They say that those wishing to experience a more traditional Malaysia should head out to the states of Terengganu and Kelantan at the peninsula’s quieter east coast. Filled with a distinctly Malay character and fringed with excellent beaches, it’s the side of Malaysia that remains relatively unknown to most travelers, save for the beach resorts at the Perhentian Islands or Redang.
As I wanted to experience something different than the usual Kuala Lumpur this time, I headed out to Kuala Terengganu, the capital of Terengganu state for a short trip. Using the excellent Tanjong Jara Resort as my base, I explored the easygoing seaside capital known for its excellent seafood and impressive mosques and found it filled with interesting places and worthwhile as a destination in its own right.
I started my exploration of the city at the Tengku Tengah Zaharah Mosque, also known as the Floating Mosque. An enchanting structure at the city outskirts, it is called as such due to its picturesque setting around a man-made lagoon. It’s especially wonderful to see early in the morning when the wind isn’t as strong to disrupt the water’s serenity and stillness.
From there, I ventured to the city center of Kuala Terengganu, a maze of streets lined with shophouses at various states of disrepair, mosques, the odd palace as well as modern shopping malls. Despite its location in the Malay peninsula’s less populous east coast, Terengganu is a well-developed city with skyscrapers, hip cafes and fine-dining restaurants.
After obtaining my bearings at the center, I decided to start at the Pasar Besar Payang – the main market of the city. I wandered past the colorful stalls selling traditional Malay clothing, assortments of snack items and exotic fruits to end up at Jalan Kampung Cina or which traditionally marks the start of Kuala Terengganu’s Chinatown. Unlike other major cities in Malaysia, Terengganu’s Chinese minority is small in number which means that the Chinese quarter here only spans one street.
That being said, it’s a living and authentic Chinatown. Crumbling but charming shophouses line Jalan Kampung Cina and the commercial establishments inside range from Chinese eateries to westernized cafes, indicating that hipster coffee culture has also found its way into this part of the country.
Past the few attractions around the city center, the bulk of the city’s tourist spots aren’t really within walking distance. After having my fill of downtown Kuala Terengganu, I ventured to Pulau Duyong to see ships being made. There wasn’t much shipbuilding activity when I arrived, perhaps due to Ramadan or because I arrived close to prayer time. Because of this, I left after a few minutes and headed to Muzium Negeri Terengganu or the Terengganu State Museum.
While the city has many impressive monuments, the one building that constantly makes its way into brochures is the Terengganu State Museum. Built in traditional Terengganu Malay style called rumah tele, I found it as pleasant admiring it from the outside as I did checking out the exhibits inside. At 27 hectares, it is not only the largest museum in Malaysia but also the largest in Southeast Asia. During my visit, I found galleries linked to Malay and Terengganu culture alongside non-cultural ones. I even found a gallery dedicated to human organs inside!
A short drive from the museum is Pulau Wan Man. Relatively undeveloped until 2008, it now houses the Islamic Civilization Park as well as the Crystal Mosque or Masjid Kristal. Made of steel, glass and of course, crystal, it is the most glaring among Kuala Terengganu’s attractions.
I chanced upon the Crystal Mosque as Muslims were called for noon prayers so I had to wait around outside for a while. After that was done, the guard allowed me inside to survey the interiors which are as grand. The imam even came out to introduce himself to me.
Last on my list that day was the Islamic Civilization Park or Taman Tamadun Islam, a miniature theme park featuring some of the grandest mosques all over the world. Given my fascination with Islamic architecture, I was most excited about visiting the site. However, it was closed when I got there and all I could make out from the outside were partial views of the Taj Mahal and the Dome of the Rock in miniature.
With that, my short jaunt to Kuala Terengganu came to an end. For a relatively small city, I never expected to find such grand and majestic buildings but there they were. Despite visiting during the supposed peak dry season, I encountered at most just a handful of other tourists to this undiscovered gem. With a car, it’s possible to do all of the city’s tourist attractions in a day – except for the museum if you view each and every gallery – so there’s certainly every reason to stop here while on the way to Redang or the Perhentians.
How to Get There
Kuala Terengganu is about a 45 minutes flight from Kuala Lumpur. Airlines such as Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia fly there. Its is also possible to visit the city by land from KL where the journey will take around 7 hours or from Kota Bharu where it’s a 3 hours bus ride.