Kelantan - The contrary in reality

With its contentious rulings, the Islamic state of Kelantan receives plenty of flak from the media. But what is life really like there?

The fragrant aroma of ayam percik wafted through the air as my friend, Kuen, and I strolled around Medan Selera Buluh Kubu, an open-air eating square smack in the middle of Kota Baru.

The huge array of Kelantanese delicacies on sale was mind-boggling – nasi kerabu, laksam, satar (fish paste wrapped in banana leaves) and mouth-watering kuih (local cakes). After some frenzied buys, we ordered some drinks and chowed down at one of the food stalls.

Suddenly, a guy armed with a loud hailer strode into the food centre and announced in Malay: “Please leave the area immediately. Muslims have to perform their prayers.”

We later found out that during Maghrib (evening prayer), all Muslims are supposed to be praying, hence no business transaction can take place.

Maya Karin in tudung on a billboard — only in Kelantan.
Some hawkers covered their food with plastic sheets and walked towards the mosque while a few ladies just hung around their stalls.

We wrapped up our half-eaten food, scurried out of the square and waited for the place to re-open 30 minutes later.

As a couple of unsuspecting tourists strolled into the now-deserted Medan, the loud hailer guy yelled: “Please get out! This place is closed!”

Kelantan, with its capricious PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) government, is notorious for initiating controversial rulings since the party took over the state 17 years ago.

Entertainment spots like bars, dance clubs and karaoke joints and concerts, gambling and alcohol are banned. Even traditional performing arts like wayang kulit and mak yong are deemed un-Islamic.

Female retail and restaurant workers have to follow strict dress codes – the headscarf is mandatory for Muslims and cleavage and navel-baring clothing is a no-no for non-Muslims, too.

At supermarkets, men and women use separate checkout counters, and cinemas have a lights-on ruling to prevent “unsavoury” activities between the sexes.

In reality

But over three visits to Kelantan in the last six months, this writer found a few surprises.

The Medan Selera incident was an eye-opener but it was an isolated case. Other restaurants and eating places around Kota Baru don’t suspend their business during Maghrib.

Non-Muslims can still drink beer at hotel bars or Chinese coffee shops and restaurants. And if you really need to dance the night away or sing your heart out at a karaoke joint, you can head to Sg Golok, a 20-minute drive from Kota Baru across the Thai border.

Supermarkets still have separate checkout counters but we do see men standing at the “women-only” counters so there’s no enforcement. All cinemas are closed (a common phenomenon in small towns since the proliferation of pirated DVDs and VCDs), hence the lights-on ruling doesn’t apply anymore.

The Kelantanese are proud of their dialect.
As for dress codes, we did see some female stall owners wearing fitting jeans and a few without the tudung (headscarf). Outside of the workplace, Muslim women can choose not to wear a headscarf. At the Grand River View Hotel where I stayed, some Chinese ladies attending a wedding banquet were clad in sexy, short dresses and stiletto heels.

PAS has also “relaxed” the ban on some of the traditional performing arts like wayang kulit (shadow puppet play). Visitors and locals alike can catch performances at Kota Baru’s Gelanggang Seni (Cultural Centre) though the stories have to be based on real-life than the Hindu epics.

Chinese tok dalang (master puppeteer) like Eyo Hock Seng of the Pasir Mas district, are exempted from the rule and still play to jam-packed crowds of Chinese and Malay people during kenduri (feasts) and Chinese celebrations.

Last year, the state lifted a 16-year ban on pop concerts by inviting celebrities like Mawi, M.Nasir and Aishah to perform to sell-out crowds. Aishah and four other female performers regaled 3,000 fans at a female-only concert while Mawi and his gang sent the 15,000 concert-goers into a frenzy, never mind that male and female audiences had to be segregated while families sat together.

‘Bangsa Malaysia’ ?

Where else in Malaysia can you find Malays and Chinese mingling in Chinese coffee shops?

At the White House kopitiam next to Istana Jahar, Malay and Chinese patrons sip thick Hainanese coffee, enjoy kaya and butter on toast, and tuck into nasi berlauk and nasi dagang for breakfast. At a popular Malay restaurant below the Craft Museum, we saw Malay and Chinese locals relishing their nasi ulam budu (rice with raw vegetables and fermented anchovy sauce).

The Chinese in Kelantan are a unique breed. Though they only make up about 4% of the 1.2 million population, they are well integrated with their Malay neighbours. In the rural areas especially, it’s common to find Chinese villages tucked amid Malay kampung. The Chinese speak fluent Kelantanese and a distinctive Hokkien dialect, sprinkled with Malay and Thai words.

Like their Malay neighbours, the Chinese love traditional Malay pastimes like kite-flying, top-spinning, dikir barat and wayang kulit. The older generation of Chinese and Malays, especially, forge life-long friendships. And when they are out of the state or the country, they proudly identify themselves as Kelantanese.

On the last night of our stay, as we drove from Pantai Cahaya Bulan back to Kota Baru, we passed Kampung Cina. Families and kids dressed in their finery strolled into a Chinese temple adorned with strings of red lanterns.

It was the night before Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and the 227-year-old Tokong Mek was hosting a two-night festivity.

Worshippers lit joss-ticks, prayed to the Gods and savoured free vegetarian fare served by temple volunteers. Festival-goers checked out the stalls peddling Chinese cakes and goodies outside the temple.

Across from the temple in a community hall, four female dancers clad in mini dresses and knee-high boots entertained the crowd with upbeat Chinese New Year songs sung in Hokkien.

Long chastised by friends as the most “un-Chinese” person they know, I don’t pray and would never think of setting foot in a Chinese temple during festive occasions.

But in Kelantan – of all places – Kuen and I joined in the revelry. We were reminded of a proud tradition that has made us who we are today.

6 Responses
  1. I found your blog in google providing good Information. you can also view some Travel Information from My Site


  2. Chrisyh Lee Says:

    thank you eric for leving a comment here..(",)

  3. merapuman Says:

    maya looks prettier in tudung.

  4. Spinach Says:

    feel very proud to be kelantanese..
    keep up good work..
    well done to admin.. :)

  5. spideress Says:

    This is very informative i shall add this destination to my travel wish list.

  6. apok Says:

    the directory sign in the airport was made up using some photo editing software or something. I have seen this picture floating around the net since like forever. Yes we are proud of our dialect but not to the extent of putting improper language on the sign board. Peace out =)

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