East Coast Diary

Thursday, October 14th 1999

I rolled over in bed, glanced at my watch, and realized in half-asleep horror that it was already 7.00am. As we had arranged to leave KL at exactly this time, and expecting a knock on the door at any moment, Nathan and I ran around madly trying to get everything ready. We need not have panicked because no one else was ready that early either.

When our Malaysian friend, Lin Yew, mentioned the idea of travelling to the East Coast, we leapt at the chance. The vague plan was to drive across to Kuantan (map), and then travel north to Kota Bahru, stopping wherever we liked on the way, before returning down the west coast.

As it was a brief and ‘out of season’ visit we didn’t intend to visit the islands, which with their beautiful beaches and excellent snorkeling/diving, are one of the main attractions of Malaysia’s East coast. We kept our fingers crossed it wouldn’t rain too much!

Travelling by car was a lot faster, and definitely had several other advantages over buses, allowing us to stop when and where we wanted, and enabling us to go to places difficult to reach by public transport.

We drove inland, passing through several depressed and dilapidated looking small towns, and arrived in Kuantan in time for lunch. Kuantan is a pleasant enough town, with a beautiful fairytale castle of a mosque. The main attractions for visitors are the beaches further out of town, where Club Med and other resorts are located. The backpacker orientated beach hangout of Cherating is about an hour by bus from Kuantan.

We passed Cherating and saw a sign that led us to a “Turtle education centre and sanctuary.” The annual turtle egg laying season occurs from May to September, and several beaches on the East coast have long been favoured by all 4 species of sea turtles’ (and the tourists who come to watch them) as ideal nesting spots.

These days fewer and fewer turtles are coming ashore, and the chance of seeing them has diminished. The stupid, disgusting and cruel behaviour of past tourists towards the turtles is partly to blame for their absence, and these days the beach access during the season is limited in attempts to protect the remaining turtles.

The centre had some brief, informative displays about the turtles and the threats facing them, and what was being done to try and save them. Although the place seemed to have good intentions, I was saddened by my first glimpse of a Hawksbill turtle, paddling aimlessly in a murky pond.

We drove on into Terengganu state, passing numerous Kampongs and fishing villages, roadside stalls set up to sell corn cobs, durians, shellfish, coconut water and things we didn’t recognize. We stopped to have a closer look at the colourful fishing boats at the photogenic village of Marang, and wandered along the beachfront. It was not hard to see why this village has a popular reputation with travelers.

Passing the ghostly white “floating mosque”, we drove into Kuala Terengganu, the state capital and the end of the road for today.

After a delicious and inexpensive feast, topped off with Roti Pisang (AKA banana pancakes!) we set out to explore the town. The atmosphere was friendly and laid back, and although it had been dark for a couple of hours, groups of unsupervised children played in the street, which I did not expect to see in a Malaysian city. I really liked Kuala Terengganu and could easily have spent a few days there.

Friday, October 15th 1999

Ferry

The ferry service between Kuala Terengganu and Pulau Duyung Besar.
© Nathan Donaldson 1999.

This morning we got up anticipating breakfast, only to learn it was a Friday and the restaurant was closed!! We headed down to the jetty where we caught a boat across the river to a small fishing village on Pulau Duyung Besar. Near the ‘ferry terminal’ on the island we found a small restaurant. I served myself a plate of coconut sticky rice, a sweet potato fritter and a sweet coconut dumpling of some sort. I considered it to be the first really traditional Malay food I had tried, and accompanied with a cup of black coffee, it was a great breakfast.

We wandered through the village and watched families absorbed in the smelly process of making fish products. A group of women gutted the day’s catch, wielding their cleavers at an alarming speed. Inside their houses people prepared repugnant looking fish sausages, which would eventually be sliced and dried. When the dried slices are later fried they puff up to make fish chips, a popular snack which you see in the markets.

Pulau Duyang Besar Children

Village children, Pulau Duyang Besar.
© Nathan Donaldson 1999.

Passing groups of waving children and crowing roosters, we came to the batik factory, but were told that there was nobody at work today as it was a Friday. Instead we looked at a range of finished cloth, all made by the block printing method of Batik.

As soon as we drove across the imaginary line between Terengganu and Kelantan, the difference was quite noticeable. All along the roadside people had erected bamboo flagpoles with the flags of the various political parties, demonstrating Kelantan’s reputation as a politically minded state.

Kelantan is a stronghold of the Islamic opposition party; PAS (which has a green flag with a white moon) while other flags flying included the symbol of BN (the current government); a set of scales on a dark blue flag, and the pale blue flags with white disjointed crescents, which stand for Anwar’s supporters.

We passed through Kota Bahru, admired the purple domes of the lavish new state mosque, and drove north towards the Thai border, through the Tumpat district. The Thai influence is obvious in this area, and all along the road are Thai Buddhist temple complexes, a bit of a change from seeing a Mosque every 500m. There are some interesting large Buddhas, and the grounds are pleasant to walk around.

Tonight I wanted to stay at the beach, and we found a Malay holiday park at Pantai Sri Tujuh (beach of the 7 lagoons). The area was crowded with Malay families, enjoying a day away from the city. We checked into a seafront chalet and went to find some food in one of the numerous small seafood restaurants, which all served exactly the same dishes.

The beach here was pretty average, and more people were fishing than swimming. However during low tide we were able to walk across the first murky lagoon to a small sandy island, and on the other side waves broke and the water was a lot cleaner for swimming.

Wau Kite

A Wau high in the sky at Pantai Sri Tujuh, North of Kota Bahru.
© Nathan Donaldson 1999.

The beach’s claim to fame is the international kite festival, which is held here every year. When we arrived we noticed the kites at one end of the beach and after dinner, went down for a closer look. The kites were made in the traditional Wau shape, from strong plastic and varying in size, with the larger ones resembling hang gliders.

After shading our eyes and craning our necks for a while, impressed by the colourful, whirring kites, we were adopted and told to have a go at it. We learnt that it takes 2 or 3 men to get the kite up in the air and to control it; the pull of the kite was surprisingly strong. Apparently this group of men, along with their excited children apprentices, come here every week and “play” the kites all day Friday and Saturday. Long after we had returned to our room we could still hear the whirring sound of the kites flying.

Saturday, October 16th 1999

We woke up to the sound of rain; while in Kuala Lumpur it seems to rain every afternoon, over here on the east coast it rains in the morning. The others stopped for breakfast at the border town of Pengkalan Kubor while I went across the border to Thailand with the intention of renewing my visa. I took a ferry across the river and wandered around the muddy market streets of Tak Bai for a while; declining a lift further North in a Mercedes and after realizing it was going to rain again hurrying back to catch a returning ferry.

By the time the ferry sailed, the rain was truly a monsoonal downpour, and I was soaked by the short time it took to reach Malaysia. After running through the streets like a madwoman, ankle deep in water and looking like a drowned rat with transparent clothing, I found the others sitting in a small coffee shop. The family who owned the shop kindly allowed me into their house to change into some dry clothes, and by the time we got back to the car the rain had basically stopped.

As we had bypassed Kota Bahru the previous day, we decided to go back to the town to have a look around, and visit the central market. As we drove back through Tumpat, the sun came out and a large golden Buddha beamed down on us. According to the lonelyplanet this was Wat Phikulthong, although the signs all appeared to be in Thai. It was one of the nicer temple complexes, and we stopped for a while feeding the fish in the lotus pond.

My impression of Kota Bahru wasn’t very favourable, although it was only a fleeting visit; it seemed to be an exceptionally grotty town, with dozens of half dead stray cats everywhere.

Central Market

The colourful produce section of Kota Bahru’s central market.
© Nathan Donaldson 1999.

However, the central market was definitely worth a visit. The ground level of the indoor market is a wet market, with fruit and vegetables in the centre and other fresh foods such as rice, meat, and fish around the edges. Upstairs are several more levels, labyrinths of stalls around the edges of the octagonal building, which is open in the centre. The stalls on the upper levels sell some spices, snacks and dried foods but mainly batik, clothing and crafts. From the upstairs levels, you can look down on the colourful vegetable section of the wet market below.

After lunch and a mysterious purchase of black glutinous rice, we got back in the car and headed inland. After leaving the outskirts of Kota Bahru and passing through Kelantan into Perak, driving through jungle covered hills shrouded in mists; we were alone on the road for at least 40 minutes before seeing another car. I was reminded of travelling in the South Island of NZ, until we came across an exciting roadsign warning that elephants were in the area, and a young Orang Asli walking along the road with an impressive blowpipe under one arm.

Malaysia has a number of large lakes that have been created by the building of dams, and are now promoted as destinations for Ecotourism. Tasik Temengor is one of them. After enquiring at all three of the places offering accommodation, we ended up spending the night in the Banding Island resort.

Tasik Temengor

Tranquil Tasik Temengor is mainly a destination for keen anglers.
© Nathan Donaldson 1999.

The main reason people come to the lake is for game fishing. However, as well as fishing trips, the resort offers to organize a series of tours that include: bird watching, visits to Orang Asli villages, and jungle treks. If you’re lucky you may have a chance of seeing hornbills, elephants or rafflesia flowers.

The lake itself was tranquil and picturesque, especially at dusk and early morning and although I didn’t go for a swim, I was told the water was really warm and pleasant.

Sunday, 17th October 1999

Assuming that there would be some interesting wildlife around the area, I persuaded Nathan to come for an early morning walk. After wandering down to the lakeside, and being tormented by mosquitoes, we wandered along the road. I was slightly disappointed in the lack of birdlife, as we were surrounded by jungle. If we had been feeling a bit more adventurous, I suppose we could have ventured away from the road.

Buddha

A large golden Buddha beams down on a landscape dominated by mosques.
© Nathan Donaldson 1999.

It was time to go, as we had to get back to KL today. I was starving, and wishing I had paid the outrageous sum of 8RM for some toast and juice back at the resort. It was 3pm by the time we had driven to Ipoh, and found our way to Sam Poh Tong temple. This Chinese Buddhist temple is on the outskirts of Ipoh, and is formed by caves in the towering Limestone landscape. Our lunch stop was a vegetarian restaurant in part of the cave, where we dined on sweet and sour ‘pork’, roast ‘goose’, roast ‘duck’, yam cake, ‘squid’ and noodles. The restaurant was very crowded, apparently because it was the month for pious Buddhists to abstain from meat eating.

The temple features a murky turtle pond, which is teeming with freshwater turtles of varying sizes (some of them are really huge) and the smaller ones are cute, hitching a ride on the giant turtles’ backs. Apparently it is good luck to ‘release’ turtles into this pond, and you can also gain merit by feeding them.

Angrily, I wonder why no one has thought to gain merit by cleaning the pond out, abstaining from throwing in their rubbish, or putting a couple of large rocks in the water so the turtles can sit on them and do not have to constantly struggle and stack themselves up at the side.

Passing some hawker stalls set up underneath a sign forbidding their presence; we got in the car and headed back to KL.

Useful Information

Getting to the East coast (from KL)

After travelling by car, I’d have to recommend renting a car if you can. All the major rental car firms have offices in KL. However, there are also frequent bus services to the east coast, which would be the cheaper option.

From KL, Kuantan is about 5 hours by bus, Kuala Terengganu is around 7 hrs and Kota Bahru is around 10 hrs. To get to other destinations such as Cherating, Marang, and Tumpat you may find you will need to catch a long distance bus to a major town and then another local bus.

The best time to visit…

Nov-Feb is probably the worst time of year to visit the East coast, as it is monsoon season. Even if you are not intending to spend your time on the beach, or visit the islands (many of which shut down completely during this time) the area is prone to heavy flooding.

If you are lucky with the weather, the advantage of visiting at this time of year is that there will be few tourists, and accommodation rates will be negotiable.

If you want a chance to see turtles, they come ashore to lay their eggs between May and September, August is supposed to be the best month to see them.

Friday

Friday is the Islamic holy day, and like Sundays in Christian countries, it is a day off. This is observed throughout Malaysia: some galleries, museums and offices close, but is more noticeable in Pahang, Terengganu, Perak and Kelantan, where many shops, restaurants and tourist attractions also close.

If you are planning on visiting ‘cultural’ type attractions, check when they are open, but don’t worry, as there will still be plenty of places to eat!!

Language

Although English is widely spoken throughout Malaysia, especially in Kuala Lumpur, learning some Bahasa or carrying a phrasebook is a good idea if you intend to visit smaller places on the East coast. The lonelyplanet has a simple language section in the back of its latest guidebook, which is probably adequate.

Thank You – Terima Kasih!

How much is this? – Berapa harganya ini?

Veges only – Sayur Saja

No meat – Tanpa Daging

No chicken – Tanpa Ayam

No fish – Tanpa Ikan

Accommodation and Food

Kuala Terrenganu

Asrama Kolam guesthouse on Jln Dato Isaac, is run by friendly staff (25RM Dbl) and it also has a good restaurant. Downstairs, Saleki’s Restaurant serves both local and western food, with a very reasonably priced menu. There are several other guesthouses close by, including Ping Anchorage across the road.

Pantai Sri Tujuh

(beach of the seven lagoons)

This is a Malay family resort, not the sort of place where many tourists venture, probably because they are not travelling by car.

We paid 70RM for a 2-room chalet with bathroom, aircon and TV (!!), which was a reasonable deal between 4 people. The accommodation offered by the resort also included nicer, 1 room chalets built over the river for 60RM.

Around the resort were a number of food stalls which all sold basically the same seafood dominated meals.

Tasik Temengor

The cheapest place near the lake is Aman resort; resort being rather a misleading term. Chalets built over the lake are 30RM but are on the grotty side. When we were there the place was closed due to a water supply failure.

Mohammed Shah resort has similar floating chalets, with a nicer view than Aman’s but asks a whopping 90RM (45RM for one person rooms).

Banding Island resort is the largest and most upmarket place, and also organizes boat tours, fishing trips and treks. Here we bargained 80RM for a standard double room with bathroom.

There is a restaurant at the resort (resort prices) and a food stall down the hill (hawker stall prices). The major appeal of the lake is for fishing, and although it is a pleasant place to stop if you are driving, there is apparently no bus service.

The Thai Border

There are 2 crossings on the East coast of Malaysia; most people take a bus (1hr) from Kota Bahru to cross at Rantau Panjang/ Sungai Golok. The alternative, lesser known route is on the coast at Pengkalan Kubor/ Tak Bai.

Buses go from Kota Bahru to Pengkalan Kubor; from there you catch a ferry (60Sen) across to Tak Bai in Thailand. There’s not much to see at the frontier town of Tak Bai apart from a sprawling market, and there didn’t appear to be any places to stay on either side.

The Author

I am a Kiwi currently living in Petaling Jaya, a satellite city of Kuala Lumpur. After travelling through South East Asia earlier in the year, my partner and I have returned to live and work in Malaysia.

We believe that living in another country will provide a different, new and exciting set of challenges. Also we look forward to opportunities for further travel and exploration.

Apart from travel my main interests include; Art, Wildlife/ Conservation and Eastern religions/ traditions. So don’t be surprised if I focus on these subjects!

I am currently living in my tevas (it’s too hot for boots here!) and suffering from the curse of Cinderella’s step sisters.

At intervals I am lured into shoe stores with their tempting arrays of shiny, fashionable and ridiculously cheap shoes, to undergo a kind of consumer torture.

At the urging of eternally optimistic saleswomen, I attempt to squeeze into shoes which are inevitably two sizes too small!

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