The East Coast of Malaysia – Attracting Tourists with its Intriguing History

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Allow Sarah Rees to introduce you to the three states that make up the east coast of Malaysia, each treasured for its various tourist treats and each with intriguing histories.


Thanks to an influence – geographically and historically – from Thailand, visitors to the most northern of Malaysian states often sense that Kelantan is distinctly different to the rest of the country. Locals speak a slightly different lingo to their compatriots across the state line, and food hints at the creamy and spicy tastes of Thai cuisine.

But don’t be fooled into thinking a Thai experience awaits you: Kelantan is truly Malaysian and one of the best places in the country to appreciate the traditional handicrafts that have long supported the local economy. Batik, woodcarving, and songket-weaving all continues as it has for centuries, while traditional kite flying remains a popular pastime for the young and old. Visitors delight in this window on old Malaya, while the green landscapes and ample coastline complete a winning vacation spot for those with the time to travel north.

Kelantan’s roots are placed far beyond the local handicrafts, however, and archaeological findings date activity in this area back to prehistoric times. Recorded history tells of borders shifting as Kelantan was claimed for various empires (including the Khymer and Funan), but it is neighbouring Siam that has enjoyed the most enduring influence in the state.

Kelantan was able to shake free of the Siamese grip in 1411, falling instead under the control of the Malaccan Sultanate as the area became key for trade. A dozen years later, Kelantan’s chieftains decided enough was enough, and thus began the rule of Kelantan’s Sultanate, with the state prospering thanks to the gold mines in the area. Next came the British in the 1800s, and the invading Japanese made Kelantan their first port of call as they swept to occupy the country during the Second World War. Eventually, of course, the Japanese and the Brits left and Kelantan became part of Malaysia, returning to the rule of Sultans.

The various invaders, the struggles, the trade, and gold may have come and gone, but Kelantan’s cultural heart has remained pure, and visitors speak with fondness of the simplicity of life in the villages and towns of this sleepy state. Locals peddle their handicrafts created using the skills of their grandfathers, while the rice, rubber, and tobacco industries keep the people afloat. Tourists come for the souvenirs and stay for the serenity, enjoying the natural offerings available here and across the border in Thailand.

Where to visit: Kota Bharu (state capital), Stong Hill (hill station with keen eco-tourism destinations), Pasir Puteh (a gateway to Thailand famous for its waterfalls).


This East Coast state smugly occupies many a visitor’s top ten, containing as it does so many of the country’s most popular tourist gems. With a sprawling land mass that makes it the third-largest (after Sabah and Sarawak) state in the country, Pahang can tick the boxes for beaches, hills, and jungles, and the last of these three comes within the expansive grounds of the spectacular Taman Negara.

Malaysia’s oldest national park was established in 1939 and contains some of the oldest rainforest in the world, attracting botanists, photographers, hikers, and curious visitors, all equally enthralled by the terrain, the beasts, the flora, and the fauna.

For less sweaty encounters, tourists head up into the highland for entertainment or old-world charm, picking between Genting and Cameron Highlands respectively. The former boasts hotels, a theme park, and the only gambling opportunities in Malaysia, while the Cameron Highlands bears the name of the Brit who decided the cool temperatures would make it the ideal place for a colonial hill station. The Cameron Highlands are still enjoyed to this day for the cooling breezes, the emerald landcape, and the tea and strawberries that grow plentifully on the rolling hillsides.


Sun, sea, and sand can be added to the bounty with a trip to the state capital Kuantan – which sits on the coast – or by spending a few days snorkeling and diving off the tiny island of Tioman.

While tourism is now one of the major forms of industry in Pahang, the people of the past survived on fishing, while timber also provided a large income in the years before the forests were protected. Tin and gold both enjoyed brief moments of glory too, so it comes as little surprise that Pahang saw its fair share of invaders. The Europeans (the Portuguese, the Dutch) and even fellow countrymen (Johor, Aceh) enjoyed an influence in years gone by, while traces of nomadic tribes in the area have been dated to as early as the Mesolithic Era.

Where to visit: Genting Highlands (theme park, casinos), Cameron Highlands (tea and strawberry plantations, hiking), Kuantan (beach, caves, waterfall, handicrafts), Taman Negara (hiking, nature), Pulau Tioman (diving, snorkeling).


This state may consist of 13,000 square km of terra firma, but Terengganu has earned its stripes for the treasures to be found offshore. Known and loved by Malaysians all over for white sands and clear seas, this state is home to the islands of Redang, Perhentian, and Kapas, all of which jostle for prominence on tourists’ agendas and attract visitors from far and wide who seek a week of true tropical bliss.

But yet more lucrative treasures lie far below the coral, and it is the discovery of oil and gas deposits that have set Terengganu’s fortunes on a sunnier track. This state used to be the country’s poorest, known for its traditional art of boat building and making most of its money through fishing. It may now be on its way up as a major centre for the Malaysia’s petroleum industry, Terengganu has not lost the charm of its simpler days: colourful wooden boats can still be seen resting on the white shores of the coast, and little fishing villages cling to their roots as if time has stood still.

Terengganu’s improving finances will return this state to the level of importance it enjoyed as early as the 6th century, when its long coastline and location made it a port of call for traders. The population was predominantly Hindu and Buddhist in those days, but with the arrival of Islam in 1303 – Terengganu is reported to be the first state in the country to receive the word of Allah – the balance has swung sharply. Currently, around 94% of the population is Muslim.

Much like Kelantan, with whom it shares a long border, Terengganu was historically dominated by Siam, but Melaka also claimed it as a vassal until 1724 and the powerful Johor did its best to dominate for a time. The British and the Japanese had brief spells, but Terengganu is now free of outsider influence, and left alone to enjoy and celebrate the simple, natural charms that should not be underestimated.

Where to visit: Pulau Redang (snorkeling), Pulau Perhentian (beaches), Kuala Terengganu (state capital, heritage sites), Cemerong Waterfall (highest in Malaysia).


Source: The Expat March 2013

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