The capital of Kelantan, KOTA BHARU, sits at the very northeastern corner of the Peninsula, on the east bank of the broad, muddy Sungai Kelantan. Many visitors arrive across the nearby Thai border, and for most of them the city is simply a half-decent place to rest up and get their Malaysian bearings. To breeze through Kota Bharu and the rest of Kelantan, however, would be to gloss over one of the most culturally fascinating states in the country.

Kelantan has historically been a crucible for Malay culture, fostering art forms that drew on influences from around Southeast Asia and as far away as India. Kota Bharu is the ideal place to witness the region’s distinctive heritage, on show at its Cultural Centre and at the various cottage industries that thrive in its hinterland – among them kite-making, batik printing and woodcarving. The city also boasts its share of historical buildings, now largely museums, plus some excellent markets, as well as numerous Buddhist temples in the surrounding countryside.

The city centre is compact and easily negotiated on foot. Useful reference points include the rocket-like clock tower that marks the junction of the town’s three major roads, Jalan Hospital, Jalan Sultan Ibrahim and Jalan Temenggong; the towering radio mast off Jalan Doktor, which is illuminated at night; and, in the south, the gleaming Pacific KB Mall complex. Most of the markets and many of the banks and the biggest stores lie between Jalan Hospital and Jalan Pintu Pong, a few blocks north.

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