We've been to Kota Bahru in the far north-east of Malaysia - almost on the Thai border. It's not part of the normal tourist track, but when we were planning our trip one of the aims was to try to see as much of the diversity that makes up Malaysia as was possible in the time available. Kota Bahru is the capital of Kelantan state and is the only state that is not governed by the ruling UMNO party or its coalition partners. Kelantan is said to be Malaysia's most conservative and traditional state and has been governed since 1990 by the hard-line Parti Islam. Islam is much more immediately present and obvious in the everyday - most women wear headscarves with their riotously coloured long skirts and overdresses, the call to prayer is omnipresent in the streets, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, and it's almost impossible to buy alcohol, even in up-market hotels.
There was not much about Kota Bahru in our guidebooks, and what there was either confusing or out of date. We spent most of our first day in a bit of a daze - trying to match the street-scape with our maps, being frustrated by the lack of street signs, and generally wilting in the oppressive heat. But as inevitably happens even when you're disoriented and a bit lost, we inadvertently saw a number of the sights. We discovered the central market with its riches of fresh vegetables, fruits and fish...
We explored the textile market opposite the wet market and saw the blazingly colourful local batiks and fabrics - and watched young women applying iron-on diamantes to already gaudy fabrics
and we happened upon the most prolifically stocked haberdashery I've ever seen - buttons, braids, sequins by the zillion, every colour of sewing thread you might ever want, metallic and gold thread for embroidery, and of course the iron-on diamantes we'd already seen in action.
We peeped around the gates of what we think is the Istana Balai Besar - the palace used for ceremonial occasions (no entry; no photography)
and visited a museum of royal customs - showing the clothing, fabrics and objects used for royal ceremonies associated with birth and marriage.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Malaysia describes this building as 'achingly beautiful'. I wouldn't go quite so far, but its symmetry and fitness of style make it very pleasing, though the sketchy and sometimes puzzling descriptions of the exhibits in its interior leave much to be desired.
Late in the afternoon of this tiring and somewhat frustrating day I went across the street from our hotel to withdraw money from the ATM. I inserted my card and - horror of horrors - the machine confiscated my card! I think this is every traveller's nightmare. It took a couple of minutes to realise I had actually inserted the card in a machine for making or transferring payments rather than an ATM - the likes of which I've never seen. You can imagine the scenarios playing in my head - having to cancel the card and organise a replacement while travelling, having to reorganise scheduled payments from my account while travelling etc etc. I reported what had happened back to the very obliging staff at our hotel and they advised me to contact the bank - Bank Islam - the following morning. This seemed a rather futile plan of action to me - my experience is that banks work to rules of their own making - but I decided to go along with their advice.
The next morning - enter Mr Roslan. We'd already decided we needed some help organising our sight-seeing in Kota Bahru and had contacted Mr Roslan's company to organise a tour of local craft-making sites. The hotel entrusted Mr Roslan with our visit to the bank to report my problems. 'No worries, mate', said Mr Roslan in an accent somewhere between Malaysian and Australian and off we went - not to a branch of Bank Islam, but directly to the office of the Regional Consumer Branch. I told my story and expected to be told to go away, but the delightful young woman we were dealing with made several phone calls then went to see the Regional Manager - a slightly older woman. We were called into her office, my story was told again, and much to my astonishment she told me not to worry and to return in an hour or so. So off we went on the first part of our tour with Mr Roslan and when we returned an hour or so later, she produced my card. Vast relief! Then followed e-mail swapping and much taking of photos with the all-female staff, with the Regional Manager, with and without Mr Roslan. I can't imagine such a scene in an Australian bank. Between Mr Roslan and the Regional Manager I encountered the absolutely right people at the right time.
Mr Roslan also proved his worth as a tour organiser. Kelantan is renowned as a traditional craft area, but it's not really organised for tourists. Together with a driver in a rather battered but minimally air-conditioned taxi we were taken to places it would be impossible to find without such a local guide such as Mr Roslan. We saw loom-weaving to make songket - the local fabric that's traditionally made of silk, intricately patterned with gold or silver thread, or, in more modern songkets, in iridescent thread
Men wear such rich songkets on formal or grand occasions as a wrap-around skirt over loose shirts and pants; women have the fabric made into long skirts and over-dresses. The woman in the second photograph above is weaving a white and gold songket that will be worn for the inauguration of the new Sultan of Kelantan later this year.
We visited a kite-maker where the interior of his ramshackle workshop glowed with the colours of his exquisite kites:
The kites are made from colourful paper glued to fine bamboo frames. Patterns are cut free-hand into the paper and then differently coloured papers are glued behind. As someone who has practiced decoupage some of these techniques are familiar to me, but seeing them applied with such ease and confidence in this context was a wonderful surprise. This kite-maker is apparently widely known as a master and has been invited to kite festivals around the world - including the Bondi Festival of the Winds.
We saw silver-making where some of the silversmiths were making very fine filigree silver jewellery (I bought some ear-rings)
and we finished up at a batik workshop. Batik making is hard and laborious work. In this workshop the wax was heated in large vats that looked as if they were centuries old, using wood fires in an extraordinarily hot climate.
Some of the batik was hand-printed using traditional tin blocks for cotton or copper for silk
and some was decorated using wax to define and outline freeform flower and geometric shapes for the more modern, popular Malaysian batiks we'd seen in the fabric market the day before.
A day when I'd anticipated disaster turned out to be one of the great days of our travels. Meeting the right people at the right time makes all the difference.