Frequent travelers to Malaysia’s East Coast (as opposed to East Malaysia) will be more than familiar with its very relaxed rural lifestyle. The roads are narrow, cattle often stray onto the roads and kids wave at passing cars. You could almost be in a different country compared to the hectic routine on the west coast.
If the pace of life is not appealing enough, there are various attractions scattered along the coastline that first start appearing around Kuantan at the cessation of the Karak Highway (the soonto- open tollway will shave hours off the trip). There are just a few settlements on the route from Kuantan to Kuala Terengganu, a distance of 200 kilometres. Along the coastal route you could count the traffic lights on one hand to give you an indication of just how hectic the pace of life isn’t.
Of course, this all makes for some great car touring and sightseeing. A good map and guide are essential – one of my personal favourites is the Road Atlas of Malaysia, part of the Globetrotter Travel Atlas series published by New Holland from the UK and available in large bookshops. It not only includes accurate maps, distances between settlements, climatic information and photos but also a commentary of the journey.
Along the coastal road there are picturesque fishing villages lining beaches and sheltered estuaries. Some worth visiting include Marang, Dungun, Chukai and Kg. Sungai Ular. In many, keropok or prawn and fish crisps, is made and sold from roadside stalls. West coast based Malaysian friends will all ask you to bring some back with you as it’s considered the country’s best. Just north of Kuantan, the fishing village of Beserah is picturesque and ideal for those looking for uniquely Malaysian fishing photos. While the drying fish may be more aromatic than many may prefer, it’s popular with local chefs who come to buy various local specialties. Water buffalo are utilised to haul the fishing catch from the beach to the village for processing.
Further north, Marang is a small fishing village just off the main coastal road from Kuantan to Kuala Terengganu. It lies about 20km. to the south of the Terengganu capital, Kuala Terengganu, and should not be confused with Kampung Merang (which is about the same distance to the north of the capital). To add to the confusion, both are fishing villages and of about the same scale, although Marang has a few more services and facilities. Kg. Merang is the jetty point for boats to Redang Island and Marang is where boats for Kapas Island depart.
Marang is the quintessential east coast fishing village and well worth travelling to. Kapas can be visited as a day trip but several small resorts on the island make for a restful holiday destination. Back on the mainland, Marang is located at the mouth of the Marang River and a sandy spit separates the estuary from the sea. The town has seen its fair share of modernisation and while not all has been sympathetic to the older surroundings, it still retains creditable heritage values. When the fleet is not at sea, colourful wooden boats line the river and there is always plenty of activity. Boat trips up the river are available for those who really want to discover the district’s rural charm. There are various places to stay in town but most are cheap backpacker lodgings, with the Hotel Seri Malaysia the best available. Alternatively, stay in Kuala Terengganu and drive to and from the city. Needless to say, the seafood in the small local restaurants here is plentiful and good. There are also a few batik artisans in town creating some original designs and they are happy for visitors to join in. In line with the generally laid back lifestyle of the east coast, flying kites, bird singing and top spinning (main gasing) is about as active as leisure times become in Marang. All activities are taken seriously and considered sports by those who eagerly contest such activities during festivals or intinter-village competitions conducted after the rice harvest.
Kite flying or wau ubi is taken to an art form on the east coast. Malaysia Airlines even uses a stylised moon kite or wau bulan as its logo. It’s very popular with kids of all ages but adult master flyers of kites exceeding several metres wingspan take their sport very seriously indeed. Kites are made from bamboo and paper and are decorated in bright colours. Kite duels were once popular but these days festival winners are rewarded for their flying prowess, altitude attained and colourful decorations.
This is a part of Malaysia with contrasting landscapes and lifestyles. For visitors, there are many places to visit, people to see and an abundance of cultural encounters. While residents are quite used to seeing tourists, traditional values hold true for many and visitors need to be respectful of their often conservative lifestyles. The locals are however hospitable people who are delighted to share their culture. To outsiders, life appears to stand still for many but visit the east coast and discover the other side of Malaysia.
This article was written by David Bowden
The Expat August 2004
This article has been edited for ExpatGomalaysia.com
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