Kota Bharu is a fairly quiet Islamic city in North-Eastern Peninsular Malaysia. It is the capital and royal seat of the Kelantan State. Each Malaysian State has a Sultan or King at the head of state, although many of the positions are simply honorary. The city streets are clean, colorful and hot! Kota Bharu doesn’t feel like a traditional tourist city, because it is more of a place in-between on the way to the splendid Perhentian Islands. Therefore it is a great place to indulge in some local Malay culture & cuisine.
Sights to see in Kota Bharu
- Getting to Kota Bharu (Jump To)
- Siti Khadijah Wet Market (Jump To)
- Dataran Ilma Night Market (Jump To)
- Kota Bharu Museums (Jump To)
- Local Beaches (Jump To)
Getting to Kota Bharu
On March 24th, I took the local bus from Kuala Besut through the countryside to the city center. The bus ride was enjoyable and exactly what I had imagined it to be. The seats a little worn out, the frame a little rickety and the few stops were at the restaurants and other roadside businesses along the way. The rural life of local Malaysians is not the glamour of Kuala Lumpur, but rather something more humble and authentic!
Kota Bharu is a large urban center and is therefore well-connected to the other large cities in Malaysia and Singapore. The most important thing to know is ‘Langgar bus station or Tesco Station’ for long-distance buses and ‘Central Bus Station or Terminal Kota Bharu’ for long-distance and local buses. Little confusing right? Terminal Kota Bharu is the main station, but you could be dropped off at the other, so ask and double-check your tickets.
I recommend Redbus for bus travel in Malaysia and Singapore as it is often the cheapest (not a sponsor, they just have good discounts). If you can buy in advance at the station, you will save the service fee, however I wouldn’t leave the buses to Georgetown, Penang last-minute as it only runs twice a day at 9:30 am and 10 pm. You can reverse these destinations to travel from KL or Penang.
Traveling To Kuala Lumpur
- Depart from Langgar Station or Central Station leaving at (09:15 AM, 10:10 AM, 10:28 AM, 01:55 PM, 09:15 PM, 09:58 PM, 10:15 PM, 10:30 PM)
- Arrive at Selangor (Putrajaya Sentral) or TBS in Kuala Lumpur (Terminal Bersepadu Selatan) depending on the bus company 9+ hour trip
Traveling To Georgetown or Butterworth (Ferry ride from Penang)
- Depart from Langgar Station or Central. One bus leaves in the morning and one at night. Check your times!
- Arrive at Georgetown, Penang (Sungai Nibong Station) or Butterworth Station, a short walk from the ferry you can take to Penang. 6+ hour trip, so I recommend the morning bus from Kota Bharu.
Siti Khadijah (Wet) Market
One of the more famous attractions of Kota Bharu is the wet market. The market is famous for its colourful painted walls and canopies but earned it’s nickname for the fishy wet slop that fills the market gutters. Kota Bharu is along the river but only a short drive from the sea where fisherman bring in catch year round, naturally the fish was fresh! The fruit not so fresh by the end of the day, so go early!
The first floor sells fish, chicken, and vegetables in the center while the outer ring is home to the fruit, vegetables and baked goods stalls! The mini cupcakes and donuts are delicious! The second floor sells spices, pasta and other dry goods. Finally, textiles, accessories and bags can be found on the third floor. My priority was the second floor of the outer ring, the food court and potential location of the elusive Nasi Lemak (Recipe)! With little help from locals, I found one of two remaining Nasi Lemak wrapped in a banana leaf!
Dataran Ilma Night Market
Whether you are running around all day visiting museums or just passing through for the night, the locals have an evening food market to satisfy the late night hunger. The stalls serve a variety of rice dishes, grilled meats, smoothies, curry puffs and my favourite: Murtabak, a spiced beef roti turnover! Although, I totally cheated and got the banana stuffed Murtabak, (same name without beef)? which is closer to a banana pancake than the authentic recipe.
Kota Bharu Museums
Kota Bharu is home to many small museums, unfortunately most of them were closed (3:30pm closed) for prayers when I arrived. For the Royal Museum, Islamic Museum, War Museum, and Jahar Palace, check out the hours of operations as they may be unconventional.
Kelantan State Museum
I visited the Kelantan State museum which showcased art from a local artist and some of the region’s cultural arts & games. The museum was quite small and a little underwhelming, probably because Kelantan is a small state. But it offered some interesting insight into traditional Malaysian pass-times. Listed below.
- Kertok: An old xylophone instrument played in a traditional Malaysian style.
- Gasing – Top Spinning: Is a traditional game popular in Kelantan. Adults and children spin tops as a game and test of skill, traditionally the native Malay villagers believed the spinning tops would help bring a good harvest.
- Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppets): Is the Malaysian shadow play art. The shadow plays usually involve some mythical or moral theme and serve as an important educational tool. The puppets are traditionally made with leather and buffalo horn while the cotton screen was illuminated by oil lamps.
- Menora Dancing: A traditional dance popular in northern peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand. The dance has a main character and tells a story of the legends of Manohara, tales of Buddhist origins.
- Wau Bulan: Traditional intricately designed moon-shaped kite that is one of Malaysia’s national symbols and normally flown by men in the state of Kelantan.
Beach, BBQ and Beers
Mat, the owner of Timur Guesthouse totally made my stay in Kota Bharu an awesome experience! His Hostel is super chill with a great fun lounge to watch movies, play cards (spades & big 2) and get out of the tropical heat. On my last day in Kota Bharu, Mat invited myself and other guests to join him and his local friends at the beach for a BBQ and a few drinks. Late in the afternoon we hopped in their car and headed to the beach, it was really dirty which was truly such a shame because it was beautiful otherwise. As the sun set and the bonfire came ablaze, casting shadows across the sand, we dined on homemade pasta, grilled hotdogs and washed it down with Singha beer!
Thanks Mat for making my time in Kota Bharu really great! And thanks to Danielle and Grant for teaching me how to play spades and for the fun times at the markets! I hope you enjoyed your workaway in the Perhentian Islands! Kota Bharu is not the glamorous destination like Georgetown or Kuala Lumpur, but if you have the time and want to experience a little more of the history and culture of Malaysia, I certainly recommend spending a few days exploring the city and nearby beaches.