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Terengganu: Off the Islands, Back to Home

Though Terengganu is often known as the gateway to Malaysia’s most beautiful islands – Perhentian, Duyung, Redang and others, a determined writer sets out on his own avant-garde adventure to explore the mainland’s plethora of activities, sights and sounds…only to find a taste of home.

Words and Photos: Ari Fajar

“I dislike feeling at home when I’m abroad” – George Bernard Shaw

But Mister Shaw, I’m afraid I will prove you wrong. I set out searching for the greatest adventure to be mine, but I was embraced warmly by the calm and rustic charm of Malaysia’s very own Terengganu. With lines of trees and villages as far as my eye can see, I felt my heartbeat slowed down to an idyllic pace. This isn’t a land I can tame, but this is the land that will tame me.

     When in Rome, do what the Romans do, right? I strived to live the pastoral life in order to experience Terengganu to the fullest – an essential part of its identity. Like a shadow in the night, I blended well amongst the local folks. Through the homestay program I signed up for, I was offered an inside view on how the local fishermen worked hard to bring in the fresh seafood to be sold in the local markets. Being on the boat was not as easy as I thought, and I steeled myself from pouring out my guts on my foster father’s boat as the seasickness kicked in. Getting up at the break of dawn was another eye-opener for me…literally! The gorgeous sunrise seen from the mainland exudes a certain mystical pull.

Homestay programs encourage cultural exchanges.

     My morning walks will have me treading through muddy fields and challenging terrains, as the early risers get up and ready for their day to begin. Young school children walked in neat lines as they head to school. After school, they’ll be expected to help out with the daily chores, family business or even taking care of their younger siblings. The most hardworking are the womenfolk. First to wake up and last to bed, my foster mother during my homestay program is a wonderful homemaker at home, and yet an important decision-maker in the village council. I have the highest admiration for her.

Learn how to make net-like pancakes (roti jala).

Or even a real fishing net!

     I may be blending well with the locals, but my true purpose was to explore this new land. Terengganu is a wonderful land filled with abundant blessings. The state has pristine beaches along its coastline, facing the blue green waters of the South China Sea. Any idyllic evening, you will definitely find me at Tanjung Jara as I enjoyed the cooling sea breeze whilst the local folks and tourists enjoy the many beach activities such as sailing, snorkelling, diving, boating and many more. Pantai Batu Buruk is another great place to enjoy a fun day under the sun. Chendering beach is where the locals go for a family picnic, and I do love munching on the food from snack vendors along the beach. The most popular beach in the state would have to be Rantau Abang, where the peaceful fishing village’s attraction is the Leatherback Sea Turtles that come to shore to lay their eggs on the beach. It’s truly an experience to cherish as I waited in the dark night for hours for the magnificent creatures to come on shore.

A peaceful corner on one of the beaches in Terengganu.

     Terengganu is known as the cradle of Peninsular Malay culture. The Pengkalan Budaya (Cultural Centre) is where I spent many hours enjoying the traditional performances and art forms of Terengganuan culture. The martial art demonstrations had me at the edge of my seat, and the traditional dances told me tales of ancient culture and kingdoms.

     I loved the fact that old traditions in Terengganu had stood against the test of time, and is still well-preserved and widespread across the state. Being in batik central of Malaysia, I had to see the interesting batik-making process with my very own eyes. Of course, I purchased quite a number of batik produces for my loved ones as well. Terengganu’s songkets are highly valued, where I was told that even Malaysian royalties will purchase the silver and gold-threaded brocades from the state itself. I was lucky enough to be taken to a special showroom where they kept their finest songket collection, normally reserved for the most astute of patrons. How much they cost? Let’s just say that with that price, I could easily purchase a car or a small house back in my homeland of Indonesia.

Intricate designs on batik stamps.

     Terengganu’s full name is Terengganu Darul Iman, which means “Terengganu, Abode of Faith”. It’s no surprise that the idea of a theme park takes on a different path here. One of the first of its kind in the world is Taman Tamadun Islam or Islamic Civilisation Theme Park which showcases scaled-down mosques, palaces and other structures of the Islamic societies around the world. Even if you are not a Muslim, you can still appreciate the knowledge that you will gain from the park. I was happy to see a scaled-down version of Indonesia’s Masjid Kudus with its unique Hindu-influenced architecture elements among other famous Islamic structures. Knowing that there was only a slim chance I will ever step foot in Israel or Palestine, I was pleased to be able to enter the interactive replica of the Dome of the Rock and to learn its importance to the Abrahamic religions. Kudos to the great amounts of effort clearly put into it, and the details are just amazing! I still wished to see the real thing someday, but Taman Tamadun Islam’s version is definitely the next best thing!

Crystal Mosque of Terengganu Islamic Civilisation Park

     On to my favourite subject–food! You can find the usual Malay, Chinese and Indian food found in other places in Malaysia, but the ones you really should not miss are the ones that are specific to Terengganu. It’s interesting to note that due to proximity and historical background, Terengganuan cuisine shows a noticeable Thai influence. One iconic Terengganuan dish is Nasi Dagang (literally “trader’s rice”), a mix of regular rice and sticky rice infused with coconut milk and eaten with tuna curry and pickles. I had great fun locating the best Nasi Dagang stall in town, which felt like a treasure hunt for a glutton like me. Another Terengganuan staple is the savoury Keropok Lekor. It looked like a kind of sausage made from fish paste and sago, and I was taken aback by its chewy goodness. Needless to say, I bought quite a handful back with me as well.

Nasi Dagang certainly tastes best in its own birthplace!

    Whilst many may flock to the islands off the coast of Terengganu without giving the mainland a second look, I’d definitely urge all of you to give Terengganu a try…and you’ll feel more at home than anywhere else. The lifestyle is idyllic, the landscape is breathtaking and the people are warm and welcoming. The homestay experience truly put my life in a different perspective, and I learned to appreciate different cultures and traditions as well. Ever had a great homestay experience? Do share it with me at the comment section below.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies 3x daily to Kuala Terengganu from Kuala Lumpur. For additional destinations, lowest airfares and flight information, go to www.airasia.com.

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