All photographs by Marisse Caine and Toke Hong Loong.
As a child, I’d passed through Johor en route to KL or Malacca on family holidays, but never actually stopped off in the state capital. All my knowledge of the place was second-hand, gleaned from friends and acquaintances who, like salmon, seemed bizarrely inclined to travel upstream several times a year.
From what I could tell, the place could be summed up as: 1. Groceries. 2. Massages. 3. Cafe-hopping. 4. Insane checkpoint traffic jams.
The first 3 might be cheap, but are basically all things I could do within a 20-minute travel radius from my house. If I wanted to chill, I’d just … stay at home and sleep.
(Yes, I am one of those smug east-siders who think the world ends at Farrer Road, and anything north of Bishan is Malaysia. Sue me.)
So when one of my colleagues, Marisse, learned that my JB cherry remained intact, she was adamant that we should pop it ASAP. Before I could say, ‘But why?’, she’d talked our editor into sending the two of us, plus our colleague Toke, on a company-sponsored trip, deaf to my protests that it could not possibly be a holiday if I had to write a 1,800-word essay about it later.
Let’s go, she said. It will be fun, she said.
Forget the cafes, I’ll show you a side of JB you never knew existed.
What could possibly go wrong?
Long story short, by the time the three of us finally meet up at Woodlands Checkpoint, it is 3:00 PM, Toke is on his knees with a hangover, and I am slightly delirious from sleep debt. Only Marisse is smiling, complete with lipstick and an unbearable air of smugness at being the only functioning adult.
I contemplate turning around and going home or killing her, but get distracted by the sight of the immigration queue. The lines are so deep I can barely see the counters at the front.
“Probably about an hour,” pronounces Marisse, still smiling. Hell truly is other people.
When our car pulls up outside, we realise that Marisse wasn’t quite right. It’s not one treehouse but 14, built all the way up into the hillside. The highest one hovers nearly 400 steps above the road, nestled silently amidst the trees.
Next to me, Toke is muttering about how he can’t believe he’s in JB at all. I’ve never felt more like a hopeless city-dweller, or more embarrassed by this.
The owner, a mild-mannered guy by the name of Yao, is remarkably unbothered at having 3 strangers walk onto his property. As he offers us mulberry tea, brewed from herbs grown in the garden, he explains that he runs the place as a sort of eco-retreat, offering lodging and activities like jungle trekking and farming to visitors.
He and his three full-time staff are backed up by a team of volunteers and architecture students, who get to stay on the compound in exchange for helping him build the treehouses. While not exactly cut off from civilisation—there’s electricity, plumbing, and Internet access—his goal is to make the community as self-sustaining as possible: growing their own vegetables, building furniture out of recycled materials. There’s even a kindergarten on site, which draws students from around the wider JB area.
Eventually, Yao leads us up the stairs and into the trees, towards one of the higher treehouses. He explains that it’s still under construction, but when it’s finished it will be a library with a viewing gallery. We have to climb 300 steps, two floors, and one ladder to see it, but the view that greets us knocks the breath from my lungs.
Out of the holy silence floats a lone voice, growing steadily louder, till it soars rich and resonant over the hills. It’s the call to prayer.
As we watch the sun set, slipping inch by inch beneath the horizon, we don’t say a word. We don’t have to.
After greeting our host, Ireen, I spend the first 15 minutes wandering around in a daze, doing my best impersonation of someone who’s been hit over the head. The house is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
It’s massive, for one; McMansion kind of massive. (I still hadn’t found all the rooms by the time we left the next day.) Were this place in Singapore, I could sell both my kidneys and still not be able to afford it. But it’s in JB, so the residents pay less than RM 1,000 a month in rent, each. This isn’t even the most unbelievable thing about the place.
There are flower garlands and macrame hanging from the ceiling and a three-foot-tall Greek bust in the entrance hall. One of the rooms has been turned into a hair salon, one into a mini art gallery, and another into a photographer’s studio, complete with darkroom. Next to all this, the Japanese performances are positively boring.
A guy is getting inked in the bedroom-slash-popup-tattoo-parlour right across from ours. He catches me staring and raises an eyebrow; eyeing the elaborate designs on the wall (what do Yakuza tattoos look like?!), I back away into the corridor, which is lined with feathers, vintage clothes, posters from old art events, and detritus that looks like it’s been left over from Woodstock. The whole place, to that end, looks like the Friends loft by way of Woodstock, as though it belongs in 1970s San Francisco rather than the back end of Malaysia.
It’s glorious and insane and completely overwhelming after the peace of the treehouse. Marisse has disappeared in search of her friends, so I retreat to the couch in an attempt to process it all. A man plops down next to me and introduces himself as Loong: lawyer by day, cad by night.
“How does this place work?” I ask him.
He looks baffled.
“That’s a good question,” he replies. “I have no idea.”
I tell him I’m still a bit shell-shocked by everything at 11F. It’s like nothing I’d ever seen before, let alone expected to find in JB.
“In JB?” he laughs. “Clearly you know nothing about the place. We’re the Tijuana of Malaysia.”
“I just wanted to let you know that Zee Avi is playing in the living room,” he says.
I shove my laptop to the side and scramble after him.
Zee Avi, for those unfortunate enough to have never heard of her, is a Malaysian singer-songwriter indie queen, her voice like warm honey edged with cigarettes. She moved to the US in the mid-2000s and signed with a record label there, getting her music featured in Wal-Mart ads and playing at SXSW.
Zee’s songs were the soundtrack of my university days. I was introduced to her by my best friend, a Malaysian girl who used to play her songs while studying in her bedroom. Till today, it’s one of the defining memories of our friendship, the chords of Bitter Heart trickling through the walls of our shabby student flat as we sang the words back to each other.
And now Zee was here. In the Airbnb that I was staying in. Playing a gig in the living room.
I race out of the bedroom, all thoughts of productivity forgotten, and slot myself into the crowd. Everyone is enchanted by the 1.5m-tall queen in the middle of the room, holding court with her ukelele and black feather coat. She starts on Honey Bee, another old favourite, and I put my phone down and start to sing along.
After she plays her final song, Kantoi—a raucous, joyous jam which she plays with several other musicians, the crowd clapping and cheering and dancing along—Toke and Marisse, who’ve been watching the gig from the balcony, weave their way back into the room like Flotsam and Jetsam.
“We should try and get an interview with Zee,” they say.
“Oh my god,” I reply. “YES.” I start to move after them, and then look down. “No, wait. I can’t interview Zee in my underwear.”
I was so excited, I’d run out of the bedroom without remembering to change.
The next three hours are amongst the more surreal of my life.
We talk, and drink, and send Toke back to the kitchen for another round of G&Ts when Marisse and I run out. Zee explains that she began writing songs when she was 17, because of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again, Naturally, but it took her until she was around 21 to really find her voice. Her funeral song will be No Surprises by Radiohead. She tells us about moving back to KL from LA and we have a chat about reverse culture shock, the pain of finding yourself part of two worlds and not wholly in each.
She loves 11F, and has played here before, but hadn’t decided if she was going to stay the night this time, “So [I] came prepared”.
As if to make the point, she whips a toothbrush out of her coat.
Naturally, at some point, we start singing. I have my head in Marisse’s lap when Zee starts up on Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love For You, prompting the both of us to join in. My voice is scratchy from the alcohol and talking and terribly off-key, but Zee is too nice to say anything about it.
“Your voice is so manis,” she coos. I don’t believe her, but the moment is too magical to shatter. We decide to call our girl band the Doraemon Anonymous Club.
From there, the DAC makes our way through The Supremes and Norah Jones, then our respective mood-setting Spotify playlists: pre-party, commuting, 3:00 AM, Chet Baker. The last one gets us up and dancing, and before I know it, Zee and I are stumbling around in the grass, doing a very uncoordinated Charleston. Neither of us, I suspect, knows quite how we got here.
Somewhere around 3:30 AM, we finally decide it’s time for bed. The mosquito coils have burnt down, and in the excitement, Zee has lost her toothbrush. We run back through the wet grass to the house, dodging cockroaches, laughing like loons.
In our bedroom, Zee sprawls on the bed, poses for a photo, then gives us a rib-cracking goodnight hug. She kisses each of us enthusiastically, several times, on both cheeks. I feel like a five-year-old saying goodbye to Aurora and Belle at Disneyland. I don’t want the night to end.
“Join us for brunch?” I ask.
She smiles and breaks another of my ribs. “I’ll see you in the morning, my loves.”
After all the craziness of the first day, our last four hours in JB end with less of a bang than a whimper. It’s late morning by the time we wake up, which leaves us with just enough time to get some food and begin slouching our way back towards the Causeway.
We end up at a hipster cafe in the Jalan Dhoby area for lunch. The food (pesto baked eggs, surprisingly close to Singapore prices) is good, but the combination of exhaustion and post-party comedown has me poking listlessly at my meal. With caffeine in my system, gradually returning my brain to normal function, something about the weekend isn’t sitting right.
I watched the sunset from the hills, partied with a bunch of hippies, stayed up for half the night with one of my favourite musicians, and had one of the most epic weekends ever. I should feel high on life, but all I feel is … sad.
I had the most amazing time on my first trip to JB, I realise, and have therefore ruined it for myself forever.
JB, I see now, was never supposed to be about epic weekends. The whole point of once-in-a-lifetime holidays is their singularity: that, by definition, you cannot experience that kind of intensity ever again. For this reason, they’re best had in far-flung, exotic destinations, where their distance from everyday life helps keep their perfection inviolate: the Maldives, Iceland, Argentina.
JB, on the other hand, is three hours from my house. I could go back any time; tonight, even, if I wanted. But the curious alchemy of factors which produced that magic weekend can never be repeated, and I don’t see how any combination of cheap haircuts, massages, or lacklustre cafe food is ever going to measure up. In going out of my way to see the best of JB, I turned it into the ex that you end up measuring all future dates against, and our future relationship is going to suffer for it.
One week on, with the dust having settled on my post-holiday hangover, I’ve just about made peace with the fact that I’ll never be able to go back.
We’ll always have JB, I guess. And Zee Avi’s number in my phone.
This piece was not sponsored by Tourism Malaysia.
Did we do JB wrong? What should we have seen instead? Send us your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.