Discover some of Kedah's best archaeological and historical wonders at Gunung Jerai


Visitors will be able to see the enchanting Gunung Jerai in the background as they cruise along Sungai Merbok. – Photos: GISELE SOO/The Star

Gunung Jerai is the third highest mountain in Kedah, but before the mountain was formed, the area was simply called Pulau Serai. The formation of Gunung Jerai was the result of natural geographic processes, which took place hundreds of millions of years ago.

Archaeologist Professor Datuk Dr Mokhtar Saidin, 60, said that during the formation, a series of tectonic plate motions also brought out exotic minerals and one of the most important cultural and scientific sites in Kedah – Padang Tok Sheikh.

We met Prof Dr Mokhtar during a recent media visit to Gunung Jerai, where he talked in length about the important archaeological discoveries in the state, which also includes Sungai Batu and Lembah Bujang.

“Minerals such as iron, tin and garnet were exposed by the intrusion of magma, which became important resources,” Prof Dr Mokhtar said.

In 2017, the Malaysian government listed the area as a national geopark, now known as Jerai Geopark. The geopark, which extends over an area of 502sq km between the districts of Yan and Kuala Muda, comprises 24 geosites and other places of interest.

There is a geotrail that allows visitors to glean deeper insights into the history of the place.

This trail will also please those with a zest for ecoadventure, as there are other activities like cycling, camping and bird watching that you can do in the area.

Here are some of the highlights of the trail.

Padang Tok Sheikh is surrounded by lush forests, a scenic view at the peak of Gunung Jerai.Padang Tok Sheikh is surrounded by lush forests, a scenic view at the peak of Gunung Jerai.

Padang Tok Sheikh

Located along the geotrail, Padang Tok Sheikh is a geosite and is home to Malaysia’s oldest fossil, the metaquartzite. The prehistoric rock which dates back to 550 million years ago preceded dinosaurs – believed to have roamed the Earth some 240 to 66 million years ago.

“The rock was a sedimentation of mud, clay and sand under the sea before the magma petrified it and lifted it up, rising to its current height,” Prof Dr Mokhtar explained.

“The spiral lines on the sedimentary rock are traces of ancient worms that once lived here, showing evidence of underwater life,” he added.

Interestingly enough, Padang Tok Sheikh was named after a trader, Sheikh Abdullah Sheikh Ahmad, who was also a prominent Islam preacher from Yemen. He converted Kedah’s first ruler – Raja Durbar – to Islam, who then became Sultan Mudzaffar Shah I. With the use of the word “Sultan”, the Kedah government system was then formed. An azan tower or minaret was built to commemorate the occasion.

Prof Dr Mokhtar said while the reason for choosing the site was not recorded, the spacious public space was a favourable spot with traders. “The open area is cooling as it’s surrounded by lush forests,” he added.

Today, Padang Tok Sheikh serves as a space of worship for Muslims. Many believers would congregate at the field for their Friday prayers.

The ‘azan’ tower was built at the Padang Tok Sheikh to celebrate the formation of the Kedah state.The ‘azan’ tower was built at the Padang Tok Sheikh to celebrate the formation of the Kedah state.

Telaga Tok Sheikh

Not too far from Padang Tok Sheikh is the Telaga Tok Sheikh. This well has been around for many years and never runs out of water. Since it is only 2km from the field, the well became a vital source of water for drinking as well as bathing centuries ago.

“Today, it’s still functional and people come here to perform their ablutions before prayers,” Prof Dr Mokhtar said.

Batu Kapal

Batu Kapal is a boulder, which resembles a capsized ship. As the 2m tall rock bears a similar appearance to an overturned boat, rumour has it that the rock was cursed.

Stories of unearthly events were often claimed to be heard by local folks, as well.

Although there is a myth surrounding this boulder, Prof Dr Mokhtar said that from a geological perspective, it is actually a piece of quartzite, or hardened sandstone.

Alor Naga waterfall

The majestic Alor Naga waterfall is a popular spot among hikers. Getting to the waterfall involves a 20-minute trek through the quiet forested landscape of Jerai. The waterfall, which is made up of the ancient metaquartzite rock, is well-known for its ice-cold waters.

Many come here for picnics and to enjoy the cool atmosphere.

Prof Dr Mokhtar said that one will only be able to fully explore the places if they have an expert – a local guide – with them. “You have to go with someone who knows the stories like the back of their hands, otherwise, your trip is incomplete.”

Vans are also available for rent at the foothill. This is because the roads to get there are winding, making manoeuvring the sharp bend of the road impossible for outsiders.

Sungai Merbok is home to various mangrove species and a habitat for birds.Sungai Merbok is home to various mangrove species and a habitat for birds.

Sungai Merbok cruise

The Merbok estuary, meanwhile, is a biosite. It was formed when the sea level started receding 5,000 years ago.

Today, the 15km-long river is a thriving mangrove ecosystem, with over 39 mangrove species, some of which are native to the area. For instance, the “bakau pasir” (Rhizophora Stylosa) is a rare mangrove species in Malaysia.

The river also provides a habitat for various winged residents, mostly migratory birds, such as storks, egrets and kingfishers. If you are lucky, you may just be able to see them flying gracefully in the sky.

It takes about one-and-a-half hours to cruise through the saltwater river. The murky-looking water is a reflection from the planktons in the water.

Some of us may not know but mangroves are a great contributor to the ecosystem as they provide oxygen. Its ability to absorb carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases make them an important resource to Kedah and the country.

These precious plant species, however, have fallen prey to trespassers who illegally harvest the trees for profit, which caused the dwindling population of mangroves in the area over the years.

As an effort to protect the trees, the community – teaming up with students from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) – started a conservation project to replant the trees at the site. For more information, check out Jerai Geopark on social media (Facebook: @ancientkedahheritage / @jeraigeopark), or go to its website (kedah.com.my). Visitors can also email dkbpen@gmail.com. Look out also for updates on archaeological-tourism and geo-tourism packages on the Tourism Malaysia website (malaysia.travel/).

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