Exploring pockets of wonders in Kota Bharu


Photo taken from the top level shows the expanse of the main trading area at Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah in Kota Bharu.

This is the fifth article of a six-part series on Tourism Malaysia Sarawak’s ‘Berambeh Ke Lembah Klang & Pantai Timur’ programme, running from Sept 9 to 14, 2023.

MY time in Kelantan had been a delightful dance between tradition and modernity, as I explored the markets, historical landmarks and artistic characteristics of its capital Kota Bharu.

Waking up on the morning of Sept 13, I was all set for Day 5 of the Tourism Malaysia Sarawak’s ‘Berambeh Ke Lembah Klang & Pantai Timur’ programme.

From our accommodation the Grand Renai Hotel, we took a bus ride to Lieniey Nasi Kerabu Tumis, where we were promised an authentic Kelantanese breakfast.

True enough, I could confidently say that out tummies were really in a good mood after savouring a hearty meal of ‘Nasi Dagang Kari’.

However, I was deeply touched by the live performance of Broery Marantika’s ‘Widuri’ by a cancer patient, busking near the eatery. To me, it signified the tough and resilient spirit of the local people.

Women traders rule

After breakfast, we headed to the iconic ‘Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah’, Kelantan’s largest and most famous market. It was named after the wife of Prophet Muhammad, Khadijah binti Khuwailid who during her time, was a successful and highly-respected businesswoman.

Originally established and opened to the public by Sultan Ismail Petra in 1985 as Pasar Besar Buluh Kubu, it was renamed in 1997 by then-Kelantan Menteri Besar Tan Sri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat to pay tribute to the women traders who dominated the market.

Its unique octagonal structure also made it an iconic tourism landmark in Kelantan.

Farah Diyana Samsuddin from ‘Cerita Sarawak Bah Jii’ all excited to bring home bagfuls of Kelantanese products that she has picked up from the market.

Strolling along the bustling aisles, I was captivated by the vibrant colours and the symphony of voices of the people haggling over the fresh produce, traditional clothing and exotic spices. The market, to me, was a sensory overload – a kaleidoscope of scents, sounds and sights.

Should you want to experience the heart and soul of Kelantan’s culture, Pasar besar Siti Khadijah would definitely be a great place to start.

I got to see first-hand the sellers cutting ‘keropok lekor’ (local sausage-like snack made from fish, sliced and deep-fried) on the spot. I grabbed a few packs to bring back home, along with some fridge magnets and a batik cloth that I obtained at really good prices.

Thai influence

The next stop in our programme for the day was Wat Photivihan, otherwise known as the Phothivihan Buddhist Temple.

It is one of 25 temples found in Tumpat, and among the most popular in Malaysia, hosting thousands of Thai Buddhist pilgrims every year.

The ‘Reclining Buddha’ at the Wat Photivihan.

Housing a colossal statue of the ‘Reclining Buddha’, this magnificent place was established in 1973 by Abbot Phra Krurasapia Chakorn. Stretching 40m in length, the statue is considered one of the largest in Southeast Asia.

The temple also provides accommodation for monks and visitors. Entrance is free, and donations are always welcome.

Batik hub

We later went to Ayu Fashion at Kampung Talak Chabang Empat in Tumpat, a must-go for traditional batik enthusiasts as it boasts of having over 5,000 unique block batik – or ‘batik cop’ – designs.

Farah Diyana Samsuddin of ‘Cerita Sarawak Bah Jii’ tries her hands at batik painting during the tour at Ayu Fashion workshop.

During a tour of its workshop, I witnessed the intricate process of creating the Kelantanese ‘batik cop’. Observing the skilled workers apply the wax onto the fabric with a block, and then dye it in vibrant colours, it was clear to me that this was not only a treasured craft, but also a way of life for these remarkable artisans.

Having been in operation for over 50 years, Ayu Fashion remains committed to preserving Kelantan’s traditional batik heritage, despite the competition from foreign batik.

‘A mosque with a story’

Lunch-time brought us to Kak Chik Nasi Berlauk, where again we got to enjoy the unique taste of Kelantan.

After filling up our bellies once again, we went to Laman Warisan Seni @ Kampung Laut, a fascinating destination housing Malaysia’s oldest wooden mosque. Visitors can embark on a historical journey and experience Kelantan’s rich cultural heritage, while observing the local talents crafting traditional arts.

Malaysia’s oldest wooden mosque, , stands majestically at Laman Warisan Seni @ Kampung Laut.

I learned a fascinating story about the origin of this mosque.

According to oral tradition passed down from generation to generation in Kampung Laut, once upon a time, a group of Muslim preachers on a sea voyage was caught in a bad storm that damaged their ship, causing them to be stranded along the coast of Kuala Kelantan.

They then made a vow that they would build a mosque wherever they could dock safely. With the mercy of Allah SWT, a school of barracuda swam into the ship and plugged the leaks, preventing seawater from sinking it. After the storm, the seafarers safely docked at a riverbank in Kampung Laut.

The Laman Warisan Seni @ Kampung Laut has two highlights: Laman Warisan Serunding, with stalls offering local delicacies like ‘serunding’, ‘dodol’ and ‘gelembung buaya’; and Laman Warisan Seni, where craftsfolks showcase their exquisite batik products, calligraphy items, and ‘wau’ (traditional ornate kites).

An entrepreneur at Laman Warisan Seni specialises in crafting beautiful kites.

We wasted no time in sampling some ‘serunding’ (meat floss), ‘pulut’ (glutinous rice) and other local delicacies, and also purchasing some to bring back home.

A Laman Warisan Seni artisan applies colours to a ‘wau’ that bears the word ‘Malaysia’.

‘House of 12 pillars’

In the evening, we explored Rumah Tiang 12, a traditional Kelantanese house with distinct architectural features.

Kelantan’s long and colourful history has given rise these types of residential structures, including the Rumah Panjang that share similar characteristics.

Participants gather for a group photo in front of Rumah Tiang 12.

However, Rumah Tiang 12 is a much rarer sight, found only in Kota Bharu city and very few villages. The one that we went to was over a century old.

The name indicates its most obvious feature – the ‘tiang’ (pillar), all 12 of them that support the whole structure up to the roof.

The house is divided into three sections: ‘Rumah Ibu’ (‘mother’, or the main living area), ‘Rumah Tengah’ (middle section), and ‘Rumah Dapur’ (kitchen).

Occupying an area of 375 square feet, it was built in 1870. In 2020, the house underwent restoration and relocation, an effort that took two years as the works also involved tagging many of the original components before dismantling.

Today, Rumah Tiang 12 remains the only surviving Kelantan Malay heritage house in its original state, complete with the traditional elements like the ‘wet verandas’, decorative ‘widow walls’, and other Kelantan traditional motifs.

‘Tapestry of experiences’

Just before concluding the Day 5 programme, we went back to our rooms at the Grand Renai Hotel to freshen up for dinner.

I knew that it was going to be another culinary treat and true enough, the offerings at the BinMohamed Food Garden Kota Bharu were on point.

We had enjoyed many meals together throughout this familiarisation trip thus far, but that night was extra special as we got to celebrate the birthday of one of our fellow journalists.

In conclusion, Kota Bharu was a tapestry of experiences woven with the threads of history, heritage, arts, and of course, food. I felt that the city was willing to reveal its soul to me, and I was deeply moved by the warmth of its people.

• The final article, to be out next Monday, will be about the activities carried out on Day 6 of this familiarisation programme.