Kota Bharu (Part 1)

Kota Bharu means “New Castle” so quite rightly, it’s located in the northeast of the country. We booked a taxi to drive us to our hotel. Yes, a hotel because there is no Airbnb coverage in this area.

And how excited were we to find we’re in the Executive Wing of the Hotel. Until, that is, studying the emergency evacuation plan, we find that the whole whole place is the Executive Wing.

Prayer mat and anti-theft sign

Kota Bharu is 93% Muslim with a smattering of Chinese and Thai people. And the main employment seems to be Standing Around, although, to be fair, one hotel in a northern town isn’t a scientific sample. One man opened the door for us, one man carried our bags up to the room. Every time we left or reentered the hotel, someone would open the door for us. I could do that job.

Street food: you just rock up to the vendor, say what you want, pay for it, wait for it, take it away and eat it, right? Oh no, not at this hotel. As well as its five in-house restaurants, they’re selling various kinds of street food for a few evenings. We only wanted ice-cream, easy. We went to the payment counter where we ticked the relevant box on the order form. The clerk took this form, picked up a yellow ticket (the ice-cream roll one) and told us how much it would cost. We paid. He then asked for a name which he wrote on both the order form and on our yellow ticket. What a palaver. We presented the ticket to the young lady at the ice-cream stall. While we waited for the ice-cream to be made, we were being looked at. We were the only white people here, staff and customers included. The ice-cream was freshly made. Young lady number 2 poured some cream into the freezing pan. Like a frying pan, only instead of frying stuff, it froze it. She added strawberries, blueberries and a few slices of banana. She chopped the whole lot together with a straight blade and as it cooled, it began to stick to the bottom of the pan. When it was completely mixed and frozen, she scraped it off the bottom and it rolled up into coils. Ice-cream rolls. This was placed into a pot, where young lady number 1 added more fruit and an Oreo biscuit, a couple of chocolate roll biscuits and, unfortunately, some marshmallows.

Ice-cream rolls

What a great dessert that was, well worth waiting for. And more expensive than our first course had been, at a Roti Canai place just round the corner from the hotel.

Roti Canai shack

It doesn’t look much from the outside but this little shack delivered the best roti with a couple of dipping sauces that we could have asked for, and just a two-minute walk away. The roti are made by a couple of young guys and it seems they employ their Mums too: one was peeling the onions and the other was peeling bananas.

We’re on the seventh floor of the hotel and the view from our window, and in any direction is nothing special. But at least we haven’t seen any bonfires or bin fires on the streets, yet.

Sunset behind a Tolworth Tower lookalike

Breakfast was huge, almost too much choice, so we just kept going until we stopped. Eggs, toast, fresh fruit, cereal, pastries, tea, coffee, juice, not to mention the Asian food. There were many young ladies working, topping up the pans and pots of food, clearing the tables, cooking the eggs and doing a great job, smiling and happy to be there. They were, unnecessarily, being kept in check by two 1920s gangsters in very important black suits, two sizes too big.

We walked out into the heat of the day to the visitor information place, where we met Roselan. We didn’t realise it was him at first, but he is featured in the Lonely Planet Guide.

It was indeed hot, after the coolness of Fraser’s Hill, so we decided it would be a museum day.

Two of the green domes above the bazaar

As I was taking a picture of the bazaar, Liesel thought I would be arrested for taking a picture of the police station. Well, I wasn’t, and I wasn’t. But I was careful not to brandish my camera at anything or anyone remotely official.

First, nearly next door to the information office, was the State Museum. It was closed for a few days while they install a new exhibit. The lady who told us this was sitting at a desk, outside. That’s a job I couldn’t do.

Let’s try the Customs and Cermonies Museum. It was a cheap entry fee, RM2 for locals and RM4 for ‘foreigners’. Well, from my point of view, you’re the foreigners, but I didn’t say that out loud.

Royal barge

The Royal Barge is made of teak, dates from the 1900s, accommodates up to ten people and still looks usable. Some of the other vessels had big holes.

It seems that in olden times, they’d use any excuse to have a big celebration: birthday, engagement, marriage, circumcision, birth, funeral, even being 7 months pregnant. The original 24-hour party people.

Royal carriage

This carriage was used during the 52nd birthday celebrations of His Royal Highness Sultan Ismail Petra.

Can you imagine a fight between two bulls which, if they’re fairly equally matched, can last forty minutes or more? That’s Malay bull fighting. The arena, or ‘bong’, is the size of a football field. We can see the Sultan Muhammad IV Stadium from our hotel. It has floodlights and the field is marked out for football, soccer, so I hope that’s all we see, if anything.

Levitation is easy (when you’re a cardboard cutout)

The spiral staircases are a work of art in their own right.

Spiral staircase just like the one at home
Treasure chest half full of old coins
A happy couple at their nuptials

The Royal Museum really does celebrate the royal family. Many, many portraits, going back several generations.

There was a family tree but in Arabic, I think, so I couldn’t read the text. But, if it follows the conventions of a western family tree, someone gave birth to 25 children and a few generations later, someone had 24.

This plaque gives a brief history. It’s interesting to see there’s been some form of monarchy in the region for over 2000 years. Also interesting to see that the King of Malaysia, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is elected every five years from all eligible Sultans.

Royal history
Yang di-Pertuan Agong XV, Sultan Muhammad V, December 2016-December 2021

We live in more enlightened times now, and I like to think that no more elephant’s tusks will be taken and decorated in this way.

The tusk was prettier on the elephant

These vases are very decorative too, and it was a relief to leave the room without tripping over and falling onto them.

The Five Vases (not the 1960s pop group)

There is a finite amount of time you can spend walking slowly round a museum, or two, so we decided to go to a big shopping centre, just a Grab cab ride away.

My phone’s been complaining about running out of storage recently. 128 GB seemed a lot when I bought the phone. So I’ve been diligently deleting duplicate photos, rubbish photos, excess videos, trying to recover storage space. But I decided the best solution would be to buy an SD card and move lots of stuff onto it.

Needless to say, I purchased the wrong thing today. I need a microSD card, not just an SD card.

But the shopping mall provides plenty of entertainment. You are expected to leapfrog over a bollard if you want to use the escalator.

Bollards to escalators

Neither Liesel nor I came a cropper, thank goodness. We stopped for a coffee and I was delighted with my jalapeño bagel with cream cheese, the first since Alaska, I think.

After another (too) big breakfast, as arranged, Roselan picked us up for a quick tour. I thought he’d be driving, himself, but instead, Suri drove us. Roselan’s English is obviously better than our Malay. He even throws in colloquialisms such as “lovely, jubbly” and “alright, love?”

We passed by some rice fields, highly irrigated, but Roselan says he prefers Thai rice, it’s softer.

The first temple, Wat Phothivihan, features The Reclining Buddha.

Reclining Buddha

Its Thai style is different to Buddhas we’ve seen in other places, even here in Malaysia.

A bird in the hand…

Underneath is a crypt, a gathering point for remembering lost souls. The ashes are stored in jars, each one set into a numbered shrine. Some are bare, some are very well attired with incense, flowers, other artefacts. It was a moving place, yet celebratory.

One ‘locker’ in particular, for that is what they look like, stood out. He was a young man, the photo was from his graduation ceremony. I wondered whether he was a mathematician? Why else choose number 1024, 2¹⁰, surrounded by empty, unused tombs?

Amongst the many other statues, we did like the Buddha being protected by snakes.

Naga snake Buddha

And we like the big belly bloke too, even if the birds don’t. He’s still laughing.

Laughing Buddha

Wat Machimmaram has a big Buddha sitting on the roof. He has the largest known dharma wheel on his chest. Apparently, you can climb up inside, but today the doors were locked, and I’d forgotten to bring boltcutters.

Sitting Buddha

We don’t know how many tiles are needed to make a Buddha, but this really was a labour of love.

Place piles of tiles with smiles

Most temples have smaller shrines in the grounds, and this was no exception. Any one of them would be worth visiting in its own right. Conversely, some of the artwork was quite disturbing, images you wouldn’t normally associate with Buddhism and its message of peace and harmony.

If I were going to ride an elephant, I’d sit on it backwards, too

These temples are in Tumpat, a small town just south of the Thai border. So of course, we had to go and at least look at Thailand, even if we’re not visiting on this occasion.

The market by the river is a Duty Free Zone, and there’s a thriving trade.

Under my umb-er-ella, ella, ella

Roselan took us right through the customs office, he knows the right people, right up to the barbed wire that prevented us from jumping into the Golok river and swimming across. Looking down, Liesel spotted this lizard.


On the Thai side, there is an equivalent market. Ferries operate every half hour or so. There’s a fishery just along the river bank but luckily, the wind was in the right direction.

Waving at Thailand

And so onto the third temple of the day. Wat Maisuwankiri. It was here that we found a tiger, standing guard.


We’ve reclined, we’ve sat, now we’re standing. And this Buddha is a female, just to add to the confusion.

Standing Buddha

There’s a lot to see inside too: I think we saved the best until last.

Dining chairs just like ours at home

One thing we didn’t need to see was the preserved body of a former abbot. We told ourselves it was a waxwork model. Yes, what we saw was wax, we missed the actual dead body.

Part of a load-bearing pillar

Outside, the famous dragon boat is protected by the largest, longest dragon we’ve ever come across. The dragon boat’s dragon head made me smile, bringing back memories of the Ice Dragon from Noggin the Nog stories.

Here be dragons

The donation box was designed to accept coins but I forced a bent banknote into it. I thought about my lost loved ones and lit incense sticks for my Mum and Dad and Sarah.

Another Naga snake Buddha

All of the temples we visited were populated by the saddest looking stray dogs you could imagine. Some had had babies, they may have had rabies and they definitely had scabies. They just wandered around the grounds, looking sad, looking for food, but otherwise, not interested in the world. We needn’t have worried about leaving our sandals outside the temples: these dogs had no interest in walking off with them.

Although Roselan had said at each point to take as long as we needed, we judged it just right. He dropped us off at the hotel at 12:30, perfect timing for his midday prayers at 1:20pm.

We’d driven over the bridge again, across the Kelantan River that gives the state its name. Or vice versa. The runny chocolate milkshake, that’s what it looked like, was flowing slowly. It usually floods up to the level of the bridge during the monsoon season, but sometimes, the floods are even higher.

Kelantan River

Hard to believe, then, that people live in houses, or shacks, right down by the water’s edge.

I volunteered to go back to the shopping mall alone to (try to) buy the correct memory card for my phone. And as a bonus, for the first time in a while, I took a photo inside a toilet. Another little rule to live by.

Flush, flush, flush again

And yes, I found a 128GB microSDXYZ bla bla bla card. There was also was a rare opportunity to see a rhinoceros in the wild. Well, an electric rhinoceros in a shopping centre.

Rhinoceros and beautiful family

This lady said it was OK to take the photos of her and her children, so what a shame they’re not very good pictures. Other motorised sit-upons were available too and I’m sorry Liesel missed out on the rides.

Author: mickandlieselsantics

We are a married couple, one American, one Brit, one male, one female, neither of us as fit as we would like to be, well over 100 years old altogether.

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