East Coast Special

An ode to the jewel of the East, of watercolour sunsets, kaleidoscopic markets, and village feasts. Where the living is easy, in this earthly paradise.

By | March 25, 2021

I cranked up the volume on the car stereo as my Roadtrippin’ playlist popped up on Spotify and dropped down to ‘California Dreamin’’. Suitably emblematic of a counterculture of freedom, The Mamas & The Papas breezed out our open car windows with a spirited single-finger salute to the Covid-19 virus. The pandemic has seen planes, trains and automobiles largely grounded and languishing. Small local businesses have been practically obliterated. The world may always be there for exploring but now that interstate borders are intermittently open, grab the chance when you can. There has never has been a better need for domestic travel.

August last year saw us riding a long strange Summer of ’20 wave. Healthy (non)-infection rates and school holidays meant almost everyone was bolting out the starting gates as soon as the flag was waved. Beaches along both coasts, highlands, and heritage towns were overrun with vacationers.

New Zealand Tourism recently released a brilliantly cheeky campaign [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trs-isdu4eE] mocking those “travelling under the social influence”. An affectionate dig at sheeple replicating cookie-cutter ’gram shots. Not that we all haven’t been guilty of a “summit spreadeagle or two” but it really is possible to think outside a clone of IG squares in a burgeoning country like Malaysia where there is still much to discover.

The sun sets on a sand-sea-sky horizon. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

A little under three hours from KL with the kids in tow, we were purring along the east coast over hot tarmac snaking north towards ’Ganu. Terengganu. Terang Ganu—bright rainbow—is by far the prettiest interpretation of her name. Famed for her seafarers and paradise islands, a warmly welcoming kampung culture alongside a sprouting home-grown hipster scene, master craftsmen, and of course keropok lekor. Coconut groves teased us with blue glimpses of a shimmering South China Sea. An overnight stop at the Hyatt Kuantan was the perfect first hurrah. A throwback to family holidays of my childhood, the whole area has been spruced up in recent years.

The pristine Teluk Cempedak beach that fronts the hotel is only surpassed by the astonishing fertility of Cherating 20 minutes away. A stroll along these powdery white sands and we stumbled over a magnificent and gargantuan dead jellyfish that had washed up on shore in all her tentacled blue hued gloopiness. RIP. Julia imprisoned a veritable metropolis of hermit crabs in her bucket city for the crime of being just too exquisitely pretty. The sea posted a bond for their release by promising more the next day. We sucked in lungsful of a sublime melding of a sand-sea-sky horizon and a sunset that only the east coast could fingerpaint before heading back to our hotel for an early start the next day.

The gargantuan jellyfish washed ashore. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

Kuala Terengganu is a leisurely 2.5 hours on from Kuantan. The delightfully named Mengabang Telipot sits just 18 km from the city centre. The Malay word “mengabang” refers to the occurrence of sandbar-regulated coastal rivers that are formed by the strong tidal movements in this area. Our des res for the week was located in Mengabang Telipot on a village beach lined with fishermen’s boats. Teratak Sekuchi (another lyrical moniker), perches nonchalantly on her stilts and is the coolest hippy beach shack.  Stepping into the house is like slipping through the backdoor of your magic wardrobe into a Malay-fable world with a bohemian wink.

Fishing boats at Mengabang Telipot. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

Once the home of one of Asia’s most celebrated watercolourists, Chang Fee Ming, and his wife, Dr Jarina Mohd Jani, a lecturer in Human Ecology at the local university; they now let the property out as a holiday rental to the discerning and maybe, the daring—there is no air-conditioning and the main bedroom comes with an open-air bathroom and no hot water. What there is, is a resonance, a romantic echo of what once was. Vibrant, exquisitely sensitive watercolours of Terengganu village life by the artist himself, hang like rich local folklore on palest sea-green plank walls. You’ll want to pack these masterpieces in your suitcase when you leave. Every corner reveals an authentic life lived. The hooks hammered into driftwood to hang your mugs from, a collection of coloured glass bottles on a shelf, local batik used as bedsheets. The artist studio nestled under the house!

And the living is easy. At Teratak Sekuchi. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

The back verandah invites ocean winds, with plenty of latitude for horizontal contemplation. It overlooks a large sandy back yard where a couple of antique sampans are parked. Push open the delicate pair of restored wooden doors installed in the white picket fence and you’ll find your very own plank walk leads to your very own beach strip. There is not a sniffle of a Covid-fleeing holidaymaker in sight.

Nasi dagang, coffee, and a dawn blooming. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

We awaken early most days because dawn blooming to a soft wash of waves really shouldn’t be missed. Throw in a packet of nasi dagang to accompany your coffee and its perfection. Whispered. Because there are some things you really aren’t sure you want to share. We go for long walks and shallow swims because the undertow off Mengabang Telipot can be pretty strong. We read, write, play Monopoly Deal and listen to Aly play the guitar. Julia befriends the village cats, chickens and goats.

The Beach Boy. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

I befriend the neighbours, who bring us durian kampung and nasi kerabu for lunch—’Ganu is famed for this fresh herby rice with lightly caramelized chicken and that pop of salted egg. We learn when the fishermen are pulling in and rush with the villagers to buy monster squid and ikan kerisi. There is deepest satisfaction in serving fish freshly caught (ok, by your neighbour) on your dining table.

A village feast. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

Evenings settle into star-studded nights that absorb us as we stroll along the beach in our dress code of bare feet and windblown hair. This will become a ritual over the next week. The days melt into yet more days. There is an indelible joy in the glorious absence of itineraries. It is doubtful that we would ever want for anything else but somehow we managed to rouse ourselves for a trip into the city.

The jewel colours of pickled fruit at Pasar Payang. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

I wanted to devour everything on kaleidoscopic display at Pasar Payang [Jalan Sultan Zainal Abidin, Kampung Tanjung Kapur] but Covid masks are just so finickity. Still, we came away with a haul of jellyfish satay, pickled fruit of every hue, the famous ayam golek, and a generous representation of the even more famous keropok lekor. The river cruise is a brilliant way to get an overall feel for the city. So much happens on the water routes here. Tick off the floating palace, the floating mosque, the fairytale drawbridge. But the place NOT to be missed is Puan Rohani’s library (Perpustakaan Puan Rohani Longuet) on Pulau Duyong Besar. A French sailorwoman fluent in Malay, Christine Rohani Longuet came to Kuala Terengganu 50 years ago to learn from Terengganu’s master boatbuilders and just never left. We should all thank her for this decision. Her astounding kampung house turned library is a heart-stirring gift to this city. No, this country.

The freshest daily catch. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

Another day, another adventure. I can never resist the seduction of islands, so a negotiation with a private boat service [Al Ameen Boat Services; +6019 929 9587] got us lunch, snorkelling gear, and a whole day of island hopping. We set off from Merang Jetty—not to be confused with Marang which takes you to Kapas Island—and pushed off for Lang Tengah, Redang and any number of the itty bitty madly pretty islands with hidden caves and sandy coves that lay off the ’Ganu coastline. Warm winds stroked tangled limbs that revelled in plenty of soul-feeding Vit Sea and Covid-quashing Vit D. We avoided the feeding frenzy of turtles off Redang and were rewarded with an explosion of dopamine and oxytocin when we found a mummy and baby turtle feeding on seagrass on the seabed off Lang Tengah. The Lang Tengah Turtle Watch [www.langtengahturtlewatch.org] does valuable work in turtle conservation and deserves our support.

Don’t feed the turtles. Photograph: Shireen Zainudin

A getaway of reconnecting and rediscovery, this paring down has been a gift. A mellow emulsifying of us and our Malaysian roots, far from the maddening polluted urban glare. In hindsight 2020 may remind us to travel more thoughtfully and care-fully, to savour travel as a privilege and consider how we, as visitors, impact local communities. And with a wink and a nod to the New Zealand campaign—do something new cos you’re in for the win. Help heal the world one thoughtful little trip at a time.

Shireen Zainudin

Shireen Zainudin

Shireen Zainudin's last short story was published in the anthology 'The Principal Girl'. She is otherwise a freelance writer and photographer, and has staged story-telling events at arts festivals. The avid traveller also co-edited and contributed a story to 'The Lockdown Chronicles', available in bookshops now.