After a long spell as an important port trading with the Chinese, KUALA TERENGGANU (the capital of Terengganu state) had by the late nineteenth century been eclipsed by the rise of Singapore and other new ports in the Melaka Straits. Following the transfer of Terengganu from Siamese to British control in the early twentieth century, the state became the last in the Peninsula to take a British Adviser, in 1919. It continued to languish as a rural state with, unusually, most of its settlements at river mouths rather than on the lower reaches of rivers, as elsewhere in Peninsular Malaysia.
The discovery of oil in the 1980s transformed its fortunes; modern Kuala Terengganu is even more of a hotchpotch than most Malaysian cities, sprinkled with oil-funded showpieces of varying degrees of success. There is, nevertheless, a certain austerity about Terengganu state that’s noticeable in Kuala Terengganu. It lacks the commercial buzz of Kuantan or even Kota Bharu, partly because oil revenues have barely trickled down to ordinary people but also because in some respects the state is more conservative and inward-looking than neighbouring Kelantan.
Many visitors use the city simply as a transit point for Terengganu’s best-known attractions – the pleasant beaches that line most of the coastline, and glorious islands including the Perhentians, Pulau Redang, Pulau Lang Tengah and Pulau Kapas. Using the city as a base, you can also venture inland to Tasik Kenyir lake. Kuala Terengganu itself does, however, hold enough to reward a day or two’s sightseeing, in particular the old town with its lively Central Market and the adjacent old Chinatown quarter; the State Museum, among the best of such complexes in Malaysia; and Pulau Duyong, where the city’s maritime heritage just about survives.