Friday, January 29, 2010

Kuala Terengganu Tales v.03 - Masjid Abidin and the Bus Journey to KL

Mosques in Terengganu have nicknames. Masjid Terapung is the Floating Mosque, while the Crystal Mosque is, well... Masjid Krystal. At the heart of town, there is Masjid Abidin, otherwise known as the White Mosque - aka the Big Mosque.

The mosque was built by Sultan Zainal Abidin II between 1793 and 1808. As its inscription reveals, the mosque was originally built of timber. During the reign of Sultan Umar around the year 1852, a new one made of stone - of bricks! - replaced the old. Renovation included an addition of 3 round pillars and 3 minarets by Tengku Panglima Besar (Tengku Muda Kemaman).

Calligraphic carvings from verses of the Holy Quran (Koran) along with prayers and arabesques were carved on the entrance and grills of the entrance.

In 1972, renovation was ordered during the reign of Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah extending the area to ambitiously accommodate 2,500 people in a single prayer session (compare this with the 700 capacity of Crystal Mosque and the staggering 24,000 capacity of Shah Alam's Blue Mosque). Further minor renovations were done in 2006.

It is hard to ignore this mosque. If you head to the market or the bus terminal, the rising white minarets of Masjid Abidin easily catches your fancy. It is known to be camera-friendly too.

Masjid Abidin

Abidin Mosque's main prayer hall (above) and the chandelier from the dome (2nd photo). Both photos only courtesy of Flickr's UmmAbdrahmaan.


As we narrated from a previous post, a plane ride from KL to Terengganu will take 50 minutes. A bus journey, on the other hand, will cover 455 kilometers. Lonely Planet says that this will take 7 hours, but my experience turned out differently.
My bus left at exactly 1PM – so I expected to arrive at 8PM and I still had time to catch a late night movie at Berjaya Times Square. Even with 1 hour delay, I still have enough time since last full shows start at 11PM. To my utter disappointment, my bus ride stretched on for hours - 9 hours and 30 minutes to be exact! What contributed to this was Terengganu's bridge crossing, which took 1 1/2 hours of wait before we had our turn to ply the relatively short distance (probably 100-200 m) to cross the bridge that took us to the main land. Moreover, there were several stops too – 3 toilet stops, 3 stopovers to pickup passengers and another 20-minute meal!


We reached Kuala Lumpur’s dark, deserted and creepy Plaza Rakyat station. That was 9 ½ hours of my life. I wasn't familiar with the place. I only heard about it while I inquired about return bus tickets at the Puduraya Bus Terminal in KL. Everyone was telling me I had to go to Plaza Rakyat for the “return ticket”. One way ticket to KT can be bought at the travel shops in Puduraya, but not for the return. “Do you know how to get there?” the information lady at Puduraya even asked me, then offered, "It is very far!". So, reaching Rakyat at 10:30 PM wasn't fun!


I hailed the only taxi I saw and tried to negotiate for a fixed fare but he wanted the meter to run – but red lights flashed in my head! Ano ako, tanga? (Am I stupid?) This was one of the extremely rare times that a KL taxi driver was offering to use his taxi meter! I knew there was going to be an inordinate catch and I was too tired for that risk! I was thinking, there must be a train station nearby. I saw a dark winding street that curved somewhere and – voila! – I found a train station!


There was a problem. It was almost 11PM and the last train will soon depart the station. The manned ticket booth was closed, so I had to secure my ticket from the ticket machine. Oh gawd! How do I do that?

Except for a Malay girl who was experimenting with the ticket machine herself, the station was deserted! I asked if she could help, but she shook her head and mumbled something in Bahasa. She looked annoyed! Ok, ok, I get it! We were both clueless.

After a few experimentations, I pushed some buttons and inserted a mint-condition paper money. I heard the machine ring. then out popped my train ticket to KL Sentral! Triumphant, I snatched my ticket from the tray then went inside the station for my platform! With chin held high, I left the Malaysian girl wide-eyed with drool dripping down her silk garment! Sometimes, all it takes is common sense and a little luck!

I left Plaza Rakyat's last train at 11:30PM.


Three stops later, I alighted at KL Sentral, then looked for a taxi outside. “How much for Jalan Pudu – Puduraya Terminal?” I asked the young driver. To my surprise, he said “10 ringgit!” Taxis always ask for a fixed rate of 15 ringgit for travels from Puduraya to KL Sentral, and vice versa. I was grinning from ear to ear.

I felt lucky, smart, and smug!

My Transnasional double decker bus boasts of freezing AC, overhead lights, very comfortable seats - with seating assignments (so you can't just sit anywhere unless they're unoccupied). My seat was at the upper deck right upfront. I had the sprawling driver's view. A bus conductor religiously does his head count every time there's a stopover (loo, meal, picking up passengers at stations along the way).

Bus Terminal. Check your ticket for your bus' platform number. That's where you find your bus.

I am a little lost. Is this the famed Sultan Mahmud Bridge? This was a tight 2-way lane that took me (and my bus) from the town center to the main land. Passage through this bridge was an abominable 1 1/2 hours! Check the photos below for the seemingly wider, multi-laned Sultan Mahmud Bridge taken by other cam buffs!

Fishing kampongs (villages) were seen as we passed through the bridge. Poor photo quality - this was taken inside my moving bus, through wet glass windows. There was downpour outside.

Sultan Mahmud Bridge. These photos only courtesy of Flickr's [sang] and raaisma, respectively.

The main town is located at the promontory. This map only courtesy of

Up next: The Bayside of Terengganu and more.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kuala Terengganu Tales v.02 – Get Me Out of Here! (Or How Not to Roam the City)


After finding KT Travellers Inn (yes, that’s how they spelled it), I realized I didn’t want to stay there. Sure, the rooms were adequately furnished, clean and close to being luxurious, but I felt I’ve been had by Lonely Planet. It’s supposed to be the town’s one and only budget hotel with prices in their 40s-50s (ringgit) for AC rooms. They weren’t! I was informed that all the rooms were occupied except for this 3-person room which was worth 99 ringgit ($28.9/PhP1,333) per day! It was 10 AM and check in time was 3 PM; check out at 12. The counter lady asked for 100 ringgit. “Deposit,” she said! A deposit that’s worth the rate of the room. Hilarious! I later learned that the 5 hours I was there was already considered 1 full day – so by 3 PM on the day of my arrival, I shall be charged a total of 200 ringgit (that’s $60 accommodations at a ghost town by the sea)! Hahaha!
And this is Terengganu’s “only budget accommodations” huh, Lonely Planet?

I made my way to my room at the end of the hall – alone. The veiled lady at the counter was busy with her inbox. There was no other activity around and the whole place looked and sounded deserted. I saw 2 unoccupied double rooms. Wait up, wasn't I told they had full occupancy? As it turned out, she had to give me the expensive room available. After all, it’s much easier to occupy the cheaper ones if other tourists turn up later. How clever! I wasn’t amused! I have been in so many rooms around Asia and Europe – rooms that were much more expensive than this one – but here in KT, I didn’t appreciate the element of deceit! Oh well.

My room was nice though: cable TV, ref, slippers, bath robes and towels, split type AC, charming interiors, 2 separate beds – one family-sized and a single bed. I had a window with a view. I threw my bag on the bed and took a 15 minute rest. I tried to take a nap but my mind was restless, I could feel my lids twitching with anticipation. My phantom feet were already at the door; I knew though that I had to leave soon.

I deposited the key at the counter. My 10 kg luggage was 455 kilometers away in KL, so all I had was my backpack. The counter lady offered to call a taxi and ringgits were making ka-ching sounds in my head. No thanks, I can call them myself. Or can I? As I stood outside, waiting for a taxi – or a bus – or anything with wheels on, I realized that Terengganu was in fact not for tourists. At least not the town proper. In retrospect, Irene – my London friend who hails from Terengganu – wrote me and said, “Transportation in town is sooo bad – Terengganu is not a tourist place. Tourists just pass the town on their way to Pulau Redang.” It was drizzling. I had been standing by the roadside for 15 minutes. Few vehicles were plying this road (Jalan Sultan Sulayman), none of them was a taxi. How else can a tourists see the town?

Now I am gradually getting drenched by drizzle in a taxi-less town! Few sighs after, a taxi slowed down towards me. It dawned on me that I didn’t want to stay at my “hotel”, my paid hundred ringgit notwithstanding! Heck, I did not want to stay for a night in this transportation-challenged town! Mobility in Terengganu is fucked up! It puzzles me why Air Asia is actively promoting Terengganu as one of their frequently booked destinations. Terengganu isn't as popular as they say it is; what with half full plane? Wasn't December peak season? Where are the tourists? It’s a virtual ghost town! Where are the taxis and trishaws? Does their industry expect tourists to navigate the town on foot? This was crazy!

“Bus station – for KL!” I emphatically told my taxi driver.

By this time, my stubborn resolve just wanted a bus ticket out of Terengganu. I didn’t care about my return Air Asia flight. It’s just money I can earn back. I didn’t care that I’ve practically paid my 100 ringgit hotel room either. I buy DVD’s 4x that amount in a single shop!

It is like spitting out an unpalatable food. Life is that simple sometimes.

Upon reaching the bus station which turned out to be at the heart of town (Lonely Planet mentions a station quite far from the center), There were a few touts. Most busses departing for KL leave at 11PM so I didn’t have enough time to even buy a fish cracker. I asked around until I found the Transnasional Bus Counter. There was one bus due to leave at 1PM. Every other bus bound for KL leaves in the evening! I paid 25 ringgit for the bus fare. And felt relaxed knowing I’d be out of Terengganu in no time. Irene said, “You should give Terengganu another chance when it is not monsoon time.”

Yes, Irene – once Terengganu acquires public transport facilities for tourists, I will!

Random Expenditures:

Airport Taxi to town center – 25 ringgit

Overnight stay for a room at KT Travellers Inn – 99 ringgit

Basic taxi fare within the city center – 8 ringgit (no meter)

Bus fare for KL – 25 ringgit

KFC 3-piece chicken meal – 12 ringgit

Transnasional Bus Schedule – bound for Kuala Lumpur

Morning bus – 10AM, 10:30AM, 11AM, 1PM
Night Bus – 9PM, 10 PM

My airport taxi ride.

Bus terminal at the heart of town. The second story is a dry market/bazaar.

Transnasional Bus Counter

Left Luggage at the Bus Terminal. It is open from 8AM to 10PM. They charge 2 ringgit per bag/luggage. Call them at 019-9209676 for more information & updates.

Fish crackers. My Terengganu friend Irene says, "They are like any fried crackers that you get from Chinese restaurants right before food is served. You can get them anywhere." Indeed!

My 3-piece KFC chicken meal - original recipe. This variation has rice which is admixed with some spice (and an after-taste) thus its yellowish color.

Lunching wives of oil magnates are said to populate this oil-rich state.

The way to Chinatown and Princess Hill.

Sleepy Sultan Sulayman Street where KT Travellers Inn is. Nearby is Hotel Grand Continental. I waited for my first taxi here. Then much later, I just walked until i reached the Baywalk, then walked further to get to the Bus Terminal. Much of the town center is navigable by foot.

KT Travellers Inn - the delightfully amiable budget accommodation.

Downpour in KT.

Stairs to my double decker bus. It was freezing. Top of the line bus carriers ply Malaysian roads.

Origin of Terengganu

The origin of the name "Terengganu" is unclear, but there are several theories pertaining to it. One theory states that the name actually originated from the Malay term "Terang Anu", which in English means Bright Rainbow. Another theory (originally narrated by the ninth Sultan of Terengganu, Baginda Omar) states that one of the members of a group of hunters from Pahang who were hunting just south of Terengganu, found a big fang on the ground.
One of his fellow hunters asked him which animal the fang belonged to. He simply replied "Taring Anu", which in English means "fang of something". Their return to Pahang impressed their neighbours. When asked where they got their loot, the hunters replied, "From the land of Taring Anu", which later evolved into Terengganu. (Acknowledgment:

Up Next: More Sights in Terengganu

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kuala Terengganu Tales v.01 – On Causing Flight Delay and Arriving at Sultan Mahmud Airport

Kuala Terengganu had been beckoning me for a visit for the last 3 years. When the opportunity finally came, I booked a flight. To be honest about it, I didn’t come prepared, not the way I usually do with other places, but if you check out your Lonely Planet, it doesn’t really offer much; just a few pages easily readable in 15 minutes.

Terengganu or KT is Malaysia’s East Coast, the bailiwick of the country’s opposition, and is the capital of the oil producing state of Malaysia. My friend Irene is from Terengganu, but is now based in London. I met her while on a bus in Chiangmai and we’ve since kept in touch.

KT is 455 kilometers from KL, thus a day out from the capital is not possible. There are flights from air carriers like Air Asia, Malaysia Air (the first Boeing 747 to land at the Sultan Mahmud Airport was last October 11, 2008) and Firefly (to and from places like Singapore, Penang, Johor Bahru, Langkawi, but no Kuala Lumpur). Air travel takes just 50 minutes. Air Asia usually leaves KL at 7AM. Return trip to KL departs at 4PM but this is unfortunately hobbled by frequent changes of schedule. Mine was moved from 4PM to 10 PM. Air Asia is starting to crumble with frequent sked changes that inform you from either your mobile (my KT flight) or by email (my March trip to Penang).

When to visit? As I would realize later, December isn’t the best time to find ones self in KT. The rains during the monsoon season (November to February/March) don’t let up. And I would be there at its wettest!

Causing Delay

I woke up at 4:30 AM, then took a 15 ringgit taxi to KL Sentral to catch the Skybus to LCCT. I had a lot of time, so I was relaxed waiting for my boarding call. I was seated across Gate 9 where I was supposed to board. LCCT was buzzing with activity. The last 2 years have transformed this once sleepy no-frills airport into a busy one. It was 6:40 (departure at 7) and still, Gate 9 was shut! Ten minutes later, I heard my name being called. They were waiting for me. I froze and realized they transferred the boarding gate to Gate 1 – at the other side of the hall! I jumped and made a dash to Gate 1 which was already closed. I told the attendant that I heard my name. She scrambled and reached for her card key. As the door opened, I sprinted to the nearby Air Asia plane, breathless and anxious.

I climbed the stairs leading to the plane, only to realize once I was inside that it was empty! Oh for Pete’s sake. The day was starting out wrong! I went down. A tarmac personnel pointed me to the other plane. With backpack flopping behind me, I finally made it inside my plane. I half expected people throwing scornful glances, but they were unmindful of my entry. I took my pre-booked seat and relaxed. I’ve never been a cause of delay and it unnerved me. There is no such thing as Filipino-time, only undisciplined people.

The flight was half full and uneventful. The very few Caucasians on board were headed to Pulau Redang, one of Malaysia’s most beautiful beaches (their Boracay), just a boat away from Marang (a town 45 minutes from KT). I retrieved a photocopy of the Kuala Terengganu (KT) entry from my Lonely Planet (Asia on Shoestring). It was too thick and I didn’t want to carry that edition as I already had 2 other LP’s with me – Nepal and the thick Indian Lonely Planet. I re-read it and felt it was inadequate. Oh well. It was too late for regrets. I called for my pre-booked meal – Chicken Rice, which was braised chicken and steamed rice. It was my favorite from the available choices – their chicken foccacia was horrible and is only good as a tummy-filling snack.

Fifty minutes later, we landed on drizzling Terengganu. Sultan Mahmud Airport was medium-sized. The exteriors depicted local influences. The sophisticated gleam benefitted from the 200 million ringgit ($59 million or a staggering PhP3.2 billion) poured by the government to upgrade it into an international airport. Malaysia Airline has seasonal flights that will take passengers to the Mecca Holy land via Jeddah and Medina. Firefly has flights to Singapore and even Subang. 

Though the airport feels small for a 3 billion peso make-over, the interiors are tastefully decorated. It boasts of a hotel-style lobby with cascading water dripping from a series of dark panels; huge round lighting fixtures, mini- ponds by the entrance, and delicate wood carvings hanging down the ceiling.

I was unsure if I had to submit my baggage for inspection as I headed out. This must have been obvious because the bemoustached inspector called my attention. Damn! “Yes?” I said. “What’s your nationality,” he asked. I said, “Filipino!” this time gaining my self-assured voice that belied how knackered I was. I had 2 hours of sleep and had a month of constant mobility behind me. To my surprise, he waved his hand and I was on my way out. I decided to observe the movement outside. No hurry there.

The drizzle started to turn to rain. I ventured into the covered walkway that lead to the road in front, but there weren’t any buses. I went back and sat by the benches in front. A mixed film crew of Caucasians and Chinese guys scurried around, getting their rides out of Sultan Mahmud. The atmosphere was bereft of anxiety. People enjoy a languorous pace and smile around here, I should too, I thought. I went back inside and finally gave in to the prepaid taxi counter (Counter 1, the first booth by the entrance).

I told the lady I wanted to go to TK Travellers Inn located along Sultan Sulayman Street. She nodded, and I paid 25 ringgit. Most locations at the city center will cost you 25 ringgit ($7.40/PhP340). I marveled at how uncongested, how clean the place was. As the scenery slid past before me, I soaked at how rural Terengganu looked. There were very few vehicles plying the streets. There was a laidback demeanor, with few people walking outside. I don’t see a lot of taxis - nor trishaws that the LP or wikitravel mentioned. The airport is located 15 minutes from the town center. It felt longer.

There was a stack of cumulo-nimbus clouds hanging low. I was worried about the rains which have reverted back into seductive trickles.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The elegant lobby of Sultan Mahmud Airport. This photo only courtesy of flickr's chee.hong &

Waiting hall just outside the airport entrance. Prepaid taxis queue for their turn just in front of this hall.

Covered hallway leading to the main road.

White sand beaches of Kuala Terengganu, the East Coast! This photo only courtesy of www.tripadvisor's fozzie58.

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