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Kota Bharu: Why You Should Visit This Charming Malaysian Town, contributed by Jub who blogs at Tiki Touring Kiwi, is the seventh small town expose in the series Small Town Explorer. You can find Jub’s bio and social media links at the end of this post.
The villages and towns we visit in our travels are often the hidden gems of a country or region. In this series readers are introduced to small centers around the globe, from travel bloggers who have experienced the location firsthand; featuring their uniqueness, their history, what to see and do, and often where to stay and where to dine.
Previous towns featured in the series:
“Where are you going next?”
“Where is that?”
That happened multiple times in the Cameron Highlands, my destination before travelling to Kota Bharu. Most people were headed to the Perhentian Islands, Taman Negara, or Penang afterwards. Why was I going to Kota Bharu? Because:
- It’s a smaller city off the tourist trail
- It’s in the conservative north of the country
- I like going to random destinations
I came away from Kota Bharu quietly surprised. The two things I was most impressed by:
- The incredibly friendly people (who had some of the best smiles across the board)
- The best street art street I’ve visited
If you’re planning your trip to Malaysia, I wouldn’t make Kota Bharu a must visit city, but it is something to consider. No Malay has told me to visit Kota Bharu, let alone a tourist, so I’ll now be making an effort to mention Kota Bharu when chatting Malaysian travel destinations in the future.
The following is a guide of things to see, where to eat, and where I stayed in Kota Bharu.
Kota Bharu: Things To Do
- An Entire Street Of Street Art
There is street art throughout the city, but if you head to one spot (see below) you can see an entire street full of some of the best art I’ve seen (it’s better than the street in Ipoh). The painted carpet on the concrete was so life like I’d love to have that in my house one day. At one end of the street, the art reflected happiness and dreams but as I went to the other end there was some rather graphic art relating to politics and war. It was all so well done.
The Biggest Sitting Buddha In Malaysia
Buddha statue in a city where 93% of the population is Muslim? Yup. You’ll find the Wat Machimmaram temple on the main road heading north out of Kota Bharu towards the Thai border (hence the link to Buddhism). To get here catch bus No.27 from the Central Bus Station (2.60 RM each way). It’s a 440-minute bus ride each way, so if you’re templed out it’s a long way to go but is a cool spot nonetheless. When you’re inside the temple, be prepared for some graphic artwork depicting Buddhist Hell.
Kota Bharu: Museums
There are several museums in the city centre. I visited the Islamic Museum and for someone who isn’t a big fan of cultural museums was happy enough to see all the exhibits in 45 minutes. There wasn’t anything interactive but there is plenty of information to read (in Malay and English) about Islamic culture in Malaysia.
Other museums in Kota Bharu include:
- The Royal Museum (pictured above)
- Handicraft Village & Craft Museum
- Kelantan State Museum (free)
The entrance fees for international visitors is 4 RM for each except for Kelantan State Museum which is free.
Kota Bharu Central Market
This isn’t any ordinary market it turns out. It’s full of colour and most of the shop vendors are women. I loved looking out from the third floor down to the produce stalls below watching all of the activity. I got there at about 11 am on two days and the market was still busy with people passing through (it begins early in the morning).
Kota Bharu: Experience Performances at the Cultural Center
I was really looking forward too this. At 3.30pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday’s events are held at the Cultural Center to promote local traditions and activities. Turns out they don’t run the activities the week after Ramadan (while school holidays are still going on) so I missed out.
This blog post makes it look like a great time though. If you go, send me a story via Instagram of what you’re doing 🙂
Kota Bharu: Kelantan In The Malaysian Super League
I always like to watch a local football match when travelling. I got lucky that Kelantan FC was playing while I was in town and I’ll remember the match for all of the friendly people there. It took me forever to leave the pink and white stadium (a sponsor requested the colour scheme) with everyone wanting a selfie having chatted with several for the entire match. If you want to get chatting to locals, head to the football.
Kota Bharu: Where To Eat In Kota Bharu
As a vegetarian, I tend to seek stick to the same restaurants so for my five days in Kota Bharu I ate at these three spots (I cooked at the hostel sometimes).
The Main Open Air Night Market
From what I gather the night market I frequented was the main one in the city. It’s an open-air affair, with most of the stalls not opening before 7.30 pm. You’ll find many of the stands serving the same dishes (think rice and noodle-based dishes) but after taking a short walk around there was some variety for the adventurous eaters out there). I stuck to the Malay way and had Nasi Goreng Sayur (vegetable) for 4 RM every night while watching the World Cup on the TV’s they had set up.
Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/WXxDfpcaku12
Natural Vegetarian Food
Located a short walk from the street art street, this is a Chinese vegetarian restaurant set up like lots of others you’ll find in Malaysia. There is a set menu, but the buffet is where you want to be. It’s a self-serve system with lots of different dishes including several that are tofu based (side note: I give Malaysia the vote for the most varied ways of cooking tofu).
When it comes to paying they look at what you’ve got on your plate and determine an amount. On average I pay 6-7 RM for rice and three items on my plate. It’s a good size serving with good tasting food at an affordable price.
Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/EasirqmdkSP2
Vege Food Station
Same as above. Maybe slightly more expensive but just as good.
Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/XLaeirPUNmB2
Kota Bharu: Where To Stay In Kota Bharu
Most of those who come to Kota Bharu are only passing through for a night on the way south to the Perhentian Islands or north into Thailand. I spent four nights in the dormitory at KB Backpackers Lodge ( https://goo.gl/maps/VrqHdErmS5U2 ) which is in a central location with a super friendly and helpful owner. They also have private rooms available.
Kota Bharu is a conservative city that isn’t on the bucket list for the vast majority of people in Malaysia. It had a charm that I really liked on my visit, and would happily go back to visit. If you can squeeze it into your itinerary, you can enjoy two days exploring.
Jub is a kiwi traveller who got the travel bug in 2013 and hasn’t stopped. He tends to travel slowly, often returning to the same destination to see familiar faces. The one thing he wishes more people would do when they travel is to watch local sport, as he thinks the subculture is one of the most genuine experiences you can get. You can read his blog at TikiTouringKiwi.com or follow his Instagram adventures.