The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Friday, 9 September 2011

I don't feel like chicken tonight!

We’ve landed in the most bizarre of townships where the melodic call to prayer and chants alternates with crackling announcements of bus arrivals over loud speakers dotting street corners.

Jam packed, these streets amass with every conceivable type of vehicle;   trucks, bikes, cars, peddling rickshaws draped in swaths of plastic and silk flowers, push barrows overloaded with green vegetables, mobile kitchens on backs of scooters selling satay sticks and soups,  all vying for room with the faithful in their skull caps and white cloaks going to prayer; the beautifully dressed women in ornate head scarves, colourful  tunics and delicate heels heading off for a day of shopping or work; and hawkers selling curry coated peanuts, palm leaf wrapped nibblies and iced drinks in iridescent colours.  

Add to the cacophony of noise and mayhem, thousands of birds, small swallows, flittering about, swooping and filling the sky above, shrieking loudly.  They fly into the building rooftops, some of which have special metal lined openings and nesting areas for them.  From there the chirping echoes and melds into constant chatter that pierces the ears and rattles the senses.  They never shut up.  

It appears this city, Kota Bharu, adores their feathered friends.  A look at the calendar of events for the year shows a number of dates for bird fancying -  there’s two Bird Singing Contests and a Serama Chicken Beauty Contest.  On the map of Kota Bharu (or KB as it locally known) there’s a whole area set aside – the bird singing arena – which sits near KB’s Chinatown. Some of the buildings and shopfronts leading to this area are hung with cages, some with birds in them, some without, and where there’s not a real bird, there’s an overabundance of fake ones. 

But it’s not for the birds that’s brought us to this intensely chaotic town located almost on the boarder of Thailand.  No we’ve come for the market which according to LP "is one of the most colourful and active" in Malaysia. 

Big M and I are lovers of markets, especially “wet” markets where the unfathomable visual, smell and texture of what is food sends the senses reeling almost into the stratosphere. It’s not always a good thing to visit these places as it can put you off ever wanting to eat once you have witnessed where the ingredients  have been sold or prepared but the intrigue is too great for us to ignore.  The book is not wrong, this market turns out to be more than just colourful and active, it really is sensory overload.


Unlike most morning markets in villages and towns which are open-air temporary structures set in streets or open lots, this market is located in an enormous building right next door to the Mosque and bus station. The building reminds me of a car parking facility with numerous floors of waist-high walls wrapped around its exterior and at street level you enter via wide stairs… that is after threading through a maze of rickshaws, cars and crates that block the entrance.

Meeting the locals is always a joy at markets
From the moment we stepped into the Central Market building, the putrid stench of rot, meat carcases, sewer and bird faeces slaps us in the face so hard it stings both the nose and eyes. Deep open drains oozing with black liquid and globs of matted garbage run through the building, about a foot wide; we have to watch where our feet step very carefully to make sure we didn’t step into these drains. The tiled floors are slippery with puddles of black water everywhere, along with the occasional hole. Hard benches, permanently fixed, run next to the drains and upon their surfaces sat every imaginable food item.  At first it was rice and pulses, flower petals, dried roots, seeds and spices and although pleasing to the eye, their fragrant scents fought a loosing battle with the stench of the drains. 
As we stepped further into the building, our eyes widening as we saw chicken carcasses lying on filthy tiled benches in pools of blood, strewn with flies.  Piles and piles of chicken carcasses, some even sat in plastic bags on the floor next to the drains.  Around us workers, men and woman gut, chop and cut, throwing the pieces into dishes, piles and bags. As I stare at this, it dawns on me that only last night we’d eaten a meal of chicken in a small makeshift cafĂ© just around the corner from this market and this is where our meals ingredients were purchased from. 
Boning room and offal storage area
Further along, we find cattle carcasses given the same treatment, again the stench is overwhelming.  Horrified I see that pre-frozen meat is being thawed, cut and re-iced.  We make our way to the seafood section, which surprisingly doesn’t stink that bad, but there is still an abundance of flies… along with two very happy cats curled up on a bench next to a dish of fish.  I’m very happy to leave this meat area and head towards the fruit and vegetable section, but not before we have to pass through a swarm of bees, really big bumble-bee types of bees, that have probably found their way here in a crate of bananas or other such fruit.  We can’t hurry too fast as the floors are just as slippery and the drains just a putrid.  Once past the bees we come to the sweet section, glazed lollies, cakes, and lots of other sticky sweet foods I have no idea of what they are, are hurriedly brought up by happy buyers. 
Even cupcakes get the Medeka Celebration treament
We’ve noticed the locals have a bit of a sweet tooth with the milk being the sweet “carnation brand” type, the seven-eleven stores chock-a-block filled with everything and anything sweet and junkie.  A peruse of this town indicates that bakeries are big business here with one every few meters along the street, them and shoe shops. I joke to Big M that this town has a foot fetish.  In one shopping mall we count five different shoe shops together in a row, and then more further along in the same mall.  And the shoes are of stunning designs, lots of bling, colour and decorative touches such as flowers and ribbons. I’m an absolute lover of shoes, but have to restrain myself for two reason – the first being not enough room in the luggage and the second, my size 8’s are clodhopping hoofs compared to the small dainty feet of the gals around here.  
I enjoy wandering around this town, it’s not at all on the tourist route, just a jump on/off base for the buses from the Perhentians to Penang or the Cameron Highlands and although Kota Bharu is very close to the Thai boarder, tourists are well advised not to use the boarder crossing here due to the unrest in this southern end of Thailand. 

After the market, we check out some of the museums and the palace. There are nine Sultans in Malaysia and therefore this Sultan’s palace is different to the one we visited in KL.  Although we cannot go into the present day Palace, we visit the Royal Museum which I understand is in the old palace.  The museum is filled with the typical regal style furnishings and items with lots of photos but what I find intriguing is the state gifts the Sultan and the State has received over the years. Most are beautiful - pieces and objects made from crystal and pewter or brass. There's also a bizarre collection of trophy style guns, stuffed animals, model tanks and in one instance, a cushion one might see at the local CWA.  It makes me wonder who gets the job for choosing the gifts and what the prerequisite for a gift might be…. It also had me wondering what sort of person the Australian gift chooser is when I see a gift from Oz – a fairly ugly green (I think its stone) statue outline of Australia with yellow animals stuck to it, the sort of thing you’d buy in a Gold Coast souvenir shop for an aunt you rarely ever see… for $5.00. Surely we could have done better.  

We head next to the War Museum and discover something I didn’t know (besides that the current Sultan loves go-karting, of this Big M and I are both delighted)  that Koto Bharu was the spot where the Pacific Theatre of WWII basically started.  The Japanese landed on the beaches Koto Bharu, drove the British into retreat and took the local Malays into slavery.  It’s all very interesting to learn and  I must say, also very sad. It also gives one a good understanding as to why Merdeka Day is so important to this country and rightly proud they can be for their hard-fought and well deserved independance.

Yes... he did get all that onto the rickshaw!
Night time in Kota Bharu turned out to be just as noisy as day. As the bird’s screeching slowly dissipated into the night (at around about 9pm) and the calls to prayers, chants and bus announcements filtered off and finished at 12midnight, the hoons emerged and the streets became a race track. During our mini-bus ride into the town from the Perhentians, we had passed shop after shop of car custom shops – a “pimp my ride” bonanza – now we were being given a full display of the finished jobs – young men in hotted up cars – mainly Lancers treat us to a cog-night.  It was a restless sleep to say the least.

We had landed in the most bizarre of townships so far, but I’m sure there will be more to come… and we look forward to being propelled into the outer-reaches of sensory stratosphere.