After leaving the Perhentian Islands we found ourselves back in Kuala Besut near what we thought was a bus station. I went to check our options for getting to Kota Bharu, about 30 miles away, from where we would fly to Phuket. There were some taxi drivers out front trying to solicit our business but I waved them aside, walked in, and started writing down bus numbers. A few moments later a short, heavy-set man with a few missing teeth walked up and stood right next to me, at which point there was an odd silence. He asked me in broken English what was I was doing. “Writing down buses to Kota Bharu,” I said without paying much attention. Another uncomfortable silence… “Those taxi,” he said finally. I had been standing in a taxi company office writing down taxi numbers. Derp…

I checked the bus station. It was closed, so we got a taxi instead (about RM60, I think ($20)). We were off to Kota Bharu.

The taxi, a 70s-era Mercedes diesel was actually a nice way to travel, despite its total lack of seat belts. We hadn’t seen the flat, green countryside by day before. We passed women with headscarves on scooters, roaming dogs, and what must have been a five or six-foot monitor lizard walking along a canal. The occasional mosque went by too, and government ministry buildings for this and that.

And soon we were in Kota Bharu, checking into the new Tune Hotel, (an AirAsia spinoff). At first the taxi driver didn’t understand where in town we wanted to go. When I spotted the hotel’s stand-out, red and white paint job, I pointed. His face lit up with recognition, “Ah! Too-neh Hotel!”

It was quite nice, quite modern. Cheap too but everything—and I mean everything—was extra: towels, A/C, TV. Still, it added up to only about RM100 ($33). We ticked the towels option and passed on everything else.

The timing of this bit of luxury was a blessing. I had gotten a chill and a slight cold from the minibus a few nights earlier and unfortunately passed it on to Natalie. Her version unfortunately turned into a cold and fever. Luckily the hotel was right next to a mall. I stocked up on cold and flu supplies.

The next day Natalie’s fever broke (easing my fears that she had somehow contracted malaria) and we headed for the Central Market. If you’re ever in Kota Bharu, go. There are hundreds of stalls on three jam-packed floors. The smell of fresh meat wafting through the first floor sent my favorite vegetarian and I up to floors 2 (produce, spices) and 3 (textiles, batik). Natalie looked through fabrics on the top floor. Finding one she liked, she asked “What is it?” The woman happily unfolded it to reveal… a burka. Oops! We wandered a little longer a among the piles of produce, stacks of cloth, and past a newly born kitten before heading across the street for lunch. The kitten, by the way, wasn’t for sale. He was checking out the market just like us.

Our taxi driver on the way to the market (the nicest guy) asked us what we thought of Malaysian food. “We love roti canai!” we said. To which he replied, “Oh, roti canai is Indian. You must try mee goreng!” At the restaurant they couldn’t speak English and “Mee goreng” was the only Malaysian we knew. No matter. It turned out to be a delicious mixture of fried noodles, garlic, egg and vegetables. Afterwards, we must have looked happy, because the cook looked really happy that we liked it.

So nice. Some simple pleasures are the same the world over.