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Islamic Malaysia in Kota Bharu

We enter Malaysia from Thailand on the east coast and arrive in Kota Bharu (often misspelled as Kota Bahru). This part of the country is strictly Muslim. Friday is not a working day, and women are supposed to cover their arms and legs. Alcohol and pork are hard to find and some even try to enforce the sharia, the Islamic law including punishments like chopping off hands of thieves, etcetera. For the time being, however, the Malaysian government also respects the other groups in the country, especially the Chinese and Indian people, although they are outnumbered here.

Typical pasttime in Malaysia: waiting for the tops to stop spinnning

A minivan brings us from Hat Yai to the Malaysian border. After the formalities we walk to the other side, where we can exchange money and arrange further transportation. The bus to Kota Bharu is full of Muslim children coming from school. They all wear a uniform with either a headscarf (the girls) or a cap (the boys). After a few stops most of them get out so we can obtain a seat. After less than an hour we arrive in Kota Bharu.

Panic!!

On our search for a guesthouse in Kota Bharu, we find out our wallet is missing. Panic, but we decide to continue our search first, and then go to the police station. Just outside the city center we find Rebana guesthouse, a cosy house with a garden and nice people. They also give us directions to the police station, where we report our loss. Luckily, there wasn't much cash in the wallet, just some cards and a few dollars.

On our way back we spot the bus that brought us to Kota Bharu. We ask the driver if he found our wallet, but he doesn't speak any English. Just as we are about to give up, the conductor shows up, and even before we can ask, he pulls our wallet from his pocket. Honesty still exists in this world, not a single dollar is missing. We thank him, and reward him with a tip.

Rain

After dinner we want to visit the town of Kota Bharu, but dark clouds are gathering above our heads and it starts to rain. Actually, it pours and we have to take shelter in a small Chinese store. When the worst rain is over, we run back to the guesthouse. It keeps raining all night, and even the next morning. But people tell us it is nothing compared to the rain they had a few days before. After 3 months of drought, there were huge thunderstorms with rain. And it should be the other way around: rains until march, and drought after that.

Sultan Ismail Petra Arch in Kota Bharu, MalaysiaIn the afternoon the weather improves, so we are able to visit the city. Unfortunately, it's Friday and everything is closed. We can look only at the exterior of the museums. Only the central market is open, a large octagonal building in which fresh articles are on display. But we do not like the smell of it, and are quickly outside.

Museums

Saturday, we take another tour around Kota Bharu, and this time, everything is open. First we visit the Islamic museum. We do not learn much from what is shown here, only the existence of Islamic training camps. We also see Islamic clothing, weaponry, pottery, lecture, etcetera. But nothing more interesting than the pictures of street life in different other Islamic countries.

We search for the museum of handiwork, and after a short walk we find it. Here we see woodcarvings, silver, and batik. Nice, but not very special either. As far as museums are considered, we decide we have seen enough.

Cultural Center

In the afternoon we head for the cultural center of Kota Bharu, where demonstrations are given of folkloric activities. When we think to have found the center, some kind of large festival market, we search for the activities, but with little success. We do meet some fellow Dutchmen, who were told that it would have to happen on the nearby stage. The conversation continues about us being "backpackers", upon which we decide to call them "suitcase bearers". In the end, nothing seems to be happening on stage and we continue our search.

Top Spinning in Kota Bharu, MalaysiaFinally, we find the actual cultural center. It is not much more than a few stalls on a lawn, where a group of men is demonstrating the activities. Kite making is already finished, but we are just in time for the top spinning. This appears to be an important game in Islamic Malaysia. Every men has his own top, around which he winds a rope. Then he throws it onto a plateau, pulling the rope so it starts spinning. Another man scoops it off with a kind of spoon, and places it onto a pin, to be put on the side while spinning. The top that spins the longest is the winner. Nice, but the tops can spin for over two hours, so there is not much activity in this game.

When we have seen enough, we decide to make a detour in order to eat our first satay in Malaysia. Satay is a typical Malay dish, but oddly enough there are not many places where it is sold. There are more Chinese and Indian restaurants than Malay ones. But it was well worth the detour.

Bats

Back in our guesthouse the bats are flying around our heads. The wooden house is open on one side, where we can sit on the porch. But in the aisle to the rooms is a lamp, attracting flies and mosquitoes. In turn, these attract the bats, who are flying in and out through the aisle. The guesthouse owner laughs as he sees us ducking away for the bats. "Too much Steven Spielberg" he says, making us scared for innocent spiders and bats. And he is probably right.

Sunday morning we leave Kota Bharu. The Islamic nature of this city is present everywhere, but not in a disturbing way. The people are friendly (and honest!!), and welcome foreigners. Although the museums are a bit disappointing, it is a nice place to experience Malay culture.



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