March 31, 2007

Northeast Coast of Malaysia

To view a slideshow from northern
Malaysia, press HERE.

The Mosque in Kota Bharu
 The Mosque in Kota Bharu
The Cultural Center in Kota Bharu
 At the Cultural Center in Kota Bharu
W.C. Signs
 W.C. Signs

We arrived in Kota Bharu on Thursday the 22nd of March. We quickly discovered that Northeast Malaysia is not as tourist-friendly as the rest of Southeast Asia. It was nearly impossible to find reasonably priced accommodations. At the budget end there is nothing between a hotel and backpacker place. Both the backpacker and budget hotels are dirty and dingy, often with overwhelming mold and mildew in the rooms. The cheapest hotel with hot water, AC, and TV cost about $18 per night. The AC is an essential now with daily highs in the 90s and super-high humidity. We were lucky to get a room without the mildew and only slightly dingy for $16.50 per night. It took me hours of looking to find it. I could only shake my head, because we had rooms that was twice as nice in Thailand for $14 per night just 350 kilometers to the north in Nakhon and 200 km in Songklha. Additionally, this is a country where they want to be paid upfront, unlike the rest of SE Asia. One thing that was very welcoming was the A&W restaurant. There is nothing like a root beer float to help you for get the heat and remind you of home.

It was clear on Thursday, when we arrived, that Kota Bharu was a Muslim city and it became even clearer on Friday. Like the many states in the US in the 1950s, almost everything closes on the holy day, which in the case of Islam is Friday. Like our blue Sundays, they have blue Fridays meaning most everything is closed. We did explore the town a bit on Friday. We ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant. 40% of the Malaysians are ethnically Chinese. We got oriented as to where most of the museums and centers were. In the evening we discovered the night food market with its many stalls serving all kinds of food. One of my favorites was the banana pancake. The grilled chicken is very good too. We were able to eat a big, good tasting meal for less than one dollar each.

On Saturday, we visited two museums. They were OK. The better of the two is the Isanta Jahar. An isanta is the residence of a sultan. Yes the local rulers are called sultans. It had an excellent display of cloth, costumes and artifacts of life in the area from the not too distant past. The collection of weapons in the royal armory was really good too. Another thing that I learned at both museums was that 30 years ago the Muslim head scarf and long, flowing dresses may not have been common at all. It was not until we saw photos taken in the 1980s that women began to wear them. Now they are ubiquitous. And women seem to be the ones to bear the outward appearance of their religion. The men rarely could be identified as Muslim from there appearance. Only the very occasional copa (a white cotton beanie cap) said I am a Muslim man. Betty took some interesting pictures showing where toilet signs were the drawings of Muslim dress.
We saw more of the museums on Saturday. We visited a great little curry house, called Meena Curry. The food was served on a banana leaf. The proprietor was friendly and very kind. After lunch, we rested before going to the local cultural center. At the center we heard traditional music and saw a demonstration of top throwing and dance.

On Sunday, the 25th, we traveled by bus to Kuala Terengganu, three hours and 165 km. Looking for accommodations again proved to be very frustrating with more low-grade hotels (read small, dirty, dingy, mold filled rooms) at very high costs and no guesthouses. I even tried visiting Malaysian tourist information office. They were of little to no help. They would like Malaysia to be more tourist-friendly. In this they have their work cut out for them. Having visited only two cities, I am of the opinion that the government could really help tourism here by putting money into the local affiliate of the International Youth Hostel Association. Try to encourage the building of new, clean facilities for young people and budget travelers. Finally, we found one that was just acceptable. Then we walked to the local Chinatown for an excellent meal.

Waterfront in Kuala Terengganu
 Waterfront in Kuala Terengganu

The next day was very difficult. Another very tourist-unfriendly situation presented itself to us. Despite its size, Terengganu does not have a local bus system. I made the mistake of not hiring a taxi to take us to the premier museum of Malaysia. We thought that it was only three kilometers from the center, but it was almost twice that. So we walked and walked in the sun and the heat. It was just too much walking all the way to the State Museum. The State Museum is a big, beautiful museum. The most significant bricks and mortar yet. We expected to see a tremendous lot of things, but in reality there was not that much to see. We took our time. We had lunch there. We saw little bit more. When we were ready to go back tp our hotel, we asked about transportation. Of course, there was none. Someone called a taxi service. According to the information sheet from the museum fares are a little over $2. One the phone the taxi driver asked if I knew the fare. I said: yes, the fare is 7 RM. No, says he, it is 15 RM. At which point I hung the phone up. There are no meters on the taxis, so they can charge what they want. We waited and within twenty minutes we secured a ride back into the city from one of the many folks who worked there. Four or five kilometers back in the center, we took the time to see the White Mosque and the Insanta Maziah. The White Mosque is truly beautiful. We also saw a bit of the waterfront and central market.

Low Tide at Cherating Beach
 Low Tide at Cherating Beach

On Tuesday we rode the bus to Cherating. To get there we bypassed the popular islands and turtle nesting grounds that many tourist visit. Cherating is a beautiful stretch of beach, just 45 km north of Kuantan. Remarkably it has reasonably priced accommodation right on the beach. It felt like a great place to be. And so we stayed, doing very little and just enjoyed the quiet beach scene. We stayed the rest of the week. Mostly Malaysian families come here from as far away as Kuala Lumpur, which is more than 200 kilometers away. On Friday, all the little beach bungalows started to fill up. We asked the couple staying in the one next to us if they were from KL. They were going back on Sunday, and so we asked to ride with them, to which they graciously agreed. We continue to find the Malaysians incredibly friendly.

The beach is very inviting, being a very broad, near-perfect strand of the softest and whitest sand. Everyday we swam and enjoyed the sun. Well, we tried to enjoy the sun. When it is out it gets very hot. But if it is overcast, like today, it is not so hot. The water is warm and very clean. You can walk out on the smooth sandy bottom for more than 100 meters. I could not have picked a more idyllic place to hangout, but, in truth, it was just luck that we happen upon Cherating. If you are ever on the east coast of Malaysia, then stop here for a few days of rest and relaxation.

Here I Am in the Water at Cherating Beach
 In the Water at Cherating Beach

Posted by bill at March 31, 2007 01:17 PM

`````wowawie!!We r still in the "dirty melting snow " mode , and longing for sun & surf & there u r !!Looking great !!It is so great that u ask for the things u realy want,,as a tourist , but what is more amazing is that u don't settle for the ststus Quo ! Nice that you r not judgemental. more The sociologist !!Love reading your journal, kisses to Betty.....

Posted by: Lise at March 31, 2007 10:07 AM

Hey Bill & Betty!
Mimi and I have been wondering if you were going to Malaysia. How did you happen to choose the 2 most conservative states to travel within Malaysia? They actually have been governed under certain Islamic, Sharia-like laws that are not applied in any of the other 12 states.Even Saudi tourists don't go to these states.Mimi's sister Kathy works in Butterworth (West coast) in Kedah state opposite of your present location.This state is the favorite of Mid-East Muslim tourists because of amenities, prices,gov't enforced dollar exchange rate,and the "cool factor". Many western style chic coffee, tea & dimsum cafes and excellent Chinese food. Most of the rest of quite developed. 5 years ago The kids, Mimi and me traveled by bus coach from Singapore to KL and train from KL to Butterworth very efficiently in comfort and inexpensively.
By the way you just missed Chinese New year by a month. The country shuts down (the part of the economy controlled by the Chinese 70%) and partys for 5 days.
Mimi's sister's e-mail is ............
This site is a newspaper I read online from my. Check it if you have time.

Posted by: Greg&Mimi at March 31, 2007 11:09 PM

Hi Guys,
Mimi asked me to correct the state that I said Butterworth is in. It is not in one of the 9 Sultanates (Perak) but in the state of Penang which has a governor as its executive. It does not have a hereditary executive.
Sorry about that.

Posted by: Greg&Mimi at March 31, 2007 11:48 PM

You're updates and photos have been awesome. Keep em comin. You two are so lucky to be doing the traveling that you're doing.

Posted by: marty christensen at April 1, 2007 11:12 AM