If we had planned a trip to Malaysia in the first place, we’d have chosen Kuala Lumpur rather than visit Kuantan. But the universe had other ideas.
We needed to get out of Australia. We’d booked two Australian house sits, but their timing exceeded the 90 days at a stretch we’re allowed. We needed to make a visa run. Hoping to exchange timeshare points, we looked in vain for a location in New Zealand.
With time running out, we had to expand our search. When a nice-looking resort in Malaysia popped up, all of a sudden, we were going to visit Kuantan. Quite frankly, we’d never even heard of it.
Kuantan is the capital of the Malaysian state of Pahang, located on the east coast of the peninsula that shares Thailand to the north, Kuala Lumpur to the west, and Singapore to the south. Distances in this part of the world are always somewhat surprising. We don’t tend to think of them as being as far as they are. To visit Kuantan from Brisbane, we first flew to Darwin for a quick overnight, and then on to Singapore, which is a 4-½ hour flight. From there we caught an hour-long commuter flight into Kuantan.
You’re probably wondering why should you visit Kuantan at all. If you do a quick search on the internet, attractions for visitors are pretty limited. You can take some tourist-y excursions ranging from a twilight firefly tour by boat (which actually sounded quite fun) to high-end shopping in Kuantan’s East Coast Mall (not our cup of tea) to a 25 km journey to look at some waterfalls.
But we’d advise you to change your expectations and put away the guidebooks. Honestly? We wouldn’t go out of our way to do any of these things. We’d head straight north out of town to the little beach community of Balok for another no-pressure idyll.
When you visit Kuantan, embrace the fact that you are in an under the radar location where it’s possible and preferable to just be. Keep the schedule as blank as you can. The rest of the world is far, far away.
Get up at dawn to walk Balok beach and you’ll be treated to amazing vistas.
Visit the Balok town market on Wednesday night for local color and amazing street food.
Cruise the oceanside highway for the freshest seafood and ethnic restaurants. Budget between $7 and $20 USD for a full meal for two with wine or beer (yes, it’s available, just not everywhere).
Go into Kuantan city proper for more hustle and bustle, designer knockoff merchandise (smaller sizes to fit the Asian physique), and franchise mimicry if you must.
If you’re Caucasian, you probably won’t see too many people who look like you on the streets, in the mall, or on the beach. If you’re a female who doesn’t cover her hair for religious reasons, you may be the only one at times.
As Malaysia is a Muslim country, you’ll see street cats, but no dogs.
None of these details really matter except to note in passing. We were welcomed with smiles and broken English, questions about where we were from, and expressions of pleasure that we would visit Kuantan. All was quite disarming and we were charmed.
Sometimes as travelers or vacationers, we get caught up in chasing superlatives. We pursue the Bucket List with a vengeance, almost desperately. We hit the big destinations as rites of passage so we can swap stories and check things off. Yup, been there, did that. Yep, going next year. Yes, it’s on the list.
Part of this has to do with lack of time. It’s hard to justify spending precious resources on a lesser-tier destination when you’ve only got a week or two. But even with more freedom, this self-imposed conditioning can live on in the way we do things.
But let’s plant a little seed. Consider: We forget that there are places in the world which offer us the chance to really slow down. We forget the value of experiencing the quiet beauty of everyday life. Of heading to a location where lots of people are, but no one we know has ever been.
Sometimes it’s not about the big stuff at all. Instead, it’s about a taste of something good, a smile on a friendly face, a bit of tension with the unfamiliar, with maybe a spectacular sunrise thrown in. If this resonates with you, you’ll want to visit Kuantan.
Tips and Notes: We supplemented our timeshare exchange week at the Swiss Garden Resort Kuantan with a couple of extra days at our own expense. The transition was seamless. Swiss Garden is one of the area’s premier ocean-front resorts, and a well-known landmark with locals. Staff from the site manager, who personally drove us to the Balok Wednesday street market, to food service and housekeeping are all dedicated and outgoing, eager to please. Not all are English speakers, so you might get a “yes” as a default response. The property has the award-winning Samsara Spa with treatments for skin, hair and nails. Pricing is so affordable you will probably over-indulge as we did. Our suite and the resort itself could have used a bit of interior updating and attention to details, but all was very spacious and quite adequate for our needs. Internet was fast and free, but out for a day due to infrastructure damage from severe flooding in another area of Malaysia a few weeks prior. Food at the resort was tailored primarily to local tastes, but there was sufficient variety, particularly at the breakfast buffet, to satisfy an American palate. The pool area is large, with separate section for children. Out of deference to local custom, swim attire, including coverups, is limited to pool and beach. Beach and pool area are served intermittently with a casual bar which has a few snacks, but elaborate poolside service is missing. Both beach and pool were pretty much deserted during the week. There are two restaurants and one night club in the resort, as well as a lobby bar with a nice, but limited menu. Local restaurants in the neighborhood are within walking distance. The resort is about a half hour from the Kuantan airport by cab, which will run you about $20USD. Your cabbie will be happy to take you to an ATM for Malaysian money.