When it comes to food and culture, Malaysia’s sleepy northeastern hub of Kota Bharu pulls no punches.
Stretched into his Beer Lao singlet, the guy passes a nervous gaze between me and his girlfriend. We are a dozen kilometres across the border from the troubled southern Thai province of Narathiwas, surrounded by a multitude of women in colourful headscarves and men in Islamic skullcaps. I can smell their ancestral fear of being in uncharted territory: they’re too far away from a beach hut to feel like this is still a holiday.
“In that case, that’s your bus, straight to the jetty. Enjoy yourselves,” I say, waving them goodbye. I’m in no rush to get to the Perenthian Islands, two blazoned droplets of sand and palm trees sprinkled at the side of northeastern Malaysia. Their reefs pullulate with baby sharks, leatherback turtles and highways of shining coral among the best in the whole South China Sea. As far as I’m concerned, I’m good where I am.
Kota Bharu, capital of Malaysia’s Kelantan state, receives less attention it deserves – particularly among those in a rush to get to the beaches. Basically an inflated Islamic one horse town with opulent mosques, Kota Bharu sat for centuries at the crossroads of the Thai and Malay civilisations. It’s a jumble of cultures and history converging in food. Today it’s the principal seat of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which explains why development here has progressed with the same morigeration that keeps local women’s hair neatly tucked under veils.
If you know Malaysia for artsy Penang or glitzy Kuala Lumpur, a visit here could be shocking. No need to worry, though, as there’s a lot to keep one lingering. The first thing I do is walk across the compact city centre and stroll to Kampung Kraftangan, a small square enclosed by traditional Kelantanese wooden houses on stilts. It is here that Zecs, a local Malay artist, sells batik paintings at reasonable prices out of his one-room studio, Zecsman Design.
“I have been doing this all my life,” he says with a cordial smile. He teaches batik art to a group of Malaysian tourists on a wooden table in the middle of his shop. A girl is bent over her fabric, adding colour to the scales of a tropical fish. In a four-hour class, which costs around RM50 (roughly 500 baht), Zecs shows how to prepare the paint and master the wax pencil. Students bring home their creations.
I continue to the heart of Kota Bharu, where an old circular building hosts a bustling market. Here food, clothes, batik and silk are sold out of tiny four-storey shops. The most impressive feature, however, is the vegetable market: as I enter on the ground floor, I’m greeted by the fragrance of freshly chopped greens and the aromatic puff of dried chillies and curry powders.
All around me, mak ciks in colourful baju kurungs and headscarves are hard at work shuttling all colours of the vegetable kingdom from plastic baskets and pans onto long tables. I’m lured into a circular corridor that coils around the market as if it were a python of smells: dozens of people sit at plastic tables, sipping teas and waiting for different fried dishes that are made to order.
Big and sturdy women, displaying the results of a life spent on such sultry diets, manoeuvre long spoons into frying pans in such a dexterous way that I’m ready to hear the earth quake and be lifted into space on board this market-spaceship.
Here, nasi kerabu – Kelantanese rice with dried fish or fried chicken and crunchy prawn crackers – is just delicious. The food smorgasbord continues at night in the nearby open-air night market, the cheapest and most enjoyable way to eat in Kota Bharu. I know that I want ayam percik, masterfully barbecued chicken soaked in a special mix of spices and sauces. As I take my first bite, who thinks about the islands anymore?
The next day, it’s time to visit the district of Tumpat and its array of colourful Thai-Taoist temples, the real bandaid sticking together southern Thailand and northeastern Malaysia. I team with a local friend to make the short trip by car, as it’s hard to rent scooters in Kota Bharu, and doing so by bicycle requires too much time and energy.
First stop is Wat Pothivan near Tumpat town: its reclining Buddha measures 40 metres, making it among the largest in the world. Up next is Wat Mai Suwan Khiri, uniquely shaped as a dragon boat floating over a pool of water. I have rarely seen a shrine so intricate and bizarre.
The third wonder of the day is the impressive seated Buddha guarding the entrance to Wat Machimarran Varran. The outside serenity greatly contrasts with the appalling frescoes depicting gory scenes from the Buddhist hell I find inside. Here, demons pull tongues with wrenches, while the damned burn in fires or climb trees covered in thorns, the stomach-turning details enhanced by the psychedelic colours.
When we’ve had enough of hell, we drive to Wat Phothikyan in Kampung Balai near Bachok. Besides a giant 100m-high Buddha statue, the temple’s walls are also shaped like twin dragons: facing each other above the gate. Their bodies run around the temple grounds for 600m.
“I think you need a nice treat after so much hellish torment,” my friend says, throwing me a towel as he leads the way toward the herbal baths in a corner of the courtyard. “This is great to wash away your sins,” he jokes before disappearing into an aromatic mist.
Before I follow, I turn around and notice that, not too far from the feet of Buddha, a most peculiar replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is prowling in a garden. Can somebody tell me where I really am? Before we return to Kota Bharu to enjoy another bite of ayam percik, we drive to Bachok town’s seaside. Kilometres of palm-fringed beaches extend empty in the blazing sun, and the sound of crashing waves lures us closer.
Walking on the beach, we find a path that snakes inland, and we follow it until we find ourselves in a dried fish farm. Hundreds of wooden planks are exposed under an unforgiving sun, which burns thousands of salted fish until they are flat and crispy.
There’s a fully operational industry here. In a nearby building a group of women cut away the inner parts and smear the fish in salt before men carry bucket loads to dry out on the planks.
We round the back of the building and walk to a pier where bumboats float on a sea inlet. A couple of shirtless, darkly tanned fishermen appear surprised to
see me there.
“We are waiting for the night to start the engines and go out to sea,” one of them says between deep cigarette drags. “That’s party time for fish. Do you want to join us?”
I’d love to, but there are too many delicious things waiting for me at Kota Bharu’s night market. But wait a minute… didn’t someone tell me there were islands around here?