* This article was originally published on Ummi Goes Where? in 2022.
Kota Bharu, or commonly referred to as KB, is a town in the northeastern part of Peninsular Malaysia, 440 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, close to the border of Thailand. Steeped in culture, the town is home to many museums, religious buildings, royal palaces and craft centers. It is also the gateway to the famed Perhentian Islands as it is only an hour’s drive away from the jetty.
Overview of Kota Bharu, Kelantan
Although known as one of the most conservative regions in the country, that does not make it any less interesting. Kota Bharu is still a popular tourist spot with some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet and so much to offer!
Kota Bharu was established as Kelantan’s state capital in the late 19th century by Sultan Muhammad II. During the second world war, Pantai Sabak (about 10 kilometers away from Kota Bharu), was the initial landing point of the Japanese forces, who then successfully captured the town and later the country.
In 2005, the town was rebranded as the “Islamic City” by the state government. Almost 93% of Kota Bharu’s population is Muslim, with the remainder comprising Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. The Kelantanese culture is highly distinctive with some influences from Thailand due to its geographical proximity.
Best Time to Visit Kota Bharu, Kelantan
Kelantan is affected by the monsoon season between November and February, where some places may get severely flooded, people evacuated from their homes, islands closed to visitors, and ferry services suspended.
We visited in late February / early March and still, our train got cancelled because some parts of the railway were flooded.
The best time to go is from March to October, when the weather is warmer with less chances of rain.
However, try to avoid school holidays especially Eid. Many Kelantanese migrate to other states for work and will come home during the holidays. Bus, train and flight tickets may be sold out, and you may find yourself stuck in traffic all the way from Kuala Lumpur and back.
How to Get to Kota Bharu, Kelantan
The Sultan Ismail Petra Airport (KBR) is located 20 minutes from Kota Bharu city center and has direct flights from Kuala Lumpur, Subang, Penang, Kuching, and Kota Kinabalu. If you’re flying from other locations, you will likely have to transit in Kuala Lumpur. Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu take approximately 50 minutes.
There are direct buses from most major cities in Peninsular Malaysia. Tickets can be purchased at bus stations or through online apps like 12Go Asia or Redbus. Buses from Kuala Lumpur depart from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS) and typically take around 8 hours, depending on traffic. Tickets cost around RM50.
There used to be direct sleeper trains from Kuala Lumpur, but not anymore. Now, you first have to backtrack south to Gemas, which takes about 2.5 hours and continue on the sleeper train for another 11 hours. The nearest station to Kota Bharu is the Wakaf Bharu station. Tickets can be purchased at the counter or on KTMB official website.
Driving from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu should take you around 7 hours if traffic is good and you don’t make too many stops along the way. From Kuala Lumpur, take the Karak Highway until you reach Bentong town, then merge onto Route 8 until you reach Kota Bharu.
How to Go to Kota Bharu from Thailand
If coming from Thailand, you need to get to the Thai border town of Sungai Kolok and cross the border on foot. Once you have completed the immigration process and entered the Malaysian town of Rantau Panjang, take Cityliner Bus No 29 to Kota Bharu. Journey takes about an hour.
How to Get Around in Kota Bharu
There are public buses in Kota Bharu, but just like anywhere else in Malaysia, they are not always on time. Your other options are taxis and Grab, a convenient e-hailing app that is used in all of Southeast Asia. We used Grab throughout our stay and never had any problem getting a driver in the city center.
Alternatively, renting a car gives you more freedom to go anywhere at your convenience and is a better option if you travel in a group.
Things to Do in Kota Bharu, Kelantan
1. Visit Museums
For a small town, Kota Bharu has a good number of museums for you to learn about the local history, religion and culture. Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Muzium Negeri Kelantan (Kelantan State Museum)
- Memorial Peperangan Dunia Ke-II (World War II Memorial)
- Muzium Islam (Museum of Islamic Culture)
- Muzium Kraftangan (Handicraft Museum)
2. Learn About the Royal Family
Apart from the above, there are two other museums that are dedicated to the royal family of Kelantan, namely:
- Muzium Diraja Istana Batu (Royal History Museum) – contains photos of the current and previous Sultans and the royal family members.
- Istana Jahar / Muzium Adat Istiadat DiRaja Kelantan (Museum of Royal Kelantanese Traditions) – features interesting artifacts and exhibits of the royal rituals and traditions.
Located nearby is Istana Balai Besar, an old wooden palace that served as the official residence of past Sultans but is now used for official state functions. It is not open to public but you can admire the intricately-designed wooden gate outside.
3. Shop at Pasar Siti Khadijah
Probably one of the most photographed attractions in Kota Bharu, this multi-story octagonal building houses a lively market selling a variety of items.
On the ground floor is fresh produce including local fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood, on the first floor are the dry goods such as grains, spices and fish crackers, while on the second floor are clothes and home wares. An interesting thing to note is that most of the sellers are women. Go in the early morning when it is most active.
4. Stuff Yourself with Local Food
Eating the local food is our main reason for visiting. Kelantanese food is unique and hard to find anywhere else in Malaysia. Although some of them (like nasi kerabu and ayam percik) are becoming more widely available in Kuala Lumpur, nothing can beat the original!
5. Picnic at the Beach
There are many beaches along the coast of Kelantan that are worth visiting but the closest ones to Kota Bharu are:
- Pantai Cahaya Bulan – often shortened to PCB, it was previously known as Pantai Cinta Berahi, which translates to Passionate Love Beach. Unfortunately, the Islamic party decided that it sounded inappropriate, so they changed it to the new name, which means Moonlight Beach. The beach is pretty decent but not the prettiest.
- Pantai Nusuk – this beach was previously covered in dense bushes but was later cleaned and turned into a recreational spot. It’s become more popular now but can still be quite tricky to find. Hence its name, which literally means “hidden beach”.
- Pantai Senok – dubbed by the locals as “Malaysia’s Nami Island”, this beach has rows and rows of pine trees, making it very popular for photoshoots.
Close to the beach, you can find many seafood restaurants and shops selling fish snacks, traditional kites and batik. Don’t forget to try the coconut milkshake!
6. Watch a Cultural Show
Kelantan has a rich cultural heritage, which includes performing arts like traditional and ritualistic dances, shadow puppetry and group singing. Unfortunately, some of these have been banned by the state government due to religious reasons. Nevertheless, you can still visit Gelanggang Seni Cultural Center for local cultural events, such as top spinning, kite-making, drumming and silat (a Malay martial art).
7. Check Out Local Arts & Crafts
Apart from the Handicraft Museum, you can also walk in to the many craft and clothes shops in the town center to see the local arts and crafts. The most popular ones are hand-drawn batik, silverware, crystals and gemstones, and traditional kites. There are also some batik centers where you can see the process of batik making and maybe try your hand at it.
8. Marvel at Street Art
If you like street art, Kota Bharu has an impressive collection of murals in several alleyways between Jalan Ismail and Jalan Dato Pati.
The images depict the cultural traditions of different ethnicities Kelantan, local food, natural scenery, and even the conflicts in the Middle East.
9. Visit a Mosque
A trip to the most Islamic state in Malaysia would not be complete without visiting at least one of its mosques. There is at least one in every neighborhood, each unique in its own way, but if you only have time to visit one, go for the state mosque, Masjid Muhammadi, located in the city center.
Non-Muslim visitors who wish to enter the mosque will have to enquire first at the International Islamic Information Center at Taman Hijau (about 100 meters from the mosque). Make sure to wear appropriate attire!
10. Go Cafe-Hopping
Kota Bharu is no longer just about history, religion, and arts. Now, more and more hipster cafes have cropped up with photo-worthy decors to lure in Instagrammers and coffee lovers. Check out Nasken Coffee, Jubilee Antique Cafe (Kelatefornia), Kopi Mesin and Volt Coffee, among many others.
11. Ride on a Trishaw
Even with the advent of Grab and other public transports, the humble trishaw still plays a prominent part in the Kelantanese lifestyle.
Unlike the ones in Malacca that are all primped up with popular cartoon characters and blasting loud music, the trishaws in Kota Bharu are more low-key and are used by locals in their daily lives, not just tourists.
They are human-powered and are meant for short-distance journeys. Sometimes, when going uphill, passengers may have to alight for a minute while the driver pushes the trishaw up the hill.
Probably not the most comfortable of rides, but fun nonetheless!
How Long to Stay in Kota Bharu
Allocate at least 2 – 3 days in the town area to explore all of the attractions. On top of that, you can make a day trip to the beach or stay for another night or two. If you have more time, consider visiting surrounding towns like Tumpat, Bachok and Dabong, as they each have their own unique attractions.
We only stayed in Kota Bharu and didn’t do much sightseeing to be honest, but we still felt that four days were too short, because there were so many delicious foods to try and not enough space in our tummies to fit everything in!
Where to Stay in Kota Bharu, Kelantan
During our visit, we stayed at Aslah Boutique Hotel, due to its affordable rate and excellent location which is right in the city center, within walking distance from all the major attractions. However, at the time of writing, they are no longer taking reservations on Booking.com.
The following are other good options:
W Hotel Cemerlang – This 2-star hotel is located 1.4 km from the Handicraft Village and Craft Museum. All rooms are air-conditioned and fitted with a flat-screen TV, a desk and a private bathroom with free toiletries. Room service is available. From MYR 77 for a Deluxe Twin Room.
H Elite Design Hotel – This 4-star hotel may be a little farther from the city center (8 km), but it offers magnificent views of rice fields. Available on-site are a rooftop swimming pool, fitness center, kids’ club, shared lounge and restaurant. From MYR 135 for a Superior King Room.
The Grand Renai – Formerly known as Renaissance Kota Bharu, this hotel is only a 5-minute drive away from Pasar Siti Khadijah. It offers an outdoor pool, a gym, 4 dining options, tennis courts, sauna and steam rooms, and a hot tub. From MYR 186 for a Deluxe King Room.
Perdana Kota Bharu – Conveniently located within a 5-minute walk from the Cultural Center and a 10-minute drive from Pasar Siti Khadijah, this hotel features 5 dining options, an outdoor pool, a fitness center, a business center, a convenience store, and meeting/banqueting facilities. Each elegantly furnished room comes with a bathtub. From MYR 233 for a Deluxe Classic Queen room.
Additional Tips for Visiting Kota Bharu
- Avoid visiting during school holidays, but if you must, book tickets early to avoid disappointment.
- Kelantan is a conservative Islamic state that adheres quite strictly to Islamic teachings. Shops may close for 15-20 minutes several times a day for daily prayers.
- Weekend is Friday and Saturday. Shops may still be open, but expect them to close for a couple of hours for Friday prayers.
- The Kelantanese are known to have a sweet tooth. If you’re watching your sugar intake, make sure to ask for less sweet when ordering drinks.
What to Wear in Kota Bharu, Kelantan
Visitors are expected to dress more modestly. Women should keep their shoulders and legs covered. However, head covering is not compulsory except when entering mosques. Bikinis are not allowed in public areas. This includes beaches and swimming pools. Most local women swim fully clothed or in long swimwear. For men, avoid short shorts; they should go below your knees.
If you’re interested in a unique culture that is still Malaysian but completely different from that in the west coast, then Kota Bharu is a place you must not miss.
It may be less popular than other destinations like Penang, Malacca and Langkawi, but I think this underrated place deserves more attention — even if there are some conservative rules that we may not necessarily agree with.
The Kelantanese are friendly and welcoming people who are fiercely proud of their culture, food, religion, state, political party and royal family.
So, be respectful, and avoid touching on these sensitive subjects if you can, so as not to offend anyone.
Have you been to Kota Bharu, Kelantan? What was your favorite thing to do there? Share in the comment section below.