The first post about our adventures in Malaysia ended while Jay and I were in George Town. On the morning of our sixth day in the country, a ferry carried us from Pualau Penang (Penang Island), across the Strait of Malacca, back to the mainland to begin the longest drive of our seven-day Peninsular Malaysia tour. As our guide Ray drove the little van west to east, we first passed through the “rice bowl of Malaysia,” although the paddies were currently dry. (Nearer our destination on the east coast we saw many green rice plantations.)
Crossing over mountainous jungle via the East-West Highway, we noticed “Danger Wild Elephant Crossing” signs; the big animals emerge at night from the cool air of the jungle to the warm macadam road. Much jungle has been cleared to make way for palm plantations since palm oil has replaced rubber as Malaysia’s primary crop. An afternoon stop at a small rubber tree acreage gave us an up-close look at how the trees are tapped and a chance to dip a finger into the milky liquid and feel it coagulate.
At the highest point of the road (over 1000 m) we looked across to mountains in Thailand before entering the state of Kelantan in the northeast. Once ruled by Thailand and showing strong Thai influence, Kelantan is the most traditional Malay and predominantly Muslim area of the country. In Rantau Panjang our guide parked and led us on foot to a river that separates Malaysia from Thailand. People freely cross the narrow waterway in small boats, with and without passports, for everyday business, while a member of the military sits on the riverbank and keeps an eye out for smugglers.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Kota Bahru, a city on the South China Sea, where we spent the night in one of the swankiest hotels Jay and I have ever stayed in. Our bathroom had marble walls and floor and elegant fixtures. Original artwork decorated the walls, including beautiful floral batiks along our corridor and, near one of the restaurants, a kiln-formed glass piece made to look like batik. The work was by Raja Azhur Idris, a Malaysian textural glass artist. Outside that restaurant was a magnificent blue-tiled outdoor pool with a short waterfall from deep end to shallow.
If not for the stiff breeze we would have eaten dinner beside the flowing waters. Indoors instead, I ordered Laska Kelantan, a delicious version of rice noodles with thick fish gravy, served with chilli paste and condiments. Jay chose Nasi Kerabu, another local specialty featuring rice colored blue by herbs and served with sliced beef, fish crackers, salted hard-boiled egg, and sliced fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, scallion, and finely chopped and dried fish.
The same restaurant provided a large breakfast buffet in the morning and we sampled scrumptious Nasi Dagang (Thai red rice steamed with seasonings in paper) and served with gulai tongkol (fish gravy) and condiments; Nasi Impit (compressed rice); Sayur Ladeh (coconut milk and curry sauce); Loh See Fun (noodles and vegetables sauteed with soy sauce; and assorted Malay kuih (colorful sweetmeats).
Before leaving Kota Bahru we stopped at a shop to learn about Kelantan silver craft and watch apprentices work. Next we visited the wet market where vendors (80% female) sell fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, chicken, fish, and keropoh (ground fish meat stuffed into tubular casings). Upstairs herbs and other dry goods are sold. Another stop was to watch three women weaving songket, adding gold thread (silver is also used) to black or orange-brown warp in intricate patterns. At a road-side stand Ray treated us to baubu, something like a brown, flattened, muffin made my pouring a mix of flour, egg, and coconut sugar into small copper molds to cook in a coconut husk fire.
Next stop was at the shop of a famous traditional wau artisan whose son showed us large, beautiful kites they’ve created from cut paper and gold leaf. The kite is called wau because of the “woo, woo” sound it makes while flying. Our last stop before leaving the Kota Bahru area was to visit an elderly man who sat on his porch with his son and other young men. Hanging on the porch were several cages of merbau (sp?) birds, a colorful Thai species, which the men enter into Friday bird singing competitions. The son showed us how one of their pig-tailed macaques is trained for coconut harvest by climbing a palm to pick, according to command, a green or ripe coconut.
Then we headed south, stopping for lunch of fried keropoh at an open-air stand on the shore of the South China Sea. Continuing along the seacoast that afternoon we saw dragon-fruit plants growing on individual platforms, goat herds, and horned brown cattle with prominent rib cages. That night’s lodging was right on the shore, a bungalow facing the beach. I could watch and hear the waves as I wrote in my journal. In early evening we walked in the surf and picked up sea shells, and later we enjoyed dinner in the open air restaurant overlooking the South China Sea. A trio started playing American pop music until Jay asked them to do one Malay song. Delighted at the request, they entertained us for more than an hour with mostly traditional and contemporary Malay music until we shook their hands and headed for bed.
In the morning we visited the city of Terrenganu, first crossing to Pulau Duyung and wending our way through narrow lanes to a traditional boat maker. Although the master craftsman was away on business, his son continued to work on a large fishing boat that will require at least a year to build. Plans and techniques are passing from the mind of the father to his son and apprentices. A photo album showed us construction phases of other boats they have made, all of which are finished with beautiful decorations and bright colors.
At the Terrenganu State Museum we focused on hand crafts and textiles, then photographed the Crystal Mosque and the Floating Mosque. At a brass ware workshop we learned how baubu molds and other objects are made through a lost wax process. To enter the adjacent batik shop we had to remove our shoes. We should have also removed stockings; the soles of our feet were easier to wash than grimy socks.
That was neither the first nor the last time we had to remove our shoes to enter a building, but the first place other than a temple. Malaysians don’t wear shoes at home so entering a house requires going barefoot. Later we would have to remove shoes before entering the dining areas of a couple places where we stayed.
On the road heading south again we passed miles and miles of a Petronas oil refinery complex. Our afternoon snack was Nasi Lemang, sticky rice with coconut milk with a little salt and sugar that was stuffed into bamboo lined with banana leaf and cooked over a charcoal fire. We purchased the traditional treat at one among a strip of stalls along the road.
Eventually we reached Kuantan and the seaside resort where we were to spend the night. After dipping our toes into the South China Sea again, we partook of the hotel’s seafood buffet. At the end of the outdoor meal we learned that our favorite “fish” that evening had been grilled stingray.
In the morning we headed back to the Kuala Lumpur airport for a flight to Sabah, one of Malaysia’s two states in Borneo. That evening we flew Malaysia Airlines, whose logo is a stylized wau, the traditional kite, from KL to Kota Kinabalu. Our plane landed about twenty-nine hours before MH370 disappeared. In another week or so I’ll share stories and pictures from our days in the Borneo jungle.