Johor Bahru



David Whitley takes an ill-advised day trip from Singapore and ends up in the hands of a con artist.


I’d finally made it across the Causeway, through the customs checkpoints and into Malaysia. With a growling stomach demanding attention, the first stop had to be somewhere serving chicken and rice rather than the palace.


And that’s where Martin comes in. “Do you mind if I join you?” he says, pointing at the only free chair in the cafe. He talked while I shovelled badly-needed sustainance down my throat. It turns out that Martin is a Singaporean businessman, in Johor Bahru for a meeting at a hotel. He also has a daughter studying at university near where I grew up in the UK.


I’ve come to Johor Bahru purely so that I can get a Malaysian passport stamp, and to maybe have a look at the Istana Besar palace. “It’s closed today,” says Martin. “But I’m early – I can show you around some other sights if you like.”


In the absence of a better plan, I go along with it. He hails a taxi, and off we go. He speaks to the driver in what I presume is Malaysian, and the magical mystery tour begins. What a cool way of seeing a city this is, I think.


It becomes immediately clear that there aren’t many sights in Johor Bahru. The guidebook did hint at this, but it had probably sugar-coated the reality. It’s a city of big roads, pollution and utilitarian buildings.


Martin, sensing my disappointment, suggests heading slightly further afield to a nearby village where the houses are on stilts above the water. That sounds pretty good, so we head out there. Naturally, it turns out to be a dirty, poverty-stricken hellhole. The stilts are made out of rusting metal, and the water is full of empty drink bottles and other assorted packaging.


We drive around for about 45 minutes in total, before Martin asks the driver to pull over in a random car park. “I have to go now,” he says. “The fare is 380 ringgit, plus 50 Singaporean dollars.”


Hang on a sec. He didn’t have the meter on did he? And that’s about... damn! 100 quid. I’ve been had. I try to argue with the driver, but Martin intervenes. “He doesn’t speak English.” I also don’t have that much cash on me. I can proffer just 100 ringgit.


“What else do you have?” says Martin. I dip back in and get 200 Singaporean dollars in my hand. “That is still not enough – I will have to pay the rest myself,” says Martin angrily, swiping the cash.


I get out shame-faced, realising that I’ve been completely duped, and that I’ve left my new friend in a rather sticky situation. Nevertheless, he is gracious, and gives me his e-mail address, offering to show me a few of Singapore’s best bars in the next couple of days.


It’s only on the bus back to Singapore that a few things dawn on me. Firstly, I speak decent Indonesian, and that’s practically the same as Malaysian – I probably could have negotiated with the driver myself. Secondly, why was the price in both ringgit and dollars? Thirdly, 100 ringgit and 200 Singaporean dollars is about 15 quid more than the original asking price.


Gah! It was Martin - not the taxi driver - who was diddling me. I’d fallen for a classic con – well dressed man, connections to home country, saying that a major attraction is closed and offering to play the guide.Needless to say, I checked out Singapore’s best bars on my own. And didn’t have much money to spend in them.






Mark Eveleigh reports from Melaka, 'the world's most haunted city,' and from the 'dark side' of Penang Island. 

"Of course I don’t believe in ghosts...but everyone knows they exist." The words of the Indian priest came back to me as I sat in the gloom of Melaka's old Portuguese fort. It was just past midnight and a sickle-shaped moon was throwing the dancing shadows of a tortured casuarina tree onto the jumbled stones of the ruin. I was sitting here for a bet but it occurred to me that an hour in company with the countless tormented souls who are supposed to haunt this crumbling edifice was a high price to pay for a couple of (admittedly inexpensive) beers!



Coming from an ordained Christian vicar, the priest's sentiments had surprised me. But then this was Melaka – often called the most haunted town in the world – and in this neck of the woods even the most stalwart realist understands that you ignore the local spectres at your peril. My thoughts jumped back to a similar warning I had received in Penang, that other historic town guarding the opposite end of the Straits of Melaka. At a temple somewhere just off the delightfully named Love Lane I had met a Chinese fortune-teller. He rattled a bundle of sticks in an ancient box that was decorated with indecipherable hieroglyphics and threw them on the table. He spent a long time analysing the way in which they fell…and then informed me that I was potentially involved in something that was 'dangerously beyond my understanding.'     

Since a British officer first had the bright idea of firing a cannon full of gold pieces into the dense jungles on Penang Island – inspiring the gathered Malay and coolie labourers to clear the rainforest in record time – the city of Penang has had a colourful history. Signs of colonial power remain in the form of the Fort Cornwallis battlements, City Hall and the imposing Eastern and Oriental Hotel but it is the Chinese who have left, and continue to leave, the greatest mark on Penang's character. Today Penang remains an atmospheric town of trishaws, shophouses, herbal pharmacies and temples that are permanently infused with incense. Some of the most remarkable buildings are the traditional kongsi clan-houses which are still maintained by donations from the descendents of 'Straits Chinese' who have settled all over the world. The most magnificent is certainly the Khoo Kongsi. It was so utterly ostentatious that, when it was built in 1901 (after 7 years of labour), nobody was truly surprised when the roof caught fire on opening night; the ancestors were clearly enraged that anyone had the audacity to build something so spectacular on mortal soil. 

In the seventh lunar month (normally around August) the gates of hell are opened and Penang officially becomes 'ghost-city central.' Hordes of ancient ancestors and recently departed swarm upon the town and local people hold feasts and make offerings, either in private homes or at the temples. Weddings, house-moving or big business deals are avoided and children are locked indoors after dark. The otherworldly guests must be appeased so that they do not feel tempted to take one or two of their hosts with them when they return to the 'lower world.'
Georgetown, Penang's capital, has the highest population of Chinese in Malaysia (over 90%) and ancient traditions are kept alive here long after they have all but disappeared even from China itself. 

Melaka too is largely Chinese and the graveyard on China Hill is said to be the biggest outside of China. Melaka's history was also marked by an impressive cast of desperadoes, heroes, vagabonds and villains. Many were apparently very reluctant to desert the town and, if local sentiments are to be believed, there are more otherworldly occupants in this city of 760,000 'souls' than there are flesh-and-blood inhabitants. I had been wandering in the old Christ Church graveyard – where pirates, adventurers and colonial soldiers have become perpetual neighbours – when I bumped into Dr Batumalai. The Indian vicar of an Anglican church, Dr Batumalai seemed to be a product of Melaka’s multi-national background: he conducts his services in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

There had been stories in Malay newspapers about an upsurge of bomoh spiritual healers in Melaka. Some were harmless herbal medics who would – for the price of a few eggs or a fighting cock – cure lovesickness or arrange a lottery win. But others had been implicated in evil even to the extent of planning human sacrifice. "Don’t get involved in what you don’t understand," the priest warned me when I asked about this. He fixed me with a stern eye and shook his head solemnly as if I was already a lost case. "Don't go to the bomohs. The spirits could drag you. My advice is if you can't swim don't go in the deep water!"

The traditional centre of activity for the bomohs was said to be the old Malay kampong, a delightful township of stilted houses with characteristic tiled steps. The stilts are useful here since this area is also home to a veritable army of giant reptiles. The monitor lizards (many 6 feet long) cruise the river or sunbathe on the dirt roads and in backyards. From time to time one of these formidable 'dragons' will snatch a chicken or, occasionally, a small dog but for the most part the human and reptile population live peacefully side-by-side. Traditionally the people of the kampong believed that on the day that one of their reptilian visitors is deliberately killed the entire monitor army will rise up and attack the village.

The majority of Melaka's old town centre is Chinese but to the south there is also a Portuguese fishing village. Until recently the language of the far-off homeland was still alive here and the community was predominantly Catholic. The Japanese too recognised Melaka's importance in their plans for a great empire. In the main square, in front of the beautiful red-painted church, there is a Seiko clock that was given to the town by the Japanese in apology for the occupation during WWII. It is said that if you press your ear against the base of the clock you can hear the howls of the tormented souls who died during the war years. I listened hard but could hear nothing. Not even any ticking; apparently, despite attempts by engineers, the clock has never been coaxed into functioning since it was put here. 

Just as the kampongs have always had their bomohs, the Catholic forefathers of Melaka too had their spiritual 'faith-healers.' The most famous of these was Saint Francis Xavier who arrived in Melaka in 1545 and quickly proved his sainthood, firstly by reviving a baby girl who had been dead for three days, and then by warning lucky sailors away from ill-fated voyages that were destined to end in shipwreck or plunder by pirates. After the saint died (of fever off the coast of Canton) his body was transported briefly back to Melaka and then to Goa, where it remains today. Legend has it that the earthly remains refused to decompose and over the centuries relics were cut off, as if from living flesh. As late as 1951 grave robbers removed the saint's left ear. The Vatican had already demanded their own 'pound of flesh' and in 1614 his right arm was cut off and sent to the Pope. 

A few metres from where I sat in the Portuguese fort, stands a statue to Saint Francis Xavier. It is all that remains of the saint in the town that was so important to him, yet even the fate of the statue was surreal. Within a very short time of it being erected here a lightning crash amputated the saint's right exactly the same point where the arm of the corpse was severed. Nobody ever found the statue's missing arm and it was just put down to another of the countless mysteries in the world's most haunted city. As for my own ghost-hunting? Well, I never heard or saw anything…but, as the priest would have said, I knew they were there all right!


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