Complete Your Cafรฉ-Hop Adventure Near The JB Customs At These Cool Dessert Places

Cool dessert places near JB customs

Have you tried the list of chic cafes just across the causeway in Johor Bahru (JB) city centre featured in my previous post yet?๐Ÿ˜‰ If you are still pondering whether it’s worth a trip making your way down, here’s a compilation of cool dessert places to tempt you further. Complete your cafe-hop adventure near the JB customs at these cool dessert places!๐Ÿ˜‰

JB City Square

This shopping mall connected conveniently to the JB customs is no longer just a typical shopping mall with boring franchise restaurants & fashion stores. There is an increasing number of interesting restaurants & cafes that has began operations in JB City Square, some of which I had introduced in my earlier post in July. Here are 2 more cool dessert places that only opened its doors to customers this year. In fact, I’m looking forward to Caffe Bene’s opening on level 3 as well!๐Ÿ™‚

1. Seol Won (์„ค์›)

seol-won

Seol Won, which means “snow” in Korean, is a Korean dessert cafe. Located on level 3’s Innercity section, remember to walk right to the end of this section so that you can find the hidden gem just in front of the Korean restaurant Bornga (๋ณธ๊ฐ€). Seol Won began operations on 19 June 2016, selling popular Korean desserts, i.e. Bingsu of various flavours/ toppings and Injeolmi toasts.

I’ve been there twice, 1st was out of curiosity because I read about it online from other foodies & I wanted to check it out for myself. To be frank, I was not pinning high hopes at 1st because I personally thought the best would still be in Korea (my benchmark was Sulbing’s ultra smooth shaved ice). But I was so surprised when the 1st spoonful of green tea shaved ice glided so smoothly down my throat! :O Not only was the shaved ice standard very close to what you can get in Korea, the scoop of green tea ice cream for my Green Tea Bingsu (MYR 22.90, S$ 7.60) was said to be imported from Kimchi land. Very aromatic taste of real green tea. Love the morsels of injeolmi in my bingsu too.๐Ÿ™‚

Impressed by this great value-for-money bowl of Korean dessert, I introduced my friends to Seol Won recently & we tried the Injeolmi Bingsu (MYR 15.90, S$ 5.30) after dinner. The shaved ice standard remains, just without the yummy ice cream scoop. While both are nice, my personal favourite is still the Green Tea Bingsu. If you love the Korean dessert, be sure to pop by Seol Won on your next visit to JB. It’s not just cheaper than Singapore, but it’s also really quite close to the authentic version!๐Ÿ˜‰

Address: Lot MKF-01 & 02, Level 3, Johor Bahru City Square

Open: 10 am to 9.30 pm daily.

Official website: Facebook

2. Yokosuka Curry House

The tiny shopfront of Yokosuka Curry House

The tiny shopfront of Yokosuka Curry House

No, I’m not introducing a savoury dessert, although the name of this shop says it sells curry (Japanese curry, to be precise). The star at this little eatery bar just 2 stores away from Seol Won is the popular Japanese dessert – Mizu Shingen Mochi (ๆฐดไฟก็Ž„้ฅผ). In case you don’t already know what this famous dessert from Japan is, it’s a very special & delicate cake that looks like a huge drop of water magically suspended in solid form. The original Mizu Shingen Mochi was created by the Kinseiken Seika Company in Yamanashi Prefecture. Made from water from the southern Japanese Alps, this delicate cake retains its shape only for about 30 min once itโ€™s served at room temperature.

Mizu Shingen Mochi

Mizu Shingen Mochi

Also known as the Raindrop Cake, you can choose from either the original flavour or green tea flavour (both priced at MYR 5.90+, S$ 2+ each). I ordered the original flavour to try. This clear jelly-like cake was actually tasteless but the roasted soybean powder & brown sugar syrup toppings helped to make the dessert flavourful. Don’t forget to eat it within half an hour otherwise it will be gone!๐Ÿ˜› Enjoy the light dessert without the guilt of piling on unwanted calories here, at half of the price you pay in Singapore.๐Ÿ˜‰

Address: Lot MKF-04, Level 3, Johor Bahru City Square

Open: 10 am to 10 pm daily.

Official website: Facebook

Jalan Dhoby

Jalan Dhoby is situated within the JB city centre, where many other hipster cafes can be found. Just along this stretch, you can find 3 ice cream cafes close to one another. Such fierce competition where only the best will survive! In fact I wanted to write about another ice cream cafe (By Grace) too along the next street (Jalan Trus) but realised that it has shut its doors earlier this month. >.< Read on to find out more about the remaining 3 dessert places here.๐Ÿ˜‰

3. Sangkaya

sangkaya-shop

Chanced upon the popular Malaysia founded creamery cafe brand in January this year when my friend & I were cafe-hopping in the area. Then, the Jalan Dhoby branch had only opened for about a week & hence bouquets of flowers were still placed at its entrance. I still remember after checking out its signature coconut ice cream, we asked each other how could the cafe sustain just by selling this sweet delight? Little did we know it’s actually a well-known brand with at least 36 outlets in Malaysia! ็œŸๆ˜ฏๆœ‰็œผไธ่ฏ†ๆณฐๅฑฑ๐Ÿ˜›

sangkaya-signature

As its tagline suggests, Sangkaya is “nuts about coconuts”. Using fresh local coconut milk as the base for its creamery products, customers will be able to find the coconut not just in its signature ice cream, but also as a beverage or in other forms of dessert. I’ve been there on 2 occasions, & both times I had their Signature 4-scoop ice cream served in a baby coconut (MYR 9.90, S$3.30). After picking up the coconut at the counter, we could help ourselves to the toppings placed by the counter (coconut flakes, roasted peanuts, corn flakes, cereal, sweet corn, red beans & chocolate sauce). We were only allowed to top one time with no extra charge, up to as much as our little coconut could hold. Love the coconut ice cream & coconut ‘cha yen’ ice cream that were really fragrant & creamy. Of course, it was good to be able to bite into the fresh coconut flesh after finishing the ice cream.๐Ÿ™‚

Address: 14 Jalan Dhoby 80000 Johor Bahru

Open: 1 pm to 11 pm (Sun to Thu); 12 pm to 11.45 pm (Fri & Sat).

Official website:ย http://sangkaya.co/#ath; Facebook

4. Koone Softserve

koone-softserve-shopJust across the street from Sangkaya is this striking pink ice cream cafe known as Koone. Koone opened its doors to customers since 12 Nov 2015. Past its cool swinging door at the entrance, & you will be welcomed by a bright & airy looking 2-storey cafe interior. Take your pick from the simple & straightforward menu & order your desired soft serve at the counter.

koone-softserve-ice-creams

Most of the soft serves here are priced at MYR 15 (S$5) each. We tried the Nano Yoghurt & Uji Matcha Azuki which were not only pretty to look at (& snap pics with), but also a delight to eat. If you notice, there are 2 cups being used for each softserve. Dry ice is added to the outer-layer cup for that dramatic effect (& probably to keep it cold for longer time). Be fast if you wanna snap pic of the “smoky dessert”!

NB: Word of caution, the smooth soft serve melts pretty quickly, so don’t take too long to grab your best shot!

Address: 30 Jalan Dhoby 80000 Johor Bahru

Open: 12 pm to 9 pm (Mon to Thu); 12 pm to 11 pm (Fri to Sun).

Official website: Facebook

5. TIP, The Ice-Cream Project

TIP's Cocoraya ice cream

TIP’s Cocoraya ice cream

Just beside Koone Softserve is another ice cream cafe – TIP, The Ice-Cream Project. This cafe has a lovely swing just outside its entrance, which I mistook it as Koone’s property in the past hehe. As I don’t usually visit Jalan Dhoby area in the afternoon, its doors remain closed whenever I pass by, hence the mistake. So anyway, in late July, I finally managed to check it out as I was in the area after 3 pm.

Since it was the Hari Raya Puasa period, they had a Cocoraya ice cream (MYR 14/ S$ 4.70), specially created for the festive period. The 2 big scoops of coconut ice cream were sprinkled with coconut shredding & topped with a homemade sauce (can’t really tell what it was from the taste). Very rich & creamy, coconut lovers would definitely love it! Just that I find it a tad sweeter than Sangkaya’s. There are many other flavours available but I didn’t really take note of its offerings. They also serve coffee & tea to go along with the homemade dairy delight.

Address: 31 Jalan Dhoby 80000 Johor Bahru

Open: 3 pm to 10 pm (Sun to Thu); 3 pm to 12 am (Fri & Sat).

Official website: Facebook

So, with these 5 cool dessert places to check out, at more wallet-friendly prices compared to Singapore, surely they will make your JB cafe-hop adventure more complete? End your wallet-friendly adventure on a sweet note without a hassle of travelling too far away from JB customs!๐Ÿ™‚ Check the map below for the exact directions to get to chill at these cool dessert places!

NB: 
"+" for prices = additional 6% GST. 
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MORE Cafe-Hopping On A Shoestring Budget Near The JB Customs

cafe-hop-series-jb-customs

It’s been over a year since my cafe-hopping adventure started across the causeway. Remember my 1st Johor Bahru (JB) cafe-hopping post last August?๐Ÿ˜‰ Since then, it’s a “road of no return”, with an average of 1 day trip per month to JB.๐Ÿ˜€ With 1 year of experience, a pile of fading receipts and photos waiting for me to compile, I think it’s high time to write another post to share what I know.

Just some simple walking directions to the cafes within 10-15 min walking distance from the JB customs. As the Jalan Wong Ah Fook overhead bridge linked to City Square Shopping Mall has been demolished,ย  exit from the ground floor instead, at the door beside J.Co Donuts. Cross the short but busy road (currently undergoing some big construction) & you will see a bank. On the right side, there’s a flight of stairs which you should take to head to Jalan Trus.

Here’s the handy list of cafes you can hop to, particularly for those who do not drive (like me) in JB. A least we know we can still cafe-hop conveniently & comfortably without the need to drive or worry about the trouble of haggling over taxi fares.๐Ÿ˜‰

1. Faculty of Caffeine (F.O.C.)

F.O.C. is on your left as you walk along Jalan Trus from City Square Shopping Mall JB

F.O.C. is on your left as you walk along Jalan Trus from City Square Shopping Mall JB

As the 1st cafe you will reach if you are walking to Jalan Trus / Jalan Dhoby area from JB Customs/ City Square, Faculty of Caffeine is hard to miss. Furthermore, it is also the nearest & earliest cafe open from 9 am in the morning. So if you get in early to beat the jam, this is THE cafe for you while you wait for the others to open.๐Ÿ˜‰

Late last year till March 2016, F.O.C., one of the pioneers to the happening cafe scene in JB, was closed for renovations. It took me about a year to revisit the industrial concept cafe earlier this month. I must say it’s a wonderful renovation they did. The cafe looks brighter and more spacious now, & the menu has also been revamped to include more exciting dishes.๐Ÿ™‚

From top left, clockwise direction: Hazelnut Latte, Maple & Butter Pancake, Salted Egg Soft Shell Crab Pancake

From top left, clockwise direction: Hazelnut Latte, Maple & Butter Pancake, Salted Egg Soft Shell Crab Pancake

There aren’t any all-day breakfast items after the revamp. The closest brunch items you can find should be the pancakes above, albeit served creatively with fried chicken, soft shell crab etc. However, since July 2016, Italian spaghetti and Japanese ramen dishes have also been introduced to the new menu. I have yet to try them, but they do look appetizing (& wallet friendly).

Just to share what I had tried so far since the revamp:

Hazelnut Latte (MYR 11+/ S$3.70+) – richly flavoured with a nice coffee aroma;

Maple & Butter Pancake (MYR 13.90+/ S$4.60+) – simple dish, but I was blown away by its fluffy texture, & the maple syrup + butter enhanced the taste.

Salted Egg Soft Shell Crab Pancake (MYR 28.90+/ S$9.60+) – Aesthetically pleasing dish. I didn’t try due to allergy, but my friend gave it a thumbs up.

Address: 106 Jalan Trus, Johor Bahru

Open: 9 am to 6 pm daily except Tuesday.

Official website: Facebook

Expected damage: Beverages: MYR 8 – 12+; Food: MYR 13.90 – 28.90+

2. The Replacement – Lodge & Kitchen

the-replacement-decor

Opened by the same folks behind F.O.C., The Replacement – Lodge & Kitchen stands out amidst other cafes in JB old town with its clean white facade. The cafe adopts a minimalist pure white concept throughout. It is also a lodge (hence the name), being the only hostel in the area offering bed & breakfast for budget travellers.

The Replacement is a very popular cafe, with queues commonly seen on weekends. Even on weekdays, it is often filled especially during meal times. Customers can be drawn to the cafe with a pleasant & cosy ambience for the 1st time, but to keep people coming in, of course the F&B has to be of certain quality too.

Happy teatime: Original Chocolate Churros, Mocha, Rose Latte

Happy teatime: Original Chocolate Churros, Mocha, Rose Latte

the-replacement-lodge-brunch

I visited the cafe twice. Both visits left me positive impression of The Replacement with its all-day brunch and coffee.

Rose Latte, hot (MYR 11+/ S$3.70+) & iced (MYR 12+/ S$4+) – quality of its coffee beverages is the same as F.O.C.

Original Chocolate Churros (5 sticks, MYR 14+/ S$4.70+) – love the rich dark chocolatey sauce that came with the “crispy on the outside, soft on the inside” churros.

B&B French Toast (MYR 18.90+/ S$6.3+) – really caught us by surprise after sinking our teeth into the homemade brioche bread pan-fried with egg & butter, as we didn’t expect french toast to be that nice.๐Ÿ˜› The toast was crispy yet fluffy. This dish has a perfect balance of sweet & savoury taste with the scoop of vanilla ice cream, caramelised banana & bacon slices complementing one another.

Address: 33-34 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru

Open: 9 am to 9 pm daily.

Official website: Facebook

Expected damage: Beverages: MYR 8 – 12+; Churros: MYR 14 – 19.90+; All-day brunch: MYR 16.90 – 26.90+

3. Flowers In The Window (F.I.T.W.)

Like a cafe in the garden :)

Like a cafe in the garden๐Ÿ™‚

Located opposite The Replacement, Flowers In The Window is a beautiful garden-concept cafe just a few stores away from its big brother Roost Cafe. Enter its entrance with green ferns hung on the ceiling, & you will find yourself surrounded by floral decorations everywhere in the 2-storey cafe. From level 2, you can look down at the chic open-concept kitchen, amidst the greenery. Open only in the beginning of the year, F.I.T.W.’s quaint carpentry-cum-verdant theme & incorporation of edible flowers & fresh ingredients into its menu has earned the cafe quite a following.

My special drink with a slice of homemade carrot cake

My special drink with a slice of homemade Purple Carrot Cake

I only visited the cafe once so far, but F.I.T.W. has become my favourite cafe in this area. The 2nd level was almost full house when I visited on a Thursday afternoon. Pardon my poor memory for not remembering the exact names of my drink & cake. but they were really great recommendations by the staff.

The special drink (based on what receipt said), think it was Green Apple Lemonade (MYR 14.90++/ S$5++) – just a word of caution: the sourness took some getting used to. Nonetheless, it was really refreshing, good for quenching thirst on a scorching hot day.

Purple Carrot cake (MYR 11++/ S$3.70++, sorry receipt simply listed as “cake”, so I don’t remember actual nameย  -_-) – it was 1 of the best cakes I’ve ever eaten! I’m kind of surprised why such a delightful slice of cake was cheaper than the drink? Perfect density & moisture, & there were shredded carrot bits in the cake for the crunchiness. Oh, I must thank F.I.T.W. for letting me know that purple carrot exists too, just that they are seasonal.๐Ÿ˜›

The prices here maybe a bit higher than other cafes in the area, but don’t let that deter you from trying its wholesome offerings!

Address: 9 Jalan Dhoby, Johor Bahru

Open: 10 am to 9 pm daily except Tuesday.

Official website: Instagram

Expected damage: Beverages: MYR 9 – 16.90++; Mains: MYR 18 – 29++; Cakes/ Sides: from MYR 6++

4. Bev C’afe

Bev C’afe is another hip cafe in JB, known as a 2-in-1 cafe cum fashion boutique along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. All these while, I only passed by but never checked out the cafe, despite seeing people rave about it often online. There was once my friend & I went in to the cafe, but walked out quickly after scanning through the menu. Its offerings look pretty standard like the others, with coffee and cakes, but at a higher price. It was until recently that I finally decided to check it out, so that I understand what the hype is all about.๐Ÿ˜‰

My post-lunch dessert: Ice Peach Tea & Gula Melaka Banana Cake

My post-lunch dessert: Iced Peach Tea & Gula Melaka Banana Cake

The fashion boutique is on level 1 & you have to climb up 2 flights of steep stairs to the retro-looking cafe. There’s a small indoor seating area (8 table seats + 4 or 5 bar seats) as well as an outdoor seating area. I chose the indoors because it was too hot outside.๐Ÿ˜ฆ I came here after lunch for some cake/ dessert & tried the following:

Iced Peach Tea (MYR 12.24/ S$4.08) – sweet & refreshing, though nothing really wow about it๐Ÿ˜›

Gula Melaka Banana Cake (MYR 19/ S$6.30) – wholesome with real banana bits in between the layers. Fortunately it wasn’t overly sweet although gula melaka was used. Now I know why this is their signature cake & sells out quickly!

On the downside, Bev C is 1 of the priciest cafe in the area. But I guess Singaporeans should still find the price acceptable compared to our own cafes back home.

Address: 54 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru

Open: 12 to 8 pm on Sundays, Tuesdays to Thursdays, 12 to 10 pm on Fridays & Saturdays. Closed on Monday.

Official website: Facebook

Expected damage: Beverages: MYR 5.20 – 17.90; Pastries: from MYR 10.60

5. ่Š‚ไปค้ผ“ Drums Cafe

drums-cafe-decorDrums Cafe is the latest addition to the cafe list in the old town, opened only on 4 April 2016. The cafe is uniquely themed around the Malaysian 24 Festive Drums (24 ่Š‚ไปค้ผ“), with its 2nd floor catered for drum classes. Although the number of drums hung up in the cafe is less than 24, it’s interesting to read about the origins of this cultural heritage in Malaysia, while you enjoy the Asian main courses, coffee & pastries here.

I was the only customer during lunch on my day of visit, while some other more popular cafes were quite packed. I wonder is it due to the inconspicuous corner location or the food? But I’m glad I decided to stay on.

drums-cafe-food

Originally, I had set my mind to order its Ampang Yong Tau Foo, as I wanted something different from the usual cafe fare. Sadly, the staff told me they have recently removed this main course from their menu due to change in partner.๐Ÿ˜ฆ I took her recommendation to try their new fusion main course, as she claimed it was a Johor special.

Laksa Spaghetti (MYR 15.90/ S$ 5.30) – when the spaghetti was served, it didn’t look too delicious to me. In fact it looked too raw, plate full of raw onions, cucumbers, bean sprouts etc. But once I mixed them altogether, I realised the thick laksa gravy was at the bottom. This was a drier laksa version compared to the laksa we are familiar with. I fell in love with the flavourful & spicy dish the moment I took a bite. Shiok! Btw, please let the staff know if you can’t take seafood like me. Otherwise the Laksa Spaghetti will be served with prawns. I had yummy crisp chicken wings to replace the prawns.

Tropical Mixed Fruit Tea (MYR 11/ S$3.70) – a tad too sweet for me.

I didn’t order Latte or the likes as I thought it would be too potent to have milk & spicy food together haha. There’s quite a range of hot & cold beverages, in addition to local ice desserts & pastries. I shall try them another time. Keep fingers crossed their business will pick up so they don’t disappear too fast!๐Ÿ˜›

Address: 39 Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Bahru

Open: 11 am to 8 pm Mondays to Thursdays, 11 am to 10 pm on Fridays, 10 am to 10 pm on Saturdays, & 10 am to 8 pm on Sunday.

Official website: Facebook, Instagram

Expected damage: Beverages: MYR 4.50 – 15; Main courses: MYR 9.90 – 19.90; Snacks: MYR 7.90 – 29; Desserts & pastries: MYR 6.90 – 14.90

6. Maco Vintage cafe

Maco Vintage cafe

Maco Vintage cafe

Head to your right as you leave Drums Cafe & walk down this street for 1 min to Maco Vintage cafe. The signature here is its Mille Crepe Cake selection, but it does offer a full-course menu from drinks, appetisers to main courses like spaghetti & pizza. The owner – Maco, graduated from SHATEC & worked in Singapore for close to 10 years as a pastry chef, before returning to JB to set up Maco Vintage.

Roasted Almond Milk (back) & Chestnut Mille Crepe (front)

Roasted Almond Milk (back) & Chestnut Mille Crepe (front)

There is a wide selection of mille crepe cakes in different flavours. I was a bit lost which to order but eventually I decided to try the following:

Chestnut Mille Crepe (MYR 9.50/ S$3.20) – well done piece of cake, baked to the right moisture & density. Better than the mille crepe I tried before at Humble Beginnings.

Roasted Almond Milk (MYR 10.90/ S$3.60) – almond lovers will love the strong almond flavour in this beverage.

FYI, Maco Vintage doesn’t serve free iced or warm water.

Address: 18 Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Bahru

Open: 9.15 am to 6.30 pm daily except Saturdays: 9.15 am to 9.30 pm.

Official website: Facebook

Expected damage: Beverages: MYR 7 – 15; Main courses: MYR 16 – 20; Mille Crepe: around MYR 9.50

*SPECIAL* Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory

hiap-joo-bakery

I was in dilemma whether to write about Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory, next to Maco Vintage cafe for the longest time. Why? Because so many Singaporeans have flocked to the traditional bakery, creating long queues outside the small cramped shophouse so often.๐Ÿ˜ฆ In addition, strictly speaking, it’s not a cafe per se. But well… you just have to buy some delish cakes & buns from Hiap Joo when you are already so nearby!๐Ÿ˜‰

Established since 1919, Hiap Joo has stuck to its tradition of baking its cakes and buns using wood fire oven for generations. Guess it was the locals’ best kept secret until social media got wind of it. Good to know that everything here is baked without the use of preservatives. So we can all eat the yummy pastries here with peace of mind.๐Ÿ™‚

The legendary Banana Cake (small)

The legendary Banana Cake (small)

hiap-joo-buns

Hiap Joo’s most famous offering is none other than the legendary Banana Cake (5 pcs small: MYR 4.80/ S$1.60; 10 pcs large: MYR 9.60/ S$3.20). In fact, I wasn’t a fan of banana cakes till I took a bite of this moist & aromatic pastry, thanks to my sis.๐Ÿ™‚ Because of this legendary cake, long queues form in front of the shop often, as the cakes are baked in batches so you may have to wait outside if it’s not ready. Even after a few days, the Banana Cake still tastes as moist & delicious. But it’s probably safer to keep them in the fridge if you can’t finish within 2 days.

The other popular item is the Coconut bun (5 buns for MYR 3.70/ S$1.20). I love the generous brown shredded coconut filling which isn’t too sweet. As everything is baked using wood fire oven here, all the buns & pastries are fragrant with a charred smell. If you can, do eat the buns on the day of purchase. If they are left overnight, the buns become somewhat tough with chow-dar (burnt) skin. Other nice buns that I’ve tried before include the Ikan Bilis bun (4 pcs for MYR 4.80/ S$1.60), Otah bun (2 pcs for MYR 3.70/ S$1.20) & Curry Potato bun (4 pcs for MYR 4.80/ S$1.60). Not all buns are available all day, so good luck to you.๐Ÿ˜‰

Address: 13 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru

Open: 7 am to 6 pm Mondays to Saturdays (cakes only from late morning, buns are usually sold out by lunchtime), 9 am to 1 pm Sundays (Banana cakes only). May close early once items are sold out.

Official website: Facebook

NB: 
"+" for prices = additional 10% service charge. 
"++" for prices = additional 10% service charge + 6% GST.ย 

Some of the cafes I’ve visited have shut their doors within this period. For example, Table For Twoยฒ which I visited last July has made way to other cafes/eateries since Nov 2015. Last check this week, the unit is now vacant. Another small cafe that only opened in Sep 2015 called Coffee Time, also vanished even before I could write about them.๐Ÿ˜ฆ

I didn’t include cafes that I’ve visited but not worth mentioning, as well as those I’ve blogged about previously (Coffee Valley,ย Restoran Hua Mui & IT Roo Cafe). With fierce competition everywhere, naturally only the fittest will survive.

To help you with navigating your way around, I have created a Google map for your reference:

With the SGD still going strong against MYR (about S$ 1 to MYR 3), it’s not an uphill task to cafe-hop comfortably while on a shoestring budget in JB! So far, even when we hop to 3 or more cafes for a feast, the damage per pax is only around MYR 100 (S$33.30). You probably only can afford to go to 1, at most 2 cafes in Singapore with such budget!

Enjoy the budget cafe-hopping in JB old town!๐Ÿ™‚

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Stuff Yourself At These Dining Spots Just Across the Causeway in Johor Bahru

paiks-pan

Nowadays, I travel overseas so often, such that my passport seems to be getting more stamps than before haha. But well, before you think I’ve “struck it rich”, no! Because of the strong Singapore $ versus Malaysia Ringgit this past 1 year + I stay relatively near to the Woodlands Checkpoint, Johor Bahru (JB) has become my new “town area”, where I can shop & dine like a “queen”!

As you may already know, I don’t drive, so JB City Square & Komtar JBCC, the 2 shopping malls just across the causeway are places I frequent for my JB day trips. There’s a variety of food options to choose from, even if you don’t wish to venture out of the area by cab/bus etc. Here’s a list of the worthy dining spots in these 2 shopping malls, & I promise they won’t burn big holes in your wallet!

Komtar JBCC

1. ไธœ Azuma Japanese Restaurant

Address: Lot 202C, Komtar JBCC, Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Johor Bahru City Centre, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-300 5038
Open: 1000 – 2200 hrs daily

Azuma Japanese restaurant

After clearing the JB customs, you will take the overhead bridge to get to JB City Square & Komtar JBCC is just on its right side. Get into the mall through the entrance on the right of Starbucks Coffee & take the escalator up 1 level. You will see Azuma Japanese restaurant shortly upon reaching level 2.

I have not tried the typical Japanese food like sashimi, udon etc in this restaurant. Instead it was a friend who recommended me to try the Azuma Thousand Layer Mini Sushi Hamburger (MYR30++/ S$10++, bottom left of above pic) as well as the Azuma Pizza (MYR37.50++/ S$12.50++, bottom right of above pic). I love the tasty & unique Mini Sushi Hamburger – deep fried sushi rice layered with assorted raw fish & special sauce, at least this is a dish that’s hard to find elsewhere! The pizza is also interesting, using handmade sushi rice cracker as the pizza base with a spicy sauce, & topped with salmon, eel & shrimp roe. Check them out at Azuma for some tasty fusion Japanese-Western cuisine the next time you go shopping in JB!

2. Arashi Shabu Shabu

Address: Lot 215 & 216, Level 2, Komtar JBCC, Johor Bahru City Centre, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-300 5058
Open: 1000 – 2200 hrs daily

The Komtar JBCC outlet

The Komtar JBCC outlet

Combo, vegetarian & chicken shabu shabu sets with cold beverages

Combo, vegetarian & chicken shabu shabu sets with cold beverages

Arashi Shabu Shabu is a modern concept Japanese hotpot restaurant that has 6 outlets in JB & 1 outlet in Penang. I have been to the outlets at KSL City & Komtar JBCC, & there is also 1 in JB City Square level 1 (but I haven’t been there). Vegetarians will be pleased to know that the restaurant has a vegetarian shabu shabu menu as well.

There are 10 types of soup broth you can choose from, including tomyam, miso, milk broth etc. You can also have either rice, noodles or rice vermicelli to go with your shabu shabu. In addition, there is a wide variety of special sauces you can choose from, available free flow at the sauce buffet table. Personally, I like the Arashi special sauce that is a little spicy, adding more kick to your meal. Guess the price of this delectable meal? Price ranges from MYR26.90++ (S$9++) to MYR32.90++ (S$11++) for 1 hotpot. Definitely gives you a bang for your buck!

JB City Square

3. Paik’s Pan Sizzling Korean Chicken ๋ฐฑ์ฒ ํŒ

Address: MF-08 & 09, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Open: 1100 – 2100 hrs daily

Paik's Pan

So much for Japanese food, let’s move to JB City Square for some other cuisines, starting with yummy Korean chicken on a sizzling hot pan – dakgalbi (๋‹ญ๊ฐˆ๋น„)! This restaurant, only opened since Dec 2015, is located on the other end of level 3 (the level you first arrive if you are walking over from the JB customs) from Uniqlo/ Old Town White Coffee.

Korean dakgalbi is one of my favourite Korean dishes but it’s impossible to eat this alone because a minimum of 2 servings per order is required. So I finally had a chance to tuck into this mouth-watering dish at Paik’s Pan only after my Korea spring holidays. While the dakgalbi here cannot match the exact standards of that in Korea (which I’m prepared for), it’s still a yummy dish to tuck into, & value for $ too compared to the price you pay in Singapore! We ordered a portion each of the spicy dakgalbi (MYR30.80++/S$10.30++) + the spicy dakgalbi with cheese (MYR38.80++/S$12.90++) & as you can see from the pic above, it’s a large portion that 2 of us struggled to finish. The final bill after taxes was MYR79.70 (S$26.60) for 2 pax. At such price, you probably only get 1 person’s serving (& definitely not as generous portion as this)!๐Ÿ˜‰

4. Oleg by gCafe

Address: Lot M3-04, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-362 1561
Open: 1000 – 2200 hrs daily

Oleg by gCafe

If you know the JB cafe scene well, you would have heard of Mount Austin where many cafe hoppers flock to. Oleg by gCafe is the brainchild of gCafe Mount Austin. Located somewhere in the middle of level 3 next to Seoul Garden, this 2-month old cafe opened since May 2016 specialises in charcoal burgers, and one of its signature sauces to go with the burger is the curry sauce.

Currently, there is a daily promotion set meal that started from 16 July 2016, with a daily favourite burger set meal (comes with fries and iced lemon tea) priced at MYR10.90+ (S$3.60+) only! I happened to be there on a Thursday & so ordered the chicken charcoal burger with curry sauce set meal for dinner takeaway because I had to catch the KTM Shuttle Tebrau home. Although it was almost 2 hours later before I ate the set meal, other than the slightly soggy bun, the burger still tasted great. My chicken patty was “soaked” in the flavourful spicy curry sauce, & it was a big burger that left me burping after finishing the meal. Try this the next time if you want yummy burgers injected with interesting local flavours!

5. Kimdo BBQ

Address: J3-19B, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 1-2759 8838
Open: not sure of exact opening time, but it closes at 2200 hrs daily

Kimdo BBQ

Kimdo BBQ

Kimdo BBQ is just a few stores away from the escalator that connects JB City Square to JB Sentral/ Customs, on the left side of the path as you walk. As its name suggests, it specialises in all BBQ food items on skewers, & only barbecued upon customer order. Its signature BBQ item is the Single Bone BBQ Chicken Wings (MYR1.50/ S$0.50 per skewer). Besides BBQ food, it also serves fresh Bualonglong Juice mixed with Plum, which is supposed to lower your cholesterol & detox your body. But I never tried it before as I personally feel the Bualonglong has a weird taste.๐Ÿ˜› I’ve tried quite a few of their BBQ items on several occasions & so far I’ve not been disappointed. But don’t say I didn’t warn you, be prepared for long queues especially on weekends & public holidays!

6. Miyakori Coffee

Address: Lot J5-10, Level 5, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Open: 1000 hrs, not sure of closing time

A brightly lit Miyakori Coffee cafe with the cute bear as its logo

A brightly lit Miyakori Coffee cafe with the cute bear as its logo

Finally my wish to have more cool cafes within JB City Square has been answered! Opened in Dec 2015, this Miyakori Coffee outlet is its 2nd one after the success of its flagship cafe at Bukit Indah. Unlike the Bukit Indah outlet, this outlet doesn’t serve mains, only beverages & cakes are found here. I 1st passed by this brightly lit cafe with a cute bear logo on level 5 while going up to watch a movie at the cinema & was attracted by its decor.

Recently, I checked it out in the late morning where there were no customers yet. Attracted by the pretty Sakura theme menu, I ordered a Sakura Chiffon Cake (MYR11.50/ S$3.80) & a Sakura Hot Latte (MYR13.50/ S$4.50) as seen in above pic. While I was prepared for the use of Styrofoam cups for my beverage, I was still a bit disappointed when it was served, especially when there wasn’t even any cute latte art on my beverage.๐Ÿ˜ฆ Fortunately the Sakura Hot Latte was quite fragrant, like rose milk. The Sakura Chiffon Cake was soft & fluffy, though a tad expensive just for a slice of chiffon cake by Malaysian standards. But still, this cafe is worth a visit for its sleek decor, & I heard their coffee is good too!

7. Hui Lau Shan ่ฎธ็•™ๅฑฑ

Address: J3-20, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-2072 868
Open: 1000 to 2200 hrs daily

The famous Hong Kong dessert shop - Hui Lau Shan

The famous Hong Kong dessert shop – Hui Lau Shan

I think I visited this outlet a few years ago. Didn’t visit in the past 1 year not because it’s no good, but because there’s just too many food choices so I always ended up with no room for desserts here. Hui Lau Shan’s signature dessert gotta be its mango dessert items. If you are a mango lover & can’t be in Hong Kong for this highly acclaimed dessert for whatever reasons, satisfy your craving here! The prices are also quite affordable, from about MYR9 (S$3) for a bowl of sweet mango dessert!

8. Humble Beginnings

Address: J6-05, Level 6, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 1-2635 8035
Open: 1200 to 2200 hrs daily

I had introduced this cafe 1 year ago in my Cafe-Hop series. It is a cafe specialising in cakes, opened since 2013, in particular mille crepe cakes. Price wise, a slice of cake costs MYR10.90 (S$3.60) & beverages start from MYR6.90 (S$2.30). You can chill at this cafe after a movie at the swanky cineplex on the same floor.๐Ÿ˜‰

Hope the list above provides you with some ideas on what you can stuff yourself with right after crossing the causeway to JB. Dining in shopping malls aren’t as boring & expensive as you think right? Enjoy!

6 Things I Wished I Knew Before Holidaying in Korea (April 2016)

KT-olleh

Finally, I’ve completed writing about my recent Spring holiday in Korea after returning home almost 2 months.๐Ÿ˜› It’s been quite a while since I last enjoyed any overseas holiday of more than 1 week long, & also about 5 years since I last visited the Land of Morning Calm. Here’s a recap of my 11-day adventure (Seoul-Andong-Gyeongju-Busan-Suwon-Seoul):

Day 1 Singapore-Incheon-Seoul:

Early morning arrival at Incheon International Airport. Took the 45-min Airport Railroad Express (AREX) to downtown Seoul. Booked an 1-night accommodation via Airbnb near Seoul Station. Enjoyed a scrumptious Korean dakgalbi lunch with friend in Hongdae (ํ™๋Œ€) before heading to Yeouido for the rest of the day.

Day 2 Seoul-Andong-Gyeongju:

Start of a self-drive weekend out with friends as we drove down southeast to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Andong โ€“ Hahoe Folk Village (์•ˆ๋™ ํ•˜ํšŒ๋งˆ์„). Had a delectable Andong Jjimdak (์•ˆ๋™์ฐœ๋‹ญ) lunch in the Andong Gu Market. Following, continued our drive to the historical Gyeongju city, to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Gyeongju Yangdong Village (๊ฒฝ์ฃผ ์–‘๋™๋งˆ์„). After that, checked in to a traditional Hanok for the night at Lucky Won Guest House. Gyeongju becomes prettier as it gets dark, so of course we ventured out to immerse ourselves in its beauty in the Eastern Gyeongju Historic Area too.

Day 3 Gyeongju-Busan:

Another Korean history day as we set out to Bulguksa Temple (๋ถˆ๊ตญ์‚ฌ) & Seokguram Grotto (์„๊ตด์•” ์„๊ตด) in the east. Thereafter, we also checked out the Gyeongju National Museum (๊ตญ๋ฆฝ๊ฒฝ์ฃผ๋ฐ•๋ฌผ๊ด€), Oreung Royal Tombs (์˜ค๋ฆ‰) & Poseokjeong Pavilion (ํฌ์„์ •์ง€) back in the city centre. Time to say goodbye with my friends as I proceeded to Busan via KTX. Checked in to Hotel Foret Busan Station, my lovely “home” for 3 nights. Last activity of the rainy day was to explore Jagalchi Market (์ž๊ฐˆ์น˜์‹œ์žฅ) & BIFF Square Street Food Market near Jalgachi Station.

Day 4 Busan:

A long day touring eastern Busan, starting from the Haeundae Station area where Haeundae Market (ํ•ด์šด๋Œ€์‹œ์žฅ), Haeundae Beach (ํ•ด์šด๋Œ€ํ•ด์ˆ˜์š•์žฅ) & the famous Korean dessert cafe Sulbing can be found. Next, I also visited the beautiful Haedong Yonggung Temple (ํ•ด๋™ ์šฉ๊ถ์‚ฌ) by the sea, before moving to the quieter Gwangalli Beach (๊ด€์•ˆ๋ฆฌํ•ด์ˆ˜์š•์žฅ) for a lovely evening.

Day 5 Busan:

Perfect weather to head to Gamcheon Cultural Village (๊ฐ์ฒœ๋ฌธํ™”๋งˆ์„) for its beautiful scenery. Following, I explored the Yongdusan-Jagalchi Sightseeing Special Zone of Busan. My last night in Busan was spent near my hotel, at the Choryang Ibagu-gil (์ดˆ๋Ÿ‰์ด๋ฐ”๊ตฌ๊ธธ) & Choryang Ibagu Night Market (์ดˆ๋Ÿ‰์ด๋ฐ”๊ตฌ์•ผ์‹œ์žฅ) where an important part of the city’s history lies.

Day 6 Busan-Suwon:

Time flew, I was already in the middle of the 11-day trip! Before leaving Busan for Suwon, I had a quick tour of Yeongdo-gu – home to Busan’s first connecting bridge & famous fish cake (์–ด๋ฌต). Thereafter, took a 2 hr 44 min ride on the KTX back north to Suwon in Gyeonggi-do. Checked in to Benikea New Suwon Tourist Hotel for the night & then headed out for early dinner at the nearby Suwon Chicken Street (์ˆ˜์›ํ†ต๋‹ญ๊ฑฐ๋ฆฌ). Attempted to climb a bit of the Hwaseong Fortress (์ˆ˜์›ํ™”์„ฑ) & traditional markets in the evening.

Day 7 Suwon-Seoul:

After checking out of hotel, revisited the Hwaseong Fortress by taking the Hwaseong Trolley (ํ™”์„ฑ์—ด์ฐจ). Next, I made my way down the mountain to Hwaseong Haenggung (ํ™”์„ฑํ–‰๊ถ) & also explored mini-Insadong in Suwon – the Gongbang Street (๊ณต๋ฐฉ๊ฑฐ๋ฆฌ) for unique handicrafts. Of course, I had to tuck into another chicken feast at the famous Suwon Chicken Street before leaving the city. Arrived in Seoul & was picked up by my Airbnb host to check into Liga Apartment for my last 4 nights in Korea. Met up with my long-time-no-see Sogang University classmate in Hongdae & had fun reminiscing the good old days by visiting the campus!

Day 8 Seoul:

This was the day I broke my own steps record, as I was on the road (walking) most of the time from 11 am to 10 pm in downtown Seoul (์ค‘๋กœ)! Started the day with a tour around Deoksugung Palace (๋•์ˆ˜๊ถ), followed by a short bus ride to the arty neighbourhood of Buam-dong (๋ถ€์•”๋™). After that, I also visited another charming artistic neighbourhood – Samcheong-dong (์‚ผ์ฒญ๋™). Thereafter, I moved eastwards to Ihwa-dong Mural Village (์ดํ™”๋™ ๋ฒฝํ™”๋งˆ์„), before my last stop of the day in Dongdaemun (๋™๋Œ€๋ฌธ) area.

Day 9 Seoul-Paju-Seoul:

This was probably 1 of the more relaxing days throughout my holiday, because I joined a DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour. After the tour, I visited Myeongdong (๋ช…๋™) as it was nearby to the tour drop-off point. Again, I went to Dongdaemun because I wasn’t satisfied with leaving empty-handed the night before haha.

Day 10 Seoul:

An informative tour at Changgyeonggung Palace (์ฐฝ๊ฒฝ๊ถ) to check out the cherry blossoms after an early lunch with friend at Gwangjang Market (๊ด‘์žฅ์‹œ์žฅ). We also strolled to Insadong for afternoon tea before she left for the day, while I did some shopping at Myeongdong.

Day 11 Seoul-Incheon-Singapore:

Not much time left to explore the capital, but I managed to squeeze in a morning tea at my favourite O’Sulloc Tea House & some final quick shopping of beauty products in Myeongdong. Holiday time always flies & I had to say goodbye to Seoul already!

Before the holiday, I thought it shouldn’t be an uphill task to be travelling alone (for most of the days) around Korea, given that I can somewhat understand the language + I lived in Seoul before. But I wished I had known about all these hard truths before I actually stepped into Kimchi-land!

1. The Expensive (& Restrictive) Prepaid Data SIM Card

Since I’d be mostly travelling alone in Korea, I thought it’s essential for me to get a prepaid SIM card with data & a local phone number, for ease of communication/ navigating around. Numerous attempts to research on which mobile network offers the most value-for-money prepaid travellers’ SIM card package were kinda futile because most reviews were focused on just mobile Wi-Fi, i.e. no local phone number.๐Ÿ˜ฆ Anyway, I sort of gathered that the KT network seems to be the better 1 out of the lot (although I couldn’t find its exact pricing details because its website forever says “service in preparation” -_-) & noted where I could get 1 at Incheon International Airport. Little did I know I was in for a shock at the KT Olleh counter between exit 6 & 7 on level 1 arrival hall.

KT Olleh offers 3 types of prepaid SIM cards with different durations: 5 days (KRW22,000), 10 days (KRW33,000) & 30 days (KRW44,000). All come with unlimited data & free incoming calls/ sms. Outgoing calls/ sms are not included in the pack. The staff asked me for my specific day of departure, & then advised me to buy the 30-day pack. I was puzzled & asked if I could get the 10-day pack instead (thinking my last day I may not really need it). Sadly, she told me it’s not possible, as the SIM card is only for rental, meaning I had to return it on my departure day at the airport & pay any outstanding amount (due to outgoing calls). What? I’ve used quite a number of prepaid SIM cards overseas, but this was the 1st time I had to return a prepaid SIM card! Just because of 1 extra day, I had to pay KRW11,000 (S$13.20) more.๐Ÿ˜ฆ

This wasn’t the end of my sad finding, because after I bought the prepaid SIM card, the staff tried to setup my phone for a long time, but it just couldn’t connect to the network. Eventually, we both realised it was because I was carrying a dual-SIM mobile, but unfortunately the Korea mobile network doesn’t allow the use of dual-SIM phones!๐Ÿ˜ฆ I had no other choice except to rent a Samsung Galaxy R phone (no other phone choices) from them. The rental of this phone was at KRW1,100 per day, so that meant an additional KRW12,100 (S$14.50) added to my bill, for such a small-screen smartphone.๐Ÿ˜ฆ The total bill I spent on the mobile network in the end was a whopping KRW56,100 (S$67). Ironically, that’s almost double the cost of my Telstra prepaid SIM card for my 11-day Australia holiday back in May 2014, when Australia is supposedly more expensive!

Lesson learnt: next time if I visit Korea & need a prepaid SIM card again, I’ll plan the length of my trip such that I maximise the duration of the prepaid SIM pack + I won’t bring dual-SIM phone along anymore!๐Ÿ˜›

The KT Olleh rental Samsung Galaxy R phone + casing

The KT Olleh rental Samsung Galaxy R phone + casing

2. Be prepared to carry your luggage up the big steps & wide gap between platform & KTX

See the wide gap between platform & train, as well as the tall steps to get on the train

See the wide gap between platform & train, as well as the height of the 1st step to get on the train

It was a challenge for the 3 occasions when I had to travel from 1 city to the other via the Korea Train eXpress (KTX) / train. Because carrying my 26-inch luggage up & down the train was a tiring task. Not only was the gap between the platform & the train wide, I also had to make sure I balance well with a luggage in tow while climbing up the big & tall steps to get onto the train. Furthermore, there isn’t much luggage storage space in the train, only a small section in between carriages, & sometimes you may need to lift it up again on the upper storage space if others have placed theirs on the 1st deck.

Lesson learnt: It’s best to just bring a small luggage or backpack if possible! Otherwise have to be prepared to train some muscles.๐Ÿ˜›

3. Google Maps not of great help when it comes to finding your directions in Korea

I’m a supporter of Google Maps whenever I need to navigate my way around in some foreign place. But it seems that this app wasn’t that helpful to me throughout the trip, particularly when I was out of Seoul. Many times, the suggestions Google Maps gave to get from point A to point B were confusing & contradicted what the locals told me. I realised it’s because there are many small alleys in Korea that the app didn’t register. The situation improved when I was in Seoul, maybe because the capital is already very structured & developed so it’s easier for Google Maps to build a comprehensive guide for the city.

Lesson learnt: I’ll download Daum or Naver Maps next time when travelling in Korea for better navigation as these are developed by the Koreans. Who else know the country better than the locals, isn’t it?

4. T-Money card can’t be used on Busan transport network

The Cashbee card (top) & T-money card

The Cashbee card (top) & T-money card

In case you don’t already know, T-money card is a stored-value card that you can use to pay for transport in addition to using it for payment in convenience stores etc. My T-money card has been my good Korea travelling companion since 2005. A few months ago, I got a complimentary Cashbee card, thanks to Korea Tourism Organisation, who told us that it works in the same way as the T-money. Fortunately, I brought it along with my T-money for this trip. When I was in Busan, I 1st tried to use my T-money card to board the subway but was denied entry. Then I found out from the station officer that it wasn’t accepted & she suggested me to use Cashbee instead. I’m puzzled why this happened as the KTO website claims it’s acceptable in most Korean cities: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/TR/TR_EN_5_4.jsp. In any case, you may want to take note if you are planning to use public transport out of Seoul.

Lesson learnt: Just bring out all the stored-value cards I have wherever I go in Korea, instead of keeping 1 in the hotel & create unnecessary hassle for myself again.๐Ÿ˜›

5. Korean beauty stores not as generous in giving out plenty of samples these days

OK, call me a cheapo, but I’ve been pampered by the Korean beauty stores in the past, which would hand you some door gifts to welcome you into the shop. They would also pour lots of samples into your bag of purchase upon payment at the counter. So I really miss the “good old days” at the Korean beauty stores now. Maybe they’re enjoying brisk business due to the K-wave so don’t wanna waste money on dishing out freebies…

Nowadays, most of them don’t bother giving you even a sheet of facial mask or small sample as a welcome gift. When you make your purchase at the counter, they’ll just pull out 1 small sample item as a gift to you. Some, like Skin Food, don’t even bother to give you any even if you buy their products.๐Ÿ˜ฆ Only Aritaum was somehow more generous than the others in dishing out substantial freebies, or maybe because the total value of my purchase was almost KRW150,000 (S$180).

Lesson learnt: Just treat the samples as a bonus without expecting them in future, so as to minimise the “unhappiness” haha. Otherwise just consolidate my purchase at the few more generous beauty brands!๐Ÿ˜‰

6. The cumbersome tax refund service

Foreigners who buy at least KRW30,000 worth of goods from tax refund participating establishments are eligible to receive a refund for the value added tax (VAT) as well as individual consumption tax (ICT) on the purchased items they will take out of the country. There are 3 tax refund brands – Global Blue, Global Tax Free & KT Tourist Reward in Korea. You can only keep your fingers crossed which brand the participating establishment you bought from belongs to.

I had the chance to experience the different service from Global Blue (purchase from Tony Moly) & KT Tourist Reward (purchase from Aritaum). The former required me to either go to the tax refund counter at the airport or at designated branches downtown. I was happy to hear that they have a booth in Myeongdong, so made my way there after getting the form filled by Tony Moly. At the counter, I was asked for my credit card to charge a refundable security deposit (provided I return a portion of the form at the airport). To my dismay, my Standard Chartered Bonusaver credit card was rejected, because it wasn’t embossed & their machine couldn’t accept such cards. Only embossed credit cards are accepted. She suggested I go to the airport counter for the tax refund instead as there isn’t any need for security deposit at the airport. See what I mean for how these 2 cards look in the image below:

The Standard Chartered credit card is not embossed, i.e. numbers/ characters don't pop out = NOT accepted. Only cards like the one below can be accepted

The Standard Chartered credit card is not embossed, i.e. numbers/ characters don’t pop out = NOT accepted. Only cards like the one below can be accepted

For my tax refund at Aritaum, all I had to do after paying, was to head to the refund counter on a higher level in the shop to get the refund processed right away. Although KT Tourist Reward also needed my credit card to charge a refundable security deposit, there wasn’t any problem with using my non-embossed credit card. Pleased with the smooth tax refund transaction here!๐Ÿ˜‰

On the other hand, I really almost headed to the Global Blue tax refund counter at airport, but thankful I didn’t need to in the end. Luckily I went to the Myeongdong branch on my last day with an embossed credit card (that I didn’t bring on the day of my 1st attempt) to complete the tax refund, because the queue for tax refund at the airport was horrendously long! Do take note of this if you need to do tax refund in Korea!

You may think, just buy at the duty free shops to avoid the hassle of going through tax refunds. Well, I thought so too, until I went to the Lotte Duty Free Shop in Myeongdong & was shocked to see so many tourists there with big trolley luggage to bring their “loot” back. It’s like a fish market where you gotta fight for your desired products in there. Not sure if this is really the best shopping environment to you, but it’s certainly not for me!

Lesson learnt: Bring along “normal” embossed credit card(s) if you want an easier time to claim your tax refund downtown, to save the hassle of joining long queues at the airport! Also don’t bother trying to squeeze through the massive crowds at Duty Free outlets unless you’ve nothing better to do.๐Ÿ˜›

To conclude, I guess I overestimated my ability to roam freely in Korea. After all, I’ve only stayed in the developed capital on my own before. As for the other Korean cities, this was the 1st time I was on my own, because I had joined group tours previously where I could depend on others. Times have changed so it’s probably only natural to see so many changes in the country as well. I shall take note of the above for future trips to Kimchi-land. Hope these will help you in future too!๐Ÿ˜‰

You may also like these Trip101 articles:

5 Mouth-Watering Korean Food Not To Miss For Your Next Trip To Korea
Stay In These Traditional Hanoks In Gyeongju, A Historical Korean City
Feel At Home In These Cosy Airbnb Apartments In Seoulโ€™s City Center

Exploring Changgyeonggung Palace (์ฐฝ๊ฒฝ๊ถ) – A Uniquely Designed Royal Palace in Seoul

palace-cherry-blossom

Located in the city centre of Seoul, Changgyeonggung Palace (์ฐฝ๊ฒฝ๊ถ) is next to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Changdeokgung Palace (์ฐฝ๋•๊ถ) & collectively known as the East Palaces (๋™๊ถ), because of their geographical location. Although it is so close to the famous site, I have never visited this secondary palace for queens & the king’s father before. It is also not a common destination for tour groups to head to. When I read that this is 1 of the prime spots for viewing cherry blossoms in Seoul, it immediately went into my itinerary, since chasing after cherry blossoms was my main motive for this trip.๐Ÿ™‚

My friend & I had a filling lunch at the country’s oldest traditional market – Gwangjang Market near Jogno 5-ga Station (์ข…๋กœ5๊ฐ€์—ญ, Line 1) so she suggested we take a walk down Changgyeonggung-ro (์ฐฝ๊ฒฝ๊ถ๋กœ) to the palace. It took us about half an hour to arrive at the palace main entrance – the Honghwa Gate (ํ™ํ™”๋ฌธ), great breezy stroll on a sunny spring day. If you’re taking the subway, the nearest station is Anguk Station (์•ˆ๊ตญ์—ญ, Line 3), closest to exit 3. You’ll pass by Changdeokgung Palace before arriving at Changgyeonggung Palace.

Changgyeonggung 1

Visitors can purchase admission ticket at KRW1,000 per adult (S$1.20) & KRW500 per child/teenager aged 7 to 18 years old at the ticket counter in front of Honghwa Gate. Just like Changdeokgung Palace & Deoksugung Palace, it is closed every Monday. Since it is just next to Changdeokgung Palace, a combined tour of both palaces is possible but separate ticket must be purchased at Hamyang Gate. If you are game on exploring the royal palaces of Korea, you can also purchase an integrated admission ticket at KRW10,000 (S$12) so that you can access the 4 palaces – Changdeokgung Palace (including Huwon, Secret Garden), Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace & Gyeongbokgung Palace, as well as the Jongmyo Shrine.

As the 3rd palace to be built in Joseon Dynasty, after Gyeongbokgung Palace & Changdeokgung Palace, it was originally meant to be the residence of 3 queen dowagers due to a lack of living space at Changdeokgung, not as a seat of government.

Upon passing the main gate, there is the Okcheongyo Bridge, an arch bridge over a pond, a typical design of the Joseon Dynasty palaces. Cross the Bridge & pass the Myeongjeong Gate (๋ช…์ •๋ฌธ), is Myeonjeongjeon (๋ช…์ •์ „) – the oldest office of the king during the Joseon Dynasty. Unlike other Joseon Dynasty palaces that were built according to strict royal principles regarding design featuring a north-south orientation, Honghwa Gate, Myeongjeong Gate, Myeongjeongjeon & the throne hall all face Mt. Naksan to the east. This more liberal design in an east-west orientation was common during the Goryeo Dynasty. However, the major residential buildings & other administrative hall still face the south.

Furthermore, there are only a few small halls in this palace with a non-specific layout. Buildings were positioned according to the topography & not strictly aligned in a particular direction like Gyeongbokgung Palace. In addition, the residential “inner” halls are bigger & more elaborate than the administrative “outer” halls as the compound was originally intended for residential use. In case you are getting bored with the hard facts, see below for some photos I took of this uniquely designed palace.

Changgyeonggung 2

Haminjeong was where banquets were held and where the king received high performing civil and military officials at the palace

Haminjeong (ํ•˜๋ฏผ์ •) was where banquets were held & where the king received high performing civil and military officials at the palace

Vast spaces between halls planted with towering trees

Vast spaces between halls planted with towering trees to beautify the compound

Guess what? I had a special tour experience in this palace, thanks to my Korean friend. As she’s very interested in history, when we entered the palace compounds & realised that a Korean guided tour had just started at the Myeongjeongjeon, we joined the free tour. I never knew I would be able to join in & listen to a full Korean speaking guided tour in the palace without the guide doubting my listening ability 1 day. Afterall, I only joined either English or Chinese guided palace tours in my previous visits to Gyeongbokgung & Changdeokgung. What surprised myself more was I could comprehend 60 to 70% of what the guide was talking about (although I don’t really remember the contents now until I read the English information brochure again haha). But oops… I must admit my attention span for history tours is not very long generally.๐Ÿ˜› I got restless halfway through the 1-hour guided tour & that was when I needed more “translation service” from my friend haha. Fortunately, I “woke up” as we approached the Tongmyeongjeon (ํ†ต๋ช…์ „) – the main hall in the inner court built in 1484 that served as the residential quarters for the king & queen at the palace. We walked up the stones past Tongmyeongjeon to Jagyeongjeon (์ž๊ฒฝ์ „), an elevated spot where we could get a beautiful view of the palace compound.

The biggest hall in the palace - Tongmyeongjeon

The biggest hall in the palace – Tongmyeongjeon

Shortly after, we were brought to Chundangji Area (์ถ˜๋‹น์ง€ ์ผ์›), now considered the rear garden of the palace with pretty cherry blossom trees all around! This was where our comprehensive guided tour ended & we were free to roam around within the palace. I must salute the friendly tour guide for her professional service, especially when she’s just a volunteer guide who conducts such informative tours out of pure interest for Korean history!

Romance in a beautiful historical palace

Romance in a beautiful historical palace

The Octagonal Seven-story Stone Pagoda, Treasure #1119

The Octagonal Seven-story Stone Pagoda, Treasure #1119 that can be found in the Chundangji Area

Changgyeonggung 4

When Changgyeonggung Palace was 1st built, there was no garden to call its own & the residents shared the garden behind Changdeokgung Palace (the renowned Huwon Secret Garden with restricted access to visitors), as the 2 compounds were directly connected. The current Chundangji used to be 11 rice paddies on royal farmland, where the king personally plowed to serve as an example. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Japanese Colonial government turned it into a pond with little ships floating on it, as well as established a zoo & botanical garden here. After the Japanese administration left, Chundangji pond was reconfigured according to the traditional style in 1986. So now this area has become a popular cherry blossom viewing spot in spring.๐Ÿ™‚

After snapping photos of the lovely pond, we proceeded to Korea’s 1st modern conservatory – the Great Greenhouse, Daeonsil, an enclosed botanical garden built in 1909. The design of the greenhouse, which features pointed arches and window frames, is based on the design of The Crystal Palace in London, England. At the time of construction, it was the biggest conservatory in Asia, with exhibitions of wild flowers, rare & native plants. In 2004, it was designated as registered cultural heritage.

Changgyeonggung 5

Since it is a greenhouse, you’ve been warned that it may get a bit too warm & stuffy for your comfort, particularly when it gets crowded. But we spotted many one-of-a-kind flowers & plants, great place to visit for those with green fingers. But before you want to hurry down to this palace to check out this iconic building, please be patient & wait for it to reopen its doors to visitors, as it is currently closed for maintenance work till November 2017 (scheduled). Glad that I made it in time before it closed from 17 May 2016!๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have more time & love exploring historical buildings/ palaces, I highly recommend you to also visit Changdeokgung Palace next door. Why? Because even a layman like me who has short attention span for history stuff finds the latter a mesmerizing beauty (especially in autumn) & has visited twice. If you can, try booking the 90-min Huwon Secret Garden guided tour at http://eng.cdg.go.kr/reservation/reserv_01.htm as tickets for this popular attraction sell out fast!

Can’t Leave Seoul Without Visiting the Trendsetting Myeongdong

myeongdong-sulbing

Technically speaking, I’m not someone who follows the latest trends closely, but I do make it a point to visit Myeongdong (๋ช…๋™) whenever I’m in Seoul, because it’s just so vibrant & bustling with activities all the time. Needless to say, I made sure there’s time for Myeongdong for the period I was in Seoul. In fact, I was in the area for more than once, partly because it’s conveniently located near the apartment I stayed in.

Within 5 years since my last visit, Myeongdong has changed a lot, & gotten much more crowded with tourists. It’s definitely a great sign for the merchants there with increased popularity, but I found it a bit daunting to find my way through the massive crowd… Another change that caught me by surprise was how quiet the Migliore (๋ฐ€๋ฆฌ์˜ค๋ ˆ) shopping mall is now. Located near Myeongdong Station (๋ช…๋™์—ญ, Line 4 exit 5 & 6), this shopping mall used to be filled with customers most of the time given its strategic location & trendy little fashion shops on its many floors. Now, not sure if it’s because there is some revamp taking place, at least half the retail space was vacant when I visited. The remaining shops looked like they seriously needed an overhaul. I was out of the mall in less than 30 min.๐Ÿ˜›

This area is still filled with countless Korean skin care & cosmetics shops just like before, & many brands have more than 1 outlet in the area. This meant that you can always hop to the other same-brand outlet to make your purchases if you arenโ€™t satisfied with the service in a particular outlet. But what had changed was, these shops were no longer as generous as before, in terms of dishing out door gifts (facial cotton, facial masks etc) to welcome you. Fine, some may consider the door gifts in the past to be a bonus, but now, even if you make a purchase, some brands either give you really little samples/ gifts (e.g. The Face Shop, Adieu, Tony Moly) or they don’t even bother to give you any (e.g. Skin Food)!๐Ÿ˜ฆ Guess Korean skincare brands feel they no longer need to attract new customers with such free gifts, since they’re already enjoying brisk business now!

Besides shopping for beauty products & fashion, Myeongdong is also a place where you can find the most “in” (or popular) cafes, restaurants, as well as street snacks that people go gaga over. With so many little alleys that you can turn into from the main street from Myeongdong Station, you’ll be spoilt for choice when trying to decide what to eat here. Maybe just let your legs bring you to wherever it wanna go since there’s so much good food to try here!

This Bonjuk Porridge Shop seems to have shrunk in size?

This Bonjuk Porridge Shop (๋ณธ์กฑ) seems to have shrunk in size?

The famous Yoogane (์œ ๊ฐ€๋„ค) chicken galbi restaurant

The famous Yoogane (์œ ๊ฐ€๋„ค) chicken galbi restaurant

Yummy Korean dessert cafe Sulbing (์„ค๋น™) has a big outlet in Myeongdong too

Yummy Korean dessert cafe Sulbing (์„ค๋น™) has a big outlet in Myeongdong too

Fans of the famous mouthless cat, rejoice as you find this Hello Kitty Cafe!

Fans of the famous mouthless cat, rejoice as you find this Hello Kitty Cafe!

Not forgetting the huge Line Friends Store that sees long queues waiting to enter most of the time

Not forgetting the huge Line Friends Store that sees long queues waiting to enter most of the time

(From top pic in clockwise direction) Strawberry mochi KRW2,500, Glazed Sweet Potato Stick KRW3,000, & Vegetable Hotteok KRW2,000

(From top pic in clockwise direction) Strawberry mochi KRW2,500, Glazed Sweet Potato Stick KRW3,000, & Vegetable Hotteok KRW2,000

There were so many pushcarts here selling Korean street snacks such as the usual spicy rice cake, cuttlefish, hotteok etc. The latest trend when I visited in April seemed to be the strawberry mochi snacks. It’s probably because big & fresh strawberries were in season then I guess. I also bought 1 to try & it was beautifully wrapped in a small plastic bag tied with red ribbon.

Of course, I wouldn’t forget to visit my favourite tea house – the O’Sulloc Tea House (์˜ค์„ค๋ก) before I left. The Myeongdong outlet has shrunk quite a bit in size & is no longer located in a prominent location.๐Ÿ˜ฆ Fortunately, I still managed to find it & got my morning tea fix before flying home.๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoyed a tea set - green tea swiss roll + green tea latte (KRW9,000/ S$10.75) at my favourite O'Sulloc

Enjoyed a tea set – green tea swiss roll + green tea latte (KRW9,000/ S$10.75) at my favourite O’Sulloc

Things may have changed a lot in Myeongdong, but it is still one of my must-go places in Seoul to check out latest trends (& also to feel young again haha), otherwise the whole trip would feel weird! What about you?๐Ÿ˜‰

The DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour – Best to Go With Minimal Expectations

dmz-map

Since 2005, the Demilitarized Zone of Korea, or DMZ for short, has always been on my list of must-visit destinations whenever I go to South Korea. However, for my past 3 Korea trips, it was always missed for some reason or another. This time, after researching a fair bit on which type of DMZ tour to sign up for, I thought the DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour would be the more insightful one as the Joint Security Area (Panmunjom / ํŒ๋ฌธ์ ) is the zone where I could be closest to North Korea (without going through North Korea’s customs). Sadly, I discovered that the DMZ would be closed for tours due to military training for almost the entire duration when I would be in Seoul. That meant I would have to miss it again?!

Just as I was about to give up after checking with a few tour agencies, I found International Cultural Service Club, where the DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour was available on Saturday! *Phew* I was in dilemma for a while though, as going for this tour on a Saturday meant I’d have less time to hang out with my Korean friend + miss the Hongdae Free Market that is only available on Saturday afternoons. Nonetheless, a voice within told me to go for it, since I had been trying to go to 1 for the longest time. So I registered for the 6-hour tour to the most heavily militarized border in the world!

The tour was conducted in English at KRW85,000 per pax (S$101.55) and included a Korean lunch. The pick-up point for the tour bus was at President Hotel [near to either City Hall Station (์‹œ์ฒญ์—ญ, Line 1) exit 5, or Euljiro 1-ga Station (์„์ง€๋กœ์ž…๊ตฌ, Line 2) exit 8] where the International Cultural Service Club Tour Office was. Everyone in the tour were assigned seat numbers & supposed to abide by that. My tour group was mainly made up of Caucasians, except for a handful of Asians like myself. As the bus only departed at 11.30 am from the hotel, our 1st stop was lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant near the highway in Gyeonggi-do, about 45 min drive from the hotel.

Panmunjom Tour 1

It was a chilly & foggy day, so this piping hot lunch of bulgogi soup with rice & kimchi came at the right time. I liked the side dishes, especially the sliced fish cake & big long beansprouts. Just a little uncomfortable that we had to sit on the floor, in the traditional way like the Koreans do… but well, this is Korea afterall!๐Ÿ˜›

After lunch, we made our way to Imjingak Park, which was built in 1972, with the hope that someday unification would be possible. This is the furthest north point in South Korea that South Koreans can visit freely without the need to seek military clearance to go further up north. It is like a Korean War memorial park, particularly as a consolation for those who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends & families because of the division of Korea.

Panmunjom Tour 2

Panmunjom Tour 3

Panmunjom Tour 4

Gyeongui Train Line was destroyed during the Korean War in 1950. Since year 2000, it has been under reconstruction. Beside this restored train, I also saw numerous colourful ribbons tied on the wired fence, as these are messages written by the family & friends of Koreans who had been separated because of the war.

Panmunjom Tour 5

A map of where the DMZ zone lies

A map of where the DMZ zone is defined

As you can see from my pics above, it was so foggy that day that visibility was very low. In fact I made some enhancements to my photos, otherwise they’d be worse. It was the day with the worst weather throughout my trip.๐Ÿ˜ฆ Even at the Imjingak Observatory that supposedly allows visitors to see Mt. Songaksan (์†ก๊ฐ์‚ฐ) in Kaeseong, North Korea (๊ฐœ์„ฑ, ๋ถํ•œ) on a clear day as it is located where the rivers of Hangang & Imjingang meet, we couldn’t see anything.๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Look hard & you may see the Freedom Bridge in the background of the top pic

Look hard & you may see the Freedom Bridge in the background of the top pic

Soon, it was time to proceed to JSA Village – Camp Bonifas for our briefing + ID check after a 45-min free & easy tour in Imjingak. At Camp Bonifas, we were presented with a slideshow on what to expect, together with the dos & don’ts at JSA later. Thereafter, we were instructed to line up 2 by 2, just like in primary/ secondary school days as we arrived at Panmunjom.

The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) in JSA

The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) in JSA

Panmunjom Tour 8

I was looking forward to entering the Joint Security Area – Panmunjom because of what I had been reading online before the tour. Only 800m in diameter, the Panmunjom is designated as JSA between the United Nations (U.N.) & North Korea. It is outside administrative control of South & North Korea. The U.N. & North Korea sides each operate 6 guard posts with 35 resident security guards. Since the axe murder incident on 18 August 1976 by North Korean soldiers, security guards are forbidden to cross over to the opposing side’s area.

We were first brought to the MAC conference room & given an overview by the tour guide. This important room has held secretary’s meetings, joint duty officer’s meetings & general meetings for observation of the Armistice Agreement since its signing. However, general meetings have been suspended since a Korean Army General was assigned as the Chief Representative of the UN Command (UNC) on March 25, 1998. Instead, Army General’s meetings have been held since then. Since May 1994, informal contacts have been held between the UNC & the North Korean Panmunjeom mission. Either side can call for the joint duty officer meetings.

It was interesting to note that the line of microphone wires on the conference room table, as seen in above pic, marks which side the North Korean & South Korea personnel should sit during the meeting. So don’t try to touch & meddle with the microphone wire, you won’t know how the soldiers will react to your action.๐Ÿ˜‰ The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) of the Joint Security Area runs through the middle of Panmunjeom & even the conference buildings, where the line of microphone wires traces the MDL path. I was standing on the North Korea side when I took the photo above, i.e. slightly further from the entrance to the conference room.

Outside the conference room, we were told to stand in a straight line facing the Panmungak (ํŒ๋ฌธ๊ฐ) located on the North Korean side of the JSA. Then, we were given 5 min to take as many photos as we wish, but forbidden to look back. So it was a “mad rush” as everyone tried to make full use of the limited time to take photos of ourselves in front of this iconic building. As it was foggy that day, the 2-storey building which was built in September 1969 looked somewhat mysterious too. -_- Besides using it as a waiting room for North Korean representatives before a MAC conference, it also serves as an office for North Korea’s security guards. Our itinerary indicated that we would visit the Freedom House here as well, which is just 80m south of Panmungak, but I don’t seem to have any photos of that, can’t remember if it was because we weren’t allowed to take photos?๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Lastly, before we made our way back to the JSA Village for souvenir shopping, we made a brief stop next to the Bridge of No Return. Instead of allowing us to alight here for quick photo-taking, we were told to take photos of the bridge from inside the bus.

A not-so-clear view of the historical bridge through the window of the bus

A not-so-clear view of the historical bridge through the blurry window of the bus

The Bridge of No Return runs across the MDL. After the Armistice Agreement in 1953, prisoners of war (POWs) from both sides were exchanged on this bridge. The bridge got its name because the POWs who voluntarily chose to go to North Korea instead of staying in the South would be unable to return to South Korea. Depressing history.๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Panmunjom Tour 9

With about 100,000 tourists visiting the JSA each year through the USO & several local tour agencies, it’s of little surprise why there is a souvenir shop in the JSA Village. Special sunglasses worn by the military personnel here can be purchased for KRW38,000 (if I remember correctly), in addition to the usual fridge magnets, keychains, pens etc.

To be frank, I was quite disappointed by the tour, hence I titled this post as such. I guess I set too high an expectation for the DMZ tour that I had been missing so many years. It didn’t help that I was so “lucky” to visit on a super-foggy & chilly day (around 7 to 8 degrees celsius in the day), until our tour guide had to comment a few times that it was a pity we couldn’t even see the North Korean flag flying high. He said that on clear days, it’s pretty visible because the flag is hanging high on a tall tower. We couldn’t see most significant sights that day anyway due to bad weather.

In addition, although I was prepared that we had to follow very strict instructions throughout the tour, when faced with the real situation, it still startled me…. Photo-taking was really restrictive in limited time & places, we couldn’t even bring our bags into the JSA, & had to “file in” 2 by 2, the actual time spent in JSA was too short etc… Furthermore, there was hardly any chance to interact & get to know other tour members (people just talked within their own groups), so for a solo traveller like me, it was not as enjoyable as I had hoped for.๐Ÿ˜ฆ Not sure if it was because of the tour agency, or composition of the group, or the DMZ tour was really not as interesting as I imagined, but now, I wouldn’t be so keen to recommend visiting the DMZ as enthusiastically as before.๐Ÿ˜› If you do decide to visit, please go with minimal expectation of how the tour should be! Good luck!๐Ÿ™‚