Magnificent architecture, paddy fields and hardly any tourists are three ways to describe Alor Setar, the capital of Kedah. The few visitors on a stopover between Langkawi and Penang want a whirlwind tour. Culture Trip uncovers the must-visit attractions in Alor Setar, including both the nationally famous Zahir Mosque and Alor Setar Tower, and the family homes of two of Malaysia’s most renowned leaders.
The landmark featured in tourism promotions around Malaysia is our favourite must-visit attraction in Alor Setar. Moorish Zahir Mosque exhibits decorations and intricacies even the most complex Gothic Cathedrals of Europe would be proud of. After opening in 1912, Kedah’s National Mosque served as Alor Setar’s central hub for local Muslims. Sat on the eastern flank of Dataran Alor Setar (Alor Setar’s square), we recommend coming during both daylight and after sunset. This is the highlight for those with 24 hours in Alor Setar.
Alor Setar Tower along with Zahir Mosque rate as the top two must-visit attractions in Alor Setar. The telecommunications tower reaches 165.5 metres (543 feet), forming the city’s central focal point. For RM6 ($1.50 USD), visitors can go to the observation deck halfway up the tower. We recommend this on a cloudless day for views of Alor Setar and the surrounding paddy fields. Alor Setar Tower also features a rooftop revolving restaurant and a banquet hall.
The Royal Hall or locally known as ‘Balai Besar’ is the grand traditional-kampong style building opposite Zahir Mosque. In the past, state events such as royal weddings and coronations took place inside. It was painstakingly rebuilt after almost complete destruction from the invading Siamese (today’s Thailand) in the early 19th century. Check out the distinct rows of patterns and designs decorating the roof.
Menara Jam Besar, or Big Clock Tower in English, stands next to Zahir Mosque. The pale orange and yellow, almost colonial-like structure dates back to the same time as the mosque. In the 1900s, the mosque’s muezzin rang the bells to call the city’s Muslims to prayer. We recommend capturing the elegance of this structure on film in the early morning. Apart from rating as one of the must-visit attractions in Alor Setar, The Big Clock is one of Malaysia’s most beautiful clock towers.
Alor Setar-born Tun Dr Mahathir Bin Mohammad served as Malaysia’s Prime Minister for 22 years between 1981 and 2003. In 2018, Malaysians re-elected him as their leader for the second time at the age of 93. This makes Dr Mahathir Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister and the world’s oldest leader. The city proudly proclaims his family home as one of their must-visit attractions, which has transformed into a mini-museum cum shrine. Galleries and exhibits inside range from his possessions and memorabilia to photos and documents on Dr Mahathir’s childhood and life.
Nobat Tower is another historical landmark inside Dataran Alor Setar. The three-tiered circular structure rises 18 metres (59 feet) and is crowned by a yellow dome. Dating back to 1906, the yellow and white building once stored instruments used during royal visits. This ranks as one of our must-visit attractions in Alor Setar for its majestic appearance and photogenic nature. Pro tip: combine Nobat Tower with photographing the Big Clock Tower, Zahir Mosque and the Royal Hall.
The white-washed gate directly behind Nobat Tower sits in front of Kota Tengah Palace. Replica Archway rises three levels with arched windows and a curved doorway. Take note of the intricate carvings and decorations. Pro tip: Use the arched doorway to produce a framed backdrop for photographs. The original was demolished to create space for the nearby Wisma Negeri (the white building with golden windows) in 1973.
In the middle of the 18th century, the Sultan of Kedah moved to the present day city where he later commissioned a palace. A plaque near Dataran Alor Setar by the stream commemorates the exact spot where the city was founded. Setar trees grew on either side of the stream (called Alor), giving rise to the city’s name today. While this isn’t a must-visit for everyone, it does provide a sense of the city’s origins.
Travellers with a keen eye might notice the name Tunku Abdul Rahman on street names and marine parks. Malaysia’s first Prime Minister grew up in Alor Setar, and his two-storied family home is now a free museum. Located on a side street off the road with the same namesake, the two-storied Rumah Merdeka (Independence House) is a must-visit attraction in Alor Setar for visitors with an interest in local history. Inside, find furniture and relics from the former leader’s life.
Gunung Keriang, or Elephant Mountain, is a vast limestone lump some eight kilometres (five miles) from the city centre. Rampant quarrying eroded the original resemblance of this 218-metre (715-foot) hill to an elephant. From the front, it doesn’t look like much. But look closer and find geological wonders and various ecological habitats covering this 250 million-year-old lump. Several caves bursting with squeaking bats penetrate the interior while rare birds sing from the tree branches. Head around the back to the Gunung Keriang Recreational Park. Follow the light walking trails to the summit for views of the surrounding paddy fields.