Kota Tinggal


by Marc Nair, 24 March 2019

Some Singaporeans may have vague, even fond memories of visiting Kota Tinggi in their childhood. This was the stuff of road trips to the far side of Johor, of long hours on bumpy roads and small town stops to buy sweets and little trinkets. Those days are long gone now. Johor has a superior system of roads that are well maintained and make for far more enjoyable drives. 

Pro Tip: get a train from Woodlands and rent a car in JB, it’s literally 1/3 the price! 

This was supposed to be a road-trip to Desaru, with a quick detour to Kota Tinggi waterfall. But this story is not about Desaru. Why? Because it should be called Dullsaru, Deadsaru, Diesarualready. You get the picture. 


Desaru used to be buzzing in the 1980s and 90s. I remember going there as a child and being awed by the waves and enjoying the spanking new hotel facilities. This time round, the a/c can’t cool the room, the hairdryer is wired through the dresser drawer to prevent thieves, and Ombak Bar, where we decided to get a drink, had run out of mojitos. Who runs out of a mojito?

Not far from the original hotels is the Desaru Coast, a snazzy name for some big name hotels like The Westin and Hard Rock. We decided to go to Hard Rock for a drink the one night we were there, only to be assailed by the worst pub band in the world. 

But Kota Tinggi Waterfall made up for all of it. As a child, the waterfall was a magical place, with a series of cascading pools and a water shallow enough to splash around in.

Today, the Awas (Danger) signs and barbed wire keep tourists from climbing up to the upper reaches while a grimy water slide straddles (and even obliterates) the stream flowing down from the waterfall. Condoms and used diapers and mermaids are par for the course too. 


Yes. Apparently, Kota Tinggi Waterfall was the backdrop for a mermaid getting her photoshoot on. She was unfortunately watched by an entire village the whole time, and later, when she had settled in the water for a pose, an unending string of people came up to pose with her. She really should have charged them for being a Kota Tinggi ‘attraction.’

That alone was worth the price of admission (since when did they start charging?) to a dingy, badly run place. It was quite shocking, really, but the spanking new buildings along the Desaru Coast, conjured out of worn out oil palm plantation land, told us everything we needed to know.

Malaysia has more space than it knows what to do with, and rather than tear down and rebuild, or conserve and restore, they find it easier to move on and leave the past to wallow in the shallows of better days.