KOTA BHARU, the state capital of Kelantan in Malaysia, is a popular tourist destination despite not having any bars or night clubs. The city has serenity and real charm and life proceeds at a leisurely pace. It is a pure Malay city that has its own cultural identity based on Islam. Close to the Thai border, Kota Bharu, known as KB, is famous for its museums, delicious food, inimitable traditional architecture, beaches and Buddhist temples. The state is renowned for its cultural diversity, white sandy beaches, waterfalls and lush tropical jungle. Rustic fishing villages and verdant paddy fields are also attractions.
The government recently launched a Visit Kelantan Program 2008 to repeat the success of its tourism program which brought in SR1.8 billion last year.
More than 5,000 spectators, including foreign tourists and media professionals from 12 countries, were there during the Visit Kelantan Year launching ceremony, with the beating of its “heritage” traditional drums, displays of cultural performances and fireworks. It is the last of the three Malaysian states to launch its “Visit Year” activities, following earlier launchings by Kedah and Terengganu. As part of the launch, about 40 art and cultural troupes paraded through the state capital.
Dubbed the “Cradle of Malay Civilization” Kelantan has planned promotions and programs, including an international kite festival with participants from 25 countries, international go-cart competitions, food festivals and bird-singing contests to entertain the 5.8 million tourists expected by December.
Other attractions in the state are top spinning, a new version of shadow plays, drum beating, batiks, silverware and traditional delicacies. The state has set a 5.7 million tourist arrival target for 2008, 700,000 more than last year. “Five million foreign and domestic tourists visited the state last year, spending about SR1.8 billion,” said state Chief Minister Haji Nik Abdul Aziz Bin Nik Mat. “I am confident of achieving this year’s target based on the keen interest among foreigners to see for themselves what is actually happening in Kelantan which is administered under an Islamic system of governance,” said Haji Nik Aziz. Kota Bharu means ‘new city’ or ‘new castle/fort’ in Malay. It is an Islamic state and people are conservative but warm and gentle.
There are more than 30 Buddhist temples throughout the state. This is a surprising number considering Muslims make up 95 percent of the population. Wat Machimmaram, a temple situated in Tumpat of Kelantan, houses the largest sitting Buddha in Southeast Asia. The 30-meter-high, 47-meter-wide statue of brown Buddha with pure gold lips was sitting cross-legged in a meditative pose atop Wat Machimmaram.
In KB, the Azan (prayer call) can be heard everywhere, even in shopping malls. All activities in the city must be stopped for a period out of respect for the prayer. Social activities that contradict Islamic norm are not allowed.
The people of Kelantan have managed to keep alive their age-old customs and traditions. Fishing along its 100 kilometer coastline is an important economic activity. Cottage industries which use traditional skills such as batik-painting, woodcarving and songket weaving are also present.
KB’s four-story central market has both wet and dry souqs. The city is known for its hand printed cloth — batik — and hand made silverware
Many of the vendors are veiled women. The KB civic body discourages the wearing of inappropriate dress by female employees in retail outlets and restaurants. But there is no need for non-Muslim women to wear a scarf over the hair. In this city, women are rarely seen wandering around after 10 p.m.
KB is renowned for its delicious food, an exceptional cuisine influenced by Thai and Indian styles among others. Lots of delicious food is found in the bazaar and in coffee shops throughout the city. Different dishes cooked in chicken, fish, beef, rice, coconut water can be found at restaurants.
The city is well connected to other major towns in Malaysia. Sultan Ismail Petra Airport (KBR) receives flights from Kuala Lumpur. The airport is 15 minutes from the city center by taxi. Bus and train transport is also available. The nearest railway station to is at Wakaf Bahru, some 5 kilometers away from the city center. Trains run on the Jungle Railway to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. One attraction is the Jungle Train which stops at almost every station, allowing passengers to enjoy the jungle as the train travels through the heart of Malaysia.
Kota Bharu’s museums are located close to one another, near the “Padang Merdeka” (Independence Square). All are open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Fridays.
The War Memorial Museum contains collections of Japanese photographic memorabilia and documents relating to World War II. The history of Islam in Kelantan can be found at the Islamic Museum. It is a mosque-like building located across the road from Bank Kerapu.
The Royal Custom Museum and The Royal Museum are also famous. Handicraft Village and Craft Museum are known for an exquisite range of handicrafts. Silverware, “songket”, batik, and woodcarvings are exhibited here.
Waterfalls in Kelantan are major attractions for picnics and swimming. Jeram Pasu is just outside the city. Lata Beringin, with its 120-meter drop, cool waters and lush vegetation is spectacular and is found off the Kuala Krai-Gua Musang Highway.
Stong, one of Kelantan’s highest mountains is 1,442 meters in height. It is reputed to hold the hidden treasure in Gua Ikan (Fish Cave), named after a solitary fish-shaped rock. Sweat it out hiking (2hrs) from Stong, crossing the waterfall (one of seven in the Jelawang area) route to Jelawang camp where campers camp out in the wild.
The Nenggiri River is a favorite place for white water rafting. It is also the venue of the annual Nenggiri Challenge. In a cruise along the Nenggiri River, visitors can traverse ancient rainforests, prehistoric caves and aboriginal settlements and catch glimpses of the shy jungle wildlife. The small town of Dabong is the gateway to most eco-adventure activities in the state. Visits can be arranged to a goldmine, a deer park, an ethno-botanical garden and aboriginal settlements in addition to such adventures as organizing river rafting and cave explorations.
KB’s Beaches are also attractive. Pantai Cahaya Bulan (Beach of Moon Light) has a long, wide and sandy beach and is popular with local families, especially on weekends. The journey to the beach from Kota Bharu is through quaint, traditional Malay villages. Other famous beaches are the Beach of Seven lagoons, the Beach of Melody and the Beach of Whispering Breezes.