Monday, February 18, 2008


KUALA Terengganu is a place in a hurry. This must be the go-go years for Terengganu, and the state capital looks ambitious, with many things being constructed, planned and dreamed of. With the new year, it became the mouthful "Kuala Terengganu, the Historic Waterfront City".

It has been a couple of years since I was there; the recent long weekend was an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with a place that I may spend my twilight years in.

Two years is like a lifetime, it seems. There are buildings and roads never seen before, some nice and some not.

And like Malaysians elsewhere, KT folks have embraced the cool comfort of hypermarkets and their dizzying choices.

The tranquil KT I first encountered decades ago is no more, not even at night.

The long weekend saw more cars with outstation plates, and longer lines at a favoured nasi dagang stall in Chendering, while hotels, guest houses and home-stays sold out early.

Pasar Payang - the central market and major tourist destination offering East Coast specialties like batik, brass wares and keropok - was choc-a-block with dialects from far and wide.

A friend who just started work there is finding it difficult to rent a house as many owners prefer to let their properties out on daily basis to visitors, which would offer better returns.

Last Saturday, she sent me an SMS: "It's 9.50pm n there's a bad jam heading out of KT. Crazy!" I attest that there were aspects of craziness during my four-day stay. What did she expect, anyway? A sleepy hollow? Well, at times I wished that, too, but this must surely be Visit Terengganu Year 2008.

But there are some old world charms left in Kuala Terengganu: trishaws commandeered by men with mengkuang hats; penambang, which are small commuter boats that ply the route between Pasar Payang and Seberang Takir; and folk look askance at traders who fleece tourists with RM5 kites at Batu Burok beach.

The vendors at Pasar Payang leave their produce and wares covered with tarpaulin or canvas before they leave for the day; no locks or keys, only faith in humanity and in man's fear of the hereafter.

Then there is the restored Masjid Putih that was built some 200 years ago in the neighbourhood of Istana Maziah. It was recently refurbished and expanded, and the mistakes of 1970s' renovation - it was given the Apollo treatment with a rocket-looking minaret and its stained glass covered by Jabatan Kerja Raya-inspired monotony - were fixed.

It is now not only bigger to cater for a larger congregation, but has been restored to its former glory. It must be one of the most elegant mosques around.

But what is a visit to Terengganu, after the sights, beaches and keropok lekor, if not for a dose of domestic politics. This is after all a state where politics and politicking are a pre-occupation.

Perhaps because it is the only state that has seen successive changes in government. In 1999, Pas took over from Barisan Nasional, and in 2004, the latter won back the state. So residents here are the only people in the country who can attest to the differences between the two governments.

The state has caught the election fever ahead of the rest of the country. Flags and buntings of political parties are flapping by the thousands in the easterly wind; it is spectacularly gay and festive, I believe. It seems they just cannot wait for the dissolution of parliament and state assembly.

The agenda is clear for both parties.

Barisan Nasional wants to let the people know they did the right thing by voting it into power in 2004. For Pas, it is to wrest back the state and show that all the things that had happened since then may not have benefited the people.

There were, of course, many issues with claims and counterclaims on issues ranging from personalities to opportunities, the usual stuff politicians drag out as per their convenience.

But if there is something that was a constant ring this past week, it is Masjid Kristal at the Islamic Civilisation Park at Pulau Wan Man, 4km from the city centre.

The park, officiated by the king last week, is a collection of 21 Islamic-inspired architectural structures, replicated there in a miniaturised yet imposing scale. They include the Taj Mahal of India, Al-Hambra (Spain), Kaylan Tower (Uzbekistan), Samarra Mosque (Iraq), Suleyman Complex (Turkey) and Xian Mosque (China).

It looks like, with all due respect, Las Vegas minus the sin. Las Vegas, too, houses several replicas of global significance such as the Eiffel Tower, New York City skyline, the Pyramid and Venice.

As per at Teluk Wan Man on Sungai Terengganu, you could be transported to different cultures just by crossing the street.

But it is Masjid Kristal, the park's crowning glory, that is likely to be fodder in this year's election. It cost between RM200 million and RM1 billion, depending on whom you ask and what his agenda is.

It must be noted that the crystal mosque suffered from bad public relations even before it was built, when it began to be referred as Masjid Kristal. Crystal denotes luxury and grandiosity, when it could not be crystal, but glass that would serve as its walls and domes.

But that is moot now as many of us are imagining the cut and clarity of Bohemian crystals glittering in Sungai Terengganu.

Instinctively, most of us would think that it is such an ostentatious investment, excesses detached from reality. Many feel Terengganu needs many more things than a crystal mosque.

Suspending my cynicism, I believe that the crystal mosque and the Islamic Civilisation park could work, and pay off.

Just as the Kuala Lumpur City Centre, Sepang F1 racing circuit, KL International Airport, Stadium Merdeka, North-South Expressway and Penang Bridge were ridiculed and politicised, and doomed to be failure by public opinion before their construction, the park and its crystal, or glass, mosque could be a plus for Te-rengganu.

The state is no doubt a tourist destination, but tourism is hampered by the dearth of attractions.

Tourist destinations in Kuala Terengganu include Kampung China or Chinatown, Pasar Payang, Istana Maziah and the state museum. Most tourists head for the islands, and KT is just an airport stop. About 1.6 million domestic tourists visited the state in 2005, and 197,952 foreign tourists stopped by.

But the most important number is that the tourism sector's contribution to the state economy in 2005 was RM1.28 billion, compared with RM298.9 million a decade ago. Even a simple calculation would show that the project could pay off in a few years.

An interesting feature of the park is a wedding centre, so said a website, replicating an Arabian palace.

We know where the state is heading with this. Middle-Eastern tourists coming to Malaysia, and there are many of them spending lots of money, but they go east only as far as Genting Highlands. Now imagine an Islamic theme park with an opportunity for a royal wedding.

Malaysian Muslims, who are the majority in the country, and to whom the project is most politicised, may soon find the place to be an irresistible destination.

The park represents an added attraction that should add to Terengganu's tourism attendance and receipts. But there is a caveat; as much as the project could work, it could also fail.

Many residents of the state may not agree, but now that it is up and running, regardless of the outcome of the election, they must nurture, promote and guard it to make sure it lives up to what it was planned for, lest it becomes a symbol of short-sighted politicking.

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Perihal Taman Tamadun Islam.

Taman Tamadun Islam adalah sebuah Taman Tema yang memaparkan keunikan koleksi monumen-monumen hasil senibina Islam yang tersohor dari seluruh pelusuk dunia. Disamping itu ia juga dirancang dengan pelbagai kemudahan dan tarikan bagi setiap lapisan umur dengan tema utama “education dan entertainment”.


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