The 400km-long stretch from the northeastern corner of the Peninsula to Kuantan, roughly halfway down the east coast, draws visitors for two major reasons: the beaches and islands, and traditional Malay culture. Islands such as Pulau Perhentian, Pulau Redang and Pulau Kapas offer great opportunities for diving and snorkelling; further south, the backpackers’ coastal enclave of Cherating is a deservedly popular place simply to kick back for a few days. Among the cities, vibrant Kota Bharu, close to the Thai border, stands out for its opportunities to access Malay crafts and performing arts.
The east coast displays a different cultural legacy to the more populous, commercial western seaboard, from which it is separated by the mountainous, jungled interior. For hundreds of years, the Malay rulers of the northern states of Kelantan and Terengganu were vassals of the Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya, suffering repeated invasions as well as the unruly squabbles of their own princes. Nevertheless, the Malays enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, and both states remained free of British control until 1909. Only in 1931 did the rail line arrive in Kelantan; previously, the journey from KL involved thirteen river crossings. In 1941 Kelantan saw the landing of the first Japanese troops, facilitated by the Thai government – who were rewarded by being given control over Kelantan once more from 1943 until 1945.
While immigrants poured into the tin and rubber towns of the west during the twentieth century, the east remained rural. As a result, Kelantan and Terengganu remain very much Malay heartland states. There’s a rustic feel to the area, the economy being largely based on agriculture and fishing, with the obvious exception of Terengganu’s petroleum industry.
The country’s religious opposition party, PAS, which was born in Kelantan in the middle of the last century, has governed its home state since 1990. For foreign visitors, the political backdrop distils down to the simple truth that the social climate of Kelantan and Terengganu is more obviously conservative: alcohol is harder to obtain than in other states; most restaurants, whatever cuisine they serve, are halal; and dress – for both men and women – needs to be circumspect, except at well-touristed beaches. You will also find that English is less understood in Kelantan and Terengganu than in most other parts of the Peninsula.