When most people think of Malaysia, it’s Kuala Lumpur and the island of Borneo that typically come to mind—but Kota Bharu, with its friendly small-town feel is a fantastic place to visit too. A few days and nights in Kota Bharu are a great counterpoint to the big-city feel of Kuala Lumpur, and the impenetrable jungles and diverse wildlife of East Malaysia. Kota Bharu has been called the country’s cultural cradle, and it’s not hard to see why; its bustling markets, traditional architecture, and many museums devoted to national history make it a fascinating place to visit.See and do in Kota Bharu
Kota Bharu is one of the best places in Malaysia to understand and experience the country’s cultural heritage, with its wide range of museums that touch on every aspect of Malay life. The Royal Museumis dedicated to preserving the history of current and former royal families and Sultans, while the Museum of Islam focuses on the relationship between Malaysia and its official religion, providing a fascinating glimpse into the strong Islamic ties that have shaped the history of Kelantan state. The Muzium Adat Istiadat DiRaja Kelantan, or Museum of Royal Kelantanese Traditions, is another must-see museum for anyone interested in learning about the Kelantanese way of life, with extensive displays of artifacts relating to everyday life, both historically and in the modern world.
There are also plenty of places to eat, shop, and feast your eyes on the city’s amazing architecture. The Handicraft Village and Craft Museum is a museum that displays examples of local crafts, as well as demonstrations of traditional weaving, painting, and embroidery, and also features a restaurant and a shop that sells local handmade items. Nearby this museum is the Istana Jahar, a formerRoyalPalace that now houses another of the city’s prominent museums. It’s a fabulous example of local architecture, and is another excellent place to see examples of traditional handicrafts, as well as an extensive display of Malay weaponry. There are several locations in the city where you can learn authentic Malaysian cooking and crafting techniques. Check out Roselan’s Malay Cookery Workshop to learn how to cook traditional Malay food, or Zecsman Design to learn the art of Batik painting, which uses waxes and dyes to create intricate patterns and pictures on cloth.
Perhaps the most spectacular of Kota Bharu’s attractions is Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah, the city’s main market, located in the center of town. Situated in a large three-story octagonal building, the market is open every day. It’s a fantastic place to wander—for shopping, eating, and just soaking up the bustling atmosphere. In the evenings, a nearby square hosts a food market, a great place to try local dishes like nasi kerabu, a fish and rice dish flavored with coconut and spices, and murtabak, a flatbread sold with a wide range of sweet and savory fillings.Getting to Kota Bharu
Kota Bharu is the capital of Kelantan state, and as such it’s well-connected to the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. While it’s currently not possible to fly directly to Kota Bharu from international cities, national airlines make the trip to and from Kuala Lumpur several times a day. It’s a quick trip of just under an hour, so it’s easy to add a few days in Kota Bharu to a Malaysian holiday itinerary. Malaysia’s smaller coastal cities are increasingly popular destinations for ocean voyages, and a small but growing number of cruise liners have stops in Kota Bharu on their itineraries too. While the city is often fairly low-key in comparison to Kuala Lumpur and other large cities, it does therefore have its share of busy days. While air travel is the fastest way to get here, the most scenic way to travel between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Bharu is via the Jungle Railway, which provides some incredible scenic views along its route—thick jungles, enormous rivers, craggy limestone cliffs, and miles upon miles of bright green rice fields and palm trees.
When you travel to Malaysia, it’s best to be prepared for weather that’s predominantly warm and wet. With its decidedly tropical climate,Malaysia is always warm, with an average temperature of 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit), but since the country is affected by two monsoon seasons, heavy rains and high levels of humidity are a common feature for much of the year.
If you’re interested in enjoying the ultimate Malaysian experience you can’t go wrong spending time in Kota Bharu. This coastal city is a great place to stay, as it provides access to both the coastline and beaches, and the interior reaches of Kelantan state..On the Malaysian Coast
Some of Malaysia’s best and most beautiful beaches are located near Kota Bharu, making it the perfect destination for all lovers of beach and ocean activities, from soaking up the hot sun, to swimming and scuba diving, sailing and fishing.
One favorite for both locals and visitors is the romantically-named Beach of Moonlight, or in Malay, Pantai Cahaya Bulan. With its mile-long stretch of fine golden sand, blue waters, and waving palm trees lining the shore, it’s absolutely beautiful, and the perfect place to relax during the day or evening. The sea is usually calm, although swimming is generally not advised during the monsoon season, due to the possible presence of strong currents. With plenty of water activities to enjoy, as well as horse riding, there’s more to do than just enjoy the scenery, although that’s definitely high on the list of pleasures. There are several restaurants near the beach, serving up succulent seafood and a tempting array of traditional Malay dishes, so a visit to the Beach of Moonlight is a great all-day activity. The beach is around six miles from Kota Bharu, an easy journey via bus or car.
Other nearby beaches include Pantai Irama Bachok—Beach of Melody—around 12 miles from Khota Bharu, and very popular with local families. Pantai Bisikan Bayu, the Beach of Whispering Breeze, is around 20 miles away from the city, and is a popular with surfers during the November to April monsoon season.
A day-trip cruising on the Kelantan River is a popular way to spend a few hours, traveling from Kota Bharu south along the river. River cruisers will view the Royal Jetty and Kota Lama Palace from the boat, as well as fishing villages and mangrove forests. Before making the return journey to Kota Bharu, you’ll have the chance to get off the boat and experience various activities, like taking part in a traditional Malay cooking lesson..Caving at Kuala Krai
Kuala Krai is around ninety minutes’ drive from Kota Bharu, and is one of the access points for Gua Ikan, or, the “Fish Cave”. This huge cave complex, which includes Gua Batu Susun and Gua Keris, as well as Gua Ikan, is most notable for its enormous central chamber, home to a large colony of bats, and for the spectacular array of stalactites, stalagmites, and other natural rock formations within. Less than two miles from the caves, another amazing wonder is south-east Asia’s highest natural waterfall, located in the Jelawang jungle. Guided tours of the caves typically include a visit to the waterfall, and sometimes to other local natural attractions.Off-Road Adventures in Kelantan State
Nearly 60 percent of Malaysia’s territory is covered by jungle, and while some parts of the country are protected areas—due to their high levels of unique biodiversity—mainland Malaysia has lots of great opportunities for off-road driving. With dense forests and rugged mountainous regions, Kelantan state is a great place for off-road adventures—not for the faint of heart, but exciting for both novice drivers, and more experienced off-roaders who love a good challenge. If you’re renting a vehicle, bear in mind that your own country’s driver’s license will serve you perfectly well for up to 90 days, but if you are in Malaysia for longer than this and plan to continue driving, you’ll need to acquire a Malaysian license. As well as this, be sure to check with your own auto insurance provider to find out if you will need to purchase insurance from the rental company. Personal auto insurance does typically cover rentals, and often, paying for a rental car with a credit card provides you with additional insurance too. Finally, be aware that you’ll be driving on the left side of the road in Malaysia.Cycling Tours of Kota Bharu
Cycling is another fun way to get around Kota Bharu and Kelantan state, and provides some unique opportunities for sightseeing—it’s a relatively fast way to travel, but not so fast that you miss out on enjoying all the fantastic scenery. There are both short and longer cycling tour packages that visit some of the most famous and fascinating landmarks in the city of Kota Bharu and the surrounding countryside, as well as extensive trips that take several weeks to travel along the Malaysian coastline and the country’s interior regions.
-contributed by Susan Harriss
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