Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan, is the launching point for many travellers heading to the Perhentian Islands, just off the northern coast of eastern Malaysia. Possibly due to Kota Bharu's strict Muslim ideology and its status as "The Islamic City", many travellers spend little time here or bypass it altogether, but its history, culture and architecture make it well worth some exploration if you're in the area.
The Sultan Mohammed II of Kelantan established the city Kota Bharu in 1844; he built the new capital of Kelantan as a legacy to himself. The city itself was initially built in the Islamic architectural style of the period and many of the original buildings are still standing, such as the Muzium Islam, built in 1902. Prior to the British Treaty of 1909, Kelantan was part of the Siamese Empire and even now, due to its proximity to Thailand, Kelantanese culture is greatly influenced by Thailand, especially when it comes to food. Traditional dances like Mak Yong are no longer practised because the perceived Hindu influences are thought to contradict Islam.
Adding to an already culturally and historically rich area, the 19th century also saw an influx of Chinese seeking prosperity and freedom in the region. As a result of this immigration, Chinese from other parts of then-Malaya also gravitated to Kota Bharu to establish what has become a considerable presence in the city today.
Kota Bharu's key businesses, sights and activities are located within relatively easy walking distance from the central bus terminal, which appears to be the hub of town more so than any other particular area.
With the exception of Fridays and holidays, most everything is open daily and at convenient times. The daily lunch hour is diligently observed, so avoid any pressing business or sightseeing between 13:00 and 14:00. It is also advisable to not choose a popular eatery during the citywide meal break, unless you don't mind waiting.
Relatively inexpensive taxis are easily available, but the extensive public bus service can get you just about anywhere at a fraction of the cost. The City Liner buses leave from the central terminal like clockwork; the #639 departs daily for the jetty in Kuala Besut, the #10 bus will get you to PCB beach and the #9 will get you to the airport.
For those who simply don't feel like walking, a few weary trishaw guys still pedal their trade (get it?) They can be negotiated for longer hire to deliver you to various Kota Bharu sights and even wait in the shade between your stops. This is a colourful way to explore the town.
Most locals are quite helpful in answering questions, and two tourism offices have excellent maps and sightseeing information. Take advantage of the free weekly cultural shows at the Cultural Centre too.
You won't find much in the way of alcohol in Kota Bharu, but the few Chinese restaurants in town will have some in stock; it may not be on the menu, so just ask. Public toilets usually require 30 sen to enter (extra for tissues), so it's good to have some extra nature's calling change within easy access as well as your own toilet paper (for when there's also a lack of hose/water).
Although there is no dress code in Kota Bharu, it is a very conservative Muslim area. Dressing in appropriate attire is respectful, will help locals feel more comfortable and keep you from getting unwanted attention. Having a long sleeve shirt or sarong handy can often be a quick solution if your travel fashion statement is suddenly out of place.
Kota Bharu sees its share of rainy days, but more so between August and January. It may also see slightly lower temperatures between December and February, a welcome relief. Malaysia has quite a few school holidays in addition to nationwide holidays and that means a lot of local travel traffic. All means of transport are popular, especially long distance buses.
Additionally, various religious holidays have dates that change from year to year, so check both holiday and school holiday schedules when travelling through many parts of Malaysia to avoid hitting peak times. Inexpensive accommodation can also fill up quickly and negotiability of rates goes out the window during these times as well. Fridays can sometimes be the worst day to be in transit anywhere, due to many places being closed.
A wealth of information can be obtained from Kota Bharu's two tourism centres and should not be overlooked as a superb source of free maps and information brochures.
Tourism Malaysia Kelantan (behind Muzium Kraftangan or across the street from Bazar Tengu Anis), Kampung Kraftangan, Jalan Hilar Balai, Kota Bharu, Kelantan. T: (09) 741 2400; F: (09) 744 6672
Tourism Information Centre Jalan Sultan Ibrahim, Kota Bharu, Kelantan. T: (09) 748 5534; F: (09) 748 3543 http://www.tic.kelantan.gov.my
You can contact Balai Polis on (09) 748 5522 and ?IPD (Ibu Pejabat Daerah or District Headquarters) (09) 775 2200
Kota Bharu Medical Centre is at PT 179-184 Jalan Sultan Yahya Petra, Kota Bharu, Kelantan. T: (09) 743 3399; F: (09) 747 8271. http://www.kbmc.com.my
You can get internet access at Multimedia Internet at Jalan Parit Dalam (across from Muzdalfa Fried Chicken) and at Bugah Melor Cafe (at the Royal Guest House) on Jalan Hilir Kota, Kota Bharu, Kelantan. T: (09) 743 0008
Kota Bharu has plenty of ATMs, but note that most are designed to read a microchip on the card and if yours does not have a microchip access may be denied. Some businesses will give cash back with purchases. If you need a money changer, one is located across the street from the central bus terminal on Jalan Padang Garong at Azam Photo. Azam Hotel (next door) will also change money.
There is an immigration office and it may be possible to extend your Malaysian tourist visa depending on your country of origin. Costs for doing this vary state to state, and in Kelantan the charge is 50 ringgit per month (for up to three months, again depending on traveller's country of origin).
State Immigration of Kelantan: Corner of Jalan Bayam and Jalan Dusun Muda?near Stadium Sultan Muhamad
Aras 2, Wisma Persekutuan?Jalan Bayam, Kota Bahru. T: (09) 748 2120, F: (09) 744 0200
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.