The east coast Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
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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.

The east coast in the off-season

Many visitors give the east coast a wide berth during the especially wet northeast monsoon, which sets in during late October and continues until February. It’s true that heavy rains and sea swells put paid to most boat services to the east-coast islands at this time, and most beach accommodation, whether on the mainland or offshore, is shut anyway. The rains will, however, usually be interspersed with good sunny spells, just as the so-called dry season can bring its share of torrential downpours. With luck, and a flexible schedule, you will find boats heading sporadically to and from the islands during the northeast monsoon; some island accommodation opens year-round, although you should contact places to be sure. While diving and snorkelling aren’t great at this time of year thanks to reduced visibility, the east coast comes into its own for surfing and windsurfing, with Cherating the prime destination. Away from the beaches, there’s always reasonable sightseeing in Kota Bharu and Kuala Terengganu – just be prepared to take lengthy refuge in cafés or malls when yet another thunderstorm breaks.

Cherating

At first it can be hard to discern the enduring appeal of CHERATING, a laidback village of sorts 45km north of Kuantan. Its heyday as a tourist destination is clearly over; for proof you only need to see the abandoned tourist office at one end of Cherating Lama (the old town), and the closed cultural centre at the other end. Many locals have long since moved out, to the new settlement of Cherating Baru a little way south. What’s more the beach is pleasant but pebbly in places, and hardly the best on the coast.

Nevertheless, at its best, Cherating Lama is still an appealing little travellers’ community, chilled out yet warm-spirited, a place to share quality time with old companions and – chances are – to end up with a whole bunch of new acquaintances too. Local entrepreneurs have also devised an array of activities to keep tourists coming, and it’s well worth giving it a few days to work its magic on you. Further down the coast in Cherating Baru, the mid-range resorts draw in families looking for a comfortable seaside break.

The beach

No trip to Cherating would be complete without time spent on the beach. While the sands are off-white at best, the shelter of the bay ensures calm waters; it’s best to avoid swimming at low tide, when the sea recedes 100m or more. The headland obliterates any sunrise views, but in good weather it’s still worth taking a dawn stroll on the beach, when only a few fishing boats disturb the stillness.

Turtle sanctuary

Around the rocky headland at the eastern end of the bay, near the exclusive Club Med development, Cherating has its own turtle sanctuary. The information centre has a few displays about the creatures, plus a few holding tanks at the back, but the real appeal comes after hours during the laying season. Arrive late at night and seek out the ranger on duty – try the hatchery on the right-hand side – to join them as they check for arriving green and (occasionally) hawksbill turtles. When there are hatchlings to release, they do so at 10.30pm. If you don’t fancy just turning up on your own, arrange a visit with Hafiz or your accommodation.

Gua Charas

One of the great limestone outcrops close to Kuantan is home to Gua Charas, a cave temple which can be seen as a leisurely day-trip: if you charter a taxi from Kuantan (RM100 return including waiting) then you can also visit the nearby Sungai Pandan waterfall, where you can splash around in various pools. If you’re taking the bus then you start at Panching village, where a sign to the cave points down a track through plantations. It’s a long, hot walk, so take plenty of water with you; you may be able to hitch a lift for a few ringgit.

Once you’ve reached the outcrop and paid your donation, you’re faced with a steep climb to the Thai Buddhist cave temple itself. Halfway up, a rudimentary path strikes off to the right, leading to the entrance of the main cave. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, even though the damp mud path is dimly lit by fluorescent tubes. Inside the echoing cavern, illuminated shrines gleam from gloomy corners, guiding you to the main shrine deep in the cave. Here a 9m-long sleeping Buddha is almost dwarfed by its giant surroundings. Back through the cave, steps lead to another, lighter hollow where the rear wall opens out to give a great view of the surrounding countryside.

From Kota Bharu to Kuala Terengganu

Few travellers linger long on the coast south of Kota Bharu; most are simply waiting for a boat from Kuala Besut (for Pulau Perhentian) or Merang (to Pulau Redang or Pulau Lang Tengah; not to be confused with Marang further south). Get money before you set out; there are no ATMs on any of the mentioned islands (or in Kuala Besut), though some accommodation may accept cards, and you may be able to get cash advances at punitive rates. If you do have time to stop, then there are a few good resorts on the coast plus some interesting villages and wildlife in the Setiu Wetlands.

Kuala Besut

The only reason to visit the mainland village of KUALA BESUT is to catch a boat to the Perhentian Islands. It’s practically a one-street affair, the street in question running past the boat terminal and terminating just beyond the bus and taxi station. You’ll find agents selling boat tickets and Perhentians packages in the lanes along this street or in the boat terminal; all offer similar services at similar prices.

Merang

Most travellers who make it to MERANG, along the coastal road just south of the Sungai Merang creek, only glimpse the back of the village on their way to the jetty. The beach, accessible along a couple of side roads, is not exceptional, but if you have time to kill there’s reasonable swimming and memorable views of the islands offshore – from left to right, the Perhentians, Lang Tengah, Redang and finally Bidung Laut, now uninhabited but once the site of a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people.

The Setiu wetlands

As a breeding ground for the painted terrapin and green turtle, the Setiu wetlands, between Kuala Besut and Merang, have been a focus for WWF projects since the early 1990s, but even now they attract only a trickle of tourists.

Both the main settlements hereabouts, namely Penarik, on the main coastal road, and Mangkok, 6km inland, are small villages, so the easiest way to explore is on a tour organized by an operator in Kuala Terengganu.

Kuala Terengganu

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.

The kris

The kris (or keris) occupies a treasured position in Malay culture, a symbol of manhood and honour believed to harbour protective spirits. Traditionally, all young men crossing the barrier of puberty receive one which remains with them for the rest of their lives, tucked into the folds of a sarong; for an enemy to relieve someone of a kris is tantamount to stripping him of his virility. In the past some weapons were reputed to have magical powers, able to fly from their owners’ hand to seek out and kill an enemy.

The kris itself is intended to deliver a horizontal thrust rather than the more usual downward stab. When a sultan executed a treacherous subject, he did so by sliding a long kris through his windpipe, just above the collar bone, thereby inflicting a swift – though bloody – death. The distinguishing feature of the dagger is the hilt, shaped like the butt of a gun to facilitate a sure grip. The hilt can also be used to inflict a damaging blow to the head in combat, especially if there isn’t time to unsheathe the weapon.

The daggers can be highly decorative: the iron blade is often embellished with fingerprint patterns or the body of a snake, while the hilt can be made from ivory, wood or metal. Designs are usually based on the theme of a bird’s head.

Pulau Duyong

The proud home of a venerable boat-building tradition, Pulau Duyong (“Mermaid Island”) was once two islets in the Terengannu River but they were joined by reclamation to form what you see today. Although the northern section of Duyong was levelled to build a prestigious yacht club for the annual Monsoon Cup race (wmonsooncup.com.my), the rest of the island still features a rustic kampung that’s a great place for an hour’s stroll.

If you want to visit one of the handful of surviving boatyards, ask around for directions or enquire at long-standing backpacker favourite Awi’s Yellow House. One boatyard is owned by Awi, while another is close to the Sultan Mahmud bridge.

Boat-building on Pulau Duyong

The shipwrights of Pulau Duyong work mostly from memory rather than set plans. For hulls, their preferred material is cengal, a wood whose toughness and imperviousness to termite attack make it prized not only for boats but also the best kampung houses. After the hull planking is fastened with strong hardwood pegs, a special sealant – derived from swampland trees, and resistant to rot – is applied. Unusually, the frame is fitted afterwards, giving the whole structure strength and flexibility. As construction takes place in dry docks, the finished boats have to be manoeuvred on rollers into the water, an effort that often requires local villagers to pitch in.

Historically, the boatyards produced schooners that ranged from humble fishing craft to the hulking perahu besar, up to 30m in length. These days however, motorized, modern alternatives to the old-fashioned wooden boats, the increasing cost of timber, plus the lure of other careers, have all contributed to a steep decline in local boat-building. Today fewer than five boatyards are still engaged in the business. With the fall in local demand for traditional working boats, any salvation for Duyong’s boat-building looks to lie in clients from around the world, who have been placing orders for all manner of bespoke craft.

Terengganu State Museum

Arriving at the Terengganu State Museum, you might think you’ve strayed into Alice in Wonderland. Visitors are confronted by a series of buildings modelled on the archetypal Terengganu village house, but absolutely gargantuan in scale. Somehow the dislocation in size is fitting though for, although it lacks the interactive exhibits of more modern establishments, the museum far outstrips most of its provincial counterparts.

The ground floor of the main building holds exquisite fabrics from around Southeast Asia, while the next floor up displays various crafts. The top floor details the history of Terengganu. The Petronas Oil Gallery, in the building to the left, is sporadically interesting but predictably skewed. Behind it, the old-fashioned Islamic Gallery displays fine examples of Koranic calligraphy.

Allow time to see the rest of the site. Beside the river are two examples of the sailing boats for which Kuala Terengganu is famed – unique blends of European ships and Chinese junks. The small Seafaring Gallery and larger Fisheries and Marine Park Gallery are close by, as is a collection of smaller, beautifully decorated fishing boats. Five old timber buildings have been disassembled and reconstructed within the grounds. Among them, the Istana Tengku Long was originally built in 1888 entirely without nails, which to Malays signify death because of their use in coffins.

Kuantan

The state capital of Pahang since 1955, KUANTAN is an undistinguished agglomeration of concrete buildings around an older core of shophouses close to Sungai Kuantan. While there’s very little by way of historical or cultural interest in the city itself, Kuantan can be a breath of fresh air after a sojourn in Kelantan or Terengganu – it’s closer in feel to the west-coast cities than to Kuala Terengganu or Kota Bharu. If you’re arriving from elsewhere in the country, however, Kuantan can seem mundane. With the creation of the East Coast Highway to Pelabuhan Kuantan, the port 40km north of the city, it’s easy to bypass Kuantan altogether if you’re travelling between KL and the east coast.

If Kuantan has a focus of sorts, it’s the padang. The city’s oldest streets, between there and the river, hold quite a few hotels and restaurants. The best reason to hang around for a night or two, though, is to take a day-trip to the cave temple of Gua Charas or the royal town of Pekan.

Masjid Negeri

The town’s one real sight, the Masjid Negeri, was built in 1991, with a pastel exterior – green for Islam, blue for peace and white for purity. It’s distinctly Turkish in appearance, thanks to the pencil minarets at all four corners of the sturdy square prayer hall, topped with a looming central dome. Non-Muslims can visit other than during Friday prayers: men should wear long trousers, while women will be given gowns.

Teluk Chempedak

Around the corner from a wooded headland, on an east-facing stretch of coast, Teluk Chempedak has long been a popular evening and weekend hangout for families and young people. The sands of the bay are encouragingly white, although undertows can render the sea off-limits (watch out for red flags). There is an appealing liveliness about the place, quite at variance from the languorous mood on the otherwise better sands of rural Terengganu. Bars and restaurants line the main road as you arrive, before you reach the Hyatt, and there are more places to eat on the promenade.

Marang

The coastal village of MARANG, 17km south of Kuala Terengganu and not to be confused with Merang further north, is only visited by tourists as the departure point for the delightful Pulau Kapas and Pulau Gemia, just 6km offshore. Those islands have no banks or ATMs, so this is your last chance to withdraw money – there are branches of BSN and AmBank around 500m away from the waterfront area.

Marine turtles

Marine turtles on the East Coast

While four types of marine turtle lay their eggs on Malaysia’s east coast, for years the sight of the largest – the giant, critically endangered leatherback turtle – was the star attraction, drawing visitors to Rantau Abang in Terengganu. In fact all other kinds of marine turtle – green (Malaysian nesting sites include the Perhentians, Pulau Redang, Cherating, Penarik, and the Turtle Islands National Park in Sabah), hawksbill (Pulau Redang, Turtle Islands National Park, Pulau Tioman and Padang Kemunting near Melaka), olive ridley (rarely seen), and Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead (neither of which nest in Malaysia) – are also at risk.

Harmful fishing methods, such as the use of trawl nets, kill thousands of marine turtles each year, and help explain the dramatic reduction in leatherbacks nesting on the Terengganu coast. In 1956, more than ten thousand were recorded; in 2000, just three; in 2002, there were no sightings of leatherbacks in Rantau Abang for the first time since records began; by 2005, leatherback, hawksbill and olive ridley’s statistics in Terengganu were all at zero, and green turtle figures were significantly down. On the rare occasions when a leatherback turns up – there was a lone turtle in 2010 – their eggs often fail to hatch. This is probably because of the increasing rarity of male–female turtle encounters.

With a very meagre survival rate among hatchlings under ordinary conditions, any human pressure on turtle populations has drastic consequences for their survival. For the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore, turtle soup is a classic delicacy, and while Malays eschew turtle meat, they do consume turtle eggs, which look like ping-pong balls and are sold at markets throughout the east coast. Their collection is licensed at certain sites, but there’s no guarantee that anything on sale was collected legally. There appears to be no political will to outlaw this traditional food, a sad irony given Malaysia’s general turtle conservation efforts: in many places, hatcheries pay licensed collectors for eggs rather than see them go to markets. At least the deliberate slaughter of turtles for their shells, once fashioned into bowls and earrings, has been banned since 1992.

Turtle spotting and conservation

Nowadays, humans are excluded from various designated sanctuaries for nesting turtles. At these sites the eggs are dug up immediately after the turtle has laid them and reburied in sealed-off hatcheries on the beach. Burying the eggs in sand of the correct temperature is crucial as warm sand produces more females, while cooler sand favours males. When the hatchlings emerge, they are released at the top of the beach and their scurry to the sea is supervised to ensure their safe progress.

There are several officially sanctioned opportunities to watch nesting turtles on the east coast beaches and islands, including at Cherating, Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Tioman (at Juara Beach). One excellent resource is whelpourpenyu.com, set up by a company called Ecoteer which offers opportunities to volunteer on Perhentian Besar.

Pekan

Nearly 50km south of Kuantan lies the royal town of PEKAN, whose name literally means “small town”. State capital of Pahang until 1898, Pekan still retains a measure of its charm and tranquillity, although this has been challenged in recent years with the growth of its modern centre and a rather mixed makeover for its heritage buildings. This is thanks in no small part – so locals say – to the fact that the town’s MP is none other than prime minister Najib Tun Razak. Still, the town is definitely a worthwhile day-trip from Kuantan: you’ll find unusually spruce, almost prim kampung houses with pretty gardens, a couple of museums and a few wooden former royal residences.

Pulau Kapas

Diminutive Pulau Kapas, less than half an hour from Marang by speedboat, boasts arcs of sandy beach the colour of pale brown sugar, and aquamarine waters that visibly teem with fish. It’s a very appealing little island with a laidback charm, emphasized by the friendly approach of the best of the resorts. Just offshore, the even smaller Pulau Gemia is the site of just one resort. In theory it’s possible to visit Kapas as a day-trip, by catching an early boat out and returning late in the afternoon, but this means making the most of the midday heat – and besides, it’s really worth staying for at least a night or two.

The only season when things are not quite so idyllic is from June to August, particularly at the weekends, when the island can get pretty busy. The rest of the time it’s a great place to do very little for a few days; the one notable highlight in the slim social calendar is the annual Kapas–Marang swimathon in April. During the northeast monsoon almost all the resorts close down.

A couple of marked trails make it possible to hike to the undeveloped eastern side of Kapas, ending up at the pebbly (and sadly far from litter-free) Berakit Beach where you can take a dip. The longer but more interesting route starts close to Kapas Turtle Valley, the shorter from behind Kapas Island Resort, running alongside a stream for almost all the way. You can combine them to take a circular route; both include steep sections close to the beach. Bring plenty of water and use insect repellent, particularly if you’ll be in the forest after 5pm when the mosquitoes come out in force. The paths can be very slippery after rain.

Snorkelling and Diving around Pulau Kapas

Snorkelling is of course a draw on Kapas; most places to stay can rent out gear, or arrange a boat trip out to a choice site. Visibility is best between May and August, but jellyfish can be a nuisance in June and July. Some of the most popular snorkelling spots are around rocky Pulau Gemia. If you’re just renting equipment then try the rocks at the edges of the beaches beyond Qimi Chalet and the campsite.

Diving isn’t generally considered to be as good as on the Perhentians or Redang, but there are opportunities, particularly on the eastern side of the island. Popular sites include Berakit Reef, Octopus Reef and Coral Garden. Blacktip reef sharks are sometimes seen, and you can find turtles at Coral Garden. There’s only one dive shop, Aqua-Sport (wdivekapas.com), which offers PADI courses as well as regular dives.

Pulau Perhentian

The name Pulau Perhentian actually covers two islands, Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil (which mean large and small stopping places, respectively; Big Island and Small Island are sometimes used instead). Both are textbook tropical paradises, which retain considerable appeal despite having been developed for tourism. The essentials of any idyllic island holiday – fantastic sandy beaches, and great snorkelling and diving – are all in place. Both islands have jungly hills in their interior, with paths for walking and opportunities to spot flying foxes, monkeys and monitor lizards. All this is capped by a refreshingly laidback atmosphere that can make it difficult to tear yourself away.

For many years, large-scale development on the Perhentians was kept to a minimum. This was just as well, given that both islands are home to several turtle nesting sites, active from April to early August – the only organized viewing is through the Bubbles resort – and that the impact of the existing resorts on the environment is far from negligible. Shortages of water, for example, can be a hassle during the tourist peak.

The state government’s attitude towards development has loosened up in recent years, however, and a few larger resorts have been constructed. Alcohol is also sold openly these days at a handful of restaurants and bars, although it seems that it is not strictly legal: the police periodically confiscate booze from businesses on the island but it isn’t long before things are back in full swing.

Perhentian Besar

The larger of the two islands, Perhentian Besar, has a more grown-up atmosphere. Although it holds a few relatively cheap options in addition to the mid-range resorts, it doesn’t have the backpacker scene or nightlife of its neighbour. On the other hand, the beaches remain relaxed despite some nearly continuous strings of development.

Perhentian Kecil

The small island of Perhentian Kecil has something to please most people. If you’re looking for a laidback backpacker scene with the odd beach party, you’ve come to the right place, but several mid-range resorts cater for those who need a comfortable bed after a day snorkelling. The most popular beaches, Coral Bay and Long Beach, are only ten minutes’ walk apart, via a footpath through the woods.

Snorkelling and diving around the Perhentians

Outside the monsoon, the waters around the Perhentians are superb: currents are gentle, and visibility is up to 20m (although sea lice can sometimes be an irritant, inflicting unpleasant but harmless stings). A snorkelling foray around the rocks at the ends of most bays turns up an astonishing array of brightly coloured fish, including black-tip reef sharks, and an occasional turtle. The seas around the islands are part of a national park so the coral is protected, although as elsewhere in the region it suffered bleaching due to high sea temperatures in 2010. It remains to be seen whether that was an isolated incident.

If you just want to explore around the main beaches, then snorkels, masks and fins can be rented from accommodation, dive shops or shacks on the main beaches. Snorkelling trips to undeveloped coves can be arranged at beach stalls (particularly on Long Beach), or most accommodation, for around RM35 per person.

Some very good dive sites lie just a short boat ride offshore, including the Pinnacle (aka Temple of the Sea), T3 and Sugar Wreck (a boat that sank while carrying a cargo of sugar). In addition to fun dives, the islands’ numerous dive shops also offer courses, including Open Water, Advanced Open Water and the introductory Discover Scuba Diving; a handful also offer specialist facilities such as Nitrox. Most places teach PADI courses, although Alu Alu (walualudivers.com) uses SSI certification.

Perhentians dos and don’ts

  • Do bring more than enough cash – there are no banks or ATMs. Only some mid-range places accept plastic for accommodation and food, with a small surcharge. You may also be able to get a cash advance for a significant fee.
  • Do bring mosquito repellent.
  • Don’t leave valuables, even clothes, on the beach – whether crowded or deserted – while you swim or snorkel. Thieves can appear seemingly from nowhere on snatch-and-grab raids.
  • Do swim with care: look out for boat lanes, marked by strings of buoys, and stay on the correct side to avoid being wiped out by a speedboat. Note also that Long Beach can have a significant undertow from February to April and in October; a few people get swept out every year and have to be rescued.
  • Do be mindful of sharp-pronged boat anchors sticking out of the sand as you walk along the beach at night – particularly if you’re looking up at the stars.
  • As always, don’t touch the coral or disturb marine life when you snorkel or dive.

Pulau Redang

The beautiful island of Pulau Redang is geared up primarily for visitors on resort-based package trips. Don’t expect a quiet island getaway: during weekends and school holidays, bars along the main beach have music or karaoke until midnight.

A kampung has been built inland for the two-thousand-strong fishing community who formerly lived in a traditional floating village, which was removed to make way for a jetty and other tourist developments. The highlight of the social calendar, April’s candat sotong festival, celebrates a pastime popular all along the east coast of the Peninsula, catching squid using small hand-held lures with hooks on one end.

Snorkelling and diving

For most visitors, the chief attraction of Redang is the abundant marine life. The reefs have endured a lot over recent decades, including a mid-1970s attack by the crown-of-thorns starfish, and silt deposition caused by development. More recently the coral has suffered from bleaching due to high water temperatures. Thankfully, coral reefs have remarkable properties of self-renewal, and Redang’s marine environment appears to have stabilized in a reasonable state.

Conservation has certainly been helped by the designation of the Redang archipelago as one of Malaysia’s marine parks, and by the regulation of activities such as spear-fishing, trawling and watersports. The best snorkelling is off the southern coast around the islets of Pulau Pinang and Pulau Ekor Tibu; the larger resorts take endless boats stuffed with tourists to the main sites, so find a smaller group if you can. Diving is also excellent, with most sites off Redang’s eastern shore. Almost every resort has its own dive shop, and divers also come here on day-trips from the Perhentians.

Tasik Kenyir

More than three hundred square kilometres in area, Tasik Kenyir (Lake Kenyir) was created in the 1980s by the building of the Kenyir hydroelectric dam across Sungai Terengganu. Much touted locally as a back-to-nature experience, the lake offers scope for fishing, waterborne excursions and wildlife-spotting – elephants are even glimpsed on the shore from time to time. It’s possible to swim in many of the waterfalls on the periphery, while in the hills to the south you can visit the limestone Bewah and Taat caves. The lake is also Terengganu’s gateway to Taman Negara, thanks to the park entrance at Tanjung Mentong at its southern end though this is so little used as to be practically moribund.

Sadly Tasik Kenyir remains a bit of a half-baked proposition thanks to poor transport connections, aggravated by the fact that the attractions are so scattered. Adding to the difficulties is the lack of accommodation; several places have closed in recent years. Unless you plan to stay at the upmarket, easily accessible Lake Kenyir Resort, your best bet is to book your visit through a travel agent in Kuala Terengganu. If you do arrive independently then you can book trips on a per-person basis from the resort, while the packages from the main jetty are aimed at groups so – for example – a trip to Kelah fish sanctuary costs RM450 for the whole boat.

Kota Bharu

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.

Buddhist temples

The area north of Kota Bharu is dotted with Buddhist temples, which can be visited using buses bound for the stretch of beach called Pantai Seri Tujuh. Getting from one to the next can take a while by public transport, though, so it’s quicker and easier to take a tour, arranged through the state tourist office or individual guesthouses. It’s often possible to combine the temples with visits to handicraft workshops. They’re especially worth visiting during Wesak, the festival (usually in May) celebrating the Buddha’s birthday.

Craft workshops

Most of Kota Bharu’s craft workshops lie on the road to PCB, the uninspiring beach 11km north of the city. As they are quite spread out, the best way to see a variety of workshops (including kite-making, batik and more) is on a tour, arranged either via a guesthouse or through the state tourist office. Half-day tours cost around RM90 per person, with a minimum of two people. The workshops listed here are not on the way to PCB, and are relatively easy to visit independently.

Kelantanese silverware is well known throughout the Peninsula. At the workshop of K.B. Permai, you can watch artisans shaping silver wire into fine filigree, as well as producing items such as embossed gongs and jewellery. You can buy pieces here, or at their retail outlet in the Kampung Kraftangan, at much keener prices than in Kuala Lumpur.

A wayang kulit puppeteer who also makes the tools of his trade, Pak Yusoff can be visited in Kampung Laut. His workshop, to the right of the pier as you get off the boat, holds examples of his distinctively translucent puppets. Call ahead as he is not always around.

Cultural Centre

A high point of any visit to Kota Bharu, the excellent Cultural Centre (Gelanggang Seni) puts on demonstrations of Kelantan’s cultural and recreational activities. Each day’s session is different, so check with the state tourist office if you have a particular interest. Together they include gasing (spinning tops), pencak silat (martial arts), rebana ubi (giant drums), kertok (smaller drums formed from coconuts) and congkak (a game involving the strategic movement of seeds around the holes on a wooden board). Best of all, Wednesday evenings see wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) performances from 9–11pm.

Islam in Kelantan

Unlike elsewhere in the country, Kelantan’s legal system traditionally operated according to Islamic law – an important factor in the maintenance of national pride under Thai overlordship. This wholehearted embrace of Islam was encouraged by trading contacts with the Arab world, enabling a free flow of new ideas from as early as the 1600s. One of Kota Bharu’s most famous sons is To’ Kenali, a religious teacher who, after years of study in Cairo, returned at the start of the twentieth century to establish sekolah pondok – huts functioning as religious schools.

Kelantan retains its distinctive identity today, to the extent that it’s even difficult for anyone from outside the state to buy property here. It’s also the scene for an intense, ongoing political rivalry that has, for example, seen the national government blocking the state government’s attempts to introduce hudud (punishments including flogging, amputation, stoning and execution, meted out for specific types of crime).

This rivalry is producing dramatic changes in Kota Bharu. After years of stagnation under PAS and a refusal by UMNO to release funds from federal coffers, both parties have decided that development is the avenue to political glory. As a result, the city now boasts a major shopping mall and a sprinkling of fancy riverside apartments – all of which would have been unthinkable until relatively recently. While some foreign visitors find Kelantan’s conservatism apparent, especially if they’ve arrived from Thailand, by and large Kota Bharu comes across as a bustling, pragmatic sort of place.

The markets of Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu has a fine array of markets, reflecting its role both as the state capital and as a centre for Malay culture and handicrafts. In addition to those listed here, see shopping for details of the night food market.

Central market

Just east of the historical centre. Kota Bharu’s humming central market (aka Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah) is a focal point of the city. The main building, an octagonal hall, has a perspex roof casting a soft light over the multicoloured patchwork of the main trading floor – a mass of fruit, vegetables and textiles. The whole scene is worth contemplating at length from the upper floors. Trading continues east of here in an extension to the original market, with yet more stalls spilling out onto the surrounding pavements. Daily 8am–6pm.

Bazaar Buluh Kubu

A couple of minutes’ walk west of the central market. Though lacking in atmosphere, this market does have a good range of batik, songket and other crafts on sale. Daily 8am–6pm.

Friday market

Jalan Ismail south of Jalan Hulu Pasar. A visit to the informal, morning-only Friday market is recommended as a way to witness the rustic heart of Kelantan laid bare, as traders and shoppers pour in from the surrounding kampungs on their weekend day out in the city. Fri 8am–noon.

The performing arts in Kelantan

Kelantan has a rich artistic tradition, boasting two costumed dance/drama forms, mak yong and the Thai-influenced menora. Even more striking is wayang kulit, shadow puppetry, traditionally staged on a dais screened from the audience by a large cloth sheet and illuminated from behind. The cast consists of a set of stencils made of hide and formed into the shapes of the various characters, which are manipulated against the screen by a sole puppeteer, who also improvises all the dialogue. Reflecting the long history of Indian influence in the region, the tales are taken from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana; in the past, wayang kulit functioned as a sort of kampung soap opera, serializing Ramayana instalments nightly during the months after the rice harvest. Performances are gripping affairs, with a hypnotic soundtrack provided by an ensemble of drums, gongs and the oboe-like serunai, whose players are seated behind the puppeteer.

Sadly, all three of the above traditional art forms have been banned in Kelantan by the PAS-led state government since the 1990s. PAS has cited issues of public morality – which could mean they object to the fact that both mak yong and menora can involve an element of cross-dressing. PAS also objects to the non-Islamic nature of these performances, since they involve folk tales or Hindu mythology. Finally, the party also has a problem with the spiritualism permeating these arts. A wayang kulit performance always begins with a buka panggung ceremony, in which the puppeteer readies the stage by reciting mantras and making offerings of food to the spirits, while mak yong can be staged for an individual as part of a folk-healing tradition called main puteri, in which the performers enter a trance to remove a spirit believed to be affecting that person.

Whatever the reasons for the ban, the effect has been akin to cultural hara-kiri, depriving a generation of Kelantanese of their own traditions. Dozens of wayang kulit troupes have been reduced to a mere handful, performing largely outside Kelantan or, thanks to one concession from PAS, for the benefit of the mainly tourist audience at Kota Bharu’s Cultural Centre. On a brighter note, all three forms mentioned here are being passed on to a new generation, and sometimes staged, at the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage in KL (waswara.edu.my).

From Kota Bharu to Kuala Terengganu

Few travellers linger long on the coast south of Kota Bharu; most are simply waiting for a boat from Kuala Besut (for Pulau Perhentian) or Merang (to Pulau Redang or Pulau Lang Tengah; not to be confused with Marang further south). Get money before you set out; there are no ATMs on any of the mentioned islands (or in Kuala Besut), though some accommodation may accept cards, and you may be able to get cash advances at punitive rates. If you do have time to stop, then there are a few good resorts on the coast plus some interesting villages and wildlife in the Setiu Wetlands.

Buddhist temples

The area north of Kota Bharu is dotted with Buddhist temples, which can be visited using buses bound for the stretch of beach called Pantai Seri Tujuh. Getting from one to the next can take a while by public transport, though, so it’s quicker and easier to take a tour, arranged through the state tourist office or individual guesthouses. It’s often possible to combine the temples with visits to handicraft workshops. They’re especially worth visiting during Wesak, the festival (usually in May) celebrating the Buddha’s birthday.

Craft workshops

Most of Kota Bharu’s craft workshops lie on the road to PCB, the uninspiring beach 11km north of the city. As they are quite spread out, the best way to see a variety of workshops (including kite-making, batik and more) is on a tour, arranged either via a guesthouse or through the state tourist office. Half-day tours cost around RM90 per person, with a minimum of two people. The workshops listed here are not on the way to PCB, and are relatively easy to visit independently.

Kelantanese silverware is well known throughout the Peninsula. At the workshop of K.B. Permai, you can watch artisans shaping silver wire into fine filigree, as well as producing items such as embossed gongs and jewellery. You can buy pieces here, or at their retail outlet in the Kampung Kraftangan, at much keener prices than in Kuala Lumpur.

A wayang kulit puppeteer who also makes the tools of his trade, Pak Yusoff can be visited in Kampung Laut. His workshop, to the right of the pier as you get off the boat, holds examples of his distinctively translucent puppets. Call ahead as he is not always around.

Cultural Centre

A high point of any visit to Kota Bharu, the excellent Cultural Centre (Gelanggang Seni) puts on demonstrations of Kelantan’s cultural and recreational activities. Each day’s session is different, so check with the state tourist office if you have a particular interest. Together they include gasing (spinning tops), pencak silat (martial arts), rebana ubi (giant drums), kertok (smaller drums formed from coconuts) and congkak (a game involving the strategic movement of seeds around the holes on a wooden board). Best of all, Wednesday evenings see wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) performances from 9–11pm.

Islam in Kelantan

Unlike elsewhere in the country, Kelantan’s legal system traditionally operated according to Islamic law – an important factor in the maintenance of national pride under Thai overlordship. This wholehearted embrace of Islam was encouraged by trading contacts with the Arab world, enabling a free flow of new ideas from as early as the 1600s. One of Kota Bharu’s most famous sons is To’ Kenali, a religious teacher who, after years of study in Cairo, returned at the start of the twentieth century to establish sekolah pondok – huts functioning as religious schools.

Kelantan retains its distinctive identity today, to the extent that it’s even difficult for anyone from outside the state to buy property here. It’s also the scene for an intense, ongoing political rivalry that has, for example, seen the national government blocking the state government’s attempts to introduce hudud (punishments including flogging, amputation, stoning and execution, meted out for specific types of crime).

This rivalry is producing dramatic changes in Kota Bharu. After years of stagnation under PAS and a refusal by UMNO to release funds from federal coffers, both parties have decided that development is the avenue to political glory. As a result, the city now boasts a major shopping mall and a sprinkling of fancy riverside apartments – all of which would have been unthinkable until relatively recently. While some foreign visitors find Kelantan’s conservatism apparent, especially if they’ve arrived from Thailand, by and large Kota Bharu comes across as a bustling, pragmatic sort of place.

The markets of Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu has a fine array of markets, reflecting its role both as the state capital and as a centre for Malay culture and handicrafts. In addition to those listed here, see shopping for details of the night food market.

Central market

Just east of the historical centre. Kota Bharu’s humming central market (aka Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah) is a focal point of the city. The main building, an octagonal hall, has a perspex roof casting a soft light over the multicoloured patchwork of the main trading floor – a mass of fruit, vegetables and textiles. The whole scene is worth contemplating at length from the upper floors. Trading continues east of here in an extension to the original market, with yet more stalls spilling out onto the surrounding pavements. Daily 8am–6pm.

Bazaar Buluh Kubu

A couple of minutes’ walk west of the central market. Though lacking in atmosphere, this market does have a good range of batik, songket and other crafts on sale. Daily 8am–6pm.

Friday market

Jalan Ismail south of Jalan Hulu Pasar. A visit to the informal, morning-only Friday market is recommended as a way to witness the rustic heart of Kelantan laid bare, as traders and shoppers pour in from the surrounding kampungs on their weekend day out in the city. Fri 8am–noon.

The performing arts in Kelantan

Kelantan has a rich artistic tradition, boasting two costumed dance/drama forms, mak yong and the Thai-influenced menora. Even more striking is wayang kulit, shadow puppetry, traditionally staged on a dais screened from the audience by a large cloth sheet and illuminated from behind. The cast consists of a set of stencils made of hide and formed into the shapes of the various characters, which are manipulated against the screen by a sole puppeteer, who also improvises all the dialogue. Reflecting the long history of Indian influence in the region, the tales are taken from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana; in the past, wayang kulit functioned as a sort of kampung soap opera, serializing Ramayana instalments nightly during the months after the rice harvest. Performances are gripping affairs, with a hypnotic soundtrack provided by an ensemble of drums, gongs and the oboe-like serunai, whose players are seated behind the puppeteer.

Sadly, all three of the above traditional art forms have been banned in Kelantan by the PAS-led state government since the 1990s. PAS has cited issues of public morality – which could mean they object to the fact that both mak yong and menora can involve an element of cross-dressing. PAS also objects to the non-Islamic nature of these performances, since they involve folk tales or Hindu mythology. Finally, the party also has a problem with the spiritualism permeating these arts. A wayang kulit performance always begins with a buka panggung ceremony, in which the puppeteer readies the stage by reciting mantras and making offerings of food to the spirits, while mak yong can be staged for an individual as part of a folk-healing tradition called main puteri, in which the performers enter a trance to remove a spirit believed to be affecting that person.

Whatever the reasons for the ban, the effect has been akin to cultural hara-kiri, depriving a generation of Kelantanese of their own traditions. Dozens of wayang kulit troupes have been reduced to a mere handful, performing largely outside Kelantan or, thanks to one concession from PAS, for the benefit of the mainly tourist audience at Kota Bharu’s Cultural Centre. On a brighter note, all three forms mentioned here are being passed on to a new generation, and sometimes staged, at the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage in KL (waswara.edu.my).

From Kota Bharu to Kuala Terengganu

Few travellers linger long on the coast south of Kota Bharu; most are simply waiting for a boat from Kuala Besut (for Pulau Perhentian) or Merang (to Pulau Redang or Pulau Lang Tengah; not to be confused with Marang further south). Get money before you set out; there are no ATMs on any of the mentioned islands (or in Kuala Besut), though some accommodation may accept cards, and you may be able to get cash advances at punitive rates. If you do have time to stop, then there are a few good resorts on the coast plus some interesting villages and wildlife in the Setiu Wetlands.

Kuala Besut

The only reason to visit the mainland village of KUALA BESUT is to catch a boat to the Perhentian Islands. It’s practically a one-street affair, the street in question running past the boat terminal and terminating just beyond the bus and taxi station. You’ll find agents selling boat tickets and Perhentians packages in the lanes along this street or in the boat terminal; all offer similar services at similar prices.

Merang

Most travellers who make it to MERANG, along the coastal road just south of the Sungai Merang creek, only glimpse the back of the village on their way to the jetty. The beach, accessible along a couple of side roads, is not exceptional, but if you have time to kill there’s reasonable swimming and memorable views of the islands offshore – from left to right, the Perhentians, Lang Tengah, Redang and finally Bidung Laut, now uninhabited but once the site of a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people.

The Setiu wetlands

As a breeding ground for the painted terrapin and green turtle, the Setiu wetlands, between Kuala Besut and Merang, have been a focus for WWF projects since the early 1990s, but even now they attract only a trickle of tourists.

Both the main settlements hereabouts, namely Penarik, on the main coastal road, and Mangkok, 6km inland, are small villages, so the easiest way to explore is on a tour organized by an operator in Kuala Terengganu.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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