Sungai Petani, a hidden gem in Kedah
Dubbed the ‘rice bowl of Malaysia', Kedah is a state located up north in Peninsula Malaysia. The state accounts for the largest production of rice in Malaysia therefore if you take the North- South Expressway up there, the first sight to greet your eyes upon entering the state will be endless rice paddy fields. Sungai Petani is the second largest township in Kedah after its capital, Alor Setar. Sungai Petani is a rustic, quaint town with lots of character which has evolved throughout all these years to a bustling, almost modern township.
Taking a walk in town is a must in Sungai Petani as it will take you back to the yesteryears and yet gives you a peak of what the future may bring for this town. The clock tower and the old bank building are remains from British colonial days, with a little bit of imagination you can see how life was back then. Just ten minutes walk away from the clock tower brings you to the Sungai Petani train station. It receives its train tracks from Butterworth, Penang and continues on to Southern Thailand. Nearby these architectures are rows of old shop houses with worn- out paints and signboards, its occupants are old restaurateurs who are ever eager to serve their customers. Feel free to sip a cup of Hainanese black coffee while enjoying crispy charcoal- toasted bread in one of these shops while absorbing the sights and sounds of the town. Shops selling old knick- knacks and wooden toys still stand today; it is interesting to see that children still pester their parents to buy them these old- fashioned toys despite the many other attractive choices available today. In the city center there is a large shopping mall called Centre Point which also houses a cinema. Surrounding the mall are modern shop houses which mark milestone in the development of the town. In the evening, flocks of swallows line the electric cables along the town center filling the town with their incessant chirps. Not far from the city center sits the Tesco Shopping Centre in which one can relish in air- conditioning while shopping and later get a refreshing drink from Starbucks.
Of course, a trip to Sungai Petani will not be complete without the gourmet experience. As Kedah is near Thailand, its food has a heavy Thai influence which tantalise the taste buds. It is a must to try the infamous 'Assam Laksa' when in Kedah. Assam Laksa is a dish in which white rice noodles are eaten with a thick fish broth which is both spicy and sour. Its smell will certainly whet your appetite from a mile away. 'Ulam' is a local salad dish, fresh vegetables such as cucumber, eggplant and Centella leaves (a type of herb) are eaten with cincalok (shrimp paste) or sometimes a specially- concocted sauce. Chow down a hot plate of piping white rice withtraditional Kedahan dishes such as ‘gulai nangka' (jackfruit curry) and ‘pekasam ikan puyu' (Marinated fish) on the side. If you are up for a food adventure, few famous restaurants in Sungai Petani also serve unconventional local food. Diners are introduced to a wide variety of dishes made from exotic animals such as venison, civet cats and sometimes snakes! All these can be cooked in different ways, be it stir- fry or in curry. Some locals say the best way to enjoy these dishes is to wash them down with beer. After a good meal, do not miss a traditional Kedahan dessert- 'pulut', which is actually sticky rice served with fruits and sweet syrup. If you think you had too much spicy food for the trip, there are also a number of restaurants serving Western cuisine and fast food joints in town.
For some peace and tranquility it is a good idea to hike up Gunung Jerai, the tallest mountain in Kedah. Standing at 1200m above sea level, one can take in the splendid view of vast green paddy fields at the peak of the mountain. Gunung Jerai is situated north of Sungai Petani and accessible by car or taxi. Hiking up the peak, one can enjoy the lush tropical rainforest and discover the changing of flora while nearing the peak. Legend has it that the foothills of Gunung Jerai was once the residing place of 'Raja Bersiong' (The Fanged King), who had an enormous appetite for human blood and liver. He demanded for such ‘delicacies' to be presented to him everyday and when the people could not take his demands any longer, they chased him out of Gunung Jerai. Raja Bersiong was so angered and upset by his people that his sharp incisors hurt so badly after he left his kingdom. It was said that he broke his fangs with bare hands and threw them away. This place where he threw his fangs was later named ‘Baling' (means ‘to throw' in Malay language), a small town 53km east of Sungai Petani. Lembah Bujang (Bujang Valley) lies in the foothills of Gunung Jerai. It is a Hindu- Buddhist ruin dating back to fourth century A.D. It is one of the earliest civilisations in the Malay Peninsula marking its rich history and culture. The Lembah Bujang Archaelogical Museum houses various relics unearthed from the site, it is situated 2km away from the Bujang River. Visitors to the museum will be enchanted by the intricate Hindu- Buddhist carvings and at the same time, unearth myths which lie behind each stone.
En route to Gunung Jerai and other surrounding areas outside of Sungai Petani, one can see history unfolds itself already. Highways and roads cut through thick oil palm and rubber estates; these are agricultural businesses left over by British plantation companies from colonial days. The plantations are currently managed by local companies and it is an ongoing, flourishing business. If you observe careful enough, you could see majestic bungalows once dwelled by British plantation managers within the estate. Some are still well- preserved for historical reasons while most are being replaced by newer architectures. Visitors will also pass by Malay ‘kampung' (village) houses which are built on stilts. These houses have large windows and beautiful tiles adorning the staircases leading up to the house. One can savour traditional kampung delicacies while passing by the villages as there are always stalls being set up by the road side. Be sure to try ‘lemang', a type of glutinous rice cake baked with coconut milk in bamboo trunks over slow charcoal fire. Lemang is a favourite among motorists who need a rest from a long journey. Usually, fruit stalls selling fresh tropical Malaysian fruits will also be set up nearby the lemang stalls. Filling your tummy with traditional village savouries while quenching your thirst with fresh tropical fruit juices are sure ways to make a long journey an enjoyable one!
Most holidaymakers who travel to Kedah only have one destination in mind-- the beautiful Langkawi Island or occasionally the capital of the state, Alor Setar. Towns like Sungai Petani are hidden gems with so much to offer for the curious traveler looking for a complete Malaysian experience.
Published on 9/28/09