabica and robusta beans.)
The coffee was nice but the mee siput was a little too hard and not much taste. The snack used spicy sambal sauce to spice up the fried noodle. (I tried the ones I bought at the pastry stall later that night and found the noodle to be crispy, like prawn crackers, had a light fried noodle taste and tasted great with the accompanying sambal sauce.)
At 2:40pm, it was almost time for the returning journey. I used the washroom in the cafe and then head over to the counter to get a pack of the Elephant coffee powder (500 gm, RM21) and another pack of Kopi 434 coffee powder (500 gm, RM12.10). Both were for my father.
Back at Bentayan Bus Terminal, I went to the ticketing counters just below the overhead bridge to buy the ticket to Larkin Sentral at 3pm for RM16.70. As I was waiting in the bus terminal for the bus, I noticed that one of the shops sold mee siput for RM1.30 — would it be "very spicy"?
The City Express bus arrived at 3:12pm. I boarded the bus and took the seat according to the seat number printed on my ticket. It was a 40-seater bus but only half-full.
At 5:40pm, the bus arrived at Larkin Sentral. If I were to leave Muar at 4:45pm (the next bus after 3pm), I would probably reach Larkin at around 7:30 to 8:00 pm, taking into considerations that traffic might be slower during after-office peak hour. I would probably try that on the next trip.
I decided to have dinner at Larkin Sentral before heading home but the foodcourt on the 3rd floor had already closed for the day. I went to a "restaurant" near Gate 1, saw that the nasi biryani kambing (Indian long rice with mutton) was priced at RM15. I pointed at it and the staff scooped some nasi biryani rice on a plate and motioned for me to get what I wanted. Seeing that each piece of mutton was pretty small, I took two pieces, some potatoes and gravy and added a scoop of long beans. And ordered a small bottle of drinking water.
The total price came up to a shocking RM26.50! Then I saw the menu pasted on the wall above the stall. The rice alone was already RM7. Kambing rice was RM15, meaning that ONE small piece of mutton was RM8, and vegetable was RM1.50. That made the bottled water RM2. It was the most expensive mutton nasi biryani I ever had. Worst of all, the long beans tasted raw. The mutton was not too tough but I could not describe it as tender either. I should have gone for MacDonald or KFC.
After dinner, I walked over to Departure Gate 1-2. All border-crossing bus services to Singapore had shifted here from Gate 3-4 — not sure if it would be temporarily.
At 6:50pm, Service 170 arrived and I boarded the bus using my EZ-Link card instead of using ringgit. I would need to change to two other buses later and would be better to utilise distance-charging. It would be cheaper to pay the fare in ringgit if my destination was along Service 170's route. If going to Queen Street, I would use the non-stop Singapore-Johor Express (SJE) service.
Clearing both immigrations on a weekday evening were ultra-smooth. At 7:20pm, I exited Woodlands Checkpoint and boarded Service 160 for my way home.
For this Muar trip, I had focused mainly on the historical town, not the whole of Pekan Muar. I would be making another one or two trips to Muar again in the next few months to explore the "new town" of Pekan Muar and to find more interesting spots.
Mapped by IPT MapTrail
Check out the next story: Johor Story 3: A Day Trip to Pelangi & KSL City for Local Food