In a nutshell
Conservative Muslim Kota Bharu may usually be a transit point, but is worth a stop to immerse yourself in traditional Malay life. Stop at a few museums and enjoy a performance at the cultural centre. Tuck into a plate of nasi kerabu — with your fingers, of course.
The capital of conservative Kelantan State, Kota Bharu actually means "new city" but it was declared Malaysia's "Islamic City" in 2005. The Islamic Party of Malaysia has swept the state elections for the last 50 years and their influence can be seen in the separate men's and women's queues in supermarkets and the absence of movie theatres and karaoke lounges in the city's malls.
They don't get too many Western tourists through Kota Bharu and that's the main reason to check it out -- Kota Bharu is not part of the banana pancake trail. The city remains largely unaffected by international tourism and this is the place to eat nasi kerabu with your fingers (remember, right hand only!), see a bustling market screech to a halt at prayer time, and have a friendly chat with a local over a cup of tea. The people here are accustomed to seeing tourists in transit rather than visitors, and are genuinely welcoming to those who stay a while.
While for most travellers Kota Bharu is a rest stop on a journey further afield, this is a city where life moves at a slower pace and tradition reigns supreme.
Plenty of small attractions will keep you busy, including the city's five museums and its excellent Cultural Centre, which has free performances. There are opportunities to try local games and handicrafts, while Kota Bharu is also well known for its special events like bird-singing contests and the Malaysian International Kite Festival.
Human history stretches back some 10,000 years in the northeast corner of Peninsular Malaysia, where Kota Bharu is located. Archaeological digs near the Nenggiri River suggest hunter-gatherer settlements were present here at that time, and artefacts like pottery, tools, ceramics, and jewellery can be viewed at the State Museum.
In its early history, Kelantan was part of the Sumatran Srivijaya empire, then the Siamese empire, and then seized by the Melaka Sultanate in the 15th century.
After Melaka fell to the Portuguese, Kelantan was divided into small chiefdoms. The region was unified in 1760 and ruled by neighbouring Terengganu state until 1812 when it became a Siamese tributary. Unlike the war-ravaged west coast states, Kelantan was peaceful and the population grew and prospered throughout the 19th century. In 1844 Sultan Muhammed II established Kota Bharu as the royal capital.
Thailand's influence continued until 1909 when the Anglo-Siamese Treaty gave full control of Kelantan to the British. During World War II and Japan's attacks on the British colonies, Kelantan was the first place in Malaysia to be invaded. Kelantan became part of the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and obtained full independence from the British in 1957.
The intertwined histories of Malaysia and Thailand in this region make Kota Bharu an obvious stepping stone between the two nations. It is the closest capital to the stunning Perhentian Islands, and a good place to begin a trip on the Jungle Railway, so if you've got the time, give it a night or two at least.
Visitors should be aware that shops and restaurants close during prayer times, alcohol is not openly sold (let alone consumed), and everything closes on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Traditional Malay dress is the norm and visitors should dress modestly -- there is a bylaw on "indecent" dress (such as miniskirts and see-through blouses!), but is unlikely to be enforced on foreigners.
A popular stopover on the route between Thailand and Malaysia, there are two crossings close to Kota Bharu. The more popular crossing is between Sungai Kolok on the Thai side and Rantau Panjang on the Malay side. Vehicles must stop here for immigration formalities and you'll need to get off with all your belongings to stamp out of Thailand and into Malaysia (or vice versa). Once you're in Malaysia, Kota Bharu can be reached by State Bus #29 or a shared taxi. Sungai Kolok has frequent minibus departures to Hat Yai and other destinations in southern Thailand and also has a train station, with daily departures to Hat Yai and beyond.
The second, much less frequented crossing is on the coast between the Malay town of Pengkalan Kubor and the Thai village of Ban Taba. Pengkalan Kubor is around 20km northwest of Kota Bharu reached by bus #27 or #43. A small ferry will whisk you across the river. Once in Ban Taba, Tak Bai is a short songthaew ride away from where you can press on to Narathiwat -- the latter is about 40km from Ban Taba.
Text and/or map last updated on 5th September, 2010.
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About the Jungle Train
If you're thinking of taking the daytime Jungle Train, take note that this "Local" train may not appear on the KTMB website. Ask their call centre for details. As a travel experience I definitely recommend the train, unless you are (a) a health & safety zealot or (b) not a morning person (it departs before dawn).
When I visited in June, the train which used to connect at Kuala Lipis for Jerantut and beyond no longer ran that far -- it seemed to run a few stations past Kuala Lipis but apparently not to anywhere with onward transport of any kind.
It is possible to get a taxi from Kuala Lipis to the Kuala Tembeling jetty, where boats depart for Taman Negara at around 2.00 -- 2.30pm. This timing worked well for me and I was able to spend an extra night at Taman Negara instead of overnighting in Jerantut as expected -- but it could be a close run thing, especially if the train is delayed.
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By BC (dabbler)
Written on 15th November, 2009 after a visit to Kota Bharu in June, 2009
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