Eating up Malaysia's neglected east coast

Eating up Malaysia's neglected east coast

A road trip up Malaysia's less traveled side uncovers things both mouth-watering and eye-catching

I'm a frequent visitor to Malaysia’s west coast and Malaysian Borneo.

But a six-day drive up the east coast was a new cultural experience not only for me but also for a friend from Kuala Lumpur who learned more about his own country on our short trip than he did in school.

Tanjung Lumpur fishing village.Tanjung Lumpur fishing village.

The much-traveled west coast of Peninsula Malaysia is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian culture.

But to experience pure-breed Malaysian life a trip out to the peninsula’s three east coast states of Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan is a must. They host a few popular resort islands, but in general the three states are a given a wide berth by the tourist trade.

Nasi dagangNasi dagang.

My hope of using public transport to do this trip is dashed quickly. Long distance bus services are almost non-existent.

So after flying into Kuantan, the capital of the state of Pahang, we rent a car. We are told to head to the coast to visit some traditional fishing villages and in particular to the Tanjung Lumpur for ikan bakar or grilled fish.

Banana leaf grilled aji aji with chilli sambal.Banana leaf grilled aji aji with chili sambal.

We watch as fresh fish is brought in and sampled “aji aji” -- fish grilled in banana leaves and smothered in a fiery sambal paste; it costs about US$1 for half a kilo. The fried clams and calamari in a chili sauce also give a lingering memory of fresh seafood.

Chili clamsChili clams.

A visit to Malaysia is incomplete without taking in some of the majestic mosques. We tour the blue mosque at Kuantan and the Crystal Mosque at the Islamic Civilization Park in Kuala Terengganu.

The latter is a unique experience for those who don’t know much about Islam or want to brush up on their Islamic history. There are several models of famous Islamic monuments from around the world on display but the main attraction is the gleaming Crystal Mosque, best visited at dusk.

Crystal mosque, Kuala TerengganuThe Crystal mosque at the Islamic Civilization complex in Kuala Terengganu.

Being a photographer and a bit of an early-bird allows me to catch some of the beautiful sunrises on the east coast.

Sunrise at Dungun beach, TerengganuSunrise at Dungun beach, Terengganu.

For the best sunsets, we decamp at Dungun, a quiet seaside town north of Kuala Terengganu. The long stretch of beautiful white sand opposite our hotel was empty and we took in the most spectacular sunrise all by ourselves.

Banana leaf grilled calamari with chilli sambal.Banana leaf grilled calamari with chili sambal.

Arriving at our final stop, Kota Bharu, the famed Kota Bharu central market allowed us to rub elbows with Malaysian hawkers selling everything from fresh fish, turtle eggs, locally grown rice and tree bark shampoo.

Kota Bharu central market stallsKota Bharu central market stalls sell everything from aubergines to turtle eggs.

As well as eclectic shops on the ground and first floors, the second-floor food court hosts many places that sell traditional Malay treats cooked along with authentic Thai favourites due to Kota Bharu’s close proximity to Thailand.

Giant prawns at Kota Bharu central market.Don’t touch those giant prawns -- they look good but could be days old.

Whatever you choose, don’t order the huge, juicy looking prawns on offer at every stall. I was going to order one of these giant prawns (that were as big as my fist) until I was warned that they’re only displayed for ornamental reasons.

Nobody eats them because they’re expensive and it’s an open secret that they’re often days old. They’ll only be replaced with new prawns after they start turning black.

Locally grown flowers used for bathing.Locally grown flowers used for bathing.


With the highways so easy to navigate, the people, food and weather so superb, it won’t be long before I’m plying the east coast roads again.

Getting There

Regular flights connect Kuala Terengganu, Kuantan and Kota Bharu to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Avis, Hertz and Mayflower are the largest rental car companies in Malaysia and offer good deals on weekly rentals. Many rental cars are equipped with GPS.

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Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, CNNGo, Huffington Post, and other Asian media outlets. He enjoys hiking from one mountain village to another, waiting for the golden light and dining on street food.

Read more about Derrick Chang