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Established by migrants from Sumatra in the early 18th century, Kuantan is now the thriving, and growing, capital of Pahang, Peninsular Malaysia’s largest state. A welcoming blend of traditional and modern, and a fusion of Chinese and Malay, Kuantan is a popular tourist destination that offers the best of Malaysia in a climate which is most often noticeably cooler and less humid than Kuala Lumpur.
Most visitors to Kuantan will arrive by road as Kuantan has no rail link; there are scheduled bus services from Kuala Lumpur, other major cities in West Malaysia, and Singapore which arrive at the new bus terminal situated on the outskirts of Kuantan. You will need to transfer by taxi or local bus (Rapid Kuantan) to reach the centre. By car, Kuantan is reached by the East Coast Highway (E8) from Kuala Lumpur (Toll), or Federal Route 2 which runs alongside the highway for much of the way. You can reach Kuantan within 3.5 hours using the highway but the federal route is much slower although arguably more interesting. Federal Route 3 stretches north to Kuala Terengganu and south to Mersing and Singapore. You can also reach Kuantan by air from Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore, arriving at Sultan Ahmad Shah airport, situated 14km from the centre of Kuantan. A taxi into the centre of Kuantan from the airport costs around RM25.
The centre of Kuantan is well laid out and easy to navigate, both on foot and by car; the main roads run in a north easterly direction, parallel to the riverfront with main roads at each end to guide you back into the traffic flow if you go too far although the changes in the one way system in 2013 has caused some confusion for motorists and the locals are still struggling to get used to it. The blocks between the main roads are fed by wide cross routes making it easy to avoid the back alleys that might make one feel insecure if on foot. Taxis are readily available on marked ranks in the centre of town or can be hailed in the street.
Outside the city centre bus services have recently been improved with a new network of local bus routes, taking over from a formerly unreliable and slow service. Private bus companies still service the local routes to the north and south. Tour operators arrange tours to places of interest in the region.
On-street parking is regulated by ‘Pay and Display’ scratch tickets which are purchased from shops or sales booths situated strategically. The cost is 60sen per hour and tickets can be bought in books of ten.
The City Centre
The river runs a few yards behind Jalan Besar as it runs from the modern bridge over the Kuantan River (leading to Kampung Tanjong Lumpur) south west towards the Riverfront Park. This is the oldest part of Kuantan, dating back to the mid 19th century when the village was known as Kampung Teruntum. Looking along the riverfront towards the South China Sea one can see the remains of jetties which once reached out into the river illustrating Kuantan’s history as a principal fishing port. The berths for today’s fishing fleet are situated a little further downriver and also across the river at Kampung Tanjung Lumpur, although beach launched fishing boats still venture out from the kampungs both to the north and south of the city.
Between Jalan Teluk Sisek and Jalan Mahkota, which runs parallel to it, one finds Kuantan’s oldest buildings, with covered walkways and shuttered first floor windows, most of which were built in the early to mid 20th century to replace wooden buildings originally used by Chinese traders who arrived to establish Kuantan as a township in the late 19th century around the same time that tin mining started in nearby Gambang and Sungai Lembing. Most of these are small shops and businesses that seem to have been in business since the buildings were built! Hardware, carpets and dried fish are amongst the range of things that can be bought, and the contents often seem to be on the verge of spilling out onto the pavement.
Although the west side of Jalan Mahkota retains some of these early buildings they give way to the municipal park which hosts civic events and exhibitions throughout the year and is overlooked by the white minarets and blue domes of the Sultan Ahmad Shah State Mosque. Completed in 1993 and named after Sultan Ahmad Al’Mu’adzam Shah, founder of Pahang’s current royal family, it is built in a modern Ottoman-Moorish style and can hold up to 8,000 worshippers.
The State Mosque is open to visitors before noon and mid-afternoon, except Fridays. Visitors are requested to dress conservatively and women advised to cover their heads. The interior is high and spacious and attractively illuminated by stained glass windows.
The buildings between the State Mosque and Kuantan’s main shopping area, centred around Jalan Tun Ismail, are the nearest Kuantan gets to a business district with the headquarters of various municipal bodies, local offices of the state utilities and communications bodies, law courts, modest office blocks, and the larger hotels such as Grand Continental and MS Garden. It is only a short walk from Jalan Mahkota to Jalan Tun Ismail, (or vice versa) but many may prefer to take a short taxi ride particularly after dark as the street lighting and pedestrian facilities are less than ideal.
The northern end of Jalan Tun Ismail is dominated by the Berjaya Megamall, inside which you will find a range of retail and food outlets both local and international. Behind the mall is a smaller mall which specializes in personal computers and IT products and across the road situated at the side there are a number of restaurants and small shops.
Travelling south west along Jalan Tun Ismail there are more small shops selling virtually everything you might need, branches of all the main banks, chain stores and restaurants. A little further, a large supermarket, ‘The Store’ faces onto Jalan Tun Ismail behind which is Kuantan’s central wet market where meat fish and vegetables can be bought and after 1pm on most weekdays, food stalls set up in the car park and sell the most amazing street food.
Heading north west from Jalan Tun Ismail, along Jalan Bukit Sekilau with the Stadium Darul Makmur on your left, leads you after a short while to the East Coast Mall which proudly announces itself as “The Most Happening Place in Kuantan”. This is a more recent addition to Kuantan and is situated opposite the recently completed Sultan Ahmad Shah Convention Centre and The Zenith Hotel. The number of vacant shop units in the Berjaya Mall are testament to the success of the East Coast Mall which boasts more international franchises and a thriving Carrefour supermarket. Nearby, the themed shop lots of Malay, Chinese and Indian Town boasts numerous restaurants and craft shops. This being Malaysia though, you can always forego the air-conditioned delights of Starbucks, KFC, and the like and cross the road to numerous inexpensive local food stalls and restaurants which surround the Mall.
Kuantan is well served by every grade of hotel and guest house from the recently completed Zenith Hotel, the luxury Hyatt Regency Kuantan Resort at Teluk Cempedak and the well appointed Vistana Hotel through to budget and boutique hotels nearer the centre of town. There are countless homestays available along the coast, particularly to the north, as well as resorts which offer chalet accommodation close to the beach. The whole area is served by local buses and taxis from the bus terminal in Kuantan.
Where and what to Eat
Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western cuisine is readily available interspersed with Japanese, Thai, and local specialities such as Ikan Bakar and stuffed crab.
Restoran Taj is a local Indian franchise with branches all over Kuantan, (two on Jalan Tun Ismail) serving tandoori chicken with naan alongside other favourites such as biryani, as well as Malay food and noodles. A simple meal for two with a drink costs under 20 ringgit.
Satay Terminal Zul on Jalan Teluk Sisek on the way to Teluk Cempedak sells reputedly the best satay in town. It is the on corner opposite Restoran Zam Zam, just past the Vistana Hotel. There is ample parking nearby.
Padi Restaurant on Jalan Tengku Muhamad near to its junction with Jalan Beserah (a taxi ride from the centre) is also popular with the locals and serves traditional Malay food but struggles to attain the same quality with its Western food menu.A better bet for Western food is to go around the corner onto Jalan Beserah to the Cherating Steak House which serves a range of pizzas, excellent steak and European specialities such as wiener schnitzel and rosti. It is billed as a Swiss style restaurant so the menu reflects this to a certain extent. Beers, wines and spirits are also available and there are separate smoking and non-smoking sections. There is a resident guitarist/soloist at weekends.
Places of Interest
Teluk Cempedak, a short taxi ride from the centre, is popular with locals and widely known outside Kuantan. It has a promenade overlooking the public beach and several warungs with various opening times. None of which yet provide a 24 hour service as does McDonalds, Burger King and KFC which overlook the promenade and car park and gives diners the novelty of eating in their balcony restaurant overlooking the South China Sea. Both McDonalds and their neighbour KFC provide a Drive Thru service at Teluk Cempedak. This area is under gradual development with improvements to the tourist/souvenir market and car park accommodation ongoing.
There is a recently improved walkway across the rocks that gives ready (and disability friendly) access to a smaller beach less than a kilometre away. This is more sheltered and swim-friendly than the main beach and much less populated, even at busy times; most people are content to take the walkway and ‘take a look’ rather than spend any amount of time at the smaller beach which is far more attractive and fringed by the forest reserve. Here you can see monkeys and sea eagles and the occasional large monitor lizard.
Just back from the promenade, smaller restaurants share a block with pubs, a small hotel, spa and souvenir shop. Amongst these are the TCH Steak House, serving Malay and Indian food, especially made to order murtabak (when available), in a modern, spotlessly clean open fronted restaurant.
A few shops further along walking away from the beach is Restoran Hoi Yin, widely renowned and with a limited menu focused on noodles. Less than 5 Ringgit will get you a delicious steaming bowl of their curry noodles. They open very early and rarely stay open longer than about 1pm. Note that the plastic chopsticks are always grouped together in colours thanks to careful sorting by the young daughter of one of the staff!
Beserah Forest Reserve
Identified by the array of telecommunications masts on its summit, Bukit Pelindung overlooks Kuantan and its flanks have been declared a forest reserve. Access to the reserve and forest trails is limited but a walking trail runs between the access road to the summit and Teluk Cempedak which runs downhill and can be completed in less than an hour. It is very popular with mountain bikers so it can be busy at weekends but at quiet times one is likely to see Dusky Leaf Monkeys, Long-tailed Macaques, a range of bird and insect life and perhaps even large reptiles. The access road is a continuation of Jalan Pelindung 2 which is off Jalan Tengku Muhamad. The trail starts on the right just inside the entrance to the forest reserve. It is a steep road so you would need a taxi to take you to the start of the trail and there is a taxi rank at Teluk Chempedak when you finish.
Between Teluk Chempedak and Kuantan centre you will pass the Sultan’s Kuantan Istana (Palace) a small affair, but well guarded, especially when occupied by the Sultan of Pahang or one of his family for short stays. It is situated opposite the Rayal Pahang Golf Club the road to which also gives access to Kuantan’s small zoo, very popular with families at weekends. This road also gives access to a tiny beach which widens to the tidal reaches of the Pahang River. At low tide this can be a very pleasant place to take a stroll but with caution, as the tide covers the area very quickly when it flows although keeping a sharp lookout will enable you to return to dry land in ample time. At the other end of the golf course is Taman Gelora park, which is accessed by road by following the boundary of the golf course from the Istana. This is a well laid out park with jogging track, fitness trail, lake, tennis courts and open air restaurants and a curious ‘cobbled’ path on which you are encouraged to tackle bare foot for an interactive foot massage!
Further along, there is a Chinese/Christian cemetery adjacent to a wooden mosque and Kampung Tanjung Ria which is one of the oldest settlements in Kuantan with many traditional wooden house, many of which are built on stilts to guard against river flooding. This area is the site of a popular Pasar Malam every Sunday evening. Threading your way through a small industrial area you will emerge back at the outskirts of the main town.
Greater Kuantan consists of large, and growing, residential areas and industrial zones which range from small workshops and businesses to the petrochemical facility at Gebeng about 25km to the north near to the all weather port which can handle containers as well as bulk cargo and is the leading maritime and logistics centre of the east coast.
The road to the port passes through Beserah and Balok which have several roadside restaurants squeezed between the road and the beach. There are several seafood restaurants but many will prefer to pass them by due to their insistence on serving shark fin soup.
The coastline stretching north from Kuantan is characterized by smooth sandy beaches fringed by palm trees behind which, traditional kampungs straddle the old coastal trunk road. Driving north from Kuantan the road can at times be frantically busy with small motorbikes dodging between small lorries and family cars and at all times you especially need to keep a watchful eye for livestock and the occasional monitor lizard. The ever present roadside stalls and warungs mean that you need not go far without the opportunity to sample the local keropok (dried fish crackers), salted fish, and delicious kueh. Between Beserah and Balok fresh fish is sold by the roadside from mid-morning onwards on most days and several sites host Pasar Malam (night markets).
The coastline south from Kuantan is less populated but the beaches are no less spectacular. Kampung Tanjung Lumpur, just over the modern bridge at the other end of Jalan Beserah is host to a range of very popular family seafood restaurants facing the sea serving Ikan Bakar (baked fish). The quality of the food is excellent but you may have a long wait at busy times as you select your fish from the ice chiller and it is cooked to order.
The kampungs further south are smaller, less frenetic affairs with many well preserved traditional wooden houses in well tended plots. Take a left turn along the road to Pekan to explore the coastal kampungs with little risk if getting lost. Further inland on the main road, new housing developments just south of Kuantan and improvements to the trunk road leading to Pekan may bring rapid change which is less likely to affect the northern stretch of coastline which is now subject to a shoreline management plan which controls further development.
Inland, from Kuantan there are the inevitable Palm Oil Plantations, but these soon give way to large swathes of rainforest stretching inland towards the old mining town of Sungai Lembing. Taman Negara National Park lies inland beyond the range of mountains but a short journey along the East Coast Highway towards Kuala Lumpur enables you to leave the highway at Maran for a cross country route to the national park. There are several picturesque waterfalls within easy driving distance of Kuantan as well as Tasik (Lake) Chini which is about 100km away.