Kota Bharu The Islamic City

Usually a stepping stone for most travellers, Kota Bharu is missed out by those eager to explore the islands or border towns. Taking it at face value, it really isn't difficult to understand why. The town's rush towards modernism has masked much of its quaintness that used to be not too long ago.

That is, if one takes it at face value. Pockets of local life shine through as one wanders through the busy streets. Old trishaws still ply the streets for a few ringgit, usually transporting housewives to and from the central market. Coffee shops like 'The Sumatra Eating Shop' at Jalan Hulu Pagar, just a skip away from the Old Market Building (Food Bazaar & Local Products) caters to the local community, a number of them , regulars from way back then. Women selling fruits and vegetables at the central market, a few smoking hand rolled cigarettes,a few cradling their babies on their laps, sitting cross-legged in a little corner of their spread of fruits and vegetables; others busy haggling with their customers.

Almost everything centers around or close to the Central Market. Early in the morning, little stalls are set up around the market, catering to early risers waiting for their first cup of kopi (coffee) and a choice of nasi dagang, nasi kerabu, laksam, nasi lemak or local kuih (cakes), before going off to work.

The central market itself is alive with sounds of traders shouting prices over the heads of their customers. There are a great many local produce for sale at the market.

From fresh coconut gratings to a large selection of local salads, called Ulam in Bahasa Malaysia. Ulam are fresh greens, usually eaten raw. In Kelantan, this local salad is served with a special anchovy sauce flavoured further with thinly sliced 'kedondong' (a tropical fruit) and spicy hot chilli peppers - it's delicious but the flavour can be a little overpowering for some.

If you'd like to try Ulam, perhaps the best place to go would be the Craft Museum & Handicraft Centre (Surprised?!) The Craft Museum is located on the 1st floor of this traditional designed Kelantan timber house. The museum features an interesting collection of coconut graters, old cooking apparatus as well as old batik and songket pieces.

Unfortunately, some displays are only explained in the Malay Language. (Perhaps they somehow have overlooked the aspect of tourism here). The museum occupies a small section of the building. Entrance fee is RM2.00 per person. Opening times: 8.30am - 4.45pm except Fridays.

Fancy coconut graters - this demonstrates the pride of the old generation of the Kelantan people in producing fine handiwork - even in everyday house utensils

Other areas are taken up by silversmith shops, a batik art shop, handicraft shops and on the ground floor is a local Malay food restaurant that sells great Malay food and where one can try the selection of Ulam. The food is cheap here too and well worth the wait - it gets very crowded during lunch hours. Self service food; help yourself to the variety of curries, grilled fish, ulam, vegetables etc and find yourself a table and someone will come take your orders for drinks and provide you with a tab. Service is good too. Typical Kelantan hospitality!

The then Crown Prince's room kept intact at Istana Batu

It may be a good idea to walk off the heavy lunch and perhaps just to keep out of the scorching sun, visit the Museums nearby. Across the road from the Craft Museum is the Royal Museum. Swathed in a subtle hue of sky blue, this Museum also known as Istana Batu or Stone Palace was one of the first concrete buildings built in the state. Not terribly old - in fact it was only completed in1939, Istana Batu was built by Sultan Ismail (1920 - 1944) as a wedding gift for his nephew, Sultan Yahya Petra. In 1969, Istana Batu became the official residence of the then Crown Prince Ismail Petra.

This Museum's exhibit goes through the who's who of Kelantan's Royal Family with photo exhibits of the royal family in the main hall. Rooms leading off the main hall allow the public a peek into the lifestyle of the royal family in the 1900s. Black & white photos line the walls. Young children celebrating their birthdays with friends, the Crown Prince on an overseas trip, a black tie event, the royal family in royal attire for a family portrait. Items collected over the years are displayed on tables, in cabinets everywhere. Beautiful china, silverware and official gifts from other leaders. Entrance fee: RM2.00 per person. Opening times: 8.30am - 4.45pm except Fridays.

Just 10 minutes walk down the road is Istana Jahar, which houses the Museum of Royal Traditions and Ceremonies. This unique palace was built in 1887 by the then Sultan of Kelantan, Sultan Ahmad (1886 - 1889) for his son, Long Kudin who succeeded him as sultan. The name Jahar was taken from the tree that stands at the entrance, also known as 'Flame of the Forest'. There are several interesting items stored under this timber palace. Ornately carved river vessels were used by the Sultan for his royal trips downriver. Old dugouts and sampans give insight into the mode of transport common in the early 1900's when roads were scarce and the waterways were the main roads into the interior. Models of traditional Kelantan timber houses are also displayed here.

There are now very few old Kelantan timber houses existing and these models show the extent of the Siamese' influence. Unfortunately the weapons section was closed to the public at time of visit but travel books have raved about its impressive collection of weaponry.

The ground floor has a fine display of songket from Malaya as well as Bali, India and Sumatra. Artefacts on display show the simplicity of life during the early 1900's, many of the items - simple and practical. On either side of the hall is a pair of wrought-iron spiral staircases, which was added to the interior only in 1911 together with the Italian marbled flooring. Upstairs are exhibits of traditional wedding ceremonies and childbirth rituals. Some of these rituals are still practised by the royal family while others no longer apply: for example, a young royal child was not allowed to step out into the palace grounds for 3years and was 'imprisoned' within the palace itself. After the stipulated years, the royal 'bomoh' (spiritual doctor) will then perform a ceremony to allow the child to step into the 'new' world. Entrance fee: RM2.00 per person. Opening times: 8.30am - 4.45pm except Fridays.

Just beyond the gates of Istana Jahar is Pintu Gerbang Kota Sultan Ismail Petra (Sultan Ismail Petra Arch). This arch was commissioned and placed at the square to commemorate the declaration of Kota Bahru as a cultural city. This vision to preserve the Malay culture was spearheaded by Sultan Ismail Petra, hence the name. Facing the arch is the single-storey Istana Balai Besar. This Istana was built by Sultan Muhammad II in 1840 and was the official residence of past sultans. The daunting gates and fortified high wooden fencing of the Istana, (although now coated with what looks like anti-fungal paint!), is as it was during the reign of early sultans. Old black & white photos at the museums show the ever-popular bullfights performed right at the gates of the Istana. Bullfights used to be the highlight of Royal Ceremonies until it was banned in mid 1900's. Istana Balai Besar is now used for official state functions and is not open to the public.

Kota Bharu part 2 in the next post !!!

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