Going abroad for Lunch: Or, a day Trip to Malaysia

We live in the north of Singapore, very close to the kids’ school and Mark’s work. And Malaysia! As the crow flies, our house sits just over two kilometers from the Causeway, the first and busier of two bridges to neighboring Malaysia.

Johor Bahru’s skyline, as viewed from the Singapore side

Starting in March travel restrictions between Singapore and Malaysia starting loosening. I waited for the rush of the first few months of travelers to subside, then decided to make my first trip across. I asked my friend Tara if she wanted to join me on a day trip to Johor Bahru, Malaysia’s border town; she readily agreed. So we settled on a Monday, when the kids/husbands were at school/work and we could take our time to figure it all out.

After running through the not-super-efficient drill of downloading travel apps, uploading proof of vaccination, and navigating the bureaucracy–we were ready to go!

Tara and I begin our bus adventure!

The first decision was mode of transportation. We could drive a personal car over, but we decided to try the bus for our first trip. The bus looked pretty straightforward. First we would ride our local Singapore SMRT bus a few stops to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint (where we saw exactly zero trains or even train tracks). From there we could transfer to another SMRT bus that allegedly takes us across the border.

Except that the bus didn’t, actually, you know. Take us across the border.

Heading toward the oddly train-less Woodlands Train Checkpoint

The “across the border” bus drove us to from the train checkpoint to Singapore CIQ (Customs, Immigration, and Quarantine), where we queued to clear immigration just like at the airport. Then we boarded the bus again, and it drove us across the Causeway to another round of immigration and customs on the Malaysia side at Johor CIQ.

Tara snapped this totally forbidden photo during one of the day’s four immigration counter visits. ‘What can I say, I’m a rebel at heart,’ she replied when challenged.

So the time from my front door to the other side of Malaysia customs: 90 minutes. And the total distance covered: 4 kilometers.

Our house to Johor CIQ, the slowest 4 km ever

The exit from Johor CIQ leads directly into a shopping mall, City Square Mall. The stores looked mostly the same as what you would find in Singapore, with an unusually large number of eyeglass shops and hair salons represented. According to Trip Advisor’s page on Johor Bahru, five of the top six tourist destinations in Johor Bahru are shopping malls.

Tara and I grabbed a bite at the mall, then set out for our designated cultural stop. Unfortunately the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple closed at noon, right around the time that we finally made it out of immigration. So instead we headed for the Johor Abu Bakar State Mosque, figuring we had a 50/50 chance of being allowed in.

The guard politely but firmly turned us away from going inside (‘Muslims only!’), despite attractionsinmalaysia.com‘s claim that modestly dressed non-Muslim visitors were welcome. So we wandered the outside, admiring the Victorian/Moorish/Malay architecture of Johor’s state mosque.

A quick recap of the mosque: construction began under the eye of the first sultan of modern Johor, Abu Bakar (full name Sultan Sir Abu Bakar Al-Khalil Ibrahim Shah ibni Almarhum Temenggong Seri Maharaja Tun Daeng Ibrahim). He died in 1895, a few years before the mosque’s completion in 1900. I later learned that the Royal Abu Bakar Museum is right near the mosque, and I probably would have checked it out since I was already in the neighborhood. Maybe next time.

After the mosque we cabbed it back to (surprise!) another mall. Before our trip I found a large-ish looking music store there, and I decided to check it out to see if the boy might like to visit. He has gotten quite good at both bass and guitar, and visiting guitar stores while traveling has become a steady request. C&M Music looked pretty promising online, but frankly I found it only OK in person.

Many Singaporeans travel to Johor for basic shopping like groceries, clothing, and other life supplies. So our last stop was a local grocery store called Cold Storage, which we also have here on our side of the Causeway. I picked up a few things that were cheaper/different than in Singapore.

I haven’t seen Ruffles since the US! I got two bags

Then we headed back to the border and repeated the CIQ-bus-CIQ-bus-bus drill, spending another 90 minutes working our way back.

Johor CIQ

Tara and I speculated about the different means of crossing, observing the snaking queues of cars, lorries, and many, many motorcycles. I later found this cool infographic on Channel News Asia documenting different means across the Causeway. The most eye-opening segment by far? These pedestrians walking across Causeway without an actual sidewalk (!).

Motorcycles parked on the Johor side

Tara and I agreed that our trip was a worthwhile first trip across, and we were especially grateful that we had no children along. Everything took much longer than expected, and we definitely know what to do next time.

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