I must confess. Legally, I have been a Johorean for 30 years (I switched nationality after my elder child was born) but the name "Kulai" has nothing but a by-word for a checkpoint en route northwards on the highway: "Oh, you continue to drive for about 50km after Kulai", or "It's quite near Kulai" are phrases often heard when we were driving towards more famous and seemingly more fun destinations. But to put things in perspective, Kulai has undergone much transformation over the years, and with an increasingly more savvy local population injecting new ideas into the aging town, her appeal has only just started revealing herself recently.
Kulai is picturesque with Gunung Pulai (popular with Singaporeans and locals alike) as her backdrop----a sight familiar with drivers using the north-south highway. It was this route which took my family and two friends with their families to Kulai over the Labour Day long weekend. Ironically, we decided on this place by the process of "elimination".
We wanted a rural and back-to-basics experience for the kids. We knew the highway would be congested with Singapore as well as local holiday-makers, so we did not want to waste time traveling too far north. Our first choice was actually the goat farm in Hulu Langat, Selangor, which I have visited before, but unfortunately it was not available on the dates we wanted.
My friends requested for somewhere with good food too. I recalled Kulai has some authentic and affordable food. After some online research, I found Durian Guesthouse exuding a rustic charm. It was located in one of the Chinese-only "New Villages", which dotted all over Malaysia. Its size and number of rooms also just about fit our bill. We could have the whole guesthouse to ourselves. I was looking forward to a relaxing, no-itinerary type of holiday.
As if by fate, the owner, Thai Soon, turns out to be a business acquaintance of my wife. After graduating from a Singapore university, he started working in Singapore for many years. Later, he got married, and went about pursuing a dream that he and his wife had, and still have. Hence the birth of their first baby----Durian Guesthouse.
He also gave us a quick lowdown of the history of "Chinese New Villages" (华人新村), which were built during the turbulent times when communism was a formidable force in Southeast Asia. The majority of communists and their sympathisers were allegedly Chinese. In order to contain them, the government built this villages to house the Chinese. At the same time, the Malays lived around the fringes of these villages, thus providing eyes and ears for the government of any potential shenanigans.
Thai Soon is very proud of his town. He enthusiastically shared with us the various places of interest that we could visit, and the many places for good food. From our conversations, we were introduced to a world that I had never noticed. There is a strong and closely-knitted community in Kulai that espouses the simple life, sustainable and organic lifestyle and healthy living. They would meet up with one another often at roadshows, trade fairs, weekend bazaars etc. On our first day, his friend, a young lady who manages a spa at the Kulai Rainforest Treehouse, happened to be there to chat with us too. It was an initiation to their world and their dream for the town.
Thai Soon became our impromptu tourist visitor liaison. He gave us a list of restaurants and food stalls, and recommended some places, one of which was the Star Fish Leisure Farm. It was a freshwater fish farm located in the middle of an oil palm plantation. According to Thai Soon, the boss wanted to expand and diversify the business into tourism and hospitality-related business. There is a myriad of facilities and activities available at the farm for the whole family. From chalets built on stilts and over the ponds, water obstacle courses, steamboat restaurant to offering boating, fishing, cycling and ATV-riding, the kids were immediately hooked.
The fish and leisure farm is open to visitors on half-day or full-day passes. The entrance fee is very reasonable. Apparently it is very popular for student and corporate groups. Thank goodness on the day of our visit, there was no crowd and we were the only happy people there.
At the beginning, I thought spending 3 days and 2 nights in Kulai was a bit of overkill. "Will we have enough things to fill our time and keep the kids entertained?" In the end, it turned out we only seriously had enough time for one keynote point of interest----the fish and leisure farm, on top of the leisurely time we spent poking around and catching up at the guest house. And lastly, I must mention the food. Almost every meal was on point. I am not so much a food blogger, so I never have the habit of taking food pictures. My first instinct was to take a bite.
My friend's daughter, 9, probably paid the best compliment on this little road trip by suggesting "next time, we must come for one week. Three days is not enough!"