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A trove of delights

Brian Francis travels to the land of lightning - Kelantan

My recent trip to Kota Bahru in Kelantan began with a 12-hour coach ride that was physically draining. The plush reclining seats didn't help much and the air-conditioning was on full blast. I was huddling in my seat trying to keep warm. The only thing on my mind was my wife, food, sleep, food, a hot bath and food. Now I know how a penguin feels. The pit stops gave me a chance to thaw and chat with the guide that came along. It was the only way I could prepare myself in a city I have not visited before. By daybreak when we reached the hotel, I already knew a fair bit of Kelantan and Kota Bahru. I was ready for war.

We arrived at the hotel at 9.30 in the morning (we left Singapore at 8.30 the night before) and sleep was so far gone, the only thing on my mind was food. With breakfast out of the way, my next battle was to take in as many sights as I possibly could in the five days that I had. The 11 other people I was with, felt the same way.

Of beating drums and spinning tops

Our heavily packed itinerary began with a cultural exhibition of top spinning, silat (Malay traditional martial arts) and the rebana ubi (Malay drum). We were fortunate enough to actually take part in the silat and rebana ubi, which I must say was indeed a learning experience.

The rebana ubi were these humongous drums with two people on each side beating it. The smaller drums are the bongo lookalikes. Hey, these guys deserve praise; the drums aren't easy to beat.

The top spinning was truly an art form. The top or gasing, as it is more commonly known is spun using a thick rope. Two men work in unison to successfully spin the top. This top isn't easy to lug around let alone spin. It weighs over 2kgs. The 'thrower' flings it onto a small wooden platform while the 'catcher' tries to balance it on a wooden spatula. I can't even balance an egg on a spoon.

Colours of the wind

Another highlight we were fortunate to witness was the kite making and flying. The design is drawn free hand onto a sheet of paper. Bright vibrant colours are used and adding to the design are tassels and frills. These airborne beauties take flight in October during the kite flying competitions.

When the sun goes down on Kelantan, the wayang kulit makes its appearance to waiting audiences. Wayang kulit is a puppet show performed behind a white screen. Lights are used to provide a silhouette effect and the show is funny, entertaining and for someone who does not know the history and culture of the land, this can be quite educational. What gave this wayang kulit 'life' was the colour and the realistic and somewhat morbid.

Museums abound

The one thing that Kota Bahru has plenty of is museums. In a city of 1.4m people, Kota Bahru has six museums. The War Memorial Museum was the most interesting. It told of the role Malaysia played in bringing down the Japanese and how their forefathers suffered. This brought back warm memories of when I was a little boy and my grandmother relating her experiences of the Japanese occupation.

The next museum we visited was the Royal Museum. It's not everyday you get to see how royalty live. The entire museum showcased a day in the life of the royal family. The museum features the marriage, birth and the coming of age and the different rites that were performed. Outside the City Square stood a massive monument paid for and erected by the people of Kelantan. This was the form of an arch. The Sultan Ismail Petra Arch seemed like it was reaching into the clouds and it was truly mesmerising.

The City Square was also the place for shopping and although the prices were the cheapest I've ever seen in Malaysia, there wasn't much to buy except for Batik, which was one of their main exports. We visited one of the biggest batik factories in Malaysia and were shown how batik is made coloured and processed.

Beach of melody

Our next stop was Pantai Irama or the Beach of Melody. This is located 25km south of Kota Bahru and one of the most beautiful beaches around. The white sands and blue waters seemed to be beckoning us. Shaded by tall casuarina trees, the provides an ideal haven for picnickers and campers.

The Pantai Bisikan Bayu meaning 'Beach of the Whispering Breeze' is another beach located at the Pasir Puteh (white sands) district. This beach is 50km from the heart of Kota Bahru and the breathtaking sight is truly magnificent.

Renaissance Man

With the blazing hot sun and a busy program, a long soak in a tub was foremost on my mind and the hotel we were staying at provided just that. The 298-room hotel is the tallest and the only International property in Kelantan. Situated right in the heart of Kota Bahru's business district, the Renaissance offers leisure and business travellers a home away from home.

Managed by the JW Marriott Group, the Renaissance has all the modern amenities of a world class hotel, a reputation they have so proudly earned. Swimming pool, tennis courts, gym and a cigar bar are all the trimmings to tempt even the most demanding traveller. So if you like to be pampered, the Renaissance is definitely the hotel for you.

The Thai border is 45 minutes from the Renaissance and the heart of Kota Bahru and this is where most of the Kelantanese shop. Even the hotel staff crosses the border on their off days. The usual stuff like food, bars and fake branded goods are normal purchase items.

There are many alternatives in getting to Kota Bahru. If you're planning to fly, Kelantan does not have an International airport. You need to catch a domestic from KL's Subang airport. The flight from KL is about 45 minutes. The train from Singapore takes approximately 12 hours. This is a more comfortable option as the train provides sleeping berths. Driving will take less than 12 hors but you need more than one driver. The drive can be really tiring. And of course, you can bus all the way to Kelantan and Kota Bahru. This mode of travel allows you to get up close and personal to see grazing cows, padi fields, rubber plantations, chilli fields and cluster houses that get their water from wells. This is actually the best way to see Kelantan.

If you're thinking of a trip that is a little different from the one's you've been going on, give thought to Kota Bahru. The warm friendly people, the colourful history and Old World charm will provide a memorable stay. And no where else will offer you service fit for a king except the Renaissance Kota Bahru.

Published on 9/21/01

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