Malaysia - Kota Bharu

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Reaching Kota Bharu, a small city in the north east of Malaysia, we jumped into a taxi and found our hostel. We had opted to take a risk and go budget for the night. The hostel was called Ideal Travellers Lodge but on first impression it seemed far from ideal! To cut a long story short - it was a dump. The room was small with nothing more than a stained bed and some sliding doors that had massive gaps top and bottom to allow access to any insects (or small mammals) that fancied some tasty welsh blood. The shared toilet was also disgusting; a wet room covered in stains and smelling like it had never witnessed a cleaning effort (PICS). We guessed that must be what you get when you only pay 28RM (4) per night.
We dumped our bags and got straight out into the main street to find a better place for the next few days. We trudged around 5 other places in the city centre and eventually chose the Azam Hotel, an Indian run budget hotel with an en suite, air-con, TV and kettle - much more our style and still only 70RM (10) a night. We continued to wander around centre of Kota Bharu for a couple of hours before heading back to our 'Ideal' hostel to get an early night.
The early night was pointless! The uncomfortable bed and unbearable heat meant that we only managed about 2 hours sleep and as a result we checked out early and went straight over to the Azam and were luckily able to check in early. A quick, much-needed shower and we were feeling fresh enough to go back out. Walking along one of a few well-presented streets (PIC) we found the tourist info and were welcomed by local 'geezer' Rosalin.
With an obvious interest in British TV, Rosalin greeted us with a "Hello Darlings" and "Lovely Jubbly" as he showed us what there was to do in and around Kota Bharu. We quickly discovered that Rosalin had a lot of fingers in a lot of pies. Not only did he work at the Tourist Information Centre but he also ran tours, cooking classes, hosted the cultural events and taught Tae-Kwon-Do. He also managed to fit in his 5 prayer sessions a day as a devout Muslim.
We booked a tour with Rosalin for the following day and bid him farewell, knowing we would see him again at the cultural centre that night! We made our way around the corner to the Clock Tower, set in the middle of a busy traffic intersection (PIC), and then visited the City Museum. The museum was a bit old and shabby around the edges, a relatively small space with three main sections; a room dedicated to the Royal Family, a gallery of local art, and an upstairs section featuring traditional pastimes and costumes. The costumes were elaborate and intricately designed and would have surely been for special occasions or festivals, as would the masks and headwear that accompanied them (PICS). A couple of traditional instruments such as a large gong and drums were on display, along with local handicraft pieces like kites and shadow puppets (PICS). The shadow puppet display featured the entire set up for a puppet show and gave us a chance to see behind-the-scenes of how this old-fashioned form of entertainment worked (PIC).
Later on that afternoon we walked across town to the Cultural Centre. The centre is open most afternoons and presents various forms of traditional local pastimes. On this particular day we were able to watch Seni Silat (a form of self defence), Kertok (coconut percussion), Sepak Bulu Ayam (a kicking game), Gasing Pangkah (Striking Tops) and Congkak (a game for women).
The self-defence started off with a guy doing a few moves on his own, then another joined in and they scooted around each other occasionally taking it in turns to try and take each other down. In a way it looked a bit choreographed but you could tell from the whoops and cheers from the other locals that it was for real when one guy managed to take the other down in a particularly forceful way! (PICS) Soon enough the floor was opened up to the audience and Andrew and two other visitors were chosen to participate. The three brave 'volunteers' were dressed in the compulsory headband and sarong and then taken through a number of steps that the performers assume when doing the solo part of the ritual (PICS). It was surprisingly tough on the legs, with all the moves done in a squat position and with slow, deliberate movements.
The Kertok (coconut percussion) performance was very impressive, with a great rhythm built up amongst the performers, each set of players producing a different part of the beat and playing at an amazing rate. Some of the older guys looked like they weren't even trying as they whacked out a complex beat in time with the other players! (PICS)
Sepak Bulu Ayam is basically a game of group keepy-uppy with a giant shuttlecock made of chicken feathers (Ayam means Chicken in Malaysian - very useful in restaurants!). The players can keep the 'ball' up in the air using anything but their arms and hands. After watching the locals for a while it was too much temptation for Andrew to resist and he had to join in and show the locals how it is really done. He actually held his own amongst the more experienced players, wowing them with his silky skills - both with his feet, knees and head (PICS).
While Andrew was getting his football fix (well almost), Verdi was watching some locals playing Gasing Pangkah. This is a highly skilled game where a long length of string is wound around a large wooden spinning top and then flung onto a rubber mat. The opponent then flings his top at the spinning one, with the aim of blasting the first top off the playing surface. A few visitors tried the skill and immediately found that it is a lot harder than it looks. The locals then showed us and made it look easy - smashing each others tops off the floor and into the back wall with a tremendous noise! (PICS)
The final game was far more peaceful and calmly played, though with no less skill or concentration. Congkak is a game strictly played by local women. The aim seems to be to get more marbles in your pot than your opponent. There is some rule than means you scoop up the marbles in one hole and then spread them over the holes moving clockwise around the board, if you end on a hole that already has marbles then you get another go - and so it continues until all the marbles are in one of the two end pots. Or something like that! (PIC)
An old local man was sat down watching us tourists try these local traditional games - he seemed to find it all quite amusing. He looked like a typical old oriental gent, with a kind sparkle in his eye (PIC).
We returned to the cultural centre for the nighttime shadow puppet show. The place was packed, more with locals than tourists, they must have a real interest in the show as a form of entertainment, especially as it is shown about 3 times a week. We began by watching the preparations behind the screen and the 'orchestra' playing some tunes that continued for another two hours - without a break! As the show began we moved to the seating area in front of the screen, although most locals continued to watch from behind the scenes. We got talking to two older ladies from the UK who were in Malaysia on a month-long holiday. They were very adventurous women who had been to many places in Malaysia on their travels and even hired a car and driven themselves in the south of the country - crazy! They had also been to many of the places that we were planning to visit and gave us some advice on health and safety in some of the more dodgy areas, such as India.
We began the following morning in lazy mode before booking our Penang accommodation and preparing for our afternoon tour. We met with Rosilan outside our hotel and jumped into the car he had acquired for the day. Our first stop was a kite making shop where an old guy, with more muscles than a professional body builder, sat making the delicate flying toys (PIC). His shop was packed with intricately designed kites, the sun beaming through the crepe paper fabric and giving the shop a magical atmosphere - in stark contrast to the dull and dusty environment outside the shop. The old man started to work on a small piece of folded paper as we watched closely, his fingers quickly darting over the paper with a scalpel in hand. Within just a couple of minutes he unfolded to paper to reveal a complicated flower pattern that he had made for us. He looked very happy as he placed a coloured piece of crepe paper behind it to show off the intricacy of the design (PIC). We gratefully accepted his gift and would have bought a kite if we had any way of carrying it for the next three months!
All around the kite shop were local kids running in and out and seemingly amazed by our presence in their tiny village - they obviously don't get that many foreign visitors out in the sticks. They became even more enthralled, if slightly shy, when we got our digital camera out and took a few pictures of them (PICS). They were mesmerised by the LCD display showing them a picture of themselves and giggled loudly every time we showed them a photo of them and their mates.
Leaving the kite shop we traveled to the river and jumped aboard a local longboat. The fishing village that we departed from was full of brightly coloured boats, adorned with dozens of flags atop the buoys that were used to mark the fishing nets (PICS). As we cruised along the murky waters we passed several local fisherman going about their daily business (PICS), completely uninterested in our presence. Even a giant monitor lizard on the banks of the mangroves barely turned his head as we sailed on past (PIC).
The waters of the river certainly didn't look appealing enough to tempt us into a dip, but they did allow for some contrasting colours against the green palms and bright blue sky (PIC). The local transport pulled past us as we made our way back to shore, a boat full of young local women who were fascinated by us and all returned the gesture as we waved to them after taking their picture (PIC).
Back on dry land we were driven to the Wat Maisuwankiri Temple. This temple is a huge complex of buildings, both old, new and still being built, and the vivid colours had an almost 'fairground' vibrancy. A stunning combination of Buddhas, dragons and other creatures brought the temple to life (PICS). The crowning glory was a recently completed boat-shaped building with two giant dragons winding their way around the base (PICS).
Just around the corner, in a quiet spot away from the temples, a couple of tiny puppies were brawling with one another, oblivious to our approach until we were close enough to get a good photo of one of them (PIC). They were beautiful little things and looked much healthier than any of the other dogs around the temple, which all seemed to be suffering with mange.
Our final stop was a Shadow Puppet maker. In a similar setting to the kite manufacturer a couple of old local men worked as a team producing a whole host of colourful, moving puppets. The puppets are made from the dried hide of a cow, buffalo or even goat. A pattern is drawn onto the back of the hide and various handmade tools are then used to cut out small pieces of the hide to create a shape that light can pass through. Andrew had a try at chiseling out part of a design that one of the locals had been working on and seemed to impress him with his accuracy - although all he had to do was follow some lines! (PICS)
The plain puppet is then painted with a selection of coloured dyes to give the finished piece. The dyed dried hide (try saying that 3 times quickly!) is then supported on a stick and various parts are attached together to allow the puppets limbs to move.
The walls of the small puppet-makers house were covered with traditional designs of all shapes and sizes. We decided to buy a smaller one as a souvenir - in fact you can see it in the picture (coloured one furthest right on the bottom row) (PIC).
Our brief look into the life of north Malaysian locals came to an end as we returned to our hotel in the centre of Kota Bharu. The tour had only lasted three hours but we felt like we had experienced a lot in that time. We bid farewell to Rosilan and had an early night before our flight to Penang early the following morning.

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