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Fact Lives Up to Fiction on Malaysia's East Coast

July 07, 1991|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hansen is a staff writer for The Times' Food Section.

KOTA BAHARU, Malaysia — For years I had longed to go to the east coast of Malaysia.

Friends in Singapore spurred me on by praising the region's spectacular beauty and magnificent beaches. The food is superb, they said, raving about the satay in Kuantan and the seafood almost anywhere. My own romanticized image was inspired by the public television series based on Nevil Shute's novel, "A Town Like Alice." In that World War II drama, British women were marched from Kuala Lumpur to coastal Malaysia by the Japanese, and spent the duration of the war in a Malay village somewhere between Kota Baharu and Kuantan. It was an engrossing story, and the lush tropical settings fueled my fascination.

In such a place, I thought, one could escape the tourists who clog Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong, get in touch with genuine Malay culture and lounge on isolated beaches lapped by gentle, warm waves.

As it turned out, this daydream was an accurate forecast of what I experienced during a two-week journey last year. From Singapore, I went by train to Kota Baharu, the capital of Kelantan state, which borders Thailand. From there I worked my way 435 miles south through the states of Terengganu, Pahang and Johor to the city of Johor Bahru at the tip of the peninsula, adjacent to Singapore. Travel on the east coast is surprisingly easy because public transportation is plentiful and inexpensive. Only one road skirts the coast, so it's impossible to get lost.

Although I went during the Easter holiday, it was easy to find places to stay. Well-publicized resorts such as Desaru, which is close to Singapore, and Pulau Tioman, which is farther north, are likely to be crowded during holidays, but I kept to the cities and smaller resorts.

Accommodations and transportation are a bargain--I paid as little as $2 for a room and never more than $25. Malay is the main language, but almost everyone speaks English. A few words of Malay, though, will do wonders to promote goodwill, so one should take along one of the excellent phrase books that are available in bookstores in Singapore and Malaysia. The time to go is April to November, which is a pleasant dry interval between drenching monsoon rains.

Kota Baharu, my starting point, is an appealing small city with a colorful central market and a three-storied bazaar, Buluh Kubu, that is filled with batik, basketry, handmade silver jewelry and other crafts. For $4 to $6 each, I picked up several sarongs, which came in handy as beach coverups and beach mats. Back home, they make striking tablecloths.

Kota Baharu is noted for its food. Because it's so close to the Thai border, there are lots of Thai dishes. The spicy Thai soup, tom yam , is dished up at many food stalls, often with noodles or rice added. A Malay specialty is ayam percik, grilled marinated chicken basted with thick coconut sauce.

The most interesting place to eat is the night market. By day, it's a car park. At night, the food stalls take over. One sits under the stars at a table neatly covered with oilcloth and equipped with a pitcher of water. Malay custom is to eat with the right hand, and the water is for rinsing off, not drinking. A dinner of noodle soup, ayam percik, yellow rice, spicy cabbage salad and a large glass of orange juice was about $3.

Leaving Kota Baharu one morning after a leisurely breakfast, I missed the bus to the next town, Kuala Terengganu, and so took a taxi, sharing the ride with passengers picked up along the way.

Terengganu is so small that I toured it easily on foot. From my hotel, the Seri Hoover, it was a short walk to Jalan Bandar, a curving street of picturesque old buildings that is Terengganu's Chinatown. Bustling restaurants and shops gave way to residences, and the street ended at the city market. Continuing on along the banks of the Terengganu river, I came to stalls selling a wide variety of Malay sweets and stopped at one for a cooling drink of fresh sugar-cane juice, served in a plastic bag with a straw.

A great deal of batik is made in Terengganu, and the city market incorporates a seemingly endless hall of fabric and clothing shops. The prize fabric is songket, which is ornately woven with gold or silver threads. A length of songket , wrapped about the hips, is part of a Malay man's dress costume. The cost of such a length is about $35. I bought a smaller piece to use as a table runner for $9. Look also for locally made brass utensils and ornate metal belts from Thailand. (A roughly made brass ladle was about $2, and a Thai metal belt was only $1.20.)

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