Penang was a whirlwind introduction to Malaysia, complete with very bad weather, so we were quite pleased to be leaving and on our way to the east coast, starting with a stop in Kota Bharu.
Our taxi arrived to take us to the bus station, and was driven by a middle aged Indian man from New Zealand. He was a very nice man – but we’ve found taxi drivers often have sad stories to tell, and they’re often driving a taxi because their old lives didn’t work out. In this case, his family still lived in New Zealand, and he was estranged from his wife – he was working as a taxi driver rather than his normal profession as an engineer, because nobody would employ him at his age – I felt a bit sad for him.
Anyway, we got on the bus and it broke down about halfway to Kota Bharu – typical that we travel all around southeast Asia, and the bus breaks down in a first world country rather than the likes of Cambodia. Fortunately, we stopped at a scenic outcrop in the rolling hills of central Malaysia, and it was a good photo opportunity. Another bus came and picked up a few people, but we were too slow with our bulky bags. Malaysians are very similar to Indians, in that rather than queue in an orderly fashion, everyone just rushes to the front and tries to get on first – we were just too polite in this case! The new bus came and went, and after a few minutes the remaining ten or so of us got back on the old bus, and off we went. I have no idea what was wrong with the bus, it seemed fine after that. Maybe there were too many people.
We got to Kota Bharu a couple of hours late, and checked into our hotel – Crystal Lodge. It was pretty disappointing to be honest – compared to what we usually get for the price, Crystal Lodge was a bit tired and run down. Plus the WiFi didn’t work in the room, which got us both a bit upset. Once we’d calmed ourselves, we went out for some food. What a surprise! People stared at us as we walked down the street, and nearly everyone smiled or said hello. We walked into a small family run restaurant on the street corner near the hotel, and the rather surprised owners handed us a couple of menus in Malay. We ordered a couple of dishes, having very little idea as to what they were, and ended up having a very nice meal. The woman who was cooking came out and hovered nearby while watching us eat – a bit disconcerting, but we were genuinely enjoying the meal (luckily), so didn’t have to pretend to like it!
That pretty much sums up Kota Bharu in a nutshell actually. Tourists generally spend at most a night in Kota Bharu, and very few spend any time at all, so really the locals don’t see many people from out of town. As a result, many people were quite curious about us and where we came from, and keen to talk to us. It was strange to be stared at so much – it reminded me of our time in India, but the stares seemed a lot more friendly, whereas in India people tend to stare more out of curiosity, and because it’s just what they do! We spent three nights there, and generally had a pretty good time, although three nights was definitely enough.
I think the highlight for both of us was the central market – definitely the best produce market we’ve seen. Housed in a massive concrete structure, the inside was lined with rows of vegetables, fruit, fish, chickens, dry goods, packaged goods – everything. I bought a bag of chocolate and a bag of sweets, although the sweets turned out to be cough sweets which weren’t so nice. A few people were keen to chat with us – one old man held up his mushrooms for Mahmoud to take a photo of which was very sweet. It was definitely one of the hubs of town, and all sorts of people were there doing their shopping. I think though, they were just as interested in watching us as we were in watching them!
Another highlight was the daily cultural show. We watched batik painting, kite making, top spinning, and drum banging. It was very interesting, and narrated by a slightly eccentric man with a few bad jokes, who had to leave halfway through to pray at the nearby mosque. The top spinning was very impressive – they spin the metal tops, and they spin for about two hours apparently – I guess whoever’s top spins the longest wins, although they need to resort to tactics such as oiling them while they spin and transferring them to smooth oiled surfaces etc. Unfortunately, the boat from the nearby Perhentian islands arrived shortly after the cultural show started, and tourists from the island descended on the performance, so it wasn’t quite so peaceful after that. There were a few really daggy tourists there – you know, the sort who look like they have poo in their dreadlocked hair, holes in their clothes and look like they haven’t washed in about 6 months. We have taken to calling such people farang kii nok (Thai description for birdshit Westerner) – on such an amazing spiritual journey, that they forget the rules of basic hygiene.
After Kota Bharu, we headed down the east coast to Cherating. The bus didn’t break down fortunately, but we did have to be vigilant in looking out for our stop as the bus was not due to stop at Cherating, and we had to get the driver to drop us off. On the bus we met a young Afghan student who was studying in Malaysia. He was only 22, but looked about 35. He took quite a shine to Mahmoud when he learned of his Pakistani heritage, and chatted away for quite some time. He also ate some of my sweets! I had to hide them in the end.
Cherating was like a ghost town. It was so quiet there – I can’t imagine it is so quiet all year round. We were the only people staying in our hotel, and one of very few visiting the town – I think even the locals must have gone to busier pastures, it was so quiet. Anyway, our hotel was a bit of a dump for the price – Cherating Bayview Resort. Worst place we’ve stayed value-wise – actually, worst place full-stop really. It was not a pleasure to sleep in the room, and mosquitoes broke in, formed an attack squadron and chewed on my face and neck all night. Furthermore, the place was run by a sour-faced middle aged woman who didn’t look like she was that pleased to have us there!
Well, Cherating was a good place to relax, but in comparison to the beaches of southern Thailand it really did fall a bit flat. Still, it was peaceful and the beach was good to walk up and down. There were only a few restaurants open in town, and only one on the beach itself, which was where we ate most of our meals.
One thing we really enjoyed was a trip up the river which ran alongside the town, and into the mangrove swamps. We saw an amazing amount of wildlife – snakes, otters, water monitor lizards, crabs living in trees, kingfishers, monkeys (which weren’t used to humans and bared their teeth). It was a really great trip, but at the end the boatman apologised thinking we hadn’t seen enough – we were more than happy though!
After three nights in Cherating, we were more than ready to head off to our next destination – Melaka. With only a limited amount of time to spend in the peninsular part of Malaysia, we were conscious of spending too much time “relaxing” in Cherating, and wanted to get on and see what else there was to see! The east coast was definitely worth seeing though – we got a lot out of both Kota Bharu and Cherating. It was definitely a cultural experience – I felt like we got to see an unmissable part of Malaysia.