In the northeast corner of peninsular Malaysia, bordering Thailand, is the state of Kelantan. Few tourists head this far north up the east coast, but it's a fascinating journey for those interested in seeing Malaysia as it might have been without so many foreign influences. The state is populated mostly by Malays and other Bumiputeras, with only tiny numbers of Chinese and Indian residents and almost no traces of British colonialism. Not surprisingly, Kelantan is the heart of traditional Islam in modern Malaysia. Although the government in KL constructs social policies based upon a more open and tolerant Islam, religious and government leaders in Kelantan follow a more fundamentalist line. That said, visitors who respect local conservatism are most welcome.
It is important to note that Kelantan borders Thailand's southern provinces, where, since 2004, civil unrest, including bombings in public places, has led to hundreds of deaths of Thai citizens and several international tourists. I advise travelers to use caution in this area and refrain from speaking openly about politics and religion.
Kota Bharu, the state capital, is the heart of the region. The area is rich in Malay cultural heritage, as evidenced in the continuing interest in arts like silat (Malay martial arts), wayang kulit (puppetry), gasing (top spinning), and wau (kite flying). For the record, you won't find too much traditional music or dance, as women are forbidden from entertaining in public. Also beware that the state has strict laws controlling the sale of alcoholic beverages, which cannot be purchased in many stores, hotels, or most restaurants. Chinese restaurants, however, are permitted to sell beer to their patrons but will probably not allow you to take any away.
The Kelantan Tourist Information Centre in Kota Bharu is at Jalan Sultan Ibrahim (tel. 09/748-5534; Sun-Thurs 8am-5pm, Fri-Sat 9am-3pm).
If you take a side trip from Terengganu, plan to stay overnight. An outstation taxi from Kuala Terengganu can bring you on the 3-hour drive for around RM120. In Kota Bharu, stay at the Renaissance, Kota Sri Mutiara, Jalan Sultan Yahya Petra (tel. 09/746-2233; fax 09/746-1122; www.marriott.com). Managed by Marriott, it's practically the only hint of the 21st century in all of Kelantan. Rooms are exactly what you would expect from an international business-class hotel chain; they cost RM330 for double occupancy.
Centered around the Padang Merdeka are five of the most significant sights in Kota Bharu, run by the Kelantan State Museum Corporation. They are all open Saturday to Thursday 8:30am to 4:45pm, and closed on Friday; entry charges for each are RM2 for adults and RM1 for children. At the Istana Jahar, Kelantan traditional costumes, antiques, and musical instruments are displayed in context of their usage in royal ceremonies. Istana Batu takes you through a photographic journey of Kelantan's royal family and offers a peek at their lifestyle through the past 200 years. The Balai Getam Guri handicraft museum showcases the finest in Kelantanese textiles, basketry, embroidery, batik printing, and silversmithing. You'll also be able to buy crafts in the shops within the compound. The Islamic Museum (Muzium Islam) teaches everything you might want to know about Islam in this state, with a focus on Islamic arts and Kelantan's role in spreading Islam in the region. Finally, there is the War Museum (Bank Kerapu), which tells the story of Kelantan during World War II in a 1912 bank building that survived the invasion.
The State Museum (Muzium Negeri) is located on Jalan Hospital (tel. 09/748-2266; adults RM2, children RM1; Sat-Thurs 8:30am-4:45pm). It's been a long time since this old building served as the colonial land office, but it now houses the Kelantan Art Gallery, including ceramics, traditional musical instruments, and cultural pastimes exhibits.
For great local handicrafts shopping, visitors to Kelantan need go no farther than Jalan PCB, the road that leads to P.C.B. beach from Kota Bharu's Chinatown area. Hire a taxi through your hotel's concierge -- it's best to hire by the hour; it should cost only about RM15 per hour. Your driver will stop at every roadside factory, showroom, shop, and crafts house (the place crawls with them!), and you'll satisfy every shopping itch that needs scratching. These are all small cottage industries run out of folks' homes, so while some places actually have shops, many are very informal "look sees." You can watch women weaving songket cloth (fine cotton cloth with interwoven patterns in bright colors and gold or silver threads) on enormous wooden looms, see how kites are made by hand, and learn techniques for painting and dyeing batik cloth, along with many other crafts activities that go on in this area. Your driver can also take you to other shopping places in town for local crafts. The prices are very good -- far cheaper than in KL.