Praying toward Mecca in Kota BharuIt’s 5:30AM in Kota Bharu and I hear the morning call to prayer in the distance, everything else is still. No, the singing didn’t wake me up.

I have felt comfortable during my stay in Kota Bharu and Terengganu. In fact, this may be my favorite area in Malaysia. However, before I arrived I read about these cities in a major guidebook. They were described as “ultra conservative,” a dubious distinction at best. I wanted to stay away for some liberal/safe experience.
So this morning, I have been thinking about how this “ultra conservative” label actually manifests itself towards the traveler? Well, here is my experience from walking the crowded streets, slipping around on the wet floor of the local fish market, staying at my hotel, eating spicy foods, and talking to the local folks about whatever. Cinemax is edited for content and there are no movie theaters, but everyone has satellite and DVD players. Alcohol is hard, but not impossible, to come by. Hotel rooms come complete with an innocuous little decal on the ceiling pointing out the direction to Mecca for those who are Muslim. Oddly, some hotel chains keep both the Koran and the Bible in their rooms even though one would be hard pressed to find a Christian. Internet access and cafes are available. More women wear todongs (traditional Muslim head coverings) here than in Kuala Lumpur, of course there is a greater Muslim population further north. Women can, and do, buy bikinis and lingerie locally, but probably will not wear the former in public.

So what does all this mean? Is this ultra conservative? If it is, then it has not bothered me. Not even a little. Everyone around me knows I am not a Muslim. I wear short pants, short sleeves and a bulky camera, and I do not know a single word beyond “terima kasih” (thank you), which I am constantly mispronouncing. I also ask lots of questions. Moreover, everyone knows I am an American because everyone I meet asks, “Hey, where you from?” I always tell them. To my good fortune, I have only been met with generosity, curiosity, giggles from kids, and shy smiles that women hide with their hands — I don’t understand that custom. I suppose you can’t believe everything I read.

Check back to ITKT often as I will be returning to the US and posting loads of pictures and new stories.

Written by Devin Galaudet