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Cradle of Civilisation

Destinations
Writer
Nadia Malyanah
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Kedah’s capital of ALOR SETAR may not often be on the radar for holiday getaways, but you’ll be amazed at its rich history and abundance of nature activities.

The northern state of Kedah, in Malaysia, is recognised as the site of the oldest civilisation in Southeast Asia. Its ancient name, Kadaram, is mentioned in the poem Pattinappalai written in the 2nd century by a poet from the ancient kingdom of Chola. Its capital, Alor Setar is home to one of the world’s longest- surviving monarchies — the kingdom of Kedah, established around the year 634 — while also the birthplace of two Malaysian Prime Ministers. Thus, there is plenty to see and do here if you’re interested in the local as well as Malaysian history, while at the same time also a great base from which to explore its rich two-millenia-old history as well as natural beauty.

Find out more about the kingdom of Kedah at the Kedah Royal Museum (L); The Rumah Merdeka (Independence House) where Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Father of Independence used to live (R).
Find out more about the kingdom of Kedah at the Kedah Royal Museum (L); The Rumah Merdeka (Independence House) where Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Father of Independence used to live (R).
The exterior (L) and interior (R) of the childhood home of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed.
The exterior (L) and interior (R) of the childhood home of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

For history buffs, start the day exploring the Kedah Royal Museum and then the Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Gallery, which honours the late sultan who reigned twice as Malaysia’s Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and was the second longest-reigning living monarch in the world after Queen Elizabeth II of England. You should also visit Rumah Merdeka, the family home of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Not just a home, many important political meetings - even those with Indonesian officials regarding the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation of 1963-1966, have been held here. Meanwhile, the birthplace of two-time Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, has also been turned into a gallery that provides a glimpse into the early life of the country’s most illustrious leader.

The Paddy Museum features information on Malaysia’s paddy industry (L), while 360-degree views of the city can be seen from Alor Setar Tower (R).
The Paddy Museum features information on Malaysia’s paddy industry (L), while 360-degree views of the city can be seen from Alor Setar Tower (R).

Another claim to fame for Kedah is its status as the Ricebowl of Malaysia, being the main producer of Malaysia’s rice industry for export and internal consumption, commemorated in the Paddy Museum in Gunung Keriang, Alor Setar. The museum is worth visiting for the architecture alone, which was designed to symbolise bushels of harvested rice stalks. However, aside from the exhibits on paddy cultivation and rice production, the star of the show is probably the 360-degree diorama and mural painted on the entire inside wall of the upper level, resembling panoramic views of paddy fields all around. After that, it is recommended that you take in a real 360-degree view of Alor Setar from atop the Alor Setar Tower, which is the second tallest telecommunications tower in Malaysia.

Ruins uncovered in Bujang Valley give proof of trading activities carried here more than 2000 years ago.
Ruins uncovered in Bujang Valley give proof of trading activities carried here more than 2000 years ago.

Meanwhile, about a 40-minute’s drive from the city center is Mount Jerai. This natural wonder standing at 1,217 metres is now more visitor-friendly, as it’s now possible to drive up all the way to the top. Along the way are many trekking paths, picnic and camping sites, including Alur Naga Waterfall, and hundreds of flora and fauna to observe and appreciate. Make it a night there by setting up camp, or checking into the Regency Jerai Hill Resort located near the peak.

Interestingly, one of the trekking paths actually starts at another point of interest - the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum. About an hour’s drive from Alor Setar, Bujang Valley hosts the remains of temples and structures dating back from the 3rd century, some of it indicating that it could have been part of the Srivijayan kingdom until the 12th century. Meanwhile, inside the museum you’ll find on display artefacts such as bronze Buddha statuettes, stone carvings, stone boxes, and metal tools and ornaments.

The Tsunami Memorial at Kota Kuala Muda in remembrance of victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Photo: butterworthguide.com.my
The Tsunami Memorial at Kota Kuala Muda in remembrance of victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Photo: butterworthguide.com.my

About an hour’s drive from Bujang Valley, meanwhile, is the fishing village of Kota Kuala Muda. Back in 2004, it was one of the hardest hit areas in the country when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck the Indian Ocean on 26 December. A memorial, constructed from 26 fishing boats damaged by the waves, stands as a reminder of the lives lost during that fateful day, while the Tsunami Gallery nearby offers information about the tragedy and the villages affected by the event.

Explore the beauty of an ancient rainforest from above at Sungai Sedim.
Explore the beauty of an ancient rainforest from above at Sungai Sedim.

From Kota Kuala Muda, it’s only an hour’s drive back to Alor Setar, but if you’re feeling adventurous you can head on to the Sungai Sedim Treetop Walk. Although it’s actually located in Kulim, it’s worth the extra effort if walking the world’s longest canopy walk in one of the oldest rainforests in the world is right up your alley. Here, you can also enjoy a spot of white-water rafting, hiking, camping or a swim in one of the swimming holes. From Sungai Sedim, it takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes to drive back to Alor Setar.

Where to Stay

There are a number of new and modern hotels that have cropped up around Alor Setar recently. These include the Grand Alora Hotel, The Jerai Hotel and the basic yet comfortable Urban Inn. Many condominium units around the city centre are also on offer for short stays should you prefer one accomodation for all in the family.

What to Eat
Nasi Lemak Royal Photo: Facebook @NasiLemakRoyalKedahAmpang (L), Iman Kuey Teow Kerang at Taman Pandan Photo: saji.my (R).
Nasi Lemak Royal Photo: Facebook @NasiLemakRoyalKedahAmpang (L), Iman Kuey Teow Kerang at Taman Pandan Photo: saji.my (R).
Check out Pekan Rabu for more food options.
Check out Pekan Rabu for more food options.

Alor Star’s famous Nasi Lemak Royal is actually more similar to Nasi Kandar (Indian Muslim mixed rice with curry) than the coconut-milk variety. Head to the original outlet located along Jalan Tunku Ibrahim, nearby Pekan Rabu, for your fix as early as possible for lunch. Another culinary highlight is Iman Kuey Teow Kerang at Taman Pandan. Topped with a sunny- side up egg, their kuey teow dish with cockles is not to be missed. Another spot worth considering — for both the food, and the Instagram prospects — would be Caffe Diem, tucked within Alor Setar’s quaint Chinatown area. While the cafe made waves for its nasi lemak-flavoured soft serve ice cream, apparently the coffee and cakes (including the seasonal Harum Manis mango cheese cake) is where they truly excel.

Getting There
Sultan Abdul Halim Airport is located approximately 14 kilometres away from the city centre of Alor Setar.
Sultan Abdul Halim Airport is located approximately 14 kilometres away from the city centre of Alor Setar.

Located approximately 435 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur, the quickest way to get to Alor Setar is, of course, to fly from Kuala Lumpur via either the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, Subang or KL International Airport (KLIA). You will reach Sultan Abdul Halim Airport, Kedah within a little over an hour. There are also direct flights from Johor Bahru in the south. Alternatively, you can opt for the high-speed electric train service (ETS) from Kuala Lumpur, which takes about 5 hours, or a 4-hour drive along the North-South Expressway from the Malaysian capital.

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