Kelantan: A non-Muslim in a Muslim State

I chose to come to Kelantan due to my interest in experiencing traditional Malay culture. 

As Malaysia’s most conservative state, it was steeped in Islam.  I also thought it was an opportune time to experience what it must be like in a truly Muslim state.

My base was the state capital, Kota Bharu, which had a few beautiful pieces of architecture like the Istana Jahar, the former royal palace.

Kota Bharu is a quiet place with a very relaxed vibe and feel.

Bird song fills the air as not only do the Kelantanese like birds but some buildings have been converted into nesting places where swallows can roost and their nests be used for soup. Holes on a building’s facade is a give-away. Loudspeakers blare-out recorded bird song to attract them.

Living Islam
Islam is a truly way of life for the people. Keeping to the five daily prayer times remains essential to the people.  Markets stop selling, performances cease, and everyone assumes  a general air of respect.


Much has been said about Kelantan as being conservative. But as I found out, being conservative is a frame of mind.  Yes, women wore head scarves but there are others who don’t.  On weekends, at the malls (yes there are quite a number of modern malls) one can see young girls in tight clothes. 

Some of the supermarkets have segregated counters but no one seems to be following them.  What I saw was people adapting to the rhythms of everyday modern life, transforming aspects that was suitable to them.  On the other hand, Kota Bharu’s two cinemas closed a couple of years ago due to low patronage as people worried about what haram behaviour could take place in the dark. People take what they can from their traditions and do away with the others. And yes, in Kota Bharu, there is one Chinese-run bar that serves alcohol. A sign out front does say that Muslims are not allowed to enter. 

It didn’t feel any more different than other places. More importantly, I didn’t  feel anymore different than others.

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