Kuala Lumpur and Kota Bharu are both cities in Malaysia and both start with K. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. While the sprawling federal capital proudly boasts two of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, the folks in Kota Bharu would rather have you visit their modest one-storey museum, the one displaying the bed chambers of the Sultan and his family. If cities can be typified by the way their people get around, KL is a long black Mercedes limo while KB is a trishaw powered by the legs of a strong old man with a weathered face and an easy, gap-toothed smile.

With a population of just over 200,000, Kota Bharu is hardly a metropolis.  Located 474 kilometres northeast of KL on the Kelantan River near the Thai border,  Kota Bharu gives you the sense of what Asian cities must have looked like 70 years ago, in the charming ramshackle days before skyscrapers and Big Macs. 

Close by is the cultural district that includes the Sultan’s palace, several low-key but worthwhile museums and Merdeka Square, built just after World War One as a memorial to the slaughtered of the Western Front. 

Kota Bharu is the only city of any consequence in the otherwise quite rural state of Kelantan. Home to around 950,000 people, some 94% of whom are ethnic Malays,  Kelantan is the nation’s link with its history and tradition.  The devotion of its people to Islam is unsurpassed anywhere in Malaysia.  Very much a part of that devotion is the utter warmth and kindness from everyone you meet.

Street scene, Kota Bharu

“We cherish soft and gentle manners,” one man told me.  “That is the way of Kelantan people.

But it hasn’t always been peace and gentility here.

When the Japanese Imperial Army generously allowed Malaya to join their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere back in December of 1941, it was Kelantan where the Emperor’s cruise liners first called in to disgorge a few divisions of infantry and make the invitation official.   The unopposed landing at Pantai Dasar Sabak came just hours before the Imperial air assault on far-off Pearl Harbor, making it the first military action of the 1941 Pacific War.

When the course of the war turned not necessarily to the empire’s advantage, Japan withdrew its diminishing forces from Kelantan and left it to the neighbouring Thais to occupy the state from 1943-45.  There was nothing new in this.  For a time in the 19th century, the Thais had also controlled the sultanate, much to the disgust of the proud Malay population. 

At two sites near the border, that Thai legacy stands out in startling contrast to the rest of Kelantan.

With Roselan, a friend from the information bureau in KB, I drove through dense bush to a clearing to Wat Phothivihan.

Pretty much in the middle of nowhere stood, or rather reclined, an immense statue of Buddha measuring some 40 metres from head to sandals. Apart from a Swiss couple, I was alone with what is said to be the largest statue of its kind in South East Asia. 

Wat Phothivihan near Kota Bharu

We drove on a few kilometres to another Thai holy site, a stunningly ornate temple in the shape of a huge boat.  Immense carved snakes wrapped themselves around the temple’s golden prow, which was set in a long oval-shaped pond festooned with water lilies.  I made my way on board the temple and discovered several glistening Buddhas, each serenely seated cross-legged.  Next to the largest icon were mounds of carefully arranged flowers and flickering candles that softly illuminated walls covered with decorative figures.  Inside the temple it was silent, still and cool.   The effect was sublime.

The next day we drove eight kilometres north of KB to Pantai Cinta Berahi, literally “the beach of passionate love”.   This long and featureless beach was fringed with casuarina trees and on it was just one family, whose female members were demurely robed from head to toe.  Not much passion on display here but in conservative Kelantan that’s no surprise.  Earlier, in the city, I had watched with some amusement as a teenage boy sitting on a park bench with his girlfriend took at least half an hour to edge close enough to put his arm briefly around her shoulder.  Suddenly from around the corner came a Muslim cleric who spotted the couple and gave them a stare loaded with daggers.  Instantly the lad removed the offending limb, retreated back along the bench and lowered his head in shame.  Another moral crisis averted in Kelantan.

Sleepy Kelantan becomes a lot less soporific in August when Kota Bharu hosts the state’s annual cultural festival.  Nowhere else in Malaysia will you find so many expert kite makers, top spinners, silver and goldsmiths,  wood carvers or drummers.   The latter are especially talented.  When Roselan literally pushed me up on stage to set the beat for the drummers’ final number, I decided to get cute.  Mustering all my limited jazz rhythmic skills, I beat out a fairly convincing 5/4 tempo to Paul Desmond’s hit tune Take Five.  Not only did the drummers pick up the unusual time signature instantly, they were soon enriching it, creating dense, complex polyrhythms that emphatically put my feeble efforts to shame.

“To understand Kelantan you must get away from the city and see how the rural people live,” Roselan told me. 

Our first stop was a coastal village where thousands of tiny silver fish were layed out in the sun drying.  Demurely clothed in dark robes, pairs of women gathered up the dry fish and carried them in baskets to be ground up for flavouring.  A few kilometres away, I stopped the car to watch a woman use a long pole to knock dark red rambutan fruit from the highest branches of her family’s trees.  After I photographed her efforts, she insisted that we take some of the juicy and delicious fruit with us for the journey.   It was just one of innumerable acts of kindness I was to experience in this place.