Khota Baru is Malaysia’s northernmost city, sitting alongside the Sungai River, 10km inland from the sea. It’s a devoutly Muslim city, proud of its Malay heritage. Its citizens are relaxed and very friendly, and although most foreign visitors arrive overland from neighbouring Thailand on their way to the Perhentian Islands, there are some interesting buildings and museums to see if one has the time.
Khota Bharu makes a great base for exploring the province of Kelantan. Overnight tours into the jungle are popular, as well as boat trips on the river to visit the small villages where silk kites are still made by hand. There is a terrific kite festival in June and in September; the cultural carnival has competitions for the best top spinners and traditional drummers.
The locals love bird song and though there are contests for the best singing birds each week, the highlight is the festival in August where dozens of different Malay birds compete from their ornate cages. The cages are said to be as beautiful as the bird song.
On a more somber note, Khota Bharu was the first place in Malaya to be invaded by the Japanese during WWII.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
On our previous visit to Malaysia in 2007, we focused on the capital, the Cameron Highlands in the north central part of the peninsula, and the islands of Penang and Langkawi on the west coast. We read that the east coast offered a much better glimpse into Malay culture and that it saw far fewer visitors, but we didn’t have enough time for us to travel there.
When my brother David heard that we were planning to tour Malaysia, after our time with Raj and Vy in Vietnam, he decided to fly over from Canada and join us for a few weeks. He had been in Penang years earlier and was interested in seeing more of the country as well. After four days in Kuala Lumpur, the three of us flew to Khota Bharu and set about seeing the sights of the city.
While we were waiting for our flight at the airport in KL, I was surprised to see side-by-side ATM machines that together offered customers a choice of eight different currencies when they withdrew cash from their bank accounts at home. I remember being surprised a few years earlier when a Vietnamese ATM gave us the option of getting Vietnamese Dong or UD dollars. My, how times have changed.
Our rooms at the Crystal Hotel were recently renovated, and though they weren’t posh, they were clean and comfortable. We went to the roof of the building and had a look at the nearby river just to get our bearings. Then we set off to explore a little and we took the advice of the hotel receptionist and crossed the street to eat in an outdoor restaurant that was set up behind a commercial building.
There were a large number of tables set up on what was probably a parking lot during the day, and each table was filled with enthusiastic locals eating from large plates heaped with delicious-looking food. There wasn’t a menu that we could understand, but the smell of grilling meat encouraged us to take seats as well. I took a quick spin around the tables and identified a few dishes that looked like they didn’t contain seafood. We had a terrific meal and couldn’t believe how small the bill was when it arrived.
We spent our two days in Khota Bharu walking the quiet streets of the town and exploring some of the beautiful buildings around Padang Merdeka (Independence Square). We could only peek into the grounds of the nearby Istana Balai Pesar (Palace of the Large Audience Hall). It was built in 1840 as the principal royal residence, but today it is only used for state occasions.
The building that really caught our attention was the Istana Jahar (Royal Ceremonies Museum). Built completely of local woods in 1887, it has a wrap-around verandah that lends it an airy feel, we’ve seen nothing like it anywhere. It is filled with interesting displays that portray the various rituals that mark the important transitions in Kelatanese life, from birth, to circumcision, to the marriage and death.
We found a local driver to take us to the beach 10km away, when it was clear we had arrived in Khota Bharu during one of its most quiet periods of the year. The handicraft village was all but deserted, none of the tours were operating and there was very little to do in the town. The beach was completely deserted, it was not really warm enough to swim, but there were local people fishing and some had brought their wives and children to have a picnic while they fished.
We really liked the man who drove us to the beach, his English was good, so we arranged for him to drive us south along the coast to Kuala Besut in order for us to visit the offshore Perhentian Islands. The trip would take us about 1½ hours and was the easiest way to travel for the three of us with our luggage.