Great seafood, sleepy city
The capital of the same-named state, for most Kuala Terengganu is just a transit town for those heading to Redang or Kapas islands, but if you have time up your sleeve, Kuala Terennganu is worth at the very least an overnight stay.
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Kuala Terengganu saw a burst of development thanks to oil revenue piling in, and while the couple of towering hotels overlooking the ocean from Jalan Sultan Zainal Abidan may convey an image of industriousness and modernity, at its heart Kuala Terengganu remains a small and decidedly conservative Malaysian town.
Sitting at the mouth of the Terengganu River, where it empties out into the South China Sea, traditional Kuala Terengganu has a small fishing fleet (though the traditional boat building has largely died out) and not surprisingly the seafood is excellent, especially from the city’s good supply of Chinese restaurants. It is also known for handicrafts and desserts, and is home to a somewhat underrated National Museum. We liked Kuala Terengganu as a nice place to hang out for a night or two, eating our way around town with a little light sightseeing (there is little risk of overdoing it).
The annual monsoon that hits the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia peaks between November and February. Large seas make boat timetables erratic and flooding can be a serious problem. Outside of wet season, expect warm and dry weather, and slightly lower temperatures between December and February.
Malaysia has quite a few school holidays in addition to nationwide holidays and this means transport, especially long distance buses, can get booked out. Across the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan some businesses may close and eating options during the day may be somewhat limited.
The main appeal from a tourism perspective is the small, but very pretty Chinatown area. The area was first settled by Chinese traders in the early 1600s and by 1719 held over 1,000 houses. It once backed onto a long river frontage on wooden houses, but this was all levelled to make way for a thoroughfare road and a sadly under-utilised park area. Chinatown itself can be walked top to tail in as little as fifteen minutes, but it is worth more time—explore the alleys and temple—and there are plenty of cafes and small restaurants to escape the heat in.
Kuala Terengganu’s latest drawcard is in fact a drawbridge. Crossing the Terengganu River it looks strangely out of place, but there is an elevator up to a viewing platform which makes for a good distraction in the late afternoon. Another secondary attraction is the Crystal Mosque, but it was looking a little tatty on our last visit in 2019. It is easily reached by a Grab taxi—get them to wait as you won’t need long.
Also worth considering is the “city beach” Batu Buruk. Long, and shady in places, the beach faces out to sea a short cab ride from downtown. It won’t rival the beaches you’ll see on the islands (if you are heading out that way), but the beach was pretty clean when we visited and there are plenty of eating options nearby. Visit in morning or late afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat.
Kuala Terengganu is a bit of a sprawling town, but the downtown area (essentially Chinatown back to the bus station, which lies conveniently in the centre of town) is easily navigable on foot.
ATMs are located scattered throughout the downtown area.
Jen’s Homestay is an apartment rented out by the room in an ageing apartment block on the periphery of Chinatown—it is also quite good value.
This isn’t a homestay insomuch as you’re staying with a family (though friendly hosts Patrick or Jen will meet you downstairs when you show up), rather you could well have the entire apartment to yourself if no other guests are in play. Set on the 13th floor, the apartment boasts a large veranda to take in the views along with a comfortable and spacious lounge and dining area.
Rooms (Standard 80 ringgit, family 135 ringgit) are smart and clean, simply decorated with some art on the wall (we had Marilyn Monroe), bed side lighting, chilled air-con and simple furnishings. The bathroom (and the entire apartment for that matter) was absolutely immaculate. There is plenty of travel information on hand and upon arrival Patrick walked us through a tome on all things Kuala Terengganu, with a focus on the food and where to eat what. They were also very accessible via Whatsapp with questions on the go.
The apartment building is quite rundown and the elevator can take forever, but these are minor quibbles on what is pretty good value lodgings. Just keep in mind that you’re not actually staying with a family. The location is very good—a short walk from both Chinatown and the bus station.
A relatively new addition to Kuala Terengganu’s accommodation scene, Suite 18 has smart and well thought out rooms at a good flashpacker pricepoint.
We had booked a double room (148 ringgit) here but due to a mix-up got upgraded to a triple (178 ringgit), which had a large double bed with a single bed arranged bunk style above the top of the bed. It sounds odd, but worked fine and would be ideal for a couple travelling with kids. The room was well sized and while it faced over the main street, the traffic noise wasn’t an issue. The bathroom was clean, though it was one of those set ups with the basin in the bedroom rather than the bathroom. There was also a small desk, flat screen TV and the WiFi worked fine.
Staff were friendly and helpful and delivered useful travel advice. Bicycles are available for guests. To the rear of the reception is Hidden Cafe, which does a good coffee and is, well hidden away—we preferred it to the ever popular Star Anise across the road—it also has better opening hours.
You pay a bit more here than at the neighbouring KT Chinatown Lodge, but we think this is worth the extra money. They also have capsule dorms (35 ringgit) on site though we were unable to see one.
The walk-in rate was slightly lower than what was available online, so perhaps give them a call if you are counting every ringgit. Reservations in advance are recommended on weekends.
Set on the main drag through Chinatown, KT Chinatown Lodge boasts an attractive shophouse street frontage which is not quite matched by the rooms inside, but the older couple who run it more than compensate with their friendliness.
Rooms (Standards 88 ringgit, Superior 98 ringgit) are large for the money, but decor is sparse to the point of non existence and, somewhat weirdly, the beds do not have pillows—perhaps they are not handed over till you check in. Rooms are set across a couple of floors above reception, with the best on the upper floors with multiple shuttered windows that can be opened to let more light and perhaps a sea breeze drift in.
If you’re on an upper floor, note the historic pics of Kuala Terengganu on the hallway wall, including those of the waterfront before it was demolished to make way for the road and neglected public park. The location is good and by the lobby there is a more in-theme veranda that matches with the street frontage, but it is a shame the rooms are so bland. Still will do at a pinch.
Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.
Kuala Terengganu has quite a bit to offer on the food and drink front, much of it conveniently centred within easy walking distance of Chinatown.
For breakfast it is difficult to go passed a bowl of curry noodles at Mei Fong Curry Noodles. They have a banner out front claiming to have the best noodles in town and while we can’t confirm that as we didn’t try everywhere in KT, they are pretty damn good. The old guy who runs the shop is also very welcoming and friendly. Open for breakfast and lunch only. Another, more local option, also in Chinatown, is Sin Phin Siang—as friendly as it is tasty.
Sticking with breakfast, we were tipped off to a tiny nasi daging spot on Jalan Banggol which made for a great budget breakfast at just 5 ringgit. It is takeaway only, so either take it back to your guesthouse or do as we did and wander down to the riverfront to eat it with the monitor lizards.
For coffee and tea, our two favourites were Hidden Cafe inside 18Suite and almost straight across the road, Star Anise. Both do a full range of real coffee in both open air and air-con settings.
Terengganu is well known for its snacks and sweets and a good spot to get them is Pasar Payung a short walk from Chinatown. Also fried anchovy snacks both in the market and in Chinatown.
For Chinese fare, Golden Dragon is popular and has a large English language menu, but note many of the dishes are based on serving two, so if you’re travelling along, bring an appetite. We’ve had the steamed grouper here in the past and it was good, but they also offer plenty of other fare. Iced beer as well.
Uncle Chua has a couple of branches, with the Chinatown one facing the river. Try the laksa—they’re not joking about the spiciness—service can be glacial though. You can reach it via one of the alleys from the main road through Chinatown, or just walk along the river and you’ll see it.
Cheng Cheng serves up standard one-plate fare in an open air carpark. Prices are low and the drinks chilled. You’ll get a better range of fare though across the road at Town City Food Court which, as the name suggests, is a small food court with a selection of stalls. Both of these places serve beer.
For lunch and dinner, Vinum Exchange came often recommended, and while the drinks are good, we didn’t think a lot of the food. They have a vast (and we mean vast) liquor and wine collection, so perhaps consider dropping by for a tipple after eating elsewhere. For a more typical bar, consider 45 Degree, also in Chinatown (evenings only).
Northern part of Kuala Terengganu town.
While Kuala Terengganu lacks much in the way of top sights, it is a pleasant enough town to wander through and the Chinatown section in particular is both interesting and has plenty of good eating.
Starting at the bus station, walk up to Jalan Masjid Abidin and turn right, following it past the glowing white Masjid Zainal Abidin and continue along the way. Eventually you’ll have the Istana Maziah on your left with Bukit Puteri behind it, and the river ahead, on the other side of Jalan Sultan Zainal Abidin.
Cross the road, turn left and start along the riverside following it around till you see a market on your right—this is the new central market (the old one, which is just a bit further down on your right) was being demolished when we visited in October 2019. If durian is in season expect to see roughly 765,984 durian vendors on the pavement in front. Go on, try some. This is also a decent place to sample traditional deserts and snacks that Terenngganu is known for. If you’re a keen shopper you could easily lose an hour or two in here.
More or less opposite the market is Bukit Puteri. The hill top is home to the ruins of a 19th century fort, a handful of cannons and a lighthouse, but the main attraction is the view rather than the fort. You can see a small throne, a pit for cannonballs and the previously mentioned cannons, but better to just bring a bag of rambutans with you and plonk yourself on one of the shaded park benches from where you can enjoy the view. Once you are done admiring the view, come back down to earth and continue along the river. This was also being renovated when we visited in 2019, and access was not possible, but we assume easy access will be restored once the work is finished.
Sated, continue ahead then veer around to the right after the market and start down Jalan Kampung Cina. This is the only easily accessible historic section of Kuala Terengganu and it is lined with some 170 traditional merchant shopfronts like you’ll see in Penang and Phuket. Look out in particular for the baby blue Teck Soon Heritage House—it is supposedly a museum but it wasn’t open when we were in town.
Continue on your way, go over the small bridge and then on your left you’ll pass first Ho Ann Kong (a Hokkien temple) and then the Golden Dragon restaurant. Just after this, on your right and very easy to miss, is a tiny alley named Turtle Alley which has murals and placards explaining the collapse of turtle numbers in the area.
Backtrack down the alley onto Jalan Kampung Cina and continue south; it tapers off when you have the Town City Food Court on your right and the Seri Malaysia Hotel straight ahead.
Once you’re here, stop for a cold drink and a snack at Town City, then continue ahead and take a right just before the Seri Malaysia Hotel. Follow this around and you’ll see it doubles back running parallel with Jalan Kampung Cina. This park area was the product of a land reclamation project a few years ago and it abuts the river.
In the distance you’ll see the drawbridge. You’ll need to take a right after the market to loop around to get on the bridge access road (we expect eventually a riverside boardwalk will take you there). Once at the bridge, take the elevator up to the viewing platform and enjoy a view over everything you’ve just been walking around.
T: (09) 632 1200Sa–Th: 09:00–17:00 http://museum.terengganu.gov.my/
Set around five kilometres to the southwest of town, Terengganu National Museum is a sprawling museum that is worth a visit if you have some time on your hands.
Terengganu National Museum has a number of buildings and exhibits, the most obvious of which is the main exhibition hall—an enormous concrete model of a traditional Malay house. Within you’ll find comprehensive displays ranging from decorative kris and fabrics through to old korans and beautiful jewellery. The collections are pretty well presented and captioned. Outside of the main hall there are a number of outdoors exhibits including one on traditional boat building which may be of particular interest to kids.
While theoretically the museum can be reached by public bus, the service is so unreliable we suggest getting a taxi or Grab which should cost around 10 to 15 ringgit. Allow an hour or so to take in the full range of exhibits.
If you’re heading out this way it makes sense to also swing by the Crystal Mosque, but it isn’t in the best condition nowadays. It is most photogenic in the late afternoon.
Kuala Terengganu’s Sultan Mahmud Airport (TGG), is around 20 kilometres to the north of town. A taxi there will cost 25 ringgit. The airport is served by AirAsia, Firefly and Malaysia Airlines.
The main bus station is conveniently located in the centre of town and all the various bus companies have their kiosks around the edge of the station. Sample fares include:
Cherating: Get a bus bound for Kuantan and ask to be dropped at the turn off to Cherating. Not all buses will do this, so check before buying the ticket!
Johor Bahru: Departures throughout the day taking 8-9 hours and costing 35 ringgit. Book now
Kuala Lumpur: Departures throughout the day taking 6.5 hours and costing 44 ringgit. Book now
Kuantan: Departures throughout the day taking 3 hours and costing 18 ringgit. Book now
Kota Bharu: Departures throughout the day taking 4 hours and costing 17 ringgit Book now
Penang Morning and evening only. Taking 9-10 hours and costing 40-50 ringgit. Book now
Public ferries leave twice daily to Redang from the boat landing near Bukit Puteri. Foreigners are charged 55 ringgit and departures are at 08:30 and 11:00 with a maybe departure at 15:00. Check the schedule the day before to be sure as the schedule can change depending on weather conditions.
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