THE idyllic town of Kota Bahru boasts a confluence of rich traditions and cultures.
Arriving at the capital of the northern-most state of Kelantan, one can see signboards dotting the streets, written first in Jawi, then Bahasa Malaysia, signifying its strong Islamic roots.
The trend is also obvious in Kota Bahru’s architecture, even from a moving vehicle. It’s not surprising given that this is the state where the earliest form of Malay traditions, cultures and values took form.
However, there are also Hindu-Buddhist influences stemming from neighbouring Thailand (formerly Siam) but these have morphed into something quintessentially Kelantanese.
This is traditional Kelantanese shadow play.
The play we saw in Kota Bahru was a three-part story of the Hindu deity – Rawana (or Ramayana) and his adventures, narrated in kecek kelate, the native Malay dialect.
The play was staged simply in a small house along the sidewalks of Kampung Morak. Muhammad Dain Othman or Pak Dain, runs this humble wayang kulit theatre and gallery.
The dialect was unfamiliar to non-locals but Pak Dain summarised the story for us.
According to him, Rawana was leaving his palace to hunt with his two servants. He also said goodbye to his beloved wife, Sita, before he took off. And in the forest, he met his enemy and they battled to the end.
The intricate puppets, silhouetted on a screen, moved swiftly, accompanied by the gongs of drums that turned frenetic as the battle between Rawana and his enemy climaxed.
The lighting and shadow action were masterfully handled by a troupe behind the screen, led by the Tok Dalang, the master puppeteer.
The origins of wayang kulit are not very clear but Pak Dain said the Kelantanese version was drastically different from the shadow plays of Indonesia where the stories told – while similar in both places – have been localised and have evolved into their own distinct form.
“I started this gallery in 2008 because I grew up with wayang kulit and I want to keep the tradition alive, especially for the younger generation,” Pak Dain said.
In an attempt to revive this art form, his gallery also stages contemporary stories such as a wayang kulit version of Star Wars.
There are interesting things to see in Kelantan, among them a visit to Shafie Jusoh, a traditional kite-maker.
The 66-year-old makes waus (kites) from scratch. Just like performing wayang kulit, making waus – and consequently flying waus – is a tradition dating back hundreds of years.
To make a wau, Pak Shafie starts by shaving bamboo poles into sticks which are then shaped into the wau’s frame. Not every wau shares the same designs. Pak Shafie carefully paints and carves the designs for each wau separately – all within the confines of a shack in Kampung Badang.
Kelantan is home to many cottage industries such as Pak Shafie’s wau shack.
Enter another village and one can visit a serunding (meat floss made from chicken, fish or beef) factory such as the one in Kampung Laut accessible by boat from the city centre in Kota Bahru.
In the spirit of Kelantan’s ancient links with Siam, there is Wat Photivihan.
The Buddhist temple apparently houses the largest sleeping Buddha statue in Southeast Asia. The reclining Buddha is 40 metres long and nine metres wide.
There is also the Dragonboat Temple or Wat Mai Suwankhiri. The temple is said to have been built by the hands of expert Thai craftsmen 400 years ago.
The temple is adorned in red and gold – traditional colours of the Buddhist community.
For the adventurous, Rantau Panjang is just an hour and a half drive from Kota Bahru. The small town located by the Malaysian-Thai border is said to be a duty-free zone with a market offering not only Malaysian goods but Thai as well.
Sungai Golok, an illegal trespass entry between Malaysia and Thailand, is also found at Rantau Panjang.
From the market, one can walk five to 10 minutes to Sungai Golok. The river is an exhibit of Kelantan’s inextricable link to Thailand. Boatmen ferry passengers from either bank in a two-to-three minute boat ride and accept fares in either ringgit or Thai baht.
Food lovers will not be disappointed with Kelantan’s variety of dishes, especially desserts. They can sample delicacies such as lompat tikam, a dessert of glutinous rice topped with dashings of coconut milk and gula melaka.
Other local favourites include nasi ayam percik, a crispy chicken dish topped with delicious coconut-gravy.
When in Kelantan, also ask for Pak Mat’s famous sup ikan, a rich fish broth made with traditional Malay herbs and spices.
Lastly, for a typical Kelantanese breakfast of roti titab – French toast topped with a poached egg and kaya – visit Kopitiam Kita along Jalan Pengkalan Chepa.