best things to do in kota bharu

The Best 3 Things to Do in 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.  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. There isn’t a whole lot to do here, but what is here is interesting from a historic and cultural perspective, so here are my 3 things to do in Kota Bharu.


This isn’t the sort of place you come to with a bucket list of things to do. This is a real town in a rather conservative part of Malaysia. Most people only come through here to do one of two things. They head to the Perhentians Islands (we did, and you can read about that here). Or they’re coming either from Thailand heading south through Malaysia, or crossing the border near here from Rantau Panjang to Sungai Kolok. (yeah we did that as well).

However. there are a few things to do in Kota Bharu that are, I think, worth staying overnight for, and spending at least one day here. Nigel’s been here twice now. And for me, the fascination goes back to 1941.

Kota Bharu’s Historic Connections

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 they 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.

The Best 3 Things to Do in Kota Bharu

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.

1. Visit Kota Bharu’s Colorful Market

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 guidebooks as “the most colorful market in Malaysia”. When we visited the reality was sadly different, as it was mostly closed.  It is, however, open fully again now.

Kota Bharu Market

This is where to come for a slice of local life. For your food. And for some great photos too.

2. 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, and 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.

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.

War Museum Kota Bharu

Inside there are signboards upon signboards. 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.

It’s a strange collection of signboards. More time is spent discussing the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima than what happened locally. (My guide to Hiroshima is here). For this museum, there are no real redeeming features.  To read more about Nagasaki and the incredible Atomic Bomb Museum there, read this post.

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.

We leave sadly disappointed and head to the Tourist office, which is where it all gets a bit more interesting.

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.

3. Go to the Kota Bharu Cultural Centre

Kota Bharu’s tourist office does 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, but by about the 10th, it’s almost sad. Although I’m not sure what they’d replace it with today.

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.

Cultural Interactions in Kota Bharu

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

Kota Bharu Cultural Center - spinning top game

And there’s Silat – the demonstration martial arts, although, for the first 5 minutes, I’m not sure if it’s 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.

And that’s it. We’re done with Kota Bharu. We have one final Malaysian meal in a hawker center, with a rather good Hokkien Mee (one of our favorite dishes from Penang).

Hokkien Mee in Kota Bharu

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

How to Get to Kota Bharu

Kota Bharu is one of those places that is likely on your route, even if you’re not coming here. If you’re going to the Perhentians you’ll 99% likely come here to get there. And if you’re traveling up to Thailand, then you’ll go through here too.

We came here after we’d been to the Perhentian Islands. We took the local bus from Kuala Besut bus station, after a fast boat out of the Perhentians at 07:30.  We were the only tourists on the bus, which cost 6RM each, and left at 09:05 (it’s the number 638 or 639).  Other options were a taxi for 65RM or a shared minivan for up to six people for 25 RM each. You can check current prices, online booking, and tickets from Kuala Besut to Kota Bharu here.

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 accommodations 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, a 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.

Malaysia Travel Tips

Final Words on the Best 3 Things to Do in Kota Bharu

Most people coming to Kota Bharu are simply passing through. And this town near the border with Thailand has an interesting history. It’s interesting enough to us that Nigel has been here twice, once, many years ago to see the turtles nesting on a nearby beach. Sadly they’re long gone. The war museum here promised lots and has hopefully improved since we were there. However, its not an unpleasant place to spend a night between visits to the Perhentians and heading to Thailand.

Stock images in this article are courtesy Deposit Photos.

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