Busloads of tourists, foreign and local, stop by the perimeter walls of Istana Mersing, or Istana Flintstones, as it’s popularly known, daily.
They are mesmerised by the multi colours and unique shape of the building, which instantly brings to life, for them, the home of the Flintstones, a family immortalised in the popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
The journey from Johor Baru to Mersing is almost a two-hour ride via a 130km trunk road, but the initiated knows it’s worth it because such a palace is the only one of its kind in the world.
The Flintstones was an American animated series framed against a romanticised Stone Age backdrop and was hugely popular during its run from the early to mid-1960s. In 1994, it was also made into a movie featuring big name actors like John Goodman, Rick Moranis, Halle Berry and even Elizabeth Taylor.
The Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar, a huge fan of this cartoon family, has kept the legacy of the Flintstones alive through his palace.
It’s located on a sprawling 24ha site overlooking the sea, with a nine-storey lighthouse, which is still under construction. It apparently has 17 rooms, including two presidential suites.
The two-storey palace, built to resemble a giant cave from the cartoon series, also has a museum and private library, which houses 60,000 original Marvel comics sourced from Australia.
His Majesty Sultan Ibrahim said that he has been a fan of the cartoon since young.
“I can remember coming home from school and waiting for the cartoon to be on television. Fred Flintstone, the main character, remains my favourite.
“I could never get bored watching the series because it brings back many good memories of my childhood.”A life-sized replica of Fred Flintstone’s car from the show sits prominently near the palace entrance.
It has specially designed wooden panelling on the car body and faux-stone finish on the wheels and chair, which was a gift from the King, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, when he was a Crown Prince.
It’s a relief to know that the car isn’t feet-powered like in the series!
It was a privilege when the Sultan personally conducted a tour of his palace for this writer and his colleague, Nelson Benjamin, the bureau chief of The Star office in Johor.
A man gifted with the ability to remember even the finest details, Tuanku provided every bit of information on how the structure was put up, and where the materials were sourced.
“Every little thing was built from scratch and it was all properly done, ” he said as he showed me a letter from the Hanna-Barbera company granting Tuanku permission to construct the Flintstones-themed palace.
Tuanku revealed he is under pressure to open the palace doors to visitors. “I will discuss with my son (the Crown Prince) about which sections of the house can be opened to the public, ” he said, adding that it took five years to transform the once-swampland area.
Sultan Ibrahim also added that a lot of recycled materials, including broken marble pieces and KTM’s old wooden railway sleepers, have been repurposed and made into furniture to give the place a rustic look.
He added that they have an on-site sawmill and some 350 people, including professional carvers, working on the project.
The quirky building, which houses everything from swinging chairs to a huge aquarium, is a bona fide private theme park, which can match anything in Disneyland or elsewhere.
My favourite part of the palace is the dinner table, where projectors placed on the ceiling beam down moving animations of Fred Flintstone cooking.
There are also kitchens in various parts of the palace. Unknown to many, His Majesty is an excellent cook, and has restaurant-standard kitchens.
Sharing his vision of Mersing, His Majesty said he hopes to transform the coastal town and put it on the world map. He added that people always travel to Mersing – which is located on the east coast of Johor – en route to nearby island paradises such as Pulau Rawa and Pulau Tioman.
Rawa Island was referenced in the 2018 blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, although the parts depicting Rawa were, in fact, filmed in Pulau Langkawi in Kedah.
“We want people to stay on the mainland.
“To achieve this, we need good hotels and restaurants to cater to tourists, especially day trippers, ” said Sultan Ibrahim, adding that effort is needed to improve the jetty and clean up the Mersing river, which is congested with ferries and cargo vessels.
With eco-tourism a key revenue stream down south, Sultan Ibrahim added that there is now better control of the number of divers in the area with the establishment of the Sultan Iskandar Marine Park.
“Now we have park rangers and an office to monitor all the activities around the marine park.
“The permits are issued by the local council and we can now better protect the marine life around the area and prevent people from just anchoring their boats indiscriminately or carting away the marine life, ” he said.
He added that the RM200 charge for divers was used for conservation efforts, but it will cost more for boats and rangers.
“We want to emulate Sabah in their efforts to protect their marine parks, ” he said.
Conservation efforts aside, it’s the palace which takes centre stage as the Sultan’s jewel in the crown.
And if there were a catchphrase to encapsulate the glee one experiences when seeing his abode, Fred Flintstone’s iconic “Yabba Dabba Doo!” should do just nicely.