Day 68: Penang & Kota Bharu, Malaysia. We were up this morning at crazy o’clock, to finish packing, quickly inhale toast and coffee, and walk down to the jetty terminal to catch a bus to Sungai Nibong station, where we were catching another bus to Kota Bharu. We were both a bit sad to be leaving Penang; out of all the places we’ve visited so far, this one definitely ranks in our top three. Great city, great food, great people – we’ve really loved our time there.
It was still dark when we left the guesthouse, with hardly any cars or bikes around the streets. A nice change from the crazy daylight hours when the roads get snarled up with traffic, bikes and people.
We had a decent wait at the jetty terminal (we’d just missed a bus, so had to wait for the next one). By the time we were on the bus at 7.30am, the city was swinging into action – the roads were already starting to get congested and people were swarming around street-side food eateries to pack in breakfast before they got their days underway.
We arrived at Sungai Nibong bus station, which was a little chaotic. Instead of centralised ticketing checks, every single bus company (and there’s an awful lot of them) had their own booth set up on the upper floor of the building, in random order. There was no one at the Transnational booth – we could see a handbag and food on a chair behind the window, so they were clearly open, just not around. So we sat and waited, and eventually a lady appeared and issued tickets for our online booking. And charged us for printing them too.
We headed off from Penang Island, across the Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge (more commonly known as the Second Penang Bridge) which opened to the public in 2014. It has an impressive cross-water span of 16.9km and is built to withstand earthquakes of more than 7.5 on the Richter scale.
The bus journey to Kota Bharu took over 7 hours. Thankfully the roads were really good again, apart from one small stretch where we climbed uphill and found ourselves hanging on while we swung from side to side. We made one short stop for lunch, but otherwise it was full steam ahead all the way. Half way through the journey, a little boy behind us decided to sing the same couple of songs over and over. We gritted our teeth and rolled our eyes, then let out a huge sigh of relief when he at last fell asleep about an hour later.
We arrived in Kota Bharu late afternoon, and walked across to our accommodation on the north east side of town. Once we’d dumped our bags, we decided to headed out for dinner and to see if we could book tickets for tomorrow’s train without having to visit the train station, which is a fair way away.
As we passed the reception desk at our accommodation, we asked the guy there if it’s possible to book tickets at the train station on the day of travel. His response: “I don’t know”. So we asked if anyone else working with him might know. His response: “Maybe”. He showed no sign of going and asking anyone, so we gave up and headed out to find a travel agent who might be able to help. There was one we found online that said it was open until 7.30pm, however when we found it, it was closed. So we’ll just have to hope we can get tickets at the station tomorrow, otherwise we’ll follow Plan B, whatever that might be.
Kota Bharu is situated in the north east of the peninsula, over 340km east of Penang. The name means ‘new city’ in Malay. It serves as the state capital and royal seat of Kelantan, one of the 13 states of Malaysia.
It’s a pretty interesting place, with a highly concentrated Muslim population – around 93%, considerably higher than the cross-country average of around 61%. The local state government is headed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and follows a stricter form of Islam in the city and state. Morality police are common; the New Straits Times and other media reported in May this year that 39 women had been given notices and told to attend counselling sessions for dressing sexily and behaving indecently in public. And local supermarkets have separate check out queues for men and ladies, as we discovered when we popped in to pick up some toiletries at a local store this evening.
There’s a small Chinatown in the city, which is where non-Muslim locals and tourists go if they fancy a beer with dinner – alcohol is scarce across the rest of the city. We found a great food court and scoffed a mixed box of Chinese pork and mushroom buns, with an icy cold Carlsberg.
Afterwards, Jim went and bought some mixed noodles and Lil went to trawl the different stands to find something that “doesn’t have fish or icky bits”. She picked a pork and egg dish with bean curd. The stall owner asked if she’d like intestines on the side (thankfully there was a picture of coiled up intestines that he was able to point at, or she may well have said yes, not understanding what she had opted for). When her food arrived, there were no intestines, but sitting alongside her plate of pork were two big fat greasy chicken feet. Which, of course, Jim happily took and chewed.
Then it was back to our accommodation and time for bed. Tomorrow we’re planning to travel on the Jungle Railway, a 526km line which runs all the way from the north, down the centre of Malaysia to Singapore. We’re stopping for the night at Gua Masang, which will take about 6 hours to reach on the train, then we’ll do another chunk of the line the next day.
Thankfully we don’t have to get up early tomorrow, which is a bit of a luxury these days. Check out time is 12 noon. Our train leaves around 2.50pm – assuming we can get train tickets on the day, and we don’t have to quickly develop a Plan B.