A diamond in the rough: Kota Bahru

At a glance, Kota Bharu has acquired a feel of a decaying town. The buildings and roads lack upkeep and shine, landscaping is bare and half-hearted and pedestrian pavements are almost non-existent. The city looks like it is stuck in a time warp but without the old charm of an old town. Most of all the streets require a massive clean up.

It is clear that the lack of investment and adequate attention to place making in public spaces have taken its toll on Kota Bharu. However, when we take the time to look more closely into the more hidden private spaces, we discovered there was more than that meets the eye in Kota Bharu. Enterprising Kelantanese make up for the absence of impactful public sector investment in their own way.

To our surprise, the café scene in Kota Bharu is alive and buzzy. Kopi Mesin Heritage is one of the few independent cafes that have been mushrooming in Kota Bharu. When we were there during lunch and in the evening, it was full of people.

The interior is full of interesting old and intriguing photographs of Kota Bharu and the Kelantanese life. Upstairs, led by brightly painted stairs to reflect the Chinese temple colours near by, one can admire sketches and paintings of wayang kulit characters by the co-owner and intriguing selections of vintage items.

The café serves local specialities such as keropok lekor as well as a modified Western menu, and a comprehensive, imaginative drinks list including of course, “kopi mesin”. We were told by the co-owner and founder, Haniza Hassan that the idea for the name came about as the Kelantanese refer to western coffee as “machine coffee”.

Around the corner from the café, there were more surprises. A series of back lanes that have been cleaned up and planted with trees. The back lanes and the walls behind Kopi Mesin Heritage are now freshly transformed with colourful murals and a pleasant landscape of trees.

The murals depict local Kelantan scenes and the familiar faces of Kelantan with a touch of local humour. The famous Kelantanese nasi kerabu biru  (blue herb rice) is a prominent feature, and so is Dato’ Vida, the famously (or infamously) flamboyant local cosmetic entrepreneur. The murals are a result of collaboration between the Kota Bahru council, National Art Gallery and an art collective in Kelantan called Peseni. We genuinely enjoyed ourselves touring the mural backlanes.

Inspired by the café scene, we headed to two café institutions in Kota Bharu – The White House café, a paradoxically humble kopitiam – an old style Chinese café – that serves their signature locally ground coffee with soft, thick toasts slathered with butter and kaya (coconut jam). We found joy in this simple café. For lunch, we decided to go to the second café – the unusually named Din Tokyo. We had a simple lunch of laksam – a refreshing light dish of rice rolls with fish sauce with a sprinkle of mixed herbs and chilli sambal on the side.

I ended with their ginger and quail egg tea, their specialty. Our verdict is that Kota Bharu is a diamond in the rough – underneath the dusty exterior, there are shining gems.   

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