Discover the rich heritage and culinary gems of this sleepy capital city
Tucked away at the northeastern corner of Malaysia, the conservative state of Kelantan is replete with paddy fields, traditional fishing villages and breezy beaches. Look beyond its rustic surrounds, however, and one will discover a precious trove of Malay art forms – wayang kulit, mak yong and dikir barat – that have originated from this “cradle of Malay culture”, the heart of which is its capital city, Kota Bharu. Want to learn more about this rural peninsula? Hit up this virtual itinerary for a peek into Kelantanese culture, plus some suggestions of what to do once you’re travelling in the city itself.
11am: Get schooled on Kelantan cuisine
Pick up a copy of Bekwoh by award-winning Singaporean author Bryan Koh, who travelled Malaysia’s east coast to research the lesser known food cultures of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. Bekwoh offers a lowdown on traditional Kelantan dishes laksam (rice noodles with coconut fish gravy), anyone? – complete with recipes for those who want a ‘lil slice of the east coast at home.
While in Kota Bharu… Sample laksam at Kedai Kopi White House or load up on nasi berlauk (rice with fish or chicken curry) and roti titab (toasted bread with kaya and half boiled egg) at Kopitam Kita. Alternatively, head to the famous Kota Bharu market to pick up some wares.
1pm: Go on a digital cultural marathon
As the melting pot of Malay art, it’s not hard to see why Kelantan’s been dubbed the “cradle of Malay culture”. Recently introduced after a 28-year ban in the state last year, the Unesco-recognised mak yong is an ancient form of dance and drama with Hindu-Buddhism roots that involves dance, music, singing and storytelling. Other popular cultural performances include wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) and dikir barat (a style of Malay choral singing) – for more on these art forms, head here.
While in Kota Bharu… Stop by Gelanggang Seni, the city’s cultural center, and check out cultural events featuring traditional art, dance and martial arts, or catch a wayang kulit performance at Kelantan Malay Traditional Shadow Play Gallery, a 15-minute drive from Kota Bharu.
4pm: Update your wardrobe with stylish batik fashion
Malaysian batik, which typically features motifs such as leaves and flowers, is a popular textile art in the country’s east coast. Add a dose of batik to your wardrobe and support local communities by purchasing apparel, souvenirs and even reusable face masks from Batik Boutique. The KL-based fashion label and social enterprise sources its handmade batik from across Malaysia, including artisans from Kota Bharu.
While in Kota Bharu… Sign up for a guided tour of the city, which includes a visit to a textile factory where visitors can observe how local women produce batik and songkret, a handwoven fabric embroidered with gold or silver threads.
5pm: Feast on a homecooked, Kelantan-inspired spread
You don’t have to be an expert in the kitchen to whip up authentic Kelantan dishes. Bookmark simplified versions of nasi goreng ulam (fried rice mixed with shredded herbs) and ikan percik (fish marinated in turmeric, spices and coconut milk) by local home cook Atiqah Nik Ghazali, who shared her own rendition of her family’s heirloom recipes with Malaysian broadsheet, The Star.
While in Kota Bharu… For a real Kelantanese feast, snag a table at Restoran Nasi Ulam Cikgu, which specialises in homestyle dishes served with budu, a fermented sauce made of anchovies and herbs.
7pm: Round off the day with a critically acclaimed action film
First timers to Kota Bharu will be surprised to learn of the absence of cinemas in the city (and the state). However, movie buffs can still rent made-in-Kelantan films on Amazon – we recommend Bunohan, a widely acclaimed thriller chronicling the trials and tribulations of three estranged brothers and their ailing father. Filmed in Kelantan and featuring the unique Kelantanese dialect, Bunohan won eight awards at the 25th Malaysian Film Festival in 2012.