Alor Setar – Malaysia
Alor Setar is a small but important city in the far northwest corner of Malaysia, just 30 km from the border of Thailand. Not surprisingly, some Thai influence is found in the city, including several Thai temples. When I visited I didn’t actually come across any Thai restaurants, shops or people. But a monk at gorgeous Thai Wat Nikrodharam assured me that many Thais live in Alor Setar.
More importantly for travelers, Alor Setar is one of the main jumping-off points to/from pristine Langkawi Island. The ferry pier at Kuala Kedah village has almost-hourly ferries running all day to/from Langkawi. The pier is just 11 km from Alor Setar, a 30 minute bus ride that costs only 2 RM ($0.65 US).
Alor Setar makes a pleasant 1-3 day side trip getting to or from Langkawi. Most notably, the town has many beautiful historic buildings and museums. Malaysia’s train line stops at Alor Setar, so it’s very easy to continue on to Kuala Lumpur or northward to Thailand. Many buses also go to/from Alor Setar all over Malaysia.
The city’s importance to the country of Malaysia is entirely different. The Royal Family of Kedah State, based in the capital Alor Setar, was the first royal family in Malaysia to adopt Islam, thus becoming Malaysia’s very first Islamic Sultan.
Zahir Mosque, in the center of Alor Setar, is one of the first mosques built in the country. It’s also generally considered one of the most beautiful. As you can see above, it certainly is very stunning.
In addition, the Sultan’s original wooden palace is now open to the public as the Royal Museum. It stands just across the plaza from Zahir Mosque. Alor Setar’s famous Clock Tower and the Balai Nobat – Royal Drum Tower – are also situated on the plaza. Rounding them out is the Kedah State Art Museum (Muzium Seni Negara).. All of these beautiful historic buildings sit together gracefully in the center of Alor Setar, making a convenient and interesting day or two of exploring.
In addition to the prestigious Kedah royal family, two of Malaysia’s most important historical political figures hail from Alor Setar. Y.T.M. Tunku Abdul Raman Putra, referred to as the ‘Father of Malaysia’, was born and raised in Alor Setar. His charming wooden home beside the Kedah River is now a museum, called Rooma Merdeka, ‘Freedom House’. Secondly, Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Bpk Mahathir was also born and raised in Alor Setar. His childhood home is also open to the public as a museum.
There are several other museums in and around Alor Setar and several traditional Malay style houses on display. The city has a very small 1-street Chinatown full of somewhat restored Chinese shop-houses along one section of the river. (However, the Chinese shop-houses in Penang, Melaka and Singapore are much more attractive and extensive.) Alor Setar’s version is worth a short stroll.
Meanwhile, the slow, languid brown Kedah River winds its way around town. Lovely walkways run along the river at several places. A beautiful look-out tower stands beside the river on the edge of Chinatown.
Aside from the gorgeous historic buildings, Alor Setar’s main downtown area is nothing to write home about. It consists of several streets / blocks full of shops with no particularly interesting merchandise or architectural charm. There is a very large 2-story market called Pekan Rabu, full of local shops and produce, which is quite popular among locals.
One other delight of the city is its extensive variety and selection of inexpensive local foods. Practically every block has at least one, but usually several, local eating shops. There are various Indian, Chinese and Malay cuisines. If you arrive from KL or Langkawi, you’ll find the prices surprisingly cheap.
I spent three days in Alor Setar, en route from KL to Langkawi. I took the night train up from KL then found a great budget hotel right on the edge of the main plaza. (Hotel Grand Jubilee, rooms from 50 RM) I could clearly see Zahir Mosque, the clock tower, Balai Nobat, the State Art Gallery and a bit of the Royal Palace Museum from my large room windows. I even had hot showers, which is a luxury for budget travel.
I’m guessing that most travelers would find 1-2 days in Alor Setar quite enough.
I needed a bit longer because when I’m traveling, I’m also working as I go. I spend about 4-5 hours per day writing, editing photos, answering emails and replying to fan comments. I don’t have full days to explore. I generally go exploring for a few hours and work the other hours. It’s a good balance.
But anyone with full days to explore could probably visit all of Alor’s attractions in one day by really packing them all in or during a more leisurely two days.
What I personally enjoyed most were:
* Zahir Mosque
* Royal Palace Museum
* Strolling along the Kedah River
Does Alor Setar sound like a city you’d like to visit? Why or why not?
If you’ve been to Malaysia, what are your favorite places?
You might also like:
Photo Gallery: Beautiful Langkawi Island