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Kemaman was known as early as the second century BC as Kole. The earliest mention of Kemaman was made by Ptolemy, a Greek astrologer in a map of the Malay Peninsula where he noted two ports on the East Coast,Perimula and Kole. Historians agree that Kole refers to Kemaman and think Perimula is the mouth of Terengganu River.
The history of the district's establishment is unclear due to lack of written evidence. However, it was commonly agreed that the Kemaman area was first explored by Che Wan Teh, a Pahang nobleman and his followers around 1750 A.D. Che Wan Teh came to Kemaman to flee the violence and frequent unrest in Kuala Pahang. He founded the town of Chukai. A significant number of Chinese migrants followed, being drawn by the district's wealth of tin, as well as the salted fish manufacturing industry.
Kemaman's economy is primarily based on the petroleum, oil, and steel industries. The discovery of oil in offshore Terengganu in the 1980s has attracted immigration to Kemaman from rural areas as well as other parts of the country. Kemaman is home to the deepest seaport in Malaysia. Kemaman Port also has a liquified petroleum gas (LPG) export terminal managed by Petronas, the national oil corporation. The presence of petroleum and oil industry here also causing this district well developed as well. Traditional industries include fishing and salted fish manufacturing. These produces are exported throughout Malaysia and Singapore.
The presence of natural gas has also been the spur for the development of the iron and steel industry in Kemaman. A large steel making company, Perwaja, established direct-reduced iron/electric arc furnace (DRI/EAF) facilities, with its own import/export facilities on the East Wharf.
The district of Kemaman's population is estimated to be 158,660 as of 2006, with a density of 62 persons per km2. The population comprises 86.7% Malays, 10.6% Chinese, 0.5% Indians and 2.2% of other races.
Kemaman's beaches used to be nesting grounds for endangered green turtles and painted terrapins. However, due to local desire for turtle eggs, these sea creatures were declared extinct in the area since year 2004. Among serious efforts to get turtles back to nest on the nearby beaches is the setting up of a turtle sanctuary in Ma'Daerah, called Ma'Daerah Turtle Sanctuary which provides an undisturbed beach for nesting turtles and protection for eggs. This turtle conservation centre is operated under the joint auspices of Department of Fisheries, BP[clarification needed], and WWF-Malaysia.
The first zoo in east coast region of Peninsular Malaysia is in Kemaman.
Other minor sports are also available.
Shopping and food
Kemaman is famous for food-based tourism. Keropok lekor can be easily found along the road to Kuala Kemaman. All kinds of traditional food, such as satar, nekbat, and otak-otak, are sold here and are different from those found in Kuala Terengganu and unique to Kemaman. These traditional foods are also commercially made and packaged in Kijal, Kemasek, and Chukai. . Kuih is available at Kemaman Street Market at Jalan Sulaimani and Evening Market at Jalan Air Putih near the Chukai interchange from the [[East Coast Highway (Malaysia}|]]. Along the roads leading to Kemasek, you can find a variety of stalls selling Kemaman-style lemang.
Kemaman is also popular for the famous Hai Peng Coffee Shop at the Jalan Sulaimani crossroads. The shop is the original location of the business franchise Kemaman Kopitiam that can be found throughout the country. Halal food has been served in the premises since years ago as the Chinese owners have blended well with the Malay community for such a long time.
Popular shopping locations in Kemaman include the central area in Jalan Sulaimani and Jalan Da' Omar with the landmark being Kemaman Centre Point. In addition, branded and designer shops can be found at the Mesra Mall, located in Kemasek.