The upcoming school holidays, National Day celebration and Hari Raya Aidiladha offer a perfect opportunity for taking a break. If you want to visit an interesting but less hectic place, consider taking a trip up north to Alor Setar, Malaysia’s under-the-radar northern star.
(This article was originally published in Destination Malaysia Issue 8.)
(Pic: TM Info-Media Sdn Bhd/Tourism Malaysia)
Although eclipsed by its famous neighbour Penang, Kedah has its own array of captivating destinations to entice travellers. A prime example is Alor Setar, the state capital and administrative centre. It’s perfect for those looking for a place that’s low-key yet brimming with distinctive charm. We proudly present some Alor Setar stats to whet your appetite!
CRUNCH ON THIS: SOME BASIC FACTS
- The state of Kedah is situated in the north of Peninsular Malaysia. Langkawi Island, a holiday island resort off its coast, also makes up a part of the state.
- Kedah has a flat topography, making it suitable for paddy cultivation.
- It is known as Negeri Jelapang Padi due to its prolific production of rice grains.
- The state has a superb network of highways and roads for easy accessibility. The North-South Expressway makes it possible for anyone from Kuala Lumpur to reach Alor Setar in five hours.
- The national railway, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM), runs a daily train service to Alor Setar as well.
- Those who prefer flying can check the flight schedules with operators such as national carrier Malaysia Airlines and low-cost airline AirAsia.
WHERE TO STAY AND WHEN
Many hotels are available in Alor Setar. If you’re looking for budget accommodation, there are numerous homestays which come equipped with amenities such as kitchen and washing machine. Check out Yellow Pages Malaysia listings on Hotels, Motels, Homestays and Travel Services to discover a vast array of options.
Alor Setar is best explored on a Saturday and a Sunday, as many establishments are open for business. Friday is the least ideal, as it is a ‘weekend’ or rest day in Kedah.
FOOD GEMS OF ALOR SETAR
Roti Doll is basically shredded roti canai with lots of dal gravy, a spoonful of sambal, a pinch of white pepper and a few drops of seasoning sauce. It is finally topped with an egg sunny side up.
The marriage of flavours is superb. Available for breakfast, Roti Doll is surprisingly filling — enough to get you started for the day. It can also serve as a snack later in the evening.
You can also try the mi rebus — yellow noodles with a spicy sweet potato-based gravy. It is garnished with spring onions, chillies and beef liver. An explosive combination, that’s for sure!
Location: K2, Pantai Johor, Alor Setar
Business hours: 7.30 am–9.30 pm (closed on Fridays)
Restoran Sri Pumpong
The restaurant occupies the lower floor of a shoplot row at Lebuhraya Darulaman.
It is famous for its no-frills meals, chiefly the economy rice (read: white rice and various side dishes).
Do bring an empty stomach, for everything here is mouthwatering.
A must-have is their selection of ulam (raw leaves and vegetables), fried ayam kampung, daging bakar (grilled beef; come early for this one), green chilli and red chilli sambal/air asam (sour and watery sambal). Try to make room for curries, and sambal tumis (dried sambal with meats and condiments).
Its reasonably cheap price (RM4–6 per plate on average) and excellent taste has made it so popular that lunch queues are long and getting a seat is tough.
Location: Lebuhraya Darulaman, Alor Setar (a few metres from Kedah Medical Centre)
Business hours: 11.00 am–5.00 pm (closed on Fridays)
Zakaria Laksa Teluk Kecai
In northern states like Kedah, laksa is a fish-based gravy with thick rice noodles.
There are some variations, depending on where you eat the dish. A must-try while in Alor Setar is Zakaria Laksa Teluk Kecai. Locals swear that it is the best laksa in the world, and perhaps you should take their word for it.
The fish broth may look unrefined, but the addition of the coconut sambal on top imparts a robust flavour. It is garnished with daun putat, adding a piquant and new dimension to the flavour.
You should also order the ABC (Air Batu Campur or shaved ice) as a perfect sweet ending.
Location: 250, Jalan Kuala Kedah, Alor Setar
Business hours: 12.00 pm–10.00 pm
Cucur Udang White Palace
Cucur udang (or local prawn fritters) are really fried dough with pieces of cut-up shrimps and served with chilli sauce on the side.
The White Palace version is crispy, with plenty of shrimps and vegetables such as bean sprouts and Chinese chives tucked inside for a crunchy treat. Fried bean curds and sliced cucumbers complete the serving.
Even the chilli sauce is out of this world. It has a beautiful mixture of sweetness, spiciness and tanginess, and pounded peanuts give it texture and great taste.
Location: Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, Taman PKNK, Alor Setar
Business hours: Opens late afternoon (4.00 pm onwards)
PLACES TO DISCOVER
There are several historical buildings and shopping spots that will catch your fancy, right in the heart of Alor Setar.
The Balai Besar is a royal audience hall within the compound of the former palace complex (Istana Kota Setar). Built in 1735 by Sultan Muhammad Jiwa, the 19th ruler of Kedah, the hall boasts a traditional Malay architectural style.
During the olden days, the hall used to be a venue for Royal Audiences, state council meetings, coronations, and wedding receptions.
Today, it is a tourist attraction. Although it is closed for preservation, it is still a striking building and photo opportunities are plentiful.
Masjid Zahir (Zahir Mosque)
This striking black and white mosque is said to be similar to the Azizi Mosque in Langkat, Sumatra. It was built in 1912 and has five domes, each one said to represent the five tenets of Islam (Rukun Islam).
A yellow tower with a white dome at its top, it lies a stone’s throw away from the Balai Besar.
The tower functions as a place to store the instruments of Nobat.
Nobat is a royal musical ensemble only played during special occasions affiliated with the royalty, such as investitures, weddings and deaths.
Kedah is one of only four states with its own Nobat ensemble. (The others are Terengganu, Perak and Selangor.)
The word ‘nobat’ is believed to be of Persian or Sanskrit origin, meaning ‘nine musical sounds’.
The Nobat ensemble comprises six musical instruments (serunai, nafiri, nahara, gendang ibu, gendang anak, and gong).
As the instruments are for royal ceremonies, utmost care is needed, hence having a special building for it. Besides acting as a repository for the instruments, the Balai Nobat is also a place for any activities associated with Nobat such as playing and practising the music.
A weekend trip to Alor Setar will not be complete without a visit to Pekan Rabu. Literally translated as ‘Wednesday Market’, Pekan Rabu is a shopping complex, but not in the modern sense.
It sells traditional snacks, preserved items such as dried salted fish, and various kuih.
Do buy the baulu (light, sweet little cakes baked in attractively designed cake pan), kuih bakar (the Malay version of melting moments, made with coconut cream and sugar among others), cakar ayam (grated, fried and glazed crunchy sweet potato), and kuih karas (rice flour batter drizzled in hot oil and folded; hardens upon contact with air to form a very crispy treat).
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