best things to do in kota bharu

What to see and do in Malaysia’s Historic Kota Bharu

It’s our final stop in Malaysia.  The historic town of Kota Bharu, where we’ll spend the night before we head to the border crossing at Rantau Panjang.  There’s more about our Kota Bharu to Sungai Kolok border crossing here.  We’re stopping here in historic Kota Bharu for a number of reasons.  The first is to refind the colorful market Nigel first found 25 years ago.  And then there’s the fact that close by here was the historic landing place of the Japanese in World War Two.


Where to Stay in Kota Bharu

There are a host of places to stay in Kota Bharu – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Kota Bharu, mid-range places to stay in Kota Bharu, and budget accommodation in Kota Bharu.

Ibis Styles Kota Bharu, Kota Bharu: Ibis Styles Kota Bharu is ideally located in the center of Kota Bharu by the Kelantan River, conveniently surrounded by Kota Bharu’s main attractions. This top Kota Bharu hotel has rooms equipped with a smart TV, mini-bar, coffee/tea maker, a desk, an iron, a private bathroom with a hairdryer, free WiFi, and air-conditioning. You can take breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the Streat Café which offers different international cuisine and authentic signature Kelantanese dishes. This top hotel in Kota Bharu has a lobby café with a relaxing ambiance and the Ibis Styles Kota Bharu provides a comfortable and pleasant place to stay in Kota Bharu. Check room rates and availability here.

Holiday Villa Hotel & Suites, Kota Bharu: Holiday Villa Hotel & Suites is a four-star hotel with 108 rooms, each well-equipped with air-conditioning, flat-screen TV with cable channel, a private bathroom with a shower and hairdryer, in-room safety deposit box, and an electric kettle. The hotel’s Lagenda Restaurant serves both local Kelantanese and international cuisines. This fantastic mid-range hotel also has an indoor swimming pool, a gym, a sauna, and free WiFi. The Holiday Villa Hotel & Suites is the perfect place to relax after exploring Kota Bharu. See rates and availability here.

Tune Hotel, Kota Bharu: The Tune Hotel is located right at the center of Kota Bharu. Each room at this budget hotel is equipped with a TV, an in-room electronic safe, a private bathroom with a hot shower and hairdryer, air-conditioning, a ceiling fan, and towels and toiletries. The budget Kota Bharu hotel also has a restaurant for breakfast, brunch, late-night dinners, and desserts, and also a bar. The Tune Hotel in Kota Bharu has a comfortable vibe, ideal for a short stay when visiting Kota Bharu. Read more reviews and check rates and availability here.

History of Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu was the site of the start of World War II in the Pacific. It was here that on 7/8 December 1941 the Japanese made landfall. This was 70 minutes before they attacked Pearl Harbor half a world away.

The invaders quickly destroyed Allied Forces in the area. In a matter of two months had made their way down through the jungle. They tackled the mangrove swamps of Malaya and defeated the 90,000 strong Allied forces in Singapore. The city and state fell on February 15th 1942.

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Kota Bharu History is Hard to Find

The town now is not what you’d call a tourist attraction. The bus station is most definitely for locals going about their business (although there is signage in English).
This little almost at the border town was on Nigel’s agenda 25 years ago. It’s close to here that he saw turtles nesting in Rantau Abang. The turtles are long gone, decimated in their numbers. If indeed they are still nesting they’re not doing it here.

Kota Bharu –  Most Colourful Market in Malaysia?

Back in 1991, when Nigel visited, one of the key attractions of Kota Bharu had just opened – the market. It’s still promoted by the tourist office and all the guide books as “the most colorful market in Malaysia” . The reality is sadly different.  This is the Kota Bharu Market.

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The central area, pictured so prettily in all the promotional photos is fenced off. Closed. Seemingly for renovations that don’t appear to be taking place. The rest of the market surrounding it goes on. It’s dirty, it’s smelly and right now it’s sad.

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Kota Bharu War Museum

The Japanese invasion is commemorated in the War Museum a few minutes walk from the market and close to Merdeka (Independence) Square. It’s a lovely old building, with a bizarre collection of oddities in the garden area – an old car with no signage, a cannon, a pillbox. This is our second war museum in Malaysia – there’s an extensive war museum on Penang Island – and I wrote about visiting it here.

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Inside there are signboards upon signboard. There are no photo’s allowed. While there are a few fans, most of them aren’t plugged in. Those that are point to the staff, who seem to be employed to watch us. They must be doing it through an app, as they’re heads down into their phones.

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The building is the old Bank Kerapu building. This was also used as the headquarters of the Japanese Secret Police during the war. If WWII in Malaysia is of interest, then you should also head to Penang (there’s a war museum there) and on Borneo, read more about the Sandakan-Ranau death marches here.

It’s a strange collection of signboards. More time is spent discussing the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima than what happened locally. There are no real redeeming features.  To read more about Nagasaki and the incredible Atomic Bomb Museum there, read this post.

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We hit town when a special exhibition was on. In a small room at the back, the only brightly lit part of the museum, there’s a display of airfix models. There’s little rhyme, reason or theme other than they’re airfix models. We’re watched very carefully here. So we head upstairs, where there’s a bizarre collection of lamps, typewriters and random items.

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We leave sadly disappointed and head to the Tourist office.

Kota Bharu Cultural Centre

Kota Bharu’s tourist office do a great job of promoting the town and the area. They also have a fabulously ice cold office that we camp out in for half an hour before heading to the Cultural Centre. It’s in the tourist office that we meet Del Boy. Or his Malay counterpart. There are more of them when we get to the cultural center. Someone in their wisdom has watched re-runs of Only Fools and Horses. They’ve decided that the phrase to use to show your solidarity with the British is “Lovely Jubbly” . The first time it’s amusing, by about the 10th, it’s almost sad. Although I’m not sure what they’d replace it with these days.

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The Cultural centre (the Gelanggang Seni) promises a cultural show in the afternoon and a look into some of the regional specialties – for free. And so we take them up on it. There’s nothing going on in between shows, but there is a small cafe here to grab food and drink while you wait.

There’s a spell learning to play the coconut xylophone.

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A spinning tops game, where you seem to need to start learning at birth to have a hope of even a minor spin.


And there’s Silat – the demonstration martial arts, although for the first 5 minutes, I’m not sure if its a play or a dance that they’re doing. It’s not until one of the combatants is knocked to the floor that it begins to dawn on me as to what we’re watching.

Lovely, Jubbly, as they say round here.

Our Last Malay Meal

We have dinner at a Chinese hawker centre, a final Hokkien Mee to see us on our way from Malaysia towards Thailand.

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Tomorrow we head from Malaysia to Thailand – we’ll be going from here, Kota Bharu to Sungai Kolok.

Our travels through South East Asia have taken us to many places associated with WWII that are moving and that we remember every day. There’s Kota Bharu, where the Japanese first landed in Malaysia, and there’s Labuan Island, where the peace accord was signed. The Sandakan – Ranau death march can be celebrated by the fact that 6 men escaped the march from Sandakan. Of course, Hellfire Pass and Kanchanaburi too on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. We visited, too, the Myanmar side of the railway at Thanbyuzyat. We explored Fortress Singapore. We saw one of the Japanese trains that ran on the death railway in Tokyo.

Malaysia Travel Tips

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