Retailers in the hip Jalan Dhoby enclave in Johor Bahru say a sense of normalcy is slowly returning as locals are getting used to COVID-19.
By Khalil Adis
It used to take me almost an hour plus to take bus 160 from Jurong East to Johor Bahru.
However, since the COVID-19 outbreak, crossing the causeway is now a breeze due to the lull traffic.
One destination of choice that is incredibly popular among Singaporeans is at the hip Jalan Dhoby enclave.
Reminiscent of Georgetown in Penang, Jalan Dhoby is home to famous eateries making it a favourite haunt among tourists and photographers.
“Come, come! Feel free to take photos. You can even take photos inside,” said the friendly auntie at Hiap Joo Bakery while taking my orders.
Known for their flavourful banana cake and buns that are slow-cooked over wood in a traditional kiln, she admits that business has been gravely affected since the first coronavirus case was reported in Johor Bahru in January.
“Yes, of course. We used to have a lot of Singaporean customers but they are all scared to come to JB now,” she said matter-of-factly while wrapping up two packets of freshly baked banana cakes.
Despite the absence of Singaporeans, the bakery still remains popular among Johoreans as all their buns were already sold out by 2 pm.
Over at Siva Hairdressing Salon, located nearby at Jalan Pahang, its owner shared a slightly different take.
“Last two weeks was dead. Now, we are slowly seeing Singaporeans and tourists returning here,” said Mr Siva.
A glance outside his shop confirmed this, although their numbers are still significantly lower than before.
Meanwhile, next door, his daughter, who has just opened a chocolate shop called Act Spot, remained optimistic.
“We have many chocolates to choose from which are produced and sourced locally. Hopefully, more Singaporeans will come here once the situation has improved,” said Ms Jaya.
The lunchtime crowd at IT Roo Cafe located just opposite her shop is also slowly returning to normal albeit comprising mostly of regular local customers.
The good news is getting a seat here is no longer a problem.
In the past, you will have to wait till after 2 pm or sit alfresco style under the hot sun.
Just opposite IT Roo Cafe is Salahuddin Bakery which sells buns, curry puffs and other confectionaries which are cooked in a kiln, just like at Hiap Joo Bakery.
When asked if business has improved, the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous said that while it is not as good as before, customers are slowly returning.
“People are slowly coming back. Like it, or not, life will have to go on,” he said.
Over at Santai2, a massage parlour that specialises in traditional Malay massage, the shopkeeper said business is not as robust as before.
“At first, human traffic was greatly affected by the road works which has now completed. After that, we were affected by the coronavirus outbreak. We used to see a lot of Singaporean customers,” she said.
As I made my way to Al-Fayeed Cafe for dinner, business appeared busy as usual.
Known for its mix of Western and local dishes as well as delectable shisha offerings, Al-Fayeed Cafe continues to attract a strong Johorean crowd, albeit slightly younger.
“People here are a bit more laid back although they are aware of the coronavirus outbreak,” said a server.
Judging from my recent day trip to Johor Bahru, it is clear that the unwavering spirit among Johoreans is alive and well as they remain steadfast in the face of COVID-19.
If you want to avoid the crowd, this is now the best time to explore Johor Bahru.
Just make sure you take the necessary precautions such as washing your hands frequently and wearing a face mask if you are unwell.
Here are some of the places to explore:
#1: Hiap Joo Bakery
13, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
Hiap Joo Bakery is one of JB's best-kept secrets that it reportedly counts the Sultan of Johor as one of its fans.
Renowned for their coconut buns and freshly made banana cakes, many locals make a beeline for them.
In fact, their coconut and kaya buns are so popular that they usually run out by noon.
What makes Hiap Joo Bakery authentic is its old-school method of cake-baking which it inherited from its former British owner.
All the cakes and buns are baked in a classic wooden kiln which leaves them with a unique charcoal aftertaste.
If you still can't get enough of its freshly made cakes and buns, fret not!
You can buy its very own kaya spread to savour it from the comfort of your home.
#2: IT Roo Cafe
17, Jalan Dhoby, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
For lunch, head to IT Roo Cafe located just around the corner.
Touting itself as having "the best chicken chop in town", you can choose to have it either grilled or fried with a choice of mushroom or black pepper sauce.
The dish comes complete with a serving of coleslaw and fries.
Aside from its signature dish, IT Roo Cafe also serves up popular local dishes like fried rice and noodles.
#3: Act Spot
6A Jalan Pahang, 80000, Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
Act Spot is a local chocolatier that sells an assortment of flavoured chocolates such as hazelnut, cappuccino and tiramisu.
Produced and sourced locally, the chocolates are touted as a healthy alternative as they are less sweet, non oily and with zero trans fat.
The chocolates come in an attractive packaging and are priced from RM10 onwards.
#4: Salahuddin Bakery
26, Jalan Dhoby, 80000, Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
Salahuddin Bakery is one of the oldest bakeries in Johor Bahru that has been around since 1937.
They specialise in triangular-shaped curry puffs that are filled generously with beef and potato fillings as well as coconut and red bean buns.
Aside from its signature curry puffs, the bakery also sells an assortment of confectionaries.
What makes Salahudin Bakery a draw is its old school method of baking inside a kiln which you cannot find elsewhere (except at Hiap Joo Bakery).
Prices start from RM1.70.
#5: Al-Fayeed Cafe
Off Jalan Pahang, 80000, Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
Fancy a serving of shisha?
Well, look no further than Al-Fayeed Cafe which is also located within walking distance.
Prepared by tattoed servers with technicoloured dyed hair, there are many flavours to choose from with an option to have it served with ice.
Al-Fayeed Cafe also serves up popular side dishes such as fries to go along with your shisha.
For those who prefer a heartier portion, the cafe also offers a wide selection of Western and local dishes at very reasonable prices.
Music can get a tad bit loud with popular hip-hop tunes and EDM club bangers blaring from the speakers.
#6: Pasar Karat
Jalan Segget, Bandar Johor Bahru, 80000, Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
Stock up on those pomades in various fragrances or shop for handphone covers at this night market located just a stone throw's away from the heritage area.
Pasar Karat which means rusty market comes alive from 7 pm onwards and attracts a strong Johorean crowd.
Selling just about anything from exotic pets to Malay kuehs, the night market gets especially busy during Ramadan as many would throng the market as they gear up for Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
Offering foot massage and traditional Malay urut, Santai2 is a welcome respite after all those walking.
Foot massage starts from around RM45 while a full body traditional Malay urut is priced from RM65.
Both male and female therapists are available.
An independent analysis from yours truly