Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Exploring the east coast of Malaysia, starting with Kuala Terengganu (KT), land of sultans, mosques, and seafood

I've done a lot of travelling within Malaysia, but never have really explored the East Coast area, which is often difficult to access, but is home to some amazing beaches, snorkeling and diving. S and I planned this amazing Malaysia mega-trip back in Oct, and thanks to some cheap advance airfares from AirAsia (RM49 incl tax / US$15), I finally had a chance to explore KT!

KT is in the state of Terengganu, in northeast Malaysia. This area is supposedly where Islam was first introduced to the country, hundreds of years ago by Arab traders. As a result, the population here appears to be more Malay dominated, you see fewer Chinese and Indians, and more Malay is spoken here... Since I was travelling with S, I was in luck, but it was so strange to hear her speak in Malay (albeit a bit rusty). Can you imagine - somebody you've known for over 3 years, and suddenly they're speaking a language you don't really understand? And it seems that they're understanding all of the responses? It's probably as surprising as finding out your parents were spies for the Russians!

KT is normally a transit town, most people don't spend much time here, since they're usually on the way to the resort islands of Pulau Redang or Pulau Perhentian. We were actually on our way to Redang, but had to wait a few days in KT before S's family could meet us there. KT is actually well known for a couple things:

1. Turtles - given the location on the east coast of Malaysia, there are some famous sea turtles (some of whom are endangered) that are in the area, and come to lay their eggs on an nearby beach. Lots of tourists come here to watch them do that...

On the other hand - lots of tourists (and locals) love to come to KT to eat... turtle eggs! I was shocked. We were exploring Pasar Panyang, the main market in KT, and nearly each stall had these small plastic bags filled with ping-pong ball shaped turtle eggs. I sure hoped they weren't the endangered ones. Sure enough, when S's family came into town, they bought some turtle eggs to try. And - like a good (but a bit scared) foodie, I tried one (again, praying that wasn't an endangered one). S's mom cooked them in the teapot in the resort hotel, and interestingly, no matter how long you cook it, the white part doesn't become completely hard. I tried one.. and it tasted like a salty potato, with a similar texture. Egh - not so sure why people like it so much.

2. Mosques - being the cradle of Islamic civilization in Malaysia, there were a number of mosques. Both of them were really beautiful buildings, but surprisingly, empty. Supposedly, the Saudis were involved in building the crystal mosque, but there's accusations of mishandling of the money. Something like RM300m (~USD100m) was spent on the project.

3. Food!

I have this theory that taxi drivers know where all the best food is. In fact, there's even been books written about this theory. We lucked out in having a great taxi driver (RM25/hr) take us around town, since much of KT's sites are inaccessible via foot or public transit. After sightseeing, he took us to this great seafood stall (or warung) near the airport, and right next to the beach. It was great - Malay style fried seafood - shrimp, small crabs, keropok (fish sausage), sotong (calamari). You knew it was fresh, and the location was completely random. Those dishes, plus a limau ais (iced lime juice) makes a perfect snack after a day of sightseeing.

Later on, when we returned to KT after visiting Pulau Redang, we went crazy eating durians at Pasar Payang. Durian is the "King of Fruits" that "stinks like hell but tastes like heaven". It's actually quite nice - the texture reminds me of butter, and it tastes like a sweet soft cheese. Since durians are in season, they were literally "falling off the truck", and at great prices too - RM5/kg! They're normally like RM15 in KL. I think S's whole family and I consumed something like 5-6 durians all at once.

After eating durian, one feels quite heaty - so conveniently, there was a cendol stall nearby, which is probably my most favorite drinks! Who can resist an iced drink with coconut milk, palm sugar, some sweet beans, corn and jellies? It's completely refreshing on a hot summers day.

Travelling with S was interesting - I learned about a lot of botany and things from her childhood... who knew that you could suck the nectar from a Hibiscus plant? And that crabs walk sideways, not forward? I was completely shocked! Despite my "small town roots", I was really sounding like a city boy. Guess that's what happens when you don't grow up in the tropics (or a developing country...)

Where I ate:
1. Malay Seafood Stall: Jalan Pantai

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2. Pasar Panyang - turtle eggs, durian, cendol, and whatever else fits your desires..
Jalan Sultan Zainal Abidin, near the main jetty

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