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Text and photos by Ville Palonen.
Looms click frantically as two women weave fine threads into a length of silk brocade.
Weaving traditions are alive and well at the Nur Zahirah handicraft centre on the outskirts of Kuala Terangganu, the largest city on Malaysia’s east coast. Besides being a popular tourist attraction, the centre is also a foundation preserving indigenous crafts and improving the livelihood of weavers and artisans from rural areas.
The women are working on a songket, a ceremonial two-metre silk sarong embroidered with fine metallic threads. Once a royal tradition, songket–weaving is still practiced with great patience and diligence. Two trained and experienced weavers average only a couple of inches of cloth per day.
“It takes a month to finish a two-metre piece,” explains one of the weavers, Siti Zurina binti Rozak, 28.
Malay heritage is strong in Terengganu, a state proud of its traditions: dances and silat martial art, top spinning and kite flying, and handicrafts like painted batik fabrics and ornate kriss daggers.
Songket-weaving is among the most famous traditional handicrafts. This particular type of brocade is distinguished by the gold and silver threads that are hand-woven into silk (or sometimes cotton) yarns, forming intricate patterns. Typical motifs are leaves and flowers.
Songkets are traditionally women’s attire: in Muslim culture, only women wear silk. Indeed Islam has a strong influence on everyday life in Terengganu. Strict hudud laws allow harsh punishments and alcohol can be purchased only in Chinese restaurants. While the rest of Malaysia follows a regular workweek, the weekend in Terengganu falls on Friday and Saturday.
Islam meets Disney?
One of Malaysia’s somewhat bizarre tourist attractions is the Islamic Civilization Park. Located on an island just a 20-minute taxi ride from Kuala Terengganu’s centre, the place is like an amusement park – only without the rides.
Part of the island, Monument Park, is crammed with samples of the finest Islamic architecture from around the world, complete with two dozen miniature mosques, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. Visitors can stroll the grounds or bike it, but in the 35-degree Celsius heat a sightseeing tour on a tram that looks like a toy train seems a more welcoming option.
One of the attractions is a copy of the Taj Mahal, India’s world-famous monument of love – minus the usual hordes of camera-touting tourists. Another world-class landmark, Al-Haram Mosque of Mecca, is just a stone’s throw down the road. It, too, is completely deserted.
Visitors wanting to catch a glimpse of Terengganu’s authentic Islamic heritage should visit a real mosque, not a religious amusement park. Near Monument Park lies Crystal Mosque, a futuristic-looking building made of steel and glass. At the door visitors remove their shoes and borrow a jubah, a light brown robe to cover bare legs and arms.
The hall is almost empty. Near the front a lone man bows his head towards Mecca in earnest, silent prayer. After he has finished praying he breaks into a wide smile as he pauses for a chat outside.
Zuherry bin Zulkifli, 24, is a devoted Muslim who prays five times every day. He has come to Terengganu for a holiday with his family of nine.
“Every year we spend our holiday in a new place in Malaysia,” says bin Zulkifli. “My grandma insisted on visiting Islamic Park. Of course I wanted to pray at Crystal Mosque, it’s such a beautiful building. I always feel more excited when I pray in a mosque. A couple of days ago we spent the night at Pulau Perhentian, where we had to pray in our bungalow,” he says.
Snorkel with sharks
Terengganu’s top tourist attractions include Perhentian and Redang Islands, less than a couple of hours’ boat ride from the coast.
One of the most popular current tourist magnets is Pulau Pinang, at least judging by the overcrowded beach packed with hundreds of tourists wearing bright yellow life jackets.
Pinang and its Marine Park are just a kilometre from Pulau Redang, a larger island recently made overwhelmingly popular by the Hong Kong film Summer Holiday (“Ha yat dik mo mo cha”), which was set on Redang’s dazzling beaches. After the release of the romantic comedy in 2000, thousands of Chinese tourists started pouring in.
Eventually the crowds grew too massive for such a small island, and especially for its marine life.
Since then, Redang has gradually resumed its former quiet existence as the tropical paradise it must have been before the tourist invasion.
The life-jacketed crowd seems to enjoy wading in knee-deep water, but those preferring an underwater adventure are advised to rent snorkelling or diving equipment. Only a hundred metres from shore, the reef drops to a sandy depth of 20 metres.
Hard corals and fishes are abundant around the rocky outcrops of the reef: parrot fish, clown fish, titan trigger fish, trumpetfish, and even a small grey reef shark. Clearly Redang and Pinang deserve their reputation as two of Malaysia’s best diving and snorkelling destinations.
After exploring the waters, it’s time to head back to shore. But not before an elusive creature glides by.
Slowly, almost majestically, a huge green turtle passes just a couple of metres away and then disappears into the depths like a ghost.
How to get there
Terengganu’s capital, Kuala Terengganu, is easy to reach from Singapore where Finnair flies six times weekly, or from Kuala Lumpur where Finnair flies in co-operation with Malaysia Airlines via Bangkok or Singapore.
A slice of China
The local Chinatown centres on Jalan Bandar Street, which has a Taoist temple, several small shops and a couple of restaurants selling Tiger beer.
Perhentian and Redang Islands are a short boat ride from the coast. They offer accommodation for all budgets, along with restaurants and bars. Diving and snorkelling around the islands is highly recommended. The best time to visit is from March to October – almost all hotels are closed between November and late January.
Dare to try durian
Kuala Terengganu’s wet market is a great place to try Malay specialties like teh tarik, a milky ‘pulled tea’, and durian. Some people can’t stand the smell of the peculiar, spiny fruit, but most locals consider durian to be a delicacy.
Kenyir Lake is part of Taman Negara National Park, one of the oldest rainforests in the world. The lake has an elephant camp where you can swim in waterfalls or go fishing, trekking, and paddling.
This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.