Those searching for a more traditional side to Malaysia would be hard-pressed to find anywhere more fitting than the northern city of Kota Bharu in the state of Kelantan bordering Thailand. Coming from my short trip to Kuala Terengganu which in itself is a pretty laidback and conservative town, I was still pleasantly surprised with the overall look and feel of Kota Bharu when I stepped out of the bus following a 3 hour journey.
After dropping my bags at the hotel, I practically wasted no time in exploring the tourist attractions of Kota Bharu. The first thing that occurred to me about Kota Bharu is how walkable it is. It’s a trait that can’t be said for many of Malaysia’s cities unfortunately but Kota Bharu’s city center is pretty compact and many of the tourist attractions are near each other. The cityscape is also pretty regal in stature, with many well-restored old mansions, Malay-style palaces and majestic mosques dotting the skyline. As an Islamic city, the pace of life here is also a lot more traditional even when comparing it to Kuala Terengganu which is about 150 kilometers away. I only saw a few people wearing shorts while most women wore the hijab.
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From my hotel, I walked north to the city center where most of the tourist attractions of Kota Bharu are located. Just next to the tourism office, I spotted the colonial-era clock tower, an ubiquity in just about every city and town in Malaysia.
Pasar Siti Khadijah
I then strolled to the very end of Jalan Temeggong and ended up at Pasar Siti Khadijah. The market has been closely associated with Kota Bharu that just about any picture of the city comes with a bird’s eye view of the market. In style, it’s similar to the wet markets of Central Asia with a large atrium dominated by merchants selling colorful wares. One notable thing about this market is how it’s dominated by women – veiled ladies selling just about anything under the sun at the stalls.
From there, it was a manageable walk to the royal center where the buildings exuded a traditional northern Malay appearance that I’ve not encountered elsewhere in the country. Many of the city’s palaces and museums are actually located here which made the rest of my city exploration quite easy to manage. I couldn’t help but lay my eyes on Istana Jahar (open daily except Fridays, 8:30AM to 5:45PM), Its brown and yellow shades as well as gilded roofs appeared to me like a Japanese temple but its origins couldn’t be more Kelantanese in nature. Built in 1887, it now functions as Kota Bharu’s most interesting museum, offering visitors a peek into life at the northern Kelantan state.
After having my fill of the place, I ventured to Muzium Islam (open daily except Fridays, 8:30AM to 4:45PM) to do a bit of comparison. Like the Istana Jahar earlier, the Islamic Museum is housed in a similar looking building, albeit without the gilded roofs and featuring a greenish shade instead. Inside, there are various artifacts depicting how Islam was introduced to Kelantan.
Muzium Diraja Istana Batu
Wandering around the center made for an atmospheric morning walk as I chanced upon other fanciful-looking buildings in the vicinity. The Masjid Muhammadi and Muzium Diraja Istana Batu (open daily except Fridays, 8:30AM to 4:45PM) made for great short photo stops for the interesting architecture. The Istana Balai Besar is also around the area, just beside the Istana Jahar but is off-limits to visitors. The majestic looking gate was the closest I got to entering the grand palace in Kota Bharu which is now used only for state functions.
I eventually stopped at the Kampung Kraftangan or the craft village in the hopes of witnessing some local activities such as batik-making or woodcarving. Unfortunately, due to Ramadan, the whole complex was closed save for 2 stores. The famous Restoran Cikgu Nasi Ulam was also closed that day due to the fasting month.
My time at Kota Bharu may be short but I enjoyed the city immensely. Its walkability brought other Malaysian cities such as Ipoh or Penang to mind with an added Islamic touch.
I only had a day to spend in Kota Bharu and thus focused on the city only. Those with extra time can also head out to Tumpat to check out the Thai Buddhist temples.
Tips for Kota Bharu
- Try to avoid visiting the city on Friday if possible. Kota Bharu is the most Islamic city in Malaysia and many restaurants and attractions are closed on Fridays.
- While most people can get away with skimpy attire in the rest of Malaysia, this is a no-no in Kelantan where there’s a stricter adherence to Sharia law.
- A must-eat in Kota Bharu is the Nasi Kerabu or the blue-pea rice. This is one of Kelantan’s most iconic dishes. Don’t let the blue color deter you from eating it. It’s not artificial coloring but the natural hue coming from the blue pea flower. It’s supposed to be healthy!
Where I Stayed in Kota Bharu
I stayed at Hotel Perdana which is arguably one of the better options in town. The proposition is rather upscale though the price is relatively affordable. To compare the best prices in Kota Bharu, you can book here.