Tag Archives: Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu to Sungai Petani 22 September – 13 October

In what seems to be becoming something of a habit of late we’ve been doing relatively little pedalling and rather a lot of lazing around, snorkelling and diving. It’s a hard life! We made amends in the last few days though by taking a route across the mountains that form the spine of Peninsular Malaysia. Despite having spent several months in the tropics it turns out that we (OK, me – Tamar) still can’t handle the heat when called upon to exert ourselves and consequently we’re extremely pleased to be back on the flat again on the west coast.

Before embarking on our cross-country traverse we decided to spend a few days in Kota Bharu getting our new Thai visas, sampling the culinary delights of the day and night markets, trying our hand at competitive top-spinning at the cultural centre, and marvelling at the variety of pointy or serrated implements on display at the Istana Jahar (Royal Customs Museum).  No matter which country we visit in the world we always find evidence of human pride in its weaponry. It’s a bit depressing really. We also decided to take advantage of the relatively affordable diving prices on the nearby Perhentian Islands. Plan A had been to cycle down the coast from Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut from where we could get the speedboat for the Perhentians, but our research soon established that the speedboats will not take bicycles and in any case once on the island there are no roads and we’d have to push the bike along the beach to get to our accommodation. Other cycle tourists have reported leaving their bikes safely with the speedboat ticket sellers in Kuala Besut, but we weren’t keen on that plan so were very grateful when our host at the Ideal Travellers’Guest House in Kota Bharu suggested we leave our bike locked securely in his back yard and also offered to look after any kit we didn’t need to take to the islands.

The 639 bus runs several times a day covering the 65kms from Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut and only costs 6 Ringgits (£1.20) for the hour and a half journey. The journey began rather weirdly when a man ascended the bus steps and started shouting what sounded to our ears very much like the call to prayer from the mosque. I ignored him but Keith caught his eye and was immediately subject to a barrage of shouted questions about his name and heritage. When shouty-man finally departed we established that he wasn’t, as Keith had assumed, the local Imam blessing our journey, but simply some odd bloke who liked standing at the front of buses shouting. The journey, after that, was uneventful and we passed the time sneaking surreptitious glances at the praying mantis that was hitching a lift on the headscarf of the old matriarch sitting across the aisle from us.

We decided to head for the smaller of the two islands, Perhentian Kecil, and stayed on Coral Bay, the smaller and quieter of the two beaches. Our little chalet was basic but functional and afforded us a particularly good view of the favoured watering hole of two huge monitor lizards.

The larger of the two neighbourhood monitor lizards, stalking across the grass outside our chalet.

The larger of the two neighbourhood monitor lizards stalking across the grass outside our chalet on Perhentian Kecil.

Our main priority on the island was to continue our dive education by taking a Rescue Diver course (and Emergency First Responder course which to be honest was pretty cr*p but as our first aid qualifications were all out of date the EFR course was a necessary evil). Luckily the Rescue Diver course made up for it by being extremely useful albeit hard work. We both passed but definitely need to hone our skills for towing someone whilst giving rescue breaths in the water.

Our dive school on Perhentian Kecil.

Our dive school on Perhentian Kecil.

We spent slightly longer on the island than anticipated, firstly because Pablo, our instructor, wasn’t free to start the course immediately, but that actually suited us quite nicely, as, clumsy doofus that I am, I’d slipped and twisted my ankle whilst scampering to get the speedboat and spent the first three days on the island lying with my foot in the air waiting for it to stop hurting enough to contemplate putting a fin on it. After the delayed start to our course, a second distraction popped up to prevent its timely completion as we kept overhearing comments along the lines of “It’s the end of the season and we don’t know if the weather will hold much longer so this might be our last chance to visit xxxx dive site”. We fell for it every time and had some memorable fun dives at T3, Sugar Wreck, Temple and D’Lagoon and a day’s snorkelling trip out to a number of sites. Two moments really stand out for us: at T3 we dived with bumphead parrotfish (huge, misshapen, coral-munchers that weigh in at up to 45kg/100lb each but are completely placid and benign) and at Shark Bay, on the snorkelling trip, we swam with agile, muscular, metre and a half long black-tipped reef sharks. Eventually though we completed our Rescue Diver course, passed the exam, handed in our sample emergency plans and were rewarded with the appropriate paperwork to confirm we’re now qualified to drag you bodily from the water should you so desire.

The pier at Coral Bay.

Coral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

One unexpected side-effect of diving and snorkelling has been its impact on my diet. For dinner we usually went to one of the cheap and tasty barbecues on the beach, but after spending a day in the water being delighted by sightings of barracuda, squid and sweetlips, I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about seeing the very same names listed up on the barbecue menu. Keith happily selected and devoured whichever chunk of fish looked biggest. I plumped for squid on the first night, but a nagging feeling of guilt meant I couldn’t really enjoy it. On days two and three I switched to chicken, which was delicious, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a bit of an empty gesture, so by day four I was relieved to discover chick pea curry on the menu which sustained both body and soul for the remainder of our stay.

Back on the mainland we were re-united with the Pino and made arrangements to have dinner with some local college students. Before heading to the Perhentians, we had been cycling around getting information from various travel agencies when we were hailed by a young woman who had stopped her car as she simply couldn’t believe her eyes and just had to ask us who we were and what we were doing. She later posted a comment on our blog, which gave us her email address, so, when we were back in Kota Bharu we decided to get in touch to see if she was free to continue the conversation we’d started at the roadside. Although it was ridiculously short notice, Mudrikah confirmed she’d love to meet up with us, and was also able to rustle up some friends to come along too. They could only stay for an hour and a half as they had exams coming up and were supposed to be studying, but we had a really lovely evening with them comparing life in the UK and Malaysia. To our utter embarrassment the girls insisted on paying for our dinner, which we felt terrible about as we had been the ones to invite them out, but they absolutely insisted as we were guests in their country, so, once again, Mudrikah and friends, thank you very much for a fantastic evening.

Dinner with Mudrikah and her friends in Kota Bharu.

Dinner with Mudrikah (3rd from left) and her friends in Kota Bharu.

We left Kota Bharu with fond memories and made our way south then west and onto Malaysia’s East-West Highway. Prior to the highway’s completion in 1982, the journey from Kota Bharu in the northeast to Butterworth in the northwest involved a southerly detour as far as Kuala Lumpur. The mountainous highway not only shortens the journey but rewards you with beautiful scenery and thrilling descents. Its appeal is not lost on local motorbike riders. In the cafe at the top of the main climb we met a group of bikers from Kota Bharu who were out for their weekend ride.

The view from the top was a nice reward after a long hot climb.

The view from the top was a nice reward after a long hot climb.

Kota Bharu bikers on the East-West Highway.

Kota Bharu bikers on the East-West Highway.

The road goes through a National Park and roadside signs tantalize with the promise of exotic beasties…but we saw no elephants or tapirs, just a glimpse of some monkeys leaping away through the trees.

Empty promises!

Empty promises!

Between Jeli and Gerik we saw just one hotel so it was back to wild-camping for us. Thankfully the altitude took the edge off the overnight temperature and on our first night it was actually cool enough (23 degrees) to make us slip into our silk bag-liners…normally we just lie on top of them sweating miserably. That said, whilst air conditioning and showers are very nice, you can’t beat sitting out watching the sun go down and the next morning waking up with the rainforest. We optimistically chose sites with liberal dollopings of elephant poo, but naturally no elephants came near us. We were, however, treated to a morning chorus of rising and falling, swannee-whistle whoops that we think might have belonged to some kind of monkey. Or possibly Clangers.

Dropping out of the mountains we began to come across small villages and towns again, and although Islam still predominates there is more of a mixed community here on the west coast. We’ve seen a number of shrines with prancing horse statues in front of them that we’ve been told are Indian, and many of the businesses advertise in Chinese characters.

On the roads there’s a mix of cars and motorbikes. We’ve noticed fewer Toyota Hiluxes than we saw monopolizing Thailand’s roads and there seem to be as many small and medium sized cars (often Malaysian built Protons) here as SUVs. And although not nearly so numerous as in Vietnam and Cambodia, the ubiquitous SE Asian motorbike remains a popular transport choice for many: growing families crowd onto the family work-horse, toddlers dangling at alarming angles; moustachioed middle-aged men proceed at a stately pace, paunches proudly leading the way; and skinny teenagers hunker down low over straining 50cc engines.

One thing we’ve found slightly frustrating about Malaysia so far is the hotels. In Kota Bharu there was an abundance: every street seemed to be lined with hotels, inns and guesthouses. On the Perhentians, there was a glut of chalets. But once we hit the road….nothing. On our first night out of Kota Bharu we eventually found a building labelled as a ‘Homestay’, but it was all shuttered up. A woman in the house next door told us we needed to phone the number given on the sign, and when we explained we don’t have a Malaysian SIM card she kindly phoned for us. 10 minutes later the owners arrived and for 45 Ringgits (only £9 but to our frustration the same price that we’d paid for a room in city centre Kota Bharu) we got one of six double rooms that opened on to a communal dining room with a shared shower and toilet. We had the place to ourselves and were able to park the bike in the shop below so that was all fine. We spent the next two nights happily wild-camping as we traversed the mountains but were looking forward to a shower in a guesthouse again on the other side. We saw nothing for miles but felt confident the medium-sized town of Kuala Ketil would have something so pedalled on. It was 6pm as we hove into town and spotted the first of several ‘homestay’ signs, pointing from the main road down residential side-streets. We pedalled in the direction of the arrow, but found no evidence to suggest which dwelling might be the homestay. A local couple suggested we try closer into town. At the next homestay sign we had the same problem. We pedalled aimlessly up and down residential streets searching for the homestay that had been promised on the sign back at the main road. We asked around and were told to go back to the main road, go to the traffic lights, turn left, left again and then right. We found yet another homestay sign, this time clearly pointing to a building, but the building was locked. Neighbours asked if we had a booking, we said ‘no’ and they told us we’d have to phone the number on the sign. They phoned for us, but for some reason the owner didn’t want to let his room that night. The helpful neighbours suggested where we might find another homestay, but we had no luck finding it so returned to the main road and carried on. At the next random homestay a neighbour told us the office was closed. It was now just half an hour to sun down. We already had 100 hilly kilometres in our legs and did not relish the idea of a further 20km to the next big town. Grudgingly, we gave up on our search for a shower and air-conditioning (or at least a fan) and trundled out of town to find a quiet spot in a palm oil plantation. Away from the cool mountains we were back to sauna-temperatures in the tent and the small USB-powered fan that Keith bought back in Thailand was humming away at full-throttle.

We’re having a rest-day today (what turned out to be an excellent decision as it’s been lashing with rain since shortly after we arrived here). It was less than 10km from our palm oil campsite to the outskirts of the large town of Sungai Petani where we found a hotel with wifi and Keith bargained the room price down from 75 to 65 Ringgits – considerably more than the 45 we paid in Kota Bharu. Clearly we need to do a bit more research on how to find cheap accommodation in Malaysia…last night’s fruitless search is not something we want to repeat on a regular basis.

As usual, we’ll finish with some random pictures from the last couple of weeks:

A fancy boat at the Istana Jahar (Royal Customs Museum) in Kota Bharu.

A fancy boat at the Istana Jahar (Royal Customs Museum) in Kota Bharu.

Malaysian ladies do Islam with a little more panache.  Unlike the drab, utilitarian head coverings we've seen in other Muslim countries, the hijabs here in Malaysia are gorgeous.  If I was a girlier kind of girl I'd want one myself.

Malaysian ladies do Islam with panache. Unlike the drab, utilitarian head coverings we’ve seen in other Muslim countries, the hijabs here are beaded and bejeweled and range from the pretty to the exquisitely beautiful. If I was a girlier kind of girl I’d want one myself.

One of the cats at the Ideal Guesthouse helping Keith pump up the trailer tyre.

One of the cats at the Ideal Guesthouse helping Keith pump up the trailer tyre.

There's some kind of genetic weirdness going on in the Malaysian cat population.  At least half the cats have tails that are either truncated, crooked or both.

There’s some kind of genetic weirdness going on in the Malaysian cat population. At least half the cats have tails that are either truncated, crooked or both.

Today I will be mostly wearing lime green.

Today I will be mostly wearing lime green.

SE Asia = Ants (and dodgy electrics)

Southeast Asia = Ants (and dodgy electrics)

Cute little froggy in our bathroom.

Cute little froggy in our bathroom.

Couldn't finish without another pic of that magnificent monitor lizard.

We couldn’t finish without another pic of that magnificent monitor lizard.

Surat Thani to Kota Bharu 15 – 22 September

Heading south and east from Surat Thani brought us into a very different part of Thailand to that which we were used to, and a steady increase in sightings of mosques, hijabs, goats and the occasional use of Arabic script heralded our entry into Pattani, one of the three southernmost and predominantly Muslim provinces which form an area known by some as the ‘Red Zone’.

As we crossed the province border the Thailand we had become accustomed to ended and it felt like we were in a completely different country.  Obviously with our somewhat unusual mode of transport even in places that are used to lots of tourists we still cause a bit of a stir, but in Pattani, and the following day in Narathiwat province, there was an intensity behind the ready smiles that made us feel like it wasn’t just the bike that was an oddity.  Given that the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) advises against all but essential travel in this region we guess they probably don’t see too many westerners.  Our arrival in a cafe one lunchtime was greeted by a chorus of giggles from a group of teenage girls (and many of the waitresses), and frequently men on motorbikes would ride alongside quizzing us at far greater length than anywhere else in Thailand (where there are usually so many farangs that the locals are long past caring where you are from and where you are going).  We also found that our mobile phones no longer worked and Tesco Lotus had disappeared from the landscape (although the ubiquitous Seven Elevens were still a reassuring presence).

In Pattani and Narathiwat we were often subject to friendly scrutiny.

In Pattani and Narathiwat we were often subject to friendly scrutiny.

Historically, the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of the Sultanate of Pattani (along with much of the northern part of what is now Malaysia).  In 1785 the Sultanate fell under the control of Siam (now Thailand) and later on, in 1909, the British (who were the colonial power in the Malay peninsula from 1874 – 1946) decided they wanted to extend their hold north and take the southern Thailand provinces for their own.  An agreement was signed with the King of Thailand giving Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat to the Thais who in return gave Kelantan (northern peninsular Malaysia) to the British.  Needless to say no-one asked the residents of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat what they thought.  Separatist unrest has rumbled away for decades but the level of violence has escalated significantly since 2004 with bombings, shootings and grenade attacks a depressingly regular occurrence.

Similar signs also ask the populace to 'Stop Bombs' or 'Stop Violence'.  Sadly, the advice isn't always followed.

Similar signs also ask the populace to ‘Stop Bombs’ or ‘Stop Violence’. Sadly, the suggestions aren’t always followed.

Given the FCO’s advice you may ask why on earth we went there.  Fair point.  As we travelled through Thailand we quizzed any Thais, expats and other cyclists who we thought might have up-to-date knowledge of the situation, and the feeling we got was that as tourists passing through we would be unlikely targets for anyone wishing to further their cause.  In addition we’re not using public transport nor staying in up-market hotels, which are sometimes bomb targets. The general opinion was that if we stuck to the coastal route we’d be fine; an opinion which has been backed up by our experience and corroborated by a conversation with a local man who chatted to us in Narathiwat province and told us it wasn’t dangerous so long as we avoided the mountain villages where shootings are more frequent.  Keith said it reminded him of growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s.  Life goes on as normal for the most part and the razor wire, police or army checkpoints and the occasional armoured personnel carrier just become part of the scenery. 

Armed personnel approaching a checkpoint in Narathiwat province.

Armed personnel approaching a checkpoint in Narathiwat province.

Keith chatting to a local man about our travels.

Keith chatting to a local man about our travels.

We have no regrets about going to the Red Zone but other travellers should do their own research and make their own decisions about whether they feel comfortable going there.  For us, we think it’s good to get away from the tourist areas and see a bit of the real world from time to time. 

It only took three days to pass through Pattani and Narathiwat and we crossed into Malaysia at the Tak Bai border point – a crossing that’s not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet but which definitely exists.  We were stamped out of Thailand, took a six or seven minute river crossing by ferry and were stamped into Malaysia with minimum fuss.  We’re currently in Kota Bharu, a conservative Islamic city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.  Most banks, shops and government offices close on Friday and Saturday, but an unexpected bonus is that everywhere is open on a Sunday so we were able to get started with our application for another Thai visa a day earlier than we expected.  So far Malaysia feels a bit like Pattani and Narathiwat but with a Latin alphabet and British 3-pin plug sockets, and without the armed guards at every corner.

British sockets!  It's been a long time since we've used one of these.

British sockets! It’s been a long time since we’ve used one of these.

 So, for now, it’s goodbye Thailand.  We’ll finish this post a few random pics from the last few weeks:

As we travelled south we saw monkeys being kept as pets/helpers.  Some were tethered in the back of speeding pick-up trucks (and apparently enjoying the ride), others travelling by motorbike, and some helping their masters with more mundane tasks like pushing this car.

As we traveled south we saw monkeys being kept as pets/helpers. Some were tethered in the back of speeding pick-up trucks (and apparently enjoying the ride), others traveled by motorbike, and some helped their masters with more mundane tasks like pushing this cart.

Money really does grown on trees in Thailand.

Money really does grown on trees in Thailand.

Tamar's rather extreme approach to avoiding comedy sun-tan marks (and skin cancer).

Tamar’s rather extreme approach to avoiding comedy sun-tan marks (and skin cancer).

The view that Tamar was admiring in the previous photo.

The view that Tamar was admiring in the previous photo.

A floppy-eared cow.

A floppy-eared cow.