Friday, July 31, 2009


On Malaysia’s northeast coast lies the state of Terengganu, renowned for its beautiful beaches and classical Malay culture. Malays make up 94% of the population here (compared to 60% of the national population), the rest being mostly Chinese and the occasional Indian.

Culturally very similar to the neighbouring state of Kelantan and the Malay-majority states of southern Thailand, Terengganu is a conservative Islamic state where the Middle-Eastern influences are more pronounced than in the south. The first indication of this is the writing on many signs around town (below):

The script is Jawi, a 700-year old writing system designed to represent the Malay language using Arab script. Now that the Malay language uses Roman script, Jawi is used mostly for religious purposes; Northeast Malaysia and Southern Thailand are the only places where it is still in common everyday use.

Women in Terengganu almost universally wear the tudung (Islamic head covering); any women you see without it tend to be tourists or local Chinese. The prevalence of the tudung is exemplified by this sign signifying a women's toilet, which you won't see in Malaysia's south:

If mosques are your thang, Kuala Terengganu is the place for you. There is the Zainal Abidin Mosque (below),

the "Floating Mosque" (below), which looks wonderful in photos yet is somewhat less so when you are there. It's meant to be quite amazing at sunset though.

And then there's the Crystal Mosque, recently built and designed by an Australian, apparently. If you are still obsessively interested in Islamic culture, nearby is the Islamic Civilisation Park, which celebrates Islamic architecture with replicas of 21 famous buildings throughout the Muslim world. I was a bit mosqued-out to be honest, but it was okay if you're into that sort of thing.

The dominance of Islamic conservatism in Terengganu had me worried that the locals might be less than welcoming of foreigners. Fortunately my prejudices were unfounded - the people, generally speaking, are very friendly and polite, infinitely more so than the stand-offish folks form Kuala Lumpur. Like the lovely guy who sold us durians and mangosteens by the roadside.

Or the Indonesian women we met in Dungun at a roadside restaurant. Driving around hungry and picking a random place based only because it had more customers than its neighbours, the staff there treated us like celebrities, wanting to take their photo with us. On finding out that my mother was Indonesian, I think it made their day. As we bid them goodbye one called out "Give our regards to your mother."

Terengganu's cuisine reflects its various cultural influences and has many distinctive local specialties, mostly based on fish or rice. Check out my earlier post on food in the region here.


Terengganu is known for its natural beauty. It's crystalline waters are a popular destination for diving, but this time we headed inland instead to Tasik Kenyir (tasik is Malay for lake). On the western edge of Terengganu and backing onto Taman Negara (Malaysia's National Park), Kenyir is the largest man-made lake in the country. It was created as part of a hydroelectricity project, but has also been promoted as an eco-tourism destination.

Since we only had a few hours to spare, we were unable to take in the full scope of the lake's beauty. There are a number of waterfalls, such as this one below, and plenty of wildlife to spot. Accessible by boat is the Herbs Garden, which is fascinating for anyone interested in natural healing, gardening, food or botany. Many of the herbs and spices used in Malaysian cooking and traditional medicine are found growing here, such as this clove plant (below).The other plant which seems to be grown here in copious quanities is tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia). A traditional Malaysian herbal cure for a variety of ailments from worms to ulcers to lumbago; but it is best-known for enhancing male sexual potency. (There is also a equivalent plant for females growing here called kacip fatima.) Coffee with tongkat ali is a readily available drink throughout the country. In a small hut in the garden there is even a jug of water infused with tongkat ali for visitors to try, so I had the chance to sample a small glass of this bitter and extremely unappealing brew.
Did it work? I'm not sure. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that I didn't notice any marked improvements in my "performance" after trying it. (Which leaves me wondering, how do they actually scientifically test that?)
Another plant growing here is sekentut, which literally means "a fart" in Malay. Rub some between your fingers and the reason for its name quickly becomes clear. Ironically, it is actually used as a treatment for flatulence; although I hope it doesn't remove butt smells only to make your breath smell like farts.
Unfortunately there didn't seem to be any plants that repelled mosquitoes, because the air in the herbs garden is thick with them. Repellant spray is a must if you don't want to be eaten alive. That's one variety of local wildlife I was not so interested to see.

For more on Malaysia, try:

The Guide to Ordering Food in Malaysia

Penang, Street Food Capital of Asia.

What dishes truly define Malaysian cuisine?

The Malaysian-Indian Food Experience

Ah, the insanity of driving in Malaysia

Addicted to Kuih

Salam from Malaysia

Cooking up a storm in Malaysia

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