Kota Bharu, Malaysia
It’s approaching sunset here in Kota Bharu but it’s not the light playing tricks. My rice really is blue.
I’m at the night market, just a ten minute walk from the centre of town, in a gravelled square that I suspect is used as a car park during the day.
There is a great collection of Malaysian food stalls here and I’m hungry after a long day of travelling from George Town. I ask someone what the local specialty is and I’m pointed to a stall selling ‘nasi kerabu’. I order one serving and am presented with the rice – a dark rich blue – on a sheet of brown paper, along with some accompaniments.
The rice of nasi kerabu gets its blue colour from the flower petals of a plant called ‘Blue Butterfly Pea’. On top of it come prawn crackers, a little salad with bean sprouts and spring onions, and (in this case) a chicken skewer.
It’s delicious but I’m still hungry when I finish. It’s a good opportunity to try another local specialty that I have been recommended. So I ask around to see who is selling ‘ayam percik’.
Again, it’s served to be wrapped in brown paper. Ayam percik is grilled chicken that is then smothered in a delicious coconut and peanut sauce that’s mixed with local herbs. It would probably make sense to sit down and try to eat it with some cutlery, but I just pull it from the paper as I walk around and look at the action in the market.
I don’t have long here in Kota Bharu. It’s really just a transit spot for me on my way to the Perhentian Islands. But I want to make sure I give myself enough time to look around a city that, despite not really being on the tourist trail, I’m convinced must have some appeal.
After finding a hotel in Kota Bharu, I set out in the afternoon to have a look around.
The first thing you always hear about Kota Bharu is how religious it is. It is the capital of the state of Kelantan, in the north east of Malaysia. Kelantan is one of the least multicultural parts of the country. About 95 per cent of the population are ethnic Malays and most of them are practicing Muslims.
What is most relevant, though, is how religiously-conservative the state government here is. It has consistently take a hardline view on Islamic law, with cinemas banned, separate queues for men and women at supermarkets, and caning as a punishment for breaches of sharia law.
In my short time here, though, it’s not something I really notice. Nothing seems that different to most of the other parts of Malaysia that I have seen so far. To be fair, I am not trying to find a nightclub or even buy a beer at a restaurant. But, for a tourist briefly passing through, who is happy to respect that there are different customs here, the politics should barely register.
So I spend the afternoon having a look around the main sights in the centre of town. It doesn’t take too long to do a loop down to the river and back, which takes me past most of them.
There’s the Royal Palace and, around it, several museums. A large gate marks the intersection with a formal park down to the water, and nearby is a large mosque. Other than these official buildings in this section, much of the city is quite ordinary.
I think the highlight of the things to see in Kota Bharu is certainly the main market, called Pasar Besar.
Pasar Besar, Kota Bharu
I go in the morning before I catch the bus to head south. The building is octagonal-shaped with a large central area that reaches up to the ceiling. The different levels around the edges look down into this space.
The market is busy and the sounds and smells fill the spaces. As I wander around, I am constantly coming across little slices of action as vendors prepare for the day and the morning shoppers haggle for the best food at the best price.
As you can hopefully see from these photos, it’s not just the architecture and layout of the building that is aesthetically-pleasing, but also the vibrancy of the industry.
There are good reasons why Kota Bharu does not come up regularly when you are looking for recommendations of things to do in Malaysia. But they have nothing to do with the politics and the religion here. It’s simply that there is not quite enough to do to warrant the time and effort to get here.
However, if you are going to be passing through like me, then I do encourage you to stop and have a look around. The markets show you a slice of life here that is much more monocultural than most of Malaysia, and that is a sight in itself.