East Coast Malaysia: the two sides of the question


Last June we decided to move to the discovery of the other side to where we leave, the East Cost.
We came back with the notion that Peninsular Malaysia has not just one East Coast , but two sides, the islands and the mainland. Foreigners usually pick the former to hang out. The islands are sweet and beautiful, but they are even more insulated than an island is by definition: it is as if they are kept to the taste of the foreign tourist, there is hardly any trace of “Malayness”. I had been in Perenthian already twelve years ago, when truly it was unspoilt with its coral and its sea, but this time we went to Kapas. The landscape is very similar to Perenthian, although Kapas is shorter and less rugged: the sea is crystalline and when, sitting in the water, you turn to look up at the forest looming over, when you feel as if you could touch those leaves, those branches glinting in the sun, then you swallow your breath and imagine whether that instant , that is encompassing everything, the sky above, the earth and forest, the sea, is not containing the past, the future and that shaky area in between. When you get out after being lulled by the small waves, after feeling the smell of those lingering branches, you may believe that this is all life is about.
I feel the urge to precise that in my opinion, this false impression is actually a fairly frequent trick that islands play on the mind. That life is just about one single idyllic piece is actually a very boring conclusion, the real play is to let the mundane (but not less poetic) into the beautiful, the ordinary into the sublime and see a bit of one into the other.


One has to be fair, that the East Coast Islands of Malaysia are really built to trick us into the illusion of an unspoilt natural world by the way they are severed from the mainland. There is no trace of activity or craft, because truly they were next to inhabited until the tourists arrived (that is why they were unspoilt). They are pure beauty of sea, sky, dark green with the recent addition of jetties , bungalows to let the lucky tourists enjoy them (and occasionally the removal of other things, such as the coral). Everybody usually goes back convinced to have discovered the “last paradise on earth”. The foreigners and tourists are allowed to indulge so much into this authentic “Malaysia is truly Asia” beacon that here is even allowed to have a beer at night, which in most of the resorts on the other side is impossible.
The other side of the East Malaysia coexist with a thin stripe of sea in between.
In the mainland, things are not less shaped by the tourist industry but they are dedicated to the local. Also the anatomy of the land is very different: there are not rugged profiles but a gentle lasting beach with some forest behind, getting sparse toward the sea. At night next to the cities, kites are lined outside ready to be flown for miles and miles, little freckles in the sky.
When driving up north, it is easy to wonder whether there is general state of confusion in which the East Coast mainland oscillates between developed , continuously built stretches and totally abandoned ones that do not yet how to appeal to the random traveler. From Cherating, there is a seemingly never ending highway construction just before Terengganu, where from the road the sea cannot be seen and absolutely no stalls for food or whatsoever. We wondered whether we had not steered back into some inland expanse, until we noticed Terengganu and finally found the first hawkers next to the sea, from which to grab some anonymous tasty fish and share it with the local kittens.
Moving up from Terengganu, the coast becomes truly charming in its own understatement. It is not about the crystal clear beach clinging to the forested cliffs, but about lazy palms negotiating the distances from river estuaries, such as in Penarik. On this side, from the blinding gleaming ocean and its beach, you can turn your back and peep into a wild jungle river that would make the Taman Negara envious.


By Penarik, the coastal road has become the domain of quaint houses and fishermen throwing their nets into the river: few ladies here and there sell rice and fish paste roasted in banana leaves and coconut water. They are always hidden by a palm, by an abandoned resort. There is a constant sense of understatement, of sleepiness, of shifting into the light and sun without being seen.
The countryside becomes more and more green and luxuriant on the outskirts of Kota Bharu, it is as if the town has retained the memory of all the fields that were here still twelve years ago at the time of my first visit. Kota Bharu scared us away with its monster traffic jam so we stopped here our exploration of Kelantan: after spending one hour to advance 400 m we decided that it was time to head back to Kuala Lumpur, through the mountains.


So we left behind this land that is usually described as the most traditional and most distinctly Malay. I confess that I tend to object to this: from what I understood in Malaysia so far, Kelantan is truly and only Kelantanese. Indeed, it is one of the most observant Malay states, at the same time it is also the state that retains the most that magic spell of South East Asia, of its forest and rivers transmuting into spirits and visions. That magic spell that is let out now and then, sometimes sensed during a magnificent wayang kulit (shadow theatre) performances (Kelantan has his own school for that) and the many other traditions unique to here. It is also the place where still the oldest wooden Mosque in Malaysia can be seen, and where Buddhist Wats have trickled through from nearby Thailand. It seems that the world of the day and the world of the night are porous and seep into each other in a similar way. Well, at least this is what I got from the wavering leaves under the sun and the deep bright sky above us. I will have to ascertain my intuitions the next time we come up here.


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