This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Make a Crawl for the (Thai) Border

We arrive to Kota Bharu on Friday. We are here to get our visa for Thailand. But Friday and Saturday is the weekend in Malaysia so we will have to wait until Sunday to go to the Thai consulate and probably will not get our visa until Monday and leave on Tuesday. Thailand is giving free 60 day visas while you get only a 15 day visa at the border. Kota Bharu is mostly a transit town for people going to or leaving the Perhentian Islands. Hardly anyone stays here for very long.

Kota Bharu is the capital of Kelantan, a declared Muslim province. Many business signs have Arabic writing. There is no movie theatre. I was told there used to be one, but the higher powers feared a dark cinema would lead to too much hanky panky by unmarried couples. So after a brief, unsuccessful attempt at movies with the lights on, it was closed. It is also Ramadan so most restaurants (except Chinese) are closed during the day.

Our typical breakfast
Even though today is Friday the 13th we luckily find a nice little backpackers’ guesthouse quickly with very little hassle. The woman working evenings, LC, is full of great information about Kota Bharu and Malaysia including Kelantan royal family gossip. There is a particularly sordid affair about a prince who married a 16 yr. old Indonesian supermodel who then fled from him in Singapore. For more disturbing details on Malaysian aristocracy click here. She also recommends we try Nasi Kerabu, a blue rice dish found only in this region.

Dinner = Blue rice with herbs, fish, rice crackers and pickled garlic. RM 3.5 (US$1.10) in the night market
One big attraction in Kota Bharu is the Central Market. The tourist literature claims that this is “the most photographed market in Malaysia” though I am not sure who is counting camera clicks in markets around the country. It is quite large, but not packed. We enter through the vegetable area, buy some fruit and cut to the fish area. Mika’s stomach is already a bit queasy from our dinner last night at the night market so she bows out quickly from the smell. I am not sure why, but I love walking around markets. So I return early the next morning to see them setting up.

Showing off a catfish

By tradition the vegetable sellers are women. I notice that the chicken sellers are also predominantly women. They have piles of raw chickens and are disassembling them using knives and hands with incredible efficiency. Behind the chickens is coconut. Machines are grinding coconuts non-stop. Coconut is used in cooking in Kelantan much more than other parts of Malaysia due to the proximity to Thailand. Steps from the coconut area are the beef butchers. Only men here. They are busy hacking through beef with deadly sharp knives, while some chop through bone with hand axes. One hanging leg is like a mini butcher shop. There is one after the other. I am not quite sure how a customer chooses from whom to buy.

This woman could take apart a chicken every 30 secs.
Our third day we decide to go to the village Kampong Laut to see the production of Serunding, a meat floss. It is like a shredded jerky. We buy our tickets on the S.S. Please Don’t Sink and wait until it is time to chug the fifteen minutes up river. Once on the other side we are pointed the way and soon pass a building with heat emanating from the windows and door. We are invited in by the ladies working. The room is full of giant woks. The six women are busy stirring shredded chicken with a large wooden two-pronged fork. Like in a sauna, our skin is glistening from perspiration. Stepping outside, the usually balmy Malaysian weather feels fresh. Next door is another small factory where we get to see the whole beef floss making process. The workers are really friendly and do not mind us disrupting their process for a few minutes. They give Mika a small bag of the local delicacy to take home.

Boys from Kampong Laut hanging out with us as we wait for the ferry
On Tuesday we have one last breakfast at our preferred Chinese restaurant and then take the slow bus to the border. The trip is uneventful. Yet crossing an international border by foot naturally feels slightly more dramatic and hectic than the sterility of an airport. Now off to Southern Thailand to see what we can discover.
Forget Paris or Milan. Kota Bharu has all the latest fashions from Istanbul and Nagoya, Japan.

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