We arrived in Kota Bharu and got off the bus to the now-familiar dozens of touts offering taxi rides and accommodation. They even claimed they could get us to the Perhentian Islands (our ultimate destination) today – which as far as we’d determined, was impossible. The ferry leaves from Kuala Besut, which is 1 hour away, and the cabbie would only have about 40 minutes to get us there. We figured it was not worth the risk of getting stuck in Besut without accommodation, so we just decided to overnight in Kota Bharu.
We went to check out the KB Backpackers Lodge 2, just a couple minutes walk from the bus station. After our bad experiences with accommodation in Georgetown, we decided we would look a little more carefully before agreeing to the room. The dark, dingy room had cracks through the walls to outside, and a pretty frightening entry way. The main KB Backpackers lodge across the street wasn’t much better. We walked 10 minutes to get to Pantai Timur Inn, which, while being twice the price, actually was comfortable, clean, and we felt safe. Obviously the standards for acceptable budget accommodation drop sharply once you step over the border from Thailand to Malaysia.
Our next task was to figure out how we’d get down to Kuala Lumpur after our visit to the Islands. We were interested in taking the train, as we read it is quite pretty scenery through the highlands (unlike the bus, which goes around). There is very sketchy information on the net about a train that goes to KL. From what we could figure out, as of 7/03, there is a night train that runs to KL daily. On Fri-Sun, there is also an express "day train" which leaves at 4pm? and pulls into KL at 4AM (!!). There might, or might not, be a "jungle train" which does leave in the morning from Kota Bharu (5am?) and runs south towards Johor Bahru, but it would be necessary to make a connection in Jema to a different train to get to KL, and we wouldn’t be there until 8PM, so we’d probably miss the last train and have to overnight in Gemas, but neither our Lonely Planet nor the Let’s Go had any information on this town, so we just decided that the best bet was to fly from Kota Bharu to KL. This also bought us an extra day, but we didn’t know if we’d want to spend it in the Perhentians or in KL, so we didn’t make any transportation commitments.For the rest of the evening we wandered around Kota Bharu. There was lots of interesting looking food from street vendors, but we were being pretty careful about what we ate. We ended up eating at a horrible vegetarian restaurant (Natural Vegetarian Food) with nothing but unsafe (fountain) drinks and overly salty, heavily fried noodles.
The shopping was nothing special – I picked up a Terminator 3 VCD for $3. We walked over to the Gelanggang Seni Cultural Center to watch a display of "shadow puppets", a traditional Malay art. Scheduled to start at 9pm, the first hour had nothing but traditional music from a band hidden behind the curtains. Confused tourists got up from the grass and looked in on the band from the sides of the stage. Finally we got some shadow puppet action happening, but it would last for only 5 minutes then back to the band, followed by some wailing audio feedback which had everyone covering their ears. We gave up and went home.
The taxi picked us up at our hotel in the morning and got us to Kuala Besut with time to spare. We bought our tickets on the ‘fast boat’, and sat waiting with a bunch of Europeans for the boat. It was possibly the most unpleasant boat ride we’d ever been on. The boat did look modern and safe, but the driver was pushing the boat so hard that we were whacking down every wave, slamming the boat down repeatedly. This is *NOT* a boat for anyone with back problems, or motion sickness. The driver seemed to be enjoying the rough ride, looking back and smiling and laughing at us as we kept losing discs in our back. The 50 minute ride is only from the pier on the mainland to the first drop-off point – depending on your hotel location, it can take a while before you get dropped off. The fast boat is too big to go in to the shore, so usually a motorboat from the hotel would come out and meet the fast boat to ferry the tourists back on shore.