Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu is the capital of Kelantan, situated in the northernmost part of West Malaysia. The name Kelantan means ”land of lightning” in the Malay world and is often referred to as the “cradle of Malay culture”. It shared its border with the kingdom of Thailand, which makes this town a transit point between the two countries as well as a getaway to the popular Perhentian Island.

The charming Kota Bharu is home to many mosques, historical and cultural museums, and Buddhist temples. When it comes to food, Kota Bharu or Kelantan in general has its own taste of delicious local food. Most notable dishes are originated here such as Nasi Dagang and Nasi Kukus, have their unique flavors, and elsewhere in Malaysia can’t compare with the taste just like Kelantan.

To my surprise as a first-timer here and living as a city guy, this rather-conservative city has amazed me with the friendliness of the local community that makes me feel most welcome and set off on a remarkable journey.

Best Time to Visit

Kota Bharu has a tropical monsoon climate with hot and humid weather. The best time to visit is between February and July. The monsoon season falls from August to January which will experience heavy downpours and occasionally flooding in or nearby the city.

School holidays usually fall in May or June and from November to December. Festival seasons like Chinese New Year will fall at the end of January or February and Muslim festival is around April or May. It is expected to have many visitors and locals traveling home to celebrate these festivals.

One of the important events is the Ramadan period when the Muslim people start fasting during the day. Due to the high population of Muslims in town, you will find most eateries and shops remain closed during the day until late evenings. Night bazaars will open to sell food and beverages from 4 pm until late night.

Getting There

By Plane

Kota Bharu has a small airport named Sultan Ismail Petra Airport, simply known as Kota Bharu Airport (Airport Code: KBR). It only served on domestic flight routes from Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Penang, Johor Bharu, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching, which are operated by Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. If you are traveling from other countries, you will most likely arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) first and need to take an hour domestic flight to Kota Kharu.

The airport is located about 10 kilometers from Kota Bharu city and it takes a 20-minutes car ride. Upon checking out from the terminal, you can use e-hailing services from Grab or AirAsia Super App, and they pick up from Gate B (Remember to download the Grab or AirAsia Super app to your phone beforehand). It is better to use an e-hailing service rather than taxi because most taxi drivers are reluctant to use taxi meters and charge passengers a higher price.

Getting Around

Getting from one point to another is very easy, many thanks to the e-hailing services. The fare rate is cheap and fast to get a ride.

However, going to the beach or visiting the Buddhist temples at Tumpat, the northern part of Kelantan can be tricky though. Due to the locations, finding a ride may take an hour or two because e-hailing cars are very limited. So, you need to be a little patient to get a ride back to the city. Alternatively, you can hire a car with a driver to take you to the temples (if possible to pre-arrange a day trip with the driver who picks you up from the airport).

The Best Things to do for 3 Days in Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu has many museums, historic buildings, Buddhist temples, and delicious food. This city has been off the radar and left untouched by many local visitors and foreign tourists. One can slowly explore and learn about their interesting culture and history that have been preserved for hundreds of years and had rooted into the people’s lifestyle today. I recommend spending at least 3 days and 4 nights in Kota Bharu to explore this tranquil city. Let’s look at the list of things that can add to your Kota Bharu’s travel bucket list.

Have Nasi Dagang at Kedai Kopi White Coffee

This small coffee shop served many Kelantanese traditional food. The Nasi Dagang Ikan I ate came with steamed rice and pre-packed curry fish. The combination of fenugreek seeds and coconut milk was added to bring up the unique taste and fragrance. It is a perfect breakfast meal to kick start the day.

Among others include Nasi Dagang Ayam (chicken), Nasi Tumpang, Nasi Kerabu Ayam and Nasi Lemak and are sold only between RM2.50 to RM4.50.

Opening hours: Saturday to Thursday from 8.30 am to 1 pm

Discover the town’s history at Bank Kerapu

Built in 1922, Bank Kerapu was formerly a Mercantile Bank that turned World War II Memorial Museum. Back then, Mercantile Bank of India was the first commercial bank in Kelantan. The branch was located downstairs and the bank manager lived upstairs.

The building has been occupied by the Japanese military police during World War II as a secret police station to coordinate the war in Malaya. After the fall of Japan, the building continued to function as a bank before converting into the current memorial in 1992.

The museum showcases exhibits related to World War II, including a Japanese bicycle, weapons, articles. documents and the duplicated atomic bombs, and the story of national spirit and struggle to gain independence for the country. There are also photographs, old furniture, and antiques dating back to the early 1930s on the second floor.

Opening hours: Saturday to Wednesday from 8.30 am to 4.45 pm and Wednesday from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm

Entrance fee: Local- Adults: RM2/ Children: RM1 and Foreigner- Adults: RM4/ Children: RM2

Visit Islamic Museum

The Kelantan Islamic Museum, also known as Syura Hall, tells the history of how Islam was introduced to Kelantan which earned the title ‘Veranda of Mecca‘. You can learn about the state muftis, and the Sultan’s role, and admire the impressive Islamic art, ceramics and crafts, pictures of Islamic historical sites and some belongings of Prophet Muhammad. There are other exhibits on the second floor that display several inventions from the Islamic world that shaped and changed the past and modern aviation, engineering, astronomy, and warfare.

As you are exploring the museum, one can notice its high-quality tropical hardwood used around the exterior and interior of the doors, windows and walls, and they were carved with different motifs. The building was once used as a former residence of the state Chief Minister who has served from 1900 to 1920.

Opening hours: Saturday to Wednesday from 8.30 am to 4.45 pm and Wednesday from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm

Entrance fee: Local- Adults: RM2/ Children: RM1 and Foreigner- Adults: RM4/ Children: RM2

Step into the grand Istana Jahar

Istana Jahar (Jahar Palace)  is a former palace built in 1887 for Raja Bendehara Long Kundor during the reign of Sultan Muhammad II. He was the third in line to the throne. The palace was named after a jahar tree that was growing on the grounds at that time.

The palace was converted into the present Kelantan Traditional Royal Ceremonies in 1981 and displays a handful collection of costumes, royal regalia, jewelry and silver wares. It also showcases family tree charts and photographs of the Kelantan royals. The back of the museum houses a collection of boats used for special occasions and a range of traditional Malay weapons including keris and pisau in the Malay Weapons Gallery..

Opening hours: Saturday to Wednesday from 8.30 am to 4.45 pm and Sunday from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm

Entrance fee: Local- Adults: RM2/ Children: RM1 and Foreigner- Adults: RM4/ Children: RM2

Relaxing at Pantai Nami

Situated about 16 kilometers away from the city center, Pantai Nami in Bachok is well known for its scenic view, with pine trees-lined paths by the beach. It has become a popular spot among the locals and one of the most Insta-worthy scenes. Some people named it- Malaysia’s very own version of “Nami Island”, which is situated in South Korea.

The pine trees do not grow naturally, but were planted to prevent coastal erosion and flooding. But still, these full-grown, matured trees planted by the seaside make a gorgeous landscape. Looks like I can save the trip to Nami Island after all!

Dinner at Chinatown

This small city has its own Chinatown. A short stretch of shophouses has many Chinese coffee shops and restaurants where you can try local Chinese dishes. Both sides of the street are always packed with people and cars in the morning and late evening when the restaurants and hawker stalls are open.

Crave for the famous Nasi Kukus

Opened back in 1972, Warisan Nasi Kukus Kebun Sultan is located in Chinatown and sells yummy Nasi Kukus. It is another must-try Kelantan’s traditional delicacy. The steamed rice is cooked in individual aluminium bowls over a large steamer, then served warm with different curries.

They have a variety of side dishes, including curry chicken, curry fish, curry prawns, and other types of vegetables. The price is reasonable, such as mine only costs RM 8.50, which comes with steamed rice, chicken curry, fried egg, lady’s fingers, and some cucumber slices.

Opening hours: Daily, from 4.30 pm- 10 pm

Breakfast at Capital Cafe

Capital Cafe (Restoran Capital) is my favorite breakfast place and has excellent Nasi Kerabu and Nasi Dagang. It is the one and only stall in the coffee shop which runs by a couple. The Nasi Kerabu is a blue herb rice mixed with different subtle Kelantanese curries with crunchy crackers. The Nasi Dagang is slightly different than what I had in Restoran Kopi White Coffee. Served with either chicken, beef, or fish curry, this traditional breakfast consists of steamed semi-glutinous rice, hard-boiled eggs, poached vegetables, “saman” (grated, toasted coconut with chili flakes) and “achar” (pickled vegetables).

Both of these delicious dishes bring great satisfaction to my tastebud and the price is cheap as well, costing an average of RM4.50.

The coffee shop itself also sells simple breakfast including popiah (fresh spring rolls), toast bread and drinks. So if you are waiting for the stall to open, order some drinks and relax for a moment in this laid-back little city.

Opening hours: The coffee shop opens from Wednesday to Monday from 8 am to 1.30 pm. The stall opens later about 9 am until the food is sold out.

Wander through Siti Khadijah Market

This colorful Siti Khadijah Market is a fun and interesting place to explore and watch the traders in action. The market is named after the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who is known for her entrepreneurial skills. Hence, this market got its name and most of the stalls are run by women.

Roaming around the market feels like walking into a maze. You will watch vendors busily unpack and restock their freshly-caught seafood, poultry, vegetables, fruits, and daily products on the ground floor. What astounded me was the row of shops selling jewelry, but not sure if there are really genuine. The stalls on the second and third floor sell dried fruits, dairy products, processed food, sweets, souvenirs, toys, traditional Malay clothes, silk clothes and batik.

Opening hours: 8.30 am to 5.30 pm

Enjoy the tasty Ayam Percik

Located along the main road of Long Yunus, Yati Ayam Percik has been around for over 40 years,. They serve traditional food of Malaysia’s East Coast, namely Nasi Kerabu, Sattar, Ayam Percik, Gulai Kawah and Daging Bakar.

I tried their signature dish, Ayam Percik (roasted spiced chicken) and Nasi Kerabu. The chicken is first prepared in an open-air grilling area with charcoal and later topped with creamy, sweet-spicy sauce. The rice is prepared through the extraction of butterfly pea flower (telang) which creates a blue-hue color and is served together with herbs, bean sprouts, fried coconut paste, ginger flower and chopped basil leaves. The rice, chicken and a glass of ice lemon tea cost RM14, which is quite a decent price for me.

Address: 847, Jalan Long Yunus, 1520 Kota Bharu

Opening hours: Daily 12 pm to 11.30 pm expect Friday from 3 pm to 11.30 pm

Admire local arts in Kelantan Art Galleries

This little Kelantan Art Galleries (Balai Seni Lukis Kelantan) houses some impressive art paintings made by local artists to showcase their talents. Most of the artworks describe the beauty of Kelantan, its history, and culture as well as flora and faunas. You can appreciate such detailed arts with great inspiration created by these painters.

Opening hours: Saturday to Wednesday from 8.30 am to 4.45 pm and Wednesday from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm

Entrance fee: Local- Adults: RM2/ Children: RM1 and Foreigner- Adults: RM4/ Children: RM2

Roam around the street art alleyways

Kota Bharu has added its own charm with mural arts. There are graphics of smiling locals and jungle scenes. The Cultural Lane portrays different cultural life and celebrations of Malaysian races. There is another lane that illustrates the life struggle of the Palestinian people during the war with Isreal.

Visit Wat Machimmaram

Situated some 20 kilometers from the city, Wat Machimmaram is an impressive Thai Buddhist Temple with a giant sitting Buddha statue. It is one of 25 Buddhist temples in the district of Tumpat and it comes with no surprise because it is close to the Thai border who brought cultural influence here.

The sitting Buddha statue is one of the largest in Southeast Asia with a height of 30 meters and a wide of 47 meters. The statue took more than 10 years to construct and used hundreds of skilled craftsmen from Thailand. It is coated with tiny shiny mosaic tiles and the bottom lip is coated with gold.

Opening hours: Daily from 9 am to 5 pm (Rest time 12.30 pm to 2 pm)

Entrance fee: free

Address: Kampung Jubakar, Tumpat, 16210 Kelantan

Visit Wat Phothivahav

Built in 1979, Wat Phothivihan is well known for its reclining Buddha statue. It is the longest reclining Buddha statue in Malaysia with a length of 40 meters. The compound also has several small temples and Chinese deities.

One of the temples includes a Chinese Pavilion and a Tibetan-style hall featuring the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara statue with 18 arms. A Buddha’s head found under a tree remains me of Wat Mahathat Temple I had visited Ayutthaya, Thailand, although this one has a small wooden temple built around it.

Opening hours: Daily, 9.30 am- 6.30 pm

Entrance fee: free

Address: Kampung Jambu, 16200 Kelantan

Going Elsewhere in Malaysia?

If you are planning to stay longer for more adventures in Malaysia, you can check out some of my other posts:

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