Nov 14 2012
I’m not 24 hours into my stay in Kuantan yet and I’ve gone from being indifferent to it to loathing it to finding it just okay to just loving it — and I’ve not been here for breakfast yet! All those emotions over a Malaysian state capital that really isn’t overwhelmed with attractions — what gives?
In case you didn’t know, Kuantan is the capital of Pahang State in southern Peninsular Malaysia. While it encompasses some of the country’s popular attractions, including Taman Negara National Park (well a bit of it) and the beach hangout of Cherating, Kuantan itself isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a primary attraction.
Look in the guidebooks or online and you’ll see Kuantan invariably referred to as a transit town — one of those places where people get stuck only when the bus station gets hit by an alien spacecraft. So it would be fair to say I didn’t have high hopes for it as I jumped on the bus for the three-hour ride across from Kuala Lumpur.
Kuantan sits alongside the north bank of the eponymous river and the “old” part of town is within a couple of blocks of the water, above that the padang and a striking mosque. Further back it becomes a more typical mid-sized city (with the traffic to match), but most of the points of interest to travellers are near the water.
It’s a scenic riverfront, with dense mangroves lining the far bank (along with a massive sign reading “Kuantan” should you forget where you are) and much of the city’s side boasting a boardwalk promenade which hosts a bunch of restaurants (food very variable!), a couple of bars and a pier where you can take boat tours from.
Having forgotten to eat before leaving KL, first port of call was food, but as most of what I’d read about the Kuantan eating scene highlighted eating options outside town, I decided to just take a wander and promptly had two very mediocre meals in quick succession.
Next I headed to the pier for the Kuantan River Cruise scheduled to leave at 14:30. Anyone who has spent anytime in Southeast Asia knows the absolute worst time to walk anywhere is at 14:00 so by the time I got to the pier half an hour later I was hot and a wee bit irritated. Sure enough I was the only person stupid enough to want to do a tour at this time, and as there was a minimum number of two people, they wouldn’t run it.
By this stage I wasn’t really enjoying Kuantan.
But an afternoon kip always improves the day and I woke to the mosque’s call to prayer and wandered down to take some pics of what is a massive and very attractive mosque. From there, on to find what turned out to the excellent and very new Kuantan Backpackers, and then on for a great iced coffee.
What a difference a nap makes.
It’s often the case that riverfront towns don’t make much use of their riverfront, but Kuantan hasn’t done a bad job and, aside from the boardwalk and the open-air foodstalls along there, towards the northern end there is a sprawling bar, O’Corner, which I got all comfortable in until they hit me with, in succession, George Michael, Lionel Richie and Celine Dion. Time to leave.
Luckily, immediately behind O’Corner and facing onto Jalan Besar, you’ll find the rather tasty and semi-upmarket, yet very friendly, Lila Wadi Restaurant. While specialising in DIY barbecue it also does some good one-plate dishes — even if you are not hungry, at least try their pandan cooler — lovely!
From Lila Wadi it’s a short walk back along Jalan Besar to Kong Lam Restoran — a Chinese-style kedai kopi where I had a pretty good char kuey teow and spied (amid a predominantly Chinese menu) that they have bak kut tee (which had been recommended to me by Robyn Eckhardt) — more about that below.
On the way back to my hotel I saw that funky jazz/art cafe Tjantek had finally opened for the evening. At this stage, tired and, well, full, I was in two minds about hitting another eating house, but in the end I crossed back over the mental traffic on Jalan Besar to give it a whirl.
Set in a restored shopfront (it was originally two shopfronts, containing a barber to one side and a seamstress to the other), today it is the eclectic undertaking of Norizan and her architect/teacher husband who have pulled off a delightful reinvention of the space. Jazz dimmed (slightly) the traffic noise, the food was great and best of all, at the end of the meal Norizan pulled up a chair and we chatted about all sorts of things — Kuantan, Bali, tourists, renovations and her outstanding collection of coca cola bottles. If you’re in Kuantan for an evening, be sure to drop by — if not for a meal at least for a drink.
There is more to Kuantan than eating of course. Once I failed with the boat trip I decided to just spend my time wandering the streets of the riverside quarter and it’s an interesting and quite traditional town. I walked by the medicine shop with the owner grinding herbs by hand, the rattan blinds shop with the family having dinner at a rear office desk piled with papers and notepads. I wandered between the streetside bicycle repair shops, mingled with the crowds of worshippers after Friday afternoon prayers and generally, once I gave up trying to actually do anything, had an interesting stroll around town.
The next morning I headed back to Kong Lam Restoran for a breakfast of bak kut tee only to find them closed and no sign of when they’d be opening. I spied another shopfront, Kedai Kopi Jalan Besar, with claypots piled high behind the stove — always a good sign. I walked in and the owner asked, “Pork?” and that was it — 10 minutes later a claypot arrived, topped with a paper-thin sheet of quivering bean curd. Within lay, succulent chunks and slices of pork, two types of mushroom, a side of pungent diced garlic and a bowl of deep fried dough for dipping. Oh my… heart attack in a claypot. It was delicious.
With plenty to do in the surrounds, don’t fret if you find you’ll be needing to spend a night in Kuantan — just be sure to pack a glass coke bottle from your home country for Norizan.
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