When I woke up in the morning I heard some pitter patter on the tin shades of the hotel. I thought that my mind was playing tricks. When the curtains were parted it was raining and there was evidence on the road to suggest that it had rained quite heavily overnight. The rain was most welcome since it had been extremely hot and humid the previous day. Progressively the downpour became heavier. By 8 am I knew that my plans of visiting the nearby beaches, and maybe even try my hand at snorkelling, would be spiked. However, I had another chore to do; I had to exchange currency, which the receptionist said could be done only in Kota Bharu. That was about an hour away from Tok Bali where I was staying.
Kota Bharu is the capital of the Kelantan State of Malaysia. Politically, Kelantan is unique as it is the only state where the opposition party is in power in Malaysia. It is a rural state along the South China Sea, which gives it a long stretch of rustic fishing villages and beautiful casuarina lined beaches. However, tourism has not prospered here since strict Muslim laws are enforced, whereby sunbathing in bikins and public consumption of alcohol are no-gos. It is said that males and females have to follow different queues in supermarkets. But I did not see any evidence of such restrictions when I visited one in Kota Bharu. Malaysian batik and open markets are the unique contributions from this region. Songket, hand woven cloth with silk or cotton threads and gold or silver interwoven, is a unique product of Kelantan. It is said to have been in existence since the 15th century. Kelantanese women are known for their business skills, which is on display in ample measure in the Central Market in Kota Bharu.
Kelantan is basically an agrarian economy, primarily cultivating rice, rubber and tobacco, with a culture that differs from that of the rest of Malay Peninsula. Some of the oldest archaeological discoveries in the region has been from here and is known to been home to aboriginal settlers. This must be one of the reasons why the peculiar Kelantese Malay dialect is unintelligible to those who speak standard Malay. Kelantan has a lesser known Indian connection. One of the theories is that the word ‘Kelantan’ is derived from the Indian words “Kolaan/Kolaam Thana”, which refers to the diagrams or paintings on the floor in Hindu temples in ancient times. The words are supposed to have morphed into Kelantan.
As I drove into Kota Bharu I was taken aback by the number of cars parked all over the central part of the town. Then I realised that people would be out in large numbers because it was a Friday. I could not find any free parking lot and hence, opted for paid parking in the Trade Centre building, opposite the Siti Khadijah market. I first visited the Trade Centre shopping mall, which is one of the examples of modern urban life in the state. The mall is dominated by the Giant supermarket, where people go bargain hunting. I picked up some food provisions that were on promotions. Most shops in the mall had offers going as deep as seventy to ninety per cent. Even then footfalls seemed to be low.
The Siti Khadijah market, named after the Prophet’s wife, was another experience altogether. This is a place to see women at business and I was reminded of the Metei market in Imphal. In scale, however, the Siti Khadijah market is much larger. It is an octagonal building of four floors. As I neared the market I was hit by smells of fresh and dried fish and meats. The ground floor is for wet items such as fish, poultry, vegetables and fruits. The brightly coloured walls give it a vibrant look with the glass ceiling providing adequate light through the day inside the market, where business starts at 6 am. The first floor is meant for dry food items and the rest of the two floors are for business relating to non-food items. I was amazed at how the market was kept largely clean and free of garbage, in total contrast to what I have experienced in Kerala. I believe it is part of the culture of the place. Even in busy tourist places like Siem Reap, Pattaya and Luang Prabang the shops and stalls are regularly swept and garbage collected into bins at frequent intervals, which are either collected late at night or early in the morning by an arrangement with the local authorities.
I was hungry, having skipped breakfast. I located a small, but busy, restaurant near the central market, hoping that it would have WiFi connectivity, to set navigation for the return trip to Tok Bali. After ordering rice and chicken curry I realised that it did not have net connectivity. A decent helping of the ordered items and a tall glass of iced tea cost me the equivalent of Rs 100. What I saw at the proximate table was an example of modern day friendship. Four girls, obviously friends, ordered what they wanted and immediately pulled out swanky mobile phones from their bags and pockets. They got busy with the phones and conversation happened only when they had to mention something to each other about what they came across on the phones!
I had not yet done what I had come to Kota Bharu for – exchanging money. I asked the restaurant owner where I could get that done. He asked around, as he himself did not know, and could not come up with an answer. I walked around a bit in the town and could not see any money changers – in direct contrast to say, Pattaya, where money changers are dime a dozen, owing to tourists. I went to a bank then, where a Western Union counter was operational. There I transacted the required business and headed back to the hotel. I took a route that was mostly through villages, partly due to non-availability of navigational assistance, on the way back to Tok Bali. Most of the villages gave me a feel of the coastal villages in Kerala, but without the flags and propaganda.
6 weeks of the expedition that began in Cochin on 28 February is over. In another five weeks, on 13 May, the South East Asian Expedition will end in Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh. The two week Himalayan Expedition will start the very next day from Tezu to Jammu.