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Kota Bharu, Malaysia

by Mark Romero

First-time visitor to town: "Excuse me. What kind of nighttime entertainment is there in town?"

Owner of a guest house (looking confused): "Entertainment? You mean like movies and dancing?"

Visitor (impatiently): "Yeah, entertainment. What sort of night life is there?"

Owner: "Well...er...none!"

Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan State in north Malaysia, is a very quiet place - the official tourist brochures list the Central Police Station under the "Places of Interest" column, while the "Entertainment and Night Life" column is headed by Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The reason that the town seems so old fashioned is rather simple. The state government is headed by members of a conservative Islamic party, who have banned, among other things, the sale of alcohol in the state. This has effectively snuffed out what little night life the city had before.

But despite the lack of discos, bars and entertainment complexes, this small town gets a surprising number of repeat visitors from all parts of the globe. Many of them plan on visiting just long enough to do some business, but end up staying a lot longer than they had expected. Take a walk through the streets of this prosperous east-coast town and it won't be hard to find out why.

The borough has a laid-back feel that is a welcome retreat to those fed up with the rush of life in large cities. Sure, there are all sorts of modern cars and architecture to be found here, but there are still plenty of rickshaw drivers lazily pedaling their three-wheeled carriages up and down the streets as well. Small cafes that wouldn't be too out of place if they were transplanted to Italy line many of the towns side streets. These bistros fill up with men whiling away the time hiding behind newspapers and large cups of sweet hot coffee. And while the women that work in stores aren't slumped comatose over the counters the way they so often are in the City of Angels, they nonetheless have a calm and relaxed atmosphere about them.

Got business to take care of on the other side of town? Hop into the back of a rickshaw, or better yet, stroll along the lanes of the town. Yeah, there may be faster ways to get from point A to point B in this city, but why bother? If you rush too much you won't have time to appreciate the bright flowing gowns and veils of the local women. Nor will you see the beautiful smiles which seem to grace the faces of the town's residents so easily.

Actually, it takes a little while to get used to the friendliness and politeness of the local community. If you have spent any length of time in a western city, you'll know how easy it is to feel a sudden rush of paranoia when a stranger on a bus asks you where you are going. But here, they just want to make sure that you don't get lost or miss out on any of the town's attractions.

The most colorful place in the down town area, and pretty much the first place that visitors hit when they come to Kota Bharu, would have to be the central market. Quite possibly one of the ugliest buildings in the world (from the outside), this multistory octagonal-shaped off-green structure is a one-stop shopping center that almost every resident of the city visits on a daily basis.

Enter one of the arched gateways on the ground floor and you will be attacked by the pungent smell of fish. Watch your step as you walk, as the cement floor is extremely slippery, being universally covered by some kind of slimy resin. Head towards the center of the market and you'll pass row after row of today's catch being displayed on rapidly-melting ice.

In the middle of the ground floor are wooden tables as long as a stretch Limousine, every square inch of which are covered with local produce. The merchants are mostly little old ladies, dressed in traditional garb. Some of the older ones nonchalantly puff away on thick black cigars as they keep a wary eye on their goods.

The floor immediately above this one has dozens of shops selling dried goods. Bottles of sauces, cans of curries, and jars of pickled vegetables line the shelves of one store, while sun-dried meats dangle in your face from the roofs of others. The sharp odor of spices permeates this floor.

Climb the stairs to the next floor and the bright patterns of locally-made batik jump out at you. Vivid reds, powerful blues, striking yellows, the walls of hanging material blend into one massive kaleidoscope of color. With nearly a hundred stalls competing against one another on this floor, the selection is huge and the bargains are many.

Near to the central market is the Bazaar Buluh Kubu, which is another multi-floored shopping arcade. This one specializes in handicrafts, having a large selection of locally-made goods to choose from.

But shopping isn't the only thing to be done in Kota Bharu, as visitors to the town will also have the opportunity to see many cultural attractions. Located not far from the sports stadium is the Gelanggang Seni, or cultural center. There are free afternoon and evening performances of traditional dance dramas, as well as Wayang Kulit, or shadow puppet shows. One can also witness the popular top spinning contests, where grown men battle it out to see who can keep the seven-kilogram wooden toys turning the longest. It takes a lot of strength to whip the five-meter cord fast enough to get a competitive spin on the top. The record spinning length is about two hours. Check with the Tourist Information Center, located on Jalan Sultan Ibrahim Rd near the clock tower, to find out the exact schedule of events.

The northeast corner of the city, along the Kelentan River, has many interesting places to see, all within walking distance of one another. Start off at the Padang Merdeka, or Independence Square, which was built as a memorial following World War I. The square is just a fenced-off area of grass, but located at the eastern end is the Palace of the Large Audience Hall (Istana Balai Besar in Malay), which is occasionally the site of official ceremonies. The structure is made of timber and painted yellow, and it is the cultural heart of Kota Bharu.

Just to the northwest lies the Royal Museum, which the locals refer to as the Istana Balai. Inside are kept many indigenous works of art as well as items that are a little more peculiar, such as guns. The building itself is an unusual mixture of traditional Malay and Victorian architectures.

Just to the east of the museum is the State Mosque, which is the spiritual center of the town. Five times a day, the loudspeakers blare out the call to prayers, and the faithful make their way by the hundreds to pray at this mosque. The architecture appears quite similar to the Sino-Portuguese style found in Macau and Melaka, and one can't help but think of Bangkok's Portuguese-established St Gabriel Church when looking at it. There is also a school for religious studies as well as a few volleyball and basketball courts filled up with laughing kids in the mosque's compound.

Another 300 meters to the west of the mosque is the Kelentan River, which helps provide a cool breeze for the town and is also home to several raft houses, which have survived in defiance of the modernization that has swept over most of the town. Moored all along the river are boats in all states of disrepair which, despite their sad conditions, are still pressed into daily use.

If you come to the river in the afternoon, you will be surprised at the number of couples who have the sunsets timed almost perfectly. They rush up on motorbikes to the piers just as the sun's hanging above the horizon, see it fade into the twilight, and then depart just as quickly.

Oh, speaking about sunsets, you'll be happy to know that even though there is no alcohol for sale in the whole state, the people of this town don't automatically fall asleep once night comes around. About 50 hawkers come out to set up their food stalls in the parking lot of the central market after dark, and you can't be blamed for thinking that the entire population of the city comes to eat here, as the tiny tables are constantly filled with whole families tearing through meals. Indian, Malay, and Chinese cuisine are all represented en masse, so it should be easy to find something to satisfy the palate with just a little bit of searching. The meals are dished up from 6:00 PM until the witching hour.

One other nice thing about Kota Bharu is that there is a Thai consulate located here. This is good news for those who have become tired of going to Penang over and over again. There is one catch though; the staff at the consulate here are unwilling (or unable) to give three-month visas. Yup, the most you can hope for is a double-entry two-month visa.

Kota Bharu is easily reached from Bangkok by train by going to the end of the Southern Line in Sungai Kolok. Cross the border by foot, and take a bus from the Malaysian town of Rantau Panjang straight to Kota Bharu. The bus trip takes about one hour. Not far from the city of Kota Bharu are many beaches, waterfalls, and jungles, all of which can be reached by bus from the center of town.