Driving Malaysia's Coast
Driving the northeast coast, in the shadow of milky domes, ribbon-leafed trees and batik kites, Marco Ferrarese unveils some of Malaysia's least-told beachside fantasy tales. Photographed by Kit Yeng Chan.
Published on Jun 9, 2015
MAYBE IT'LL SCARE THAT THING AWAY."
Our car's stopped in the middle of a country road, so there's no traffic light to be seen. No, a giant monitor lizard has made a pit stop between us and the background of warm ochre and azure sea that locals dubbed Pantai Irama (Beach of Melody), so enchanted were they by the hushing sound of its breeze. We interrupt nature's song with honking, but to no avail; the green monster keeps still, blocking access to the alluring line of coconut trees spread before us. They jut out of a cake of golden sand like tall spoons with green ribbons at their handles. If we want a slice, we have no choice: pushing on the pedal, I inch forward until Godzilla's flickering tongue almost licks the dust off our front bumper.
This does the trick. The reptile sluggishly cocks its head and slips off the side of the road, granting us safe passage to a private concert of sighing sea breeze, crashing waves and shifting sand.
This wild stretch of Malaysia's northeastern coast lies near Bachok, a sleepy fishing village that's a 30-minute drive from Kota Bharu, Kelantan, and only two hours away from the border with Thailand. From here, hundreds of kilometers of dramatic coastline roll untamed to the south, mostly ignored in the gold rush to the better-known white sands of the nearby Perhentians and Redang Island. I'd like to bemoan that fact, but it leaves these less-praised beaches even more pristine for being empty. An exploring-at-our-own-pace road trip leaves us free to fly kites, wander temples and boat yards, devour soothing Nyonya cooking, and luxuriate in so much un-touristed seafront that we wonder if we haven't stumbled into a fantasy book about children set free. Indeed, having this downhome side of Malaysian big blue all to our own is a commensurate fairy tale reward for the dragon lizard's defeat.
Splashing into the warm water feels great, but there's much more to see around Kota Bharu in the districts of Tumpat and Bachok. This borderland is renowned for its series of Sino-Thai Buddhist temples that blend pointy roofs with the blazing reds and yellows of Chinese devotion. Our favorite is Wat Phothikyan in Kampung Balai near Bachok, whose twin dragon-shaped walls protect a 33-meter-tall image of Buddha. The ultimate perk is the temple's own herbal bath sauna: the aromatic mist and spiritual atmosphere combine to conjure pure soul soothing.
The sitting Buddha image at Wat Machimarran Varran, in Tumpat.
Before we call it a day at luxe Perdana Resort—a collection of terraced beachside bungalows set around a lovely swimming pool just north of the city center on Pantai Cahaya Bulan (Moonlight Beach)—we check the pulse of Kota Bharu. A bastion of Malay culture, the city's heart beats inside an old circular building home to one of the country's most famous covered markets. As we enter, a python of fresh smells coils around our necks and bites our nostrils with the sharp fragrance of chopped greens and aromatic curries. The food is delicious; our favorite is nasi kerabu—rice with dried fish or fried chicken over crunchy prawn crackers—served fresh from the wok. A short stroll away, hidden among the nearby traditional wooden houses of Kampung Kraftangan (Handicraft Village), we find Zecsman Design, a hole-in-thewall studio where Malay artist Zecs teaches us how to handle the batik wax pencil. His studio is cramped but neat, with batik of all sizes hanging from the walls or stashed in piles of wooden shelves and boxes. There's barely enough space for Zecs to set up the table where he supervises a girl's attempts to push some color into the scales of a silky tropical fish.
The author's favorite nasi kerabu served on a banana leaf in Kota Bharu market.
We cross the Terengganu state line and drive south along a flaxen thread of sand that tight-knits the ocean with the land. It almost hurts to see how deserted these nameless beaches are, and it's impossible to avoid making frequent stops to tuck our toes in the sand. After what should have been a threehour drive, it's already afternoon when the coastal road becomes an elevated bridge, and we cruise over a colored batik of Moorish domes and coconut trees slung across the estuary of the Terengganu River. Almost unsurprisingly, we take a blessed wrong turn, blaze past the central waterfront of Kuala Terengganu, our planned destination, and once again find ourselves magnetized to a vacant corner of the ocean.
Pantai Batu Buruk: the dune buggies cruising up and down the sand give this beach a touch of modernity in stark contrast to the city's Islamic feel. But we are soon drawn back into Terengganu's traditions, for the main activity here is flying kites. All along the seafront, Malaysians young and old spread their arms up in the sky to battle against the wind. One of Kuala Terengganu's icons, the floating mosque Tengku Tengah Zaharah, is visible in the distance. Opened in 1995 by the local Sultan, it's a white drop of the finest marble drifting over a green lagoon set against the backdrop of a wet kiss between sky and sea.
Tengku Tengah Zaharah and its lagoon.
The bright pink sunset we see from the top of Bukit Puteri (Princess Hill) at the coastline in Kampung Panglima sets the mood for a change. Thankfully, Chinatown beckons right around the corner like a smiling China doll nested inside of Kuala Terengganu's Islamic Matryoshka. Madam Bee's Kitchen stands out as the best choice among the 19th-century shop houses lined along the main street. Renovated to a cozy and homey restaurant, Madam Bee's dishes up Nyonya food Terengganu-style. The taste of their laksa Terengganu—a feast of rice noodles soaked in shredded fish gravy and garnished with cucumber and bean sprouts—stays on our minds and taste buds until we drift off to sleep on Pulau Duyong, a charming islet in the midst of the Terengganu River, and the Malay heartland of the city. Duyong Old Fort stands in effigy to the 19th century, when Pulau Duyong was an important site of religious learning. We spend the night at the Duyong Marina & Resort, a group of delightful villas with wooden room fittings and airy verandas inhaling a mesmerizing brew of sea and freshwater.
In the early morning light, though, this riverine spot turns into a spooky ghost town of looming stilt houses, a maze-like cemetery of abandoned dinghies and bumboats marooned on the beaches. Where have all the people gone? A sudden hammering sound both scares us and gets the best of our curiosity. We sneak to the back of a ramshackle building and unveil the mystery: it's just the master craftsmen fashioning the curvy structures of yet more wooden boats. In fact, rather than a burial ground, this is a birthplace, an open-air showroom. Every November since 2005, the Monsoon Cup brings international yachting teams here for a race on the seasonal high tides.
The bumboats marooned on the beaches.
"Meeting skippers from all over the world is very inspiring and boosts production," says Alim, a boat maker with eyes the color of the dark wood he's bending. The regatta transformed Pulau Duyong from sleepy fishermen hamlet to quirky global resort setting, and Duyong Marina & Resort, set on a secluded crest facing the mouth of the estuary, has capitalized on this fact. Today, we lounge at the pool while watching the sun change the colors of the South China Sea.
Besides being a destination in its own right, Kuala Terengganu is also the jumping-off point to Pulau Kapas (Cotton Island), a lower key, but not less stunning island compared to her blazoned sisters up north. We drive 20 minutes south to the pier at Marang and board a bumboat for more island diversions. Pulau Kapas lies only 5 kilometers off shore and can be tackled as a day trip. Why rush, though? With powder beaches, tropical rainforest, a sister atoll (Pulau Gemia) to the north, and reefs wriggling with multicolored tropical fish, Pulau Kapas has unquestionably all of the family's bells and whistles, less the flocks of tourists. The greatest luxury here is submitting to an empty blue sea.
The Chinese Mosque in borderland Rantau Panjang.
We spend the rest of the day in our swimsuits, dipping and lounging under palm trees with wiry dive master Izzat and his small group of students, the only other guests on the island.
People come here to earn their PADI certification from as far as Japan, Izzat tells us, and it's not only because the waters are crystalline to a depth of 20 meters—there's also a World War II wreck site: a sunken Japanese boat that lies upright 25 meters below, off the coast of Gemia. "Divers like it here because they can feel the simplicity and beauty of nature," Izzat says. So do we. The night rolls a gripping carpet of blazing stars overhead, taking our breaths away.
On our last day, we leave the shore behind to venture an hour inland through forested back roads to the freshwater beaches of Tasik Kenyir. This 260-square-kilometer lake, created in 1985 with the damming of the Kenyir River, is the biggest man-made body of water in Southeast Asia. Our cabin at Lake Kenyir Resort is modern comfort on a waterfront sheltered by some of the oldest rainforest in the world.
A fish farm in Tasik Kenyir.
Setting off on a boat ride to the center of the lake, I persuade the boatmen to steer us towards the enormous cluster of fish farms floating in the middle. Workers stop shuttling about and feeding fish to wave at our dinghy. We can't help but jump off the boat and onto their platform, clumsily trying our own hand at their rough trade. We dunk two long pond nets into the breeding pools, scoop up squirming fish, and haul them into empty tanks. The workers cross their arms at the small of their backs, smile and rest. We, sweating and laughing, are nowhere close to lounging among the sunseekers on one of Redang's famed coves. But like that monitor lizard roadblock, this detour has taken us somewhere far more fulfilling.
Fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu or to Kuala Terengganu via AirAsia (airasia.com) or Firefly (fireflyz.com.my). Rent a car on arrival at Kota Bharu Sultan Ismail Airport from Hertz (simedarbycarrental.com; +60 3 7966 7000) or Hawk (hawkrentacar.com.my; +60 3 5631 6488).
Perdana Resort On a crescent of sand a stone's throw from the airport and the main city attractions. Jln. Kuala Pa'Amat, Pantai Cahaya Bulan, Kota Bharu; +60 9 774 4000; perdanaresort.com.my.
Duyong Marina & Resort Swanky cottages and duplexes face the South China Sea from the mouth of Terengganu's biggest river. Kolej Agama Sultan Zainal Abidin, Kuala Terengganu; duyongmarinaresort.com; +60 9 627 7888.
Qimi Chalet Natural immersion in cozy wooden chalets on a beach with some of the best snorkeling on the island. Pulau Kapas; +60 19 648 1714.
Lake Kenyir Resort Soak up nature in style in modern wooden villas overlooking a quaint bend of the lake. Tasik Kenyir; kenyirlakeresorts.com.
Madam Bee's Kitchen 177 Jln. Kampung Cina, Kuala Terengganu; +60 12 988 7495; open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.
SEE + DO
Zecsman Design Batik Painting Classes Handicraft Village, Jln. Hilir Balai, Kota Bharu; +60 12 929 2822; facebook.com/zecsman.
Bukit Puteri Splendid views of Kuala Terengganu's waterways beckon at the top of this hill. Jln. Sultan Zainal Abidin, Kampung Panglima; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Pulau Kapas visit and diving Catch a bumboat with any of a number of operators at Marang pier; they depart regularly from 9 a.m. daily. Plan a dive trip with Aqua-Sport PADI center by contacting the Kapas Island Resort office in Kuala Terengganu. T-009 Blok Teratai, Taman Sri Kolam, Jln. Sultan Sulaiman, Kuala Terengganu; +60 9 631 6468; kapasislandresort.com.
Zecsman Design Batik Painting Classes.