Welcome to Alor Setar!
A small town on the Northwestern part of Malaysia, Alor Setar is the perfect place to escape the tourist trail and enjoy the rustic culture of a more laid back city. The handfuls of gritty travelers who visit Alor Setar find a cosmopolitan city surrounded by endless paddy fields, some of the best Islamic architecture, and traditional shophouses that have remained unchanged for generations.
Tourists know all the famous places, but a worldwide local has taken their time and discovered all the unique experiences that make Alor Setar the zen place that it is. Here are some insider tips to help you make the most out of your visit to Alor Setar.
Worldwide Local Tip: If you are coming into Alor Setar through the main rail station, change your money before arriving in the city. Strangely, there are neither ATMs or money exchange outlets inside the station or in its vicinity, and taxis will not necessarily accept to stop first at a bank.
Where to Begin
A visit to the emblematic Zahir Mosque is likely the first thing you’ll need to do when in Alor Setar. Said to be one of the top 30 most beautiful mosques in the world, this five-domed Moorish structure showcases intricate carvings covering its white façade, with blue mosaics sitting above the entrance. The walls are covered with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Manicured gardens complement the external details, making this mosque one of Alor Setar’s most photogenic spots. It is a sight to behold and an experience to visit.
Visit the Royal Audience Hall, Balai Besar, which is opposite the mosque and be dazzled by the exciting mix of European, Moorish, and even Thai-influenced architecture. Part of the Royal Palace is now open for travelers who choose to visit the Royal Museum, which carries the story of local sultans, and features presents received from all over the world. The square has been renovated with a huge luminous sign displaying the name Alor Setar, making this the perfect photo spot for a selfie.
Worldwide Local Tip: Walking around, you’ll notice signs that dictate how one should behave in public places. You have to understand that the Alor Setar population is predominantly Islamic, with a very conservative culture. For instance, you can’t shake hands with the opposite sex, unless they offer. Foreign visitors are often times excused, but to be respectful, and learn some of the basic courtesies.
Explore Culture and Nature
Alor Setar is surrounded by beautiful stretches of rice paddy fields. Take the chance to see and enjoy this rural serenity and capture the essence of the Malay lifestyle. A visit to the Kedah Paddy Museum will enlighten you about rice and its cultivation in the region. Afterwards, stop in at the Alor Setar mall/cinema, where you can reacclimate yourself to modern life.
Gunung Keriang, or Elephant Mountain, is a prominent limestone lump only a few miles from the city center. From a distance, the cliff is said to look like a crouching elephant. On the mountain, you’ll find bat-filled caves, dozens of habitats, calcite crystals (usually sought out by collectors), and rare birds. Follow the easy walking trails to the summit for the most scenic views of the surrounding paddy fields.
Worldwide Local Tip: Finding the paddy fields can be a challenge, so be sure to ask your hotel for recommendations or research beforehand. The most accessible ones are towards the eastern stretches of Jalan Langgar, which you can reach either by taxi or Grab Car.
Alor Setar’s Chinatown is among the most untouched and preserved in Malaysia. Take a walk around and find restored shop houses lining both sides of the narrow streets in the compact neighborhood. You can pop in Cafe Diem for some coffee as you admire its vintage British-colonial style décor. Or head to Hai Kee Kedai Kopi, a traditional restaurant, for a more local experience and taste their well known Hainanese cuisine.
Alor Setar’s waterfront stretches for a few hundred meters along the southern side of Chinatown. Head down to the park that overlooks the Kedah River for some of the most scenic and peaceful views. This is a favorite hangout spot for local families, especially in the evening, which would give you the perfect opportunity to interact with a few.
Worldwide Local Tip: For a taste of a typical Alor Setar dinner, try authentic local street food at Chinatown Food Court. Follow the aroma coming from the countless stalls serving local dishes like nasi goreng (stir-fried rice), satay (Malaysian kebabs), and yong tau foo (a selection of tofu and fish balls).
Enjoy Your Stay!
Alor Setar is a quiet and reserved town which many may mistake as dull, but a worldwide local knows all the hidden gems that make for the perfect escape from the usual trails.