HARESH SAYS: Unleashing Kuantan’s true potential

As published in Malay Mail today

By Haresh Deol
THE locals were generous with their smiles; some even went to the extent of waving as they said “Hello”.
Such warmth was evident throughout Kuantan, as even the scorching heat failed to melt the spirit of folk living there.

The ikan patin tempoyak at Akob Patin House, located behind Gurdwara Sahib Kuantan, was delicious. The small burgers and overly-priced coffee suddenly feel right at Teluk Chempedak, thanks to the beautiful sea view.

Thus, the rapid developments along the beaches in Kuantan, that offer breathtaking views of the sea, come to no surprise. A 917sq ft condominium unit facing Pantai Balok can cost up to RM742,000.

Those pitching to sell assets are bullish of Kuantan’s potential. With Kuantan Port striving to give their rivals in Port Klang a run for their money and the many oil and gas industries based in and around the city, stakeholders believe the capital of Pahang could be as big as Penang in the near future.

But here’s the thing. An hour into Kuantan, one would realise it is somewhat 20 to 30 years behind Penang. 

“The first thing that needs to be changed is the mindset of the locals,” a friend said.

Having lived in Johor Baru all his life before moving to Kuantan five years ago, he feels the locals are very adamant with their ways and are not receptive to change.

“They are very traditional in their ways. It is difficult for them to accept changes especially from people like us, who they regard as outsiders," he said.

"Some are rather relaxed but some can be very extreme in their beliefs."

Another friend, a true blue Penangite who insists the best char koay teow hails from her hometown, (much to my opposition as the best char koay teow in the world is in Taiping), admitted she still feels lost in Kuantan.

“The food selection is limited. It is difficult to even find good dim sum here,” she said.

“There are some new shopping malls but they are nothing like those in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. There’s just so much catching up to do in so many areas but the locals seem contended.”
She said there were not many watering holes in town.

“Hotels are my only option. The pubs here are rather dodgy, too feng-tau for my liking,” she said.

Would it be wise to invest in Kuantan, I asked a couple seated at the other end of the table as we ate fish baked with petai in Tanjung Lumpur.

“We have spent all our lives here. If you are thinking of investment, make sure you lease your property on a long-term basis. If you’re planning to run a homestay or rent your unit to holiday makers, remember there is the monsoon season,” said Tan, who is in her late 50s.

“The view of the sea is breathtaking. But the howling can get scary at night, especially during the monsoon season.”

Her husband quickly added: “It may seem like a small city but it’s not cheap (living here).”

I realised when I paid for dinner. Based on what I ordered, I would have forked out the same amount back in Kuala Lumpur.

The bauxite fiasco, which was reported extensively last year, remains a talking point. While mining has stopped, red hills are still seen – a disturbing reminder of the hell locals went through as certain parties made millions.

Traffic gets congested on Fridays and Saturdays due to the influx of Kelantan and Terengganu folk entering the city. Public transportation is almost non-existent. While driving there I only saw two taxis, both rather beat-up, on the streets. 

Foreign tourists were hardly seen at the beaches and on the streets. According to Tourism Pahang, 1.29 million foreign tourists visited the state in 2014 and 1.46 million last year. It remains unclear of the number of foreigners who visited Kuantan instead of exploring the state's top tourist attractions namely Taman Negara, Tioman Island, Genting Highlands and Cherating. The figures can be better.

Would I go back to Kuantan? Yes.

While some may label the locals as “traditional” and “set in their own ways”, I had the pleasure of seeing several Malay ladies, elegantly clad in headscarves, ordering bowls of curry mee at Hoi Yin restaurant – an eatery run by a Chinese family near Teluk Chempedak. No hypocrisy there.

The bubbly lady at Restaurant Ah Wah, famous for its assam fish, reminded me of the ever-friendly restaurant owner in Aulong, Taiping. The community is so tight-knitted that the theme song for the 1980s sitcom Cheers, Where everybody knows your name, started playing in my head.

The waters off Teluk Chempedak is nice and the beach is clean. There are several eateries in the area, similar to Kuta, in Bali — except those in Teluk Chempedak were much closer to the beach, allowing me to go for a dip, run back for a quick bite and return to the water.

People are generally friendly, always ready to flash a smile. I felt at home.

Efforts must be made to ensure locals live comfortably. At the same time, those running the state must be able to strengthen Kuantan’s finances through the many industries, including tourism, while promising development will not change the city's character. 

It is without doubt a difficult balance, but if done right, Kuantan has what it takes to be a must-visit destination for all.

HARESH is executive editor of Malay Mail. He can be reached at haresh@mmail.com.my or on Twitter @HareshDeol

CAPTION: Teluk Chempedak remains a popular site among locals and visitors. -- Picture by Haresh Deol 


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