One of the northernmost states in
Peninsular Malaysia, Kelantan Darul Naim borders Thailand in the north, Perak in the west, Terengganu in the south-east,
the South China Sea to the east and Pahang in the south.
As the state shares a border with Thailand,
and, indeed, was once under Thai rule, it's not surprising to find a strong
Thai influence here in the local cuisine, architecture, and, of course, among
the local population. The capital, Kota
Bharu, is a good place to sample this culture and cuisine, and also makes a
good base to explore the surrounding countryside. Kelantan is a unique travel
destination because of its splendid beaches, rich cultural heritage, ornate
handicrafts and wood carvings.
Women have always played a major part in
the economy of the state. The handicrafts they produce, from Kelantan silver to
baskets and cloth, are some of the best in Peninsular Malaysia and are much
sought after by both foreigners and Malaysians themselves. The Kelantanese seem
to favour huge items and everything is big from the kites to the tops and the
drums known as Rebana Ubi.
Kelantan is also Malaysia's most socially
conservative and Islamic state.
The capital and royal seat is Kota Bharu. It is also the name of the
territory (jajahan) in which Kota Bharu City is situated. The name
means 'new city' or 'new castle/fort' in Malay.
This north-eastern Malaysian city is close
to the Thai border, and is home to many mosques. Also of interest are various
museums and the unique architecture of the old royal palace (still occupied by
the Sultan and Sultanah and off-limits to visitors but viewable from outside)
and former royal buildings (which can be visited) in the centre of town.
On 1 October 2005, Kota Bharu was declared
Kota Bharu, The Islamic City. This title is given to the city which observes
Islamic principles in every aspect of daily life. The Azan (prayer call), can
be heard everywhere, even in shopping malls. All activities in the city must be
stopped for a while to respect the Azan.
Social activities that do not contradict
with the Islamic norm are allowed. Government offices and many stores are
closed on Fridays and Saturdays, but the vibrant markets remain open except for
Islamic prayer times.
More than anywhere else in Malaysia, in
Kelantan it's important to respect local mores, especially if you head out into
the countryside. It is not necessary or expected for non-Muslim women to wear a
headscarf (though it would certainly meet with approval), but both men and
women should wear clothing that covers all or at least most of their legs (no
short shorts), and women should wear blouses or dresses which cover their
torso. Long sleeves are preferable for women, and outfits which show the
shoulders or midriff should be avoided. The watchword is modesty. Tourists
dressed in shorts and skimpy tops are really out of place in this state.
What to See and Do in Kelantan?
- Siti Khadijah Market. A good way to get
to know a Malaysian town is to visit its markets, the economic centre of the
community. Siti Khadijah Market is named after Prophet Muhammad's
entrepreneurial wife. A fitting name for a market mostly runs by women. The
Siti Khadijah Market (Central Market) is on Jalan Hulu. This market has
something for everyone, from fresh produce to traditional crafts and cakes. It
is also a slice of life in Kelantan, abuzz with colour, scents and sounds of
the local community.
- Handicraft Village and Craft Museum. Also
known as 'Balai Getam Guri', the museum is located in the heart of Kota Bharu's
cultural zone and is walking distance from the Istana Balai Besar and the Buluh
Kubu Bazaar. The Craft Museum houses many fine examples of Kelantanese
craftsmanship. The museum features a selection of Kelantan handicraft in
traditional embroidery, songket weaving, batik printing, silversmithing and
matting. On the ground floor of the building, there is a restaurant called
'Balai Sulur Gadung', where visitors can savour some of Kelantan's famous
refreshments. The adjacent Handicraft Village provides visitors the chance to
see just how these crafts are made. Demonstrations of traditional embroidery,
songket weaving, batik printing, silver work and wood carving are carried out
by skilled artisans. Their products are also on sale at the centre.
- Pantai Bisikan Bayu - also known as
Pantai Dalam Rhu - is just a scenic 50km drive south of Kota Bharu, Kelantan's
capital. Around the village of Semerak, gentle breezes rustle the casuarina
trees lining the beach producing a hushed sound that, locals say, sounds like a
soothing whisper. Surfing is good at certain times of the year, and wind
surfers will find great conditions here during the North-East Monsoon from
November to April. But nothing beats
resting in the shade of the tall casuarina trees, staring out to sea, listening
to the whispering wind and sipping on a cool coconut. The beach is fabulous and
popular with locals and visitors alike all year long, but you may want to be
more careful during the monsoon season as the currents and waves can be strong.
- Kuala Krai - Dabong River Cruise. Beginning at the town of Kuala Krai, the river cruise winds its way upriver
through virgin rainforests to the town of Dabong. As you pass through timeless
tropical forests and a number of riverside communities, the secrets of the
jungle will slowly reveal themselves to you. You may catch a glimpse of shy
jungle wildlife. Kingfishers, eagles and hornbills are everywhere, along with
various species of monkeys. Elephants are known to inhabit this area as well...
Food for Thought
Kota Bharu is full of delicious Kelantanese
food, a unique cuisine influenced by Thai and Indian styles, among others. Lots
of goodies are to be found in the bazaars, markets and in coffee shops
throughout the city. And everywhere throughout Kelantan, food are abundance.
Among the local specialties are:
- Ayam Percik, chicken which is
roasted over a wood fire and combined with coconut/peanut sauce and delicious
local herbs and greens. Yati Ayam Percik (847, Jalan Long Yunus) has got to be
the best around.
- Nasi Ulam (locally called Nasi
Kerabu), rice with fragrant, fresh-picked leaves and shoots, traditionally
dipped into budu (fish sauce), sambal belacan (shrimp paste with hot pepper)
or/and tempoyak (fermented durian paste).
- Murtabak, savoury or sweet
crêpes; and a wide variety of Kuih (little cakes). Murtabak Raja is the famous
one on Jalan Bayam.
- Don't miss the chance to try
Tapai, which is sweet fermented cassava or rice, wrapped in tapioca leaves.
- Keropok Lekor Losong (the local
version is Keropok Gete), originally from Losong village and considered by
Kelantanese to be the benchmark of all fish paste sausages. Comes fried or
boiled. Kelantan Keropok Gete is not like Terengganu Keropok Lekor Losong; it
is thicker, about 4cm.
- Durian puffs (locally called
Lepok Durian or Gelembung Buaya, they are in 3 colours: red, yellow, and
green), at Kubang Pasu wet market in the mornings - for durian lovers with
strong stomachs only. These delicious pastries are sold at wet market
surrounded by fish.
- Laksam Kelantan - the local
version of the ubiquitous noodle soup, here served herbs, rolled-up flat white
noodles and a rich white fish and coconut gravy.
- Nasi Tumpang - uniquely
resembles an ice-cream cone, it consists of padded rice, with dishes as its
toppings, usually shrimps. Can be found in Kelantan only.
- Nasi Dagang - a mix of white
and brown glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk, mild-tasting in itself but served
with lots of tasty curries