Fly after dark into Kuantan on peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, then head north towards Dungun, and the roadsides lined with convenience and electrical appliance stores – still busy in the evening – immediately belie the region’s old image of sleepy backwater.

So the old world of fishing and farming folk, the traditional world of Malay village life with which this coast made its name – is all that gone? Are the endless beaches with their colourfully painted fishing boats lying on the sand all gone, now assaulted by oil tankers?

I wake up the next morning and step onto the balcony of my room in a beachside resort. The air is scented with flowers and the tree-shrouded gardens spread out before me. I stroll through the greenery to the palm-lined shore, and there I see a deserted beach of golden sand running far away to headlands in each direction.

On subsequent days of forays along the coast, I find the same endless empty beaches lined with casuarina trees rustling in the sea breezes, with occasional offshore islands in view. At Marang, a lazy river empties into the sea, with a rainbow fleet of fishing boats moored in its muddy stream.

Yes, changes have happened. This east coast was famed only a generation ago for its ornately painted fishing boats beautifying the shores, and for the age-old top-spinning and kite-flying customs of the locals. Those iconic boats fell to new government regulations about fishing vessels, and the traditional pastimes got displaced by football and computer games.

But still, this is the most laid-back part of peninsular Malaysia. And for leisure seekers, it’s the part with by far the best beaches, as well as offshore islands which offer superb diving and snorkelling – except when the northeast monsoon blows from November to March. Part of the charm of this coast is that tourism has not hit most of it, leaving local life unself-conscious.

But go to the municipal market and things spring into life. Mackerel, tuna, swordfish and stingrays all lie gleaming on the fishmongers’ slabs, fresh out of the sea. At the fruit stalls, jolly head-scarfed women offer papayas and watermelons, mangos and rambutans – all the amazing panoply of tropical fruits, including that spiky green monster, the durian. Vegetable stalls are piled with bright red chilli peppers and hung with crinkly green pods of stink beans.

Eschewing the jungle trek to a 305-metre-high waterfall as a bit too energetic, I opted for the tour of local craftmaking traditions, which morphed – very pleasantly – into a sightseeing tour of the state capital, Kuala Terengganu – locally known as KT. My guide managed to find remnants of traditional craftmaking, the three Bs of of batik, brass and boats.

First up is a commercial complex where they do batik cloth-printing in public view, weaving the cloth and stamping and painting patterns onto it, and even creating the pattern stamps by welding. Interestingly, the welder was a young woman, dressed submissively in full-length Muslim clothing and a headscarf, yet emancipated by doing a traditionally male job.

At the next stop, I step gingerly through a hot and grimy little backstreet brass foundry, and then stumble around a muddy creek with old boatyards. Pulau Duyong (Mermaid Island) hosts one of the last remnants of traditional boat-building in Malaysia, the expertise passed down the generations, the craftsmen working from memory and experience, without any blueprints.

“You see how the boards are joined without any nails or glues?” points out the guide. “They just slip pieces of bark from the gelam tree between the boards, tamp them down, and it makes a watertight seal.”

We went to another island in the estuary where tourism really kicked in with the Islamic Heritage Park, a vast theme park dotted with downscaled versions of famous mosques from around the world, such as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and Iraq’s Great Mosque of Samarra. Separately, jutting out into the water, there is a public mosque built in a tinselly style, its multi-faceted domes and minarets faced with gold-tinted glass: the Crystal Mosque.

Yet the best came last: Kampung Cina, KT’s Chinatown. All Malaysian towns have ethnic Chinese merchants, the people who have been the country’s commercial core for centuries. In the old days, these canny business people huddled together in rows of shop-houses fronted by arcaded walkways called “five-foot ways”, providing shelter from sun and rain.

Built of brick faced with plaster, Kampung Cina’s two-storey buildings vary from superbly renovated to falling apart, always with much colour. The busiest places are the “digital batik” gown shops. Groups of Malay ladies peruse a kaleidoscopic range of ankle-length gowns that cling to serried ranks of mannequins, all the cloth digitally designed and dazzlingly patterned.

But even more colourful are the side alleys vividly painted with mural scenes, varying from cartoon characters to a striking bespectacled image of Malaysia’s first prime minister, the well-loved Tunku Abdul Rahman. It’s all municipally sponsored, but vibrant nevertheless, even including a wall of lovers’ locks. This is a tiny Chinatown, but it’s a fun one.

Such is the nightlife of Malaysia’s east coast, a refuge from frantic modernity.

Text and Photos by Keith Mundy
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