My latest Malaysian trip took me to the state of Kedah, a place that many people don’t realize they have visited. If you have been to the resort island of Langkawi then yes, you would have been to this state in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. In my case, my visit to Kedah led me not to the emerald isles of Langkawi but to the city of Alor Setar, the royal and administrative capital of the state, for some sightseeing.
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How to Go to Alor Setar?
Alor Setar is a humble city with a pretty compact center. It has its own airport, the Sultan Abdul Halim Airport, which handles flights to Kuala Lumpur and Medan in Sumatra. As I was coming from Singapore, I opted instead to fly to the nearest airport with direct flights to Singapore and that’s in Penang. From there, I took a 2 hour bus ride which took me to Alor Setar via Butterworth.
Though pretty much off the tourist radar (it’s even more low-key than Kota Bharu and Kuala Terengganu which I featured previously), there are quite a number of tourist attractions in Alor Setar to keep travelers busy. Personally, I was amazed by the stunning Moorish architecture scattered all around town as well as the mixture of cultures stemming from the city’s location. As Alor Setar is near the border with Thailand, I could glimpse elements of Thai culture in the local cuisine as well as in places of worship.
Menara Alor Setar
I started my day at Alor Setar at the city’s most prominent landmark – the eponymous Menara Alor Setar (open 9AM to midnight, daily). At 165.5 meters, it is the tallest structure in the city and can be seen from practically all corners of the city center. I paid the admission fee of 18 Ringgit (it’s 12 Ringgit for children) to take the elevator up to the viewing deck where I got to see sweeping panoramic vistas of the town. Though looking particularly dense from the ground, I was pleasantly surprised to see how little there was in the way between the concrete jungles of downtown and the paddy fields that surround it. Of all the Malaysian state capitals that I had visited up to that point, Alor Setar still had a small town vibe that the others lacked.
After making my way back to the ground, I headed south towards the majestic Masjid Zahir, one of Malaysia’s most well-known mosques. I could not go in at the time but it was nonetheless a sight to see. As the mosque was built in 1912, it was not particularly large and the design’s a departure from the modern, steel and glass concepts that has proliferated around the country. Those who have visited Banda Aceh and Medan in neighboring Sumatra may notice similarities with those cities’ respective main mosques especially when it comes to the color scheme and Maghreb/Andalucian influence.
A curiosity in the city center is the Balai Nobat. An elegant yellow tower that seems to stand randomly in downtown Alor Setar, the building houses the musical instruments of the royal orchestra. You can’t really see the instruments inside but the tower is definitely worth a look even from outside. Though not particularly huge, the striking yellow color of the tower and its octagonal shape makes this what is perhaps Alor Setar’s most beguiling attraction.
Kedah Royal Museum
I also spotted a couple of museums such as the Kedah Royal Museum (free of charge, open 9AM to 5PM daily except for Fridays, 9AM to 12:30PM; 2:30PM to 5PM on Fridays). Of the buildings in the center of town, this particular museum has less of a colonial feel and more of a Moorish vibe as it dates back from 1856 as sultan’s royal palace.
State Art Gallery of Kedah
The Balai Seni Negeri (admission free, open 9AM to 5PM daily except for Fridays, 9AM to 12:30PM; 2:30PM to 5PM on Fridays) is the State Art Gallery of Kedah. The grand building housing it dates back from 1912 and was originally used as a high court. Today, the venue is home to antiques and several paintings and photographs.
Mahatir Mohamad Birthplace
I then headed down to Pekan Rabu, a shopping complex filled with traditional handicrafts and local food only to find it undergoing renovation. Fortunately, there was a taxi stand nearby and I hailed one to take me to the birthplace of Mahatir Mohamad (closed Mondays, 10AM to 5PM other days except Fridays, 10AM to 12PM, 2PM to 5PM on Fridays) at the other side of the Sungai Kedah river, an otherwise modest bungalow filled with mementos and old photographs from when Malaysia’s former prime minister grew up in Alor Setar. The house is more than 1km away from the city center. It’s not particularly far but given the city’s punishing heat, it may be worthwhile to hire a taxi. There are plenty waiting by the civic area.
Before calling it a day, I had 2 more places to visit. Although not listed in any travel guides, I made it a point to go to Masjid Albukhary in Jalan Langgar in the city outskirts. Compared to Masjid Zahir, the former’s a modern place of worship. I found it particularly interesting as it was built in the Persian style, similar to the fascinating structures I encountered during my trip to Uzbekistan some years back.
For contrast, I also stopped briefly at Wat Nikrodharam, a Thai temple not too far from the city center before crossing out yet again another Malaysian state from my bucket list. Given the proximity of Alor Setar from the Thai border, one can find a number of Thai influences here including some Thai temples (this is the largest one) as well as Thai influences in the cuisine. The char kway teow (fried noodles) here are more resemblant of pad thai!
Where to Stay
During my trip to Alor Setar, I stayed at TH Hotel & Convention Centre Alor Setar which is one of the few decent and newer 4-star digs in the city. Prices for the rooms and especially the food are very affordable given that most other options in Alor Setar are poorly maintained hotels in the downtown. You can also compare for the best prices for hotels in Alor Setar HERE.