KOTA BHARU AND KELANTAN:
The Malay woman grins at my exclamation of amazement. Her several chins quiver with mirth as she lifts a basket filled with prawns, each the size of a wrestler's fist, and holds it up for my camera. From across the aisle, another old woman, wearing a scarf around her head, beckons eagerly. She wants me to take a picture of her turtle eggs.
This is the "wet" (fresh produce) Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah market located on ground floor of the Central Market in the town of Kota Bharu where, interestingly enough, most of the vendors are women. At ten in the morning, the cavernous, octagonal hall seethes with colour and activity.
One floor up, customers throng around stalls stacked with packages of mysterious herbs, dried leaves, gnarled barks and roots. Patrons sitting at tables wield their chopsticks deftly in and out of steaming bowls of broth and wonton dumplings, and the air sizzles with the smell of curried chicken, fried noodles, and steamed fish. A vendor beams at me as he pours hot milky tea from a mug held high above his head into another held at thigh level; when the latter is brimming, he reverses mugs and does it again, without spilling a drop. When he is satisfied that the teh tarik "pulled tea" is blended to frothy perfection, he offers it to me. It tastes like Indian chai—sweet and spicy.
On my way up a flight of steps, I run into one of the members of our Canadian group. . "Bargains!" she says triumphantly, waving her plastic shopping bag, "Go have a look...its wonderful!" The top floor of the market is honey-combed with narrow aisles running between shops. Racks display patterned Baju Kebayas, wrap-around skirts, flowing tunics, men's T-shirts, Batik handicrafts (a speciality of the region), caftans and scarves. Their shelves, stacked with bolts of material, are mosaics of parrot green, royal blue, orange and purple.
I stand with the group near the entrance to the Market, as we wait to board our tour bus. Looking at the street scene, the bustling sidewalks and gaily painted rickshaws weaving between the traffic, I am charmed by Kota Baru. It is a friendly, lively town. It is also the capital of the predominantly Muslim state of Kelantan, in the northeast corner of Malaysia where it borders on Thailand. A mere 13 kilometres away is Panti Dasar Sabak, a beach which today lies tranquil and wave-lapped under the tropical sun. Fifty-nine years ago it must have been a very different scene for this was where the Japanese landed in December 1941 (1 ˝ hours before they bombed Pearl Harbour) and then went on to occupy Malaysia and Singapore until August 1945.
Our tour guide is eager to show us around Kelantan's Cultural Centre. We watch a martial arts (pencak silat) demonstration, where combatants assume meditative postures and circle one another with stylized gestures. Then, a group of drummers wearing cheerful yellow tunics swing into action. The drums have a surprisingly mellow timbre and the rhythm patterns are complex and delicate.
I had thought that there was something endearingly child-like about a culture which held top spinning, kite flying and bird singing competitions each year. But these activities aren't mere kid stuff. Top spinning isn't just a skill—it's an art. We watched wooden tops as large as plates whirling merrily on metal tipped wooden posts. In competitions, some tops could weigh up to seven kilos, and it must take considerable heft to whip five metres of cord to put them into action. The idea is to spin tops for the longest possible time; experts can keep them going for two hours on a single throw. Phew!
We drop in to visit a master kite-maker. He is a frail old man, with deep-set gentle eyes. Behind him in a small shed, is a 2.5 metre-high kite, with a lacy white design set stencil-like against gold paper and mounted into a bamboo frame. He swings a small kite back and forth, producing a "whooomp' of sound, a "song" which is intensified many times over, when monster-sized kites are up there bobbing and weaving against the sky. During kite-flying competitions, points are scored for heights attained and kites conquered in fights.
I leave Kelantan reluctantly, carrying away images of an emerald-green land with paddy fields, coconut groves and banana plantations, the plaintive call of "Allah-ho-Akbar" from nearby mosques, and the smell of mangoes, durian and papayas wafting on the warm air.
IF YOU GO:
Getting There: Malaysia Airlines operates flights to and from Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Or take the Jungle Railway (express or local trains) which runs between Wakaf Baru and Gemas, (which connects to the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur line). Buses operating between Kota Bharu and Wakaf Baru (about an hour's drive) are cheap and convenient.
Worth Seeing: The Kelantan Museum, Royal Museum, Handicraft Village, and Wat Phothivihan (about 15 km north of Kota Bharu), a Buddhist temple in a tranquil garden, with a 40-metre-long reclining Buddha, believed to be the largest in South East Asia.
Information: Tourism Malaysia www.tourismmalaysia.ca
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Overview of the Wet (Produce) market in Kota Bharu
2. Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah Market in Kota Bharu
3. Vegetable Vendor, Wet Market, Kota Bharu
4. Street Food Stalls
5. Martial Arts Demonstration, Cultural Centre, Kelantan
6. Yusuf Ismail, Kite Maker
7. Yusuf Ismail, with large kiteTravel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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