Destinations on Malaysia's west coast like Penang, Langkawi and Malacca are familiar to New Zealand travellers, but a journey to the country's less-visited east coast reveals island snorkelling and diving, jungle trekking, and authentic local food and culture.
Kota Bharu Culture
The capital of Malaysia's northernmost state of Kelantan, Kota Bharu is an intriguing combination of Malay, Chinese and Thai cultures. Regular flights from Kuala Lumpur and Penang make it a favourite with domestic Malaysian travellers, and the city's languid oceanfront esplanade cooled by South China Sea breezes is also interesting for international visitors. A few blocks back from the ocean, Kota Bharu's museum precinct showcases the state's history and culture, with many of the exhibitions housed in the stately former residences of the Kelantanese royal family. From the museum area, it's an easy stroll through sleepy craft workshops to the colourful, multi-level Central Market. Commerce kicks off at dawn as farmers from around the region set up to trade their produce. A top-floor food court is the perfect introduction to local dishes often infused with the heat and spice of nearby Thailand.
Kota Bharu Food
It's not only Thai flavours infusing cuisine in cosmopolitan Kota Bharu, and in the area's compact heritage district, slowly spinning ceiling fans ease the tropical heat in simple open-sided Chinese cafes. Head to Restoran Capital for breakfast and feast on nasi kerabu (blue rice with coconut, fish and spices). Don't forget to add a fried egg and crunchy prawn crackers on top. Nearby, the Kedai Kopi White House has been serving the same simple snack of kaya toast with coconut jam for decades. In the evenings, KB's dining focus shifts to bustling seafood BBQ joints in the city's compact Chinatown, or around the tangle of Malay food stalls at the night market. A local specialty is ayam percik (grilled chicken marinated in coconut, lemongrass and spices).
Easily reached by speedboat from the sleepy port of Kuala Besut (an hour south of Kota Bharu), the Perhentians archipelago is made up of two main islands. Head to Pulau Kecil ('Small Island') for a thriving backpacker scene with good-value beachfront accommodation and jungle walks traversing remote coves, while zippy water taxis continue across sheltered turquoise waters to Pulau Besar ('Big Island'). Besar is more family friendly, with very comfortable but still low-key resorts offering daily snorkelling trips to more remote islands like Pulau Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang. The calm and sheltered waters around the Perhentian Islands also make it a good place to learn to dive.
Back on the mainland, regular buses and taxis make the two-hour journey down the coast from Kuala Besut to the capital of Terengganu state. Penang's Chinatown in George Town is deservedly famous, but Kuala Terengganu's collection of colourful Straits Chinese architecture is a hidden gem. Shophouses are being revitalised as cafes and boutique lodging, fragrant aromas from traditional Chinese medicinal herb shops infuse the air, and narrow heritage laneways are being enlivened with quirky street art. Like Kota Bharu, Kuala Terengganu is firmly on the travel radar for Malaysian tourists, but occasional foreign travellers are warmly welcomed by the city's outward-looking population. Regular flights to Kuala Lumpur also make KT a convenient beginning or end point when exploring the east coast of Malaysia.
Kuala Terengganu is also the best place to catch a taxi 20km south to Marang for the short 15-minute speedboat journey to Pulau Kapas. The compact island is crowded with daytrippers at weekends and during Malaysian and Singaporean holidays, but visit during the week to experience one of Malaysia's most laid-back islands. Snorkelling and diving is superb, especially around even smaller Pulau Gemia, and accommodation places can supply kayaks.