Anis Ramli takes a road-trip on one of the earliest-built highways in Malaysia to discover the old-world charm of Terengganu...
The deep seas off Terengganu may be rich in oil and gas reserves, making the east coast state among the region's leaders in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry, but some argue that its real treasures are all found on the mainland.
With a documented history reaching as far back as the 2nd century, Terengganu certainly has accumulated a wealth of heritage influenced by the Langkasuka and Srivijaya kingdoms it was part of, and the Majapahit, Khmer and Chinese empires it traded with. Despite modern developments, the old Terengganu still remains - and the best way to explore it? Via Federal Route 3 - approaching a hundred years old, but still one of Malaysia's most scenic highways.
At 739km long, Route 3 runs alongside the coast of four Malaysian states from Johor Bahru, Johor, in the south of the peninsula, through Pahang and Terengganu before ending in Rantau Panjang, Kelantan. From here, it goes on as part of the Asian Highway Network that connects Asia to the upper reaches of Europe.
It's ironic that 20 years after it was built by the British for economic reasons, Route 3 would bring the ultimate fall of the Allied Forces when, in 1941, Japanese troops used it to swiftly advance south on bicycles during the Battle of Malaya.
Having served for economic and political purposes in the past, it must be said that Route 3 today is best suited for more leisurely pursuits. The relatively flat and straight two-lane single carriageway road provides an easy, scenic drive.
Terengganu is divided into 7 districts with Federal Route 3 as the main highway hugging the coast. (Map credit: Terengganu Public Works Dept.)
Clockwise from top left: Fish farming at Setiu; Tanjong Jara Resort; a Malay floral bath spa experience at Tanjong Jara Resort; a great souvenir stop at Pasar Payang; fishing boats at Dungun; Terrapuri Heritage Resort.
Traveling northwards, the South China Sea with its glittering blue waves in the midday sun would be your constant companion - and distraction - on the east. Some sections of the highway run alongside lush pockets of mangrove forests along the coastal estuaries.
There's no escaping the countryside charm of Terengganu, even as the bigger towns try to shed its pastoral image with concrete buildings and foreign franchise retailers. Fishing villages just on the outskirts of towns speak of the population's time-honoured source of income; fishermen bring their boats ashore on public beaches; chickens and cows roam about freely along main thoroughfares; while many of the wooden homes here are still built on stilts in a compound of coconut trees.
Even the stretch of road from Kerteh to Paka - where Malaysia's oil and gas refinery activities are based - makes for excellent night driving. As the sun sets, the huge complex of pipes, steel tanks, smoke stacks and gas flutes lights up spectacularly like a space station about to launch a rocket ship.
A great way to get to know Terengganu is through its food and what better place to start than in Chukai (in the district of Kemaman), among the first towns you encounter along the Terengganu section of Route 3 northwards. Kim Wah (also known as Kin To Wah) Restaurant is a spartan corner establishment on Jalan Masjid with an even simpler menu, selling nothing else but chicken rice. It opens daily from 11 am to 2:30 pm, but its plates of roast chicken over rice with a side of soy sauce and chili dip often run out by 1pm.
One of the enduring legacies of the Chinese community in Malaysia is the kopitiam. Usually established in smaller towns, but increasingly franchised in urban centres, these old-style cafÃ©s are famous for their Asian coffee (usually thicker and more bitter than its European version) and charcoal-toasted bread generously slathered with butter and kaya, a coconut cream-based jam. Kemaman's very own - Hai Peng Kopitiam on Jalan Sulaimani - has been enjoying a good reputation since the 1930s. Besides the toast, their other specialty is the typical Terengganu dish nasi dagang - beautifully steamed rice with a serving of rich tuna curry wrapped in banana leaf parcels.
In the evenings, join the locals at Pantai Geliga beach for traditional east coast tea-time treats of satar (fish cakes wrapped in banana leaves, skewered in threes, and grilled over red-hot charcoal), keropok lekor (fish crackers) and sotong celup tepung (deep fried squid). Down it all with fresh coconut juice, served straight from the husk!
About an hour's drive north of Chukai is Kuala Dungun, a town that once enjoyed the wealth of its iron ore mining activities. Nothing much of its glorious past remains except for the nondescript concrete pillar in the sea that some say was part of the railway line that transported iron from Bukit Besi to Kuala Dungun. About 30 km inland, in Bukit Besi, are a few more of these legacies - the stockpile buildings, tunnels and chimneys used during the tin-mining days - left by the Japanese who first discovered the riches within the area.
Seemingly bereft of any tourist attractions, Kuala Dungun is an unlikely stop for those passing through Terengganu if not for Tanjong Jara Resort. Despite its modest kampung location, the resort, part of the luxury YTL property chain, has gained a worldwide reputation for its unique architecture and welcome. Taking a cue from its east coast residents, Tanjong Jara Resort has adopted the spirit of gentle and humble Malay service and hospitality. Its "Unmistakably Malay" tagline is reflected throughout the resort - the Malay palace-like architecture, the local menu which features the region's unique cuisine, and the age-old Malay treatments at its award-winning spa.
The district of Dungun, especially the beaches at Rantau Abang, used to be the calling place of giant leatherback turtles who return yearly to the beaches here to lay their eggs. In the 1970s, as many as 1,000 leatherback landings were reported but these nesting giants are a rare sight these days due to modern developments and human interference; however it is still possible to view green turtle landings in other parts of Dungun. Tanjong Jara Resort has a turtle watching programme exclusively for guests at Kerteh. The oil-refinery town of Terengganu may be an unlikely port of call for these nesting turtles, but the midnight trips arranged with the local fisheries department are highly recommended. Complement the experience beforehand with a trip to the Turtle Information Centre in Rantau Abang just 15 km north of Tanjong Jara Resort to learn about the miraculous journey made by these gentle marine creatures to nest and the subsequent fight for survival by their young hatchlings.
After the tranquil panoramas of Kemaman, Dungun and Marang, the bustle of capital city Kuala Terengganu takes a while to get used to. Pasar Payang is the central market where all manner of trade is conducted. It's the place to get your fish and chicken, fruits and veggies, dried fish crackers, some fashionable wear, souvenirs, even your gold jewellery. It would almost be a sin to leave town without at least purchasing the signature east coast fabric, the batik, here. Or indulge in the Terengganu brocade - a textile of royal origins made using fine gold and silk threads.
Spend a quick afternoon on the Terengganu River Cruise, from the Islamic Civilisation Park jetty, to learn about the history and development of the area. Then, hop over to Pulau Duyong to walk within the walls of an old fortress. Built in the 1920s, Kota Lama Duyong is a traditional Terengganu house with Greek Corinthian elements in its columns and Islamic influences in the decorative woodcarvings.
Continue northwards from Kuala Terengganu and you will soon reach Penarik in the district of Setiu. This serene fishing village has a unique geographical landscape - a narrow isthmus of casuarinas and coconut groves flanked by the Setiu River on the west and the South China Sea on the east. It is the setting of Terrapuri Heritage Village, part conservation project, part boutique guest house, and on-going 20-year labour of love by local entrepreneur, Alex Lee, to preserve the authentic traditions of the Malay Terengganu house.
Here, guests are accommodated in hundred-year old dwellings, each one personally sourced by Lee from various parts of Terengganu, dismantled, carefully restored and assembled again on this piece of beach-front land in Kampung Mangkuk. Rich in history and displaying the refined carpentry and design skills of highly-respected master craftsmen, each of these 29 houses may be the last legacies of a fast-diminishing Terengganu culture and heritage. The hospitality by locals employed from nearby villages is genuine and unpretentious - at the end of your stay, you'll be bidding goodbye to friends and family instead of service staff.
With a coastline that runs for 244 km, Terengganu's beaches are some of the best and prove to be a great distraction to those driving along Route 3. There's no point resisting its allure; turn off from the main road anywhere and cherish the serendipitous discoveries not marked in any tourist map.
Teluk Bidara in Dungun is a bay near Tanjong Jara Resort where one can explore the cave and lighthouse on Tanjung Api Hill at low tide. Kuala Abang and Kemasik beaches have some interesting sea-side rock formations on which to perch and enjoy the miles of blue, while Penarik tears you in two with the river wetlands on one side and gorgeous beach on the other, and the shade of casuarinas and coconut palms in between the two.
The long Terengganu coastline may be inviting but beware of the strong under-currents in certain places. Instead, pull a chair beach-side and munch on keropok lekor as you take in the views of the nearby islands, listen to the waves breaking on the shore and fantasise of owning a beach-front property here.
When to go:
The state of Terengganu observes Sunday to Thursday as working days while Friday and Saturday are public holidays. Banks, government offices and most businesses in Terengganu operate from Sunday to Thursday.
Also, it's worth checking out the weather before going. Terengganu experiences heavier rainfall and flooding in certain areas during the monsoon season when the north-east winds blow between November and January. Although the perception is that it rains every day during this period, there are perfectly sunny days, too, in between wet spells. Still, trips to the islands are not advised during this period due to uncertain sea conditions. On the bright side, the monsoon season is considered low season, and travellers get better deals on hotels.
Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu (approx. 455 km): Take the Karak Highway, then the East Coast Expressway, and exit at Jabor toll. Continue towards Kuala Terengganu on Federal Route 3 via Chukai town in Kemaman.
Singapore/Johor Bahru to Kuala Terengganu (approx. 562 km): Take Federal Route 3 to Kota Tinggi, Mersing, Kuala Rompin, Pekan, Kuantan and Kuala Terengganu.
Penang to Kuala Terengganu (approx. 460 km): Take Federal Route 4 via Grik to Jertih, then turn into Federal Route 3 to Kuala Terengganu.
Fly to Kuala Terengganu Airport from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) via Malaysia Airlines or AirAsia; or from Subang Airport (Kuala Lumpur) via Firefly.