Recharging in Kota Bharu


Kota Bharu is the type of place most travelers spend one night in on their way to other places. There isn’t a lot here that will interest the average backpacker, and the city does not appear to be trying to grow it’s tourism. Kota Bharu is a working city, where families live and people rush across the busy streets on their way to shop for groceries or to post packages. The sidewalks are messy and street signs are hard to come across. It is rather easy to get lost here. On the occasion when we’ve found our way to a museum or other point of interest, it’s been closed. We’ve been here for three days- and we’ve been laughing about how this experience is one that can only be enjoyable when traveling long term. There is a luxury to finding yourself in a city that can be described as nondescript.


For every few weeks we spend traveling, we have to set aside a few days to complete chores: paying bills, doing laundry, reorganizing, and planning out the next few weeks on the road. For this leg, Kota Bharu was the logical option. We’ve managed to finish everything we needed to without getting distracted, and we’ve seen a good bit of the city at the same time.

Kota Bharu is an unexpected place after being in the more liberal towns of Malaka and the Perhentians. The city is devoutly Muslim, and I have been careful to dress much more conservatively here. Many signs and advertisements are in Arabic. Walking around town, we’ve heard some kind of sermon or prayer on a loud speaker coming from one of the mosques. Many restaurants are Halal. Alcohol is virtually nonexistent- it cannot be bought at any grocery store, convenient store, or restaurant. Culturally, this is a very different place for us and it would be easy to feel far from home, but we don’t. There is a lot of familiarity here as well.


Our guesthouse is tucked behind a Pizza Hut, of all things, and is down the street from a KFC. This has come as a surprise to us. And while we aren’t much for fast food, there has been somewhat of a renaissance in our recognition of all things American. The TV at the guesthouse broadcasts American channels. A&W Rootbeer is on the shelf at 7-Eleven. And as for beer? As we’ve learned, any Chinese restaurant will serve a cold one to you, strange as it sounds. We don’t understand it.


Despite the obvious western influence, we’ve yet to actually partake in any fast food. We’re still trying to eat locally, which around here has meant that we order two things on the menu having no idea what they are or how they are made. We’ve tried some great food here. We’ve visited the night market for grilled curry chicken and gazed at the huge selection of dried fish at the central farmer’s market. It has been a good few days, and we ready to move on. Tonight’s bus trip to will find us in an entirely new place to explore- another town well known for it’s cuisine and it’s oceanside. Next stop Penang.

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