Alor Setar in Kedah State hosts some of Malaysia’s finest examples of architecture, deep ties to rice and the oldest fort in the northern part of the country. Culture Trip explores the top things to do in Alor Setar to entice potential visitors to this little-known city.
Zahir Mosque is Alor Setar’s highlight. The white Moorish structure with five black domes dominates the city’s central square (called Dataran Alor Setar). Step closer and marvel at the intricate carvings and decorations between the grey stripes. Take note of the blue glass mosaics above the entrance and black Arabic inscriptions covering the walls. The mosque opened in 1912 on the spot where Kedah’s warriors defended against the invading Siamese (today’s Thai). Zahir Mosque presents some of the best examples of architecture in the city and photography always features among the top things to do in Alor Setar.
Learn about the late Sultan’s lifestyle at the Sultan Museum
The Sultan Museum sits on the northern quarter of Dataran Alor Setar with Zahir Mosque to the left and the Royal Hall on the right. Displays include collections of the Sultan’s possessions (think everything from clothes to cars), photographs and official documents. There’s an element of pretence, but it does give an insight into his lifestyle and the responsibilities of a modern-day Sultan. We suggest stopping by to cool down for half an hour after exploring the square.
Appreciate Kedah’s multiculturalism
Most of Kedah’s population practice Islam. But Alor Setar has its fair share of Buddhist and Hindu temples littered around the neighbourhoods. If you’re visiting Dataran Alor Setar, check out the nearby Hindu Sri Thandayuthapani Temple. Incense wafts from the colourful interior creating a mystical atmosphere around its central shrine. Our favourite Buddhist temples in Alor Setar include both Chek Temple and Wat Samosornrajanukpradit. Each burst with colour and serenity as the chorus of chanting monks occasionally fills the background. After marvelling at Zahir Mosque, appreciating the city’s religious diversity is among our top things to do in Alor Setar for a more rounded cultural trip.
A trip to Kedah State Art Gallery is a favourite cultural activity in Alor Setar. Housed inside the former High Court, exhibits cover various types of art from around Kedah. Expect to find paintings and handicrafts from local artists with a strong rural influence. Black and white photographs detail Kedah’s life throughout the ages too. Pro tip: The museum is inside one of Alor Setar’s oldest government buildings. Take the time to appreciate the architecture and design when passing through the galleries.
Continue walking south past the square, over the river and into Chinatown. The small collection of streets feature traditional shophouses. Each house in the long building displays their own styles, designs and colours. And unlike the tourist-centric shophouses in Penang, most of Alor Setar’s still retain their original occupants performing the trade of their ancestors. Some sell hardware while others repair bicycles, instead of stocking postcards and t-shirts. Pro tip: Grab a mid-morning coffee at Caffe Diem for the chance to see inside a restored building. One of our top things to do in Alor Setar involves the opportunity to look at these buildings in their original form.
The Kedah State Museum is one of our favourite things to do in Alor Setar. With 10 permanent galleries, this is the go-to place to learn everything about Kedah’s history and culture. Follow the exhibits and find out about the region’s early roots with the Bujang Valley civilisation (between the third and twelve centuries). Gain deeper understanding of Kedah’s sultans and life during their brief colonial days. Other displays range from natural history and weaponry to linguistics and literature.
From the outside, Kedah Paddy Museum resembles a giant paddy basket with rice grains falling from the top. But apart from its architectural allure, the three-storied museum offers an insight into the state’s lucrative rice industry. Kedah isn’t Malaysia’s ‘Rice Bowl’ for nothing. Explore the middle and lower floors to learn about traditional cultivation and paddy throughout Kedah’s history. A mural of a paddy field covers the circular wall on the top floor. Admission is RM 5 ($1.20 USD). Pro tip: Visit Gunung Keriang (Elephant Mountain) in the morning and spend an hour or two inside the air-conditioned Kedah Paddy Museum to cool down.
Fort Kuala Kedah sits approximately 13 kilometres (eight miles) west of Alor Setar on the Straits of Malacca. Dating back to the 17th century, this holds the title as the oldest fort in northern Malaysia. Built initially by Kedah’s Sultan, the fort has witnessed countless bloody battles. Walk through the complex and snap pictures of the elegant archways, crumbling fortress walls and views of the Kedah River’s mouth. We recommend a trip to Fort Kuala Kedah as one of the top things to do in Alor Setar for history lovers. Pro tip: Because of its location next to the ferry port to Langkawi, it’s possible to visit before heading to Alor Setar.
The Museum Gallery inside Fort Kuala Kedah’s complex provides an overview of Kedah’s story. Despite its size, the museum in the white-washed wooden bungalow packs a punch. Exhibits cover the history of Kedah from the early days as Malaysia’s first Sultanate to the constant feuding with nearby Siam (today’s Thailand) in the early 19th century. Others provide insight into the state’s evolution from colonial times to the present day.
Sunset over the paddy fields
Kedah’s state nickname ‘Jelapang Padi’ refers to the wooden structure farmers once used to store drying paddy. Outside the city centre, rows and rows of paddy fields dominate the landscapes, as they have for generations. Witness the last sun rays sparkle off the flooded fields. Photographing the palm trees and stilted houses in the distance is among our favourite things to do in Alor Setar. Look on Google Maps for the nearest paddy fields and take either a taxi or Grab car and see the sunset. We recommend the paddy fields to the east of Jalan Langgar.