Last Days in Malaysia: Kota Bharu

On our way from Penang to Kota Bharu. Well seasoned travelers at this point.

On our way from Penang to Kota Bharu. Well seasoned travelers at this point.

While I adjust to life back at home, my days are sprinkled with such sweet memories of my family’s 10 months abroad. I must say, I feel proud. Naturally, it would be a travesty to not properly conclude this blog. Our epic chronicles would be left hanging, incongruous with the fact that the trip indeed ended and our lives are once again grounded, basically back to normal. Well, indeed it is a new normal.

It's great to be back home, enjoying family dinners on the porch.

It’s great to be back home, enjoying family dinners on the porch.

The final two weeks of our trip were too enjoyable to sit down and peck away at this damn thing. Frankly, Kota Bharu (Malaysia) was just too outrageously hot and the Perhenthian Islands too strikingly beautiful to stop and write. A better internet connection would have helped too. Our last two nights in Tokyo went by in a blink, as though it truly was a dream.

Wow, Tokyo! Did that even happen!?

Wow, Tokyo! Did that even happen!?

The result of my temporary abandonment of the blog during our final days is that more than a month quickly transpired, and I now find myself writing from an entirely different perspective than in the midst of traveling. Still, it has to be done. So here begins the final push, my last efforts to somehow portray the concluding weeks of our vast journey. From my cool, quiet kitchen in a lovely town called Boulder, I have nothing left to orchestrate in a far away land. So now it is time to just sit back and remember.

We stayed beside this gorgeous river in Kota Bharu. Lots of frogs and huge monitor lizards the size of beavers.

We stayed beside this gorgeous river in Kota Bharu. Lots of frogs and huge monitor lizards the size of beavers.

After our month in Penang, we spent a few nights on Malaysia’s opposite coast in a small city called Kota Bharu. We were on our way to the Perhenthian Islands, but it made sense to explore the area a bit since all along we have been into the merits of “slow travel.” We stayed at a Dutch, family owned bungalow-style operation, called Pasir Belanda, which was probably our best option in this fairly untouristed area. The kids loved the yard, with its tire swings and play tractor. Every night, we ate home cooked, traditional meals in the scorching courtyard of the neighbor’s. This kind Muslim family had a great old fashioned swing, a family of gorgeous cats, and loudly honking geese.

Even in the sweltering heat,  Mathilda could usually be found meandering around on Pasir Belanda's tractor.

Even in the sweltering heat, Mathilda could usually be found meandering around on Pasir Belanda’s tractor.

Pasir Belanda had a garage full of bikes we could rent, even Merle’s size, so we tooled around one day through the neighboring village roads, over small bridges and past agricultural fields. The few family rides we did on the trip as a whole shine as some of our best memories.

Merle leads us across a single lane village bridge.

We encountered some of the friendliest locals yet. Predominantly Muslim, the kindness of these folks rivaled the pervasive Burmese benevolence we cherished so dearly.
Throughout that ride, we also got a good taste of Malay traditional kampung (village) architecture. The simple wood frame cottages, featuring decorative trim and brightly painted doors and shutters was right up my alley. The house below is my Malay dream digs (if you just add powerful AC and a lap pool out back.)
Kota Bharu is worth a stop just for the cool market scene downtown. If you are a traditional market lover like me, KB will undoubtedly provide a feast for the senses.
The area is rather poor and less developed than other regions of Malaysia, and hence appeared quite different from Penang with its expat high rises and ornate Chinese temples. The upside to a place bypassed by tourism and development means that the two sprawling markets downtown that have remained unchanged for decades if not hundreds of years. Though a chain supermarket is across the street (the presence of which has directly contributed to the demise of traditional markets all over SE Asia), it’s shiny boxed products and uniform fruits and veggies have yet to sway many local shoppers. I loved seeing the old granny merchants in their chiffon head scarves and bright robes beside their piles of sweets for sale, gently gazing at us and the kids in bewilderment. Mathilda of course made a quick friend with a young girl who sold her bubbles. Watch out for the dripping fish and their guts– that floor was a veritable slip n’ slide!

Pasir Belanda set us up with a morning batik class at a nearby workshop, and surprisingly, this turned out to be one of Merle’s favorite activities of the whole trip. True batik is a painstaking process involving hot wax, mixing dyes and intricate skills that are passed down from generation to generation. I feel lucky we had the chance to learn more about this beautiful handicraft and support their work. The demand for these art forms is definitely dwindling as people opt for factory made clothing, an unfortunate trend worldwide.

Everyone hard at work at their batik fabric painting, all now treasured souvenirs.

In the final weeks as travelers, I definitely appreciated that we got the chance to experience culturally rich Kota Bharu. Our time there, though brief, confirmed why I love to travel: to connect with others and their reality, savor the difference, and simply sit back, absorb and enjoy.

Also found at Pasir Belanda, the ubiquitous plumeria flower followed us all the way from Hawaii through Malaysia.

The ubiquitous plumeria flower followed us all the way from Hawaii through Malaysia.


2 responses to “Last Days in Malaysia: Kota Bharu

  1. Hi. I’m writing to thank you for your blog. I happened upon it while researching and googling Kota Bharu after bookmarking it in my Lonely Planet guide. Your words confirmed for my husband and I that this was somewhere we wanted to visit during our trip. Kota Bharu became a highlight of our time in Malaysia. We stayed at Pasir Belanda and loved our stay there and experiencing kampung life. We had some very memorable encounters with the locals who were so warm and welcoming, our bike ride through the villages was outstanding, my cooking class with Sukini and her mum so much fun, the market was a feast for the senses and we loved the fact that we were off the usual well-worn tourist track. It confirmed for me the elements of travel I most enjoy – connecting with people who live so differently yet are so similar in many aspects, to be able to just ‘be’ amongst them as they go about their daily lives and, for a moment, to not feel like just another tourist.

    • Samantha,

      I cannot thank you enough for your message! It was such a pleasure to read. Suddenly, you inspired me to reminisce about that time 3 years ago. I forget sometimes that my blog is out there and am so flattered that you found it, read it, and appreciated it! Kota Bharu was a very interesting, lovely place. I just wish it was not so hot when we were there – almost unbearable! I am so happy I could contribute to your travels in some way – I love helping and sharing with others treasures that I have found. Did you visit anywhere else that you really enjoyed on that trip? I think about Ipoh a lot as another under-appreciated place. I too savor places that I feel a bit apart of the tourist crowd, and Ipoh fulfills that. Unfortunately so many of the world’s most beautiful places are also known by many, too many. Some sites are getting so overrun that limits may be put into place to curb damage. Probably a good thing. Because of the kids’ school now, we are limited to traveling on school holidays with everyone else… a different story than taking the year off and traveling at random times. Luckily, i am just now working out another little SE Asian jaunt from Jan to March next year (despite the jellyfish, pollution, dengue, and dangerous traffic!). Let me know if you ever come to Colorado, it would be wonderful to connect in person.
      Best Wishes and thanks again,

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