Alor Setar: A heritage trail with a tale to tell

Main post office in Alor Setar, Kedah.

Alor Setar is not a prime tourist destination and most visitors pass through quickly on their way to somewhere else.

But for those willing to slow down, the city does have some interesting architectural landmarks, mostly concentrated around the Dataran Alor Setar in the heart of the city and which can conveniently be visited on foot in an hour or two.

The suggested walking trail is only 2.4 km long, excluding the State Museum to which you might wish to drive unless you are feeling energetic for the extra 1.6 km walk.

Here is a short video from the Malaysia in a Minute series which covers many of the places listed here:

A good place to start your Alor Setar Heritage Trail is at the birthplace of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. who was Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister from 1981-2003 and just recently in 2018.

Birthplace of Dr. Mahathir Mohammad

When he was PM from 1981-2003, he was sometimes controversial (in England for example he is remembered for his ‘Buy British Last’ policy) but there is no doubt he was an energetic and visionary leader, and Malaysia’s economic standing in the world improved greatly during his tenure.

It is interesting to see the humble home where he was brought up. The newer galleries next to his old home contain personal belongings and memorabilia from Dr Mahathir’s schooldays, medical career, married life and his time in politics.

Admission: Free.

Open: Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm; Friday, 10am-Noon/3pm-5pm. Closed on Mondays except during public and school holidays.

Balai Seni Negeri & Galeri Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'Adzam Shah

Next stop, after crossing the river you will arrive at the Dataran Alor Setar area where most of the sights are located, beginning with the Balai Seni Negeri (State Art Gallery).

This building used to be a courthouse, built in 1893 and is now showing its age and in need of a new coat of paint with weeds growing out of nooks and crannies on its roofline. Inside is a modest collection of contemporary Malaysian art.

Admission: Free.

Open: Daily, 10am-6pm; Friday, 9am-Noon/3pm-6pm

Balai Besar & Royal Museum

Nearby is the Balai Besar (Great Hall or Main Hall). This unique hall was built in 1898 to replace an earlier one which had been destroyed by Bugis and Siamese invaders. Its design contains elements of Thai and Malay architecture.

It forms part of a larger palace complex (Istana Kota Star). The palace is behind the Balai Besar and is now a museum, Muzium Diraja (Royal Museum).

The palace was built in 1735 during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Jiwa. During the Second World War the Japanese army occupied the palace.

Later the palace was abandoned for a number of years before it was converted to a museum. It contains royal regalia and mock-ups of a royal bedroom and reception room.

Admission: Free.

Open: Daily, 10am-5.00pm; Friday, 9.00am-12.30pm/2.30-5.00pm. Closed during Hari Raya.

Zahir Mosque

On the opposite side of the road is Masjid Zahir (Zahir Mosque), a beautiful Moorish-style mosque officially opened a hundred years ago (in 1912).

It has five distinctive black-coloured domes, said to symbolise the five pillars of Islam, and a mini-minaret which is not as tall as the main dome.

Clock Tower & Nobat Tower, Alor Setar

Next on the Alor Setar Heritage Trail is two towers.

The Clock Tower was built at the same time as the nearby mosque (1912) and would have assisted the muezzin to check the timings of the call to prayer.

The Nobat Tower (Hall of Drums) housed the royal orchestra, comprising drums, gongs and traditional woodwind instruments which would be played on ceremonial occasions. The 18-metre high three-storey tower dates from 1906.

Replica Archway & Wisma Negeri

Behind the Nobat Tower is an elegant whitewashed gate which is a replica of the archway situated in front of Kota Tengah Palace.

The original archway was demolished in 1973 to make way for the Wisma Negeri building. Perhaps one day Wisma Negeri will be seen and valued as a classic piece of 1970s architecture.

The archway is in front of the Galeri Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’Adzam Shah which is housed in another former court building (High Court and Sessions Court) dating from 1922.

It was converted to a museum in 2007 and opened to the public in 2009. It contains personal collections of gifts, memorabilia, costumes and other belongings of the current Sultan of Kedah.

Admission: Free.

Open: Daily, 10am-6pm; Friday, 9am-Noon/3pm-6pm

Alor Setar Tower

Five minutes’ walk away is the Menara Alor Setar (Alor Setar Tower). This modern telecommunications tower has a total height of 165.5 metres.

It has a banquet deck at 100 metres, a revolving restaurant at 94 metres and an observation deck at 88 metres.

From here you can obtain birds-eye views of Alor Setar and the surrounding countryside. Places of interest which are easily visible include Istana Kuning, the semi-derelict Istana Che Sepachendera (hopefully to be restored), Wat Nikrodharam (Thai Buddhist Temple) and the impressive looking Al-Bukhary Complex.

This is the only attraction on the Alor Setar Heritage Trail that you have to pay for but it is cheap compared to the KL Tower. Adults pay RM6 for the Observation Deck and children (ages 6-12) are charged RM3. Foreigners pay more. The tower is open from 9am to 10pm daily.

Kedah State Museum

The final stop on our Alor Setar Heritage Trail is the Kedah State Museum (Muzium Negeri Kedah), another kilometre or so from the Alor Setar Tower.

The old wing was built in 1936 and is in a style similar to the Balai Besar. It is now used as an office and all the exhibits have been transferred to the spacious new museum building next door which opened in 1997.

There are 10 permanent galleries focusing on culture, history, natural habitats, statesmen, transportation, weapons, manuscripts, textiles, handicrafts, language and literature.

Admission: Free.

Open Daily, 9am-5pm; Friday, 9am-12.30pm/2.30-5pm. Closed during Hari Raya.

If you still have time and energy there is another museum about 1km further north. It is the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial and the nearby traditional Malay houses (Rumah Tok Su and Rumah Sri Banai).

This article first appeared in malaysia-traveller.com