Over the past four years, Alor Setar has transformed from a sleepy town into a showcase for urban renewal.
OF all the towns in Malaysia, Alor Setar is where I went “Wow!”. Last week, I was pleasantly surprised that the capital of Kedah had a “wow!” factor.
What a difference 44 months make.
The last time I was in Alor Setar was when I covered the Sg Limau by-election in November 2013. The state seat fell vacant after the passing of former Kedah mentri besar Tan Sri Azizan Abdul Razak of PAS.
I decided to stay in sleepy Alor Setar as it was about 24km from the rice bowl constituency. And from my recollection of my four-day stay in Alor Setar, the only thing “wow!” was the famous Nasi Lemak Royale.
The then Twitter sensation Tan Keng Liang told me one of the must-eat places in his hometown was Nasi Lemak Royale. The Gerakan Youth chief kindly brought me there for dinner. The nasi lemak was royally pedas (spicy).
Other than that, my memory of that Alor Setar visit is blank. Except for the quick 46km drive from the Kedah capital to Danok in Thailand. The Danok border town was “wow!” for its wild nightlife.
The landscape of Alor Setar has changed. Now it has a shopping mall, Aman Central, which I had assumed was one of those malls in small towns that were not worth visiting.
I passed Aman Central and saw that it was the equivalent of the shopping malls in Klang Valley. It has stores like H&M and Uniqlo.
“Wow! Not bad. Alor Setar can beat Kota Kinabalu,” I thought, using my hometown (a city, as KK residents will proudly remind me) as a benchmark.
“Wow! Alor Setar has a Starbucks! Alor Setar now looks like KL,” I told friends who brought me to the coffee chain’s standalone store in nearby Alor Mengkudu.
Starbucks might be the new player on the coffee scene in Alor Setar but I’m told warung (stalls) serving coffee or teh tarik are still popular among the local folk. They prefer to santai (relax) in warung.
I actually almost missed visiting the latest, coolest area in the state capital. My 50-something Kedahan friend was driving me to find a container shop that I thought I saw somewhere in town.
“This is Pekan Cina. Next to it is Pekan Melayu,” he said, as we drove by the heart of Alor Setar town.
“There are rows of old shophouses that a developer bought and turned into a cafe,” he said. “Entrepreneurs are buying up old shophouses and turning them into cool establishments.”
“Turn around. Can we check out the cafe?” I asked, as I’m a fan of urban renewal – which in my terms means turning dilapidated and abandoned buildings into cool, modern establishments.
My “tour guide” turned and headed to Pekan Cina where he showed me the pre-war shops that were undergoing urban renewal in Chinatown.
We parked and headed to Caffe Diem along Jalan Penjara Lama.
“Wow! This is cool!” I thought. I took several photographs of its exterior and WhatsApped them to my wife Vera in Subang Jaya with the message, “Let’s visit this next time!” “Cool,” she replied.
It is a cafe in a former prison cell and opium den. A framed article on the wall of the cafe states that the building was constructed in 1896 by the British colonisers as a prison. Later, the prison was relocated and through the years the row of shops went through various transformations from grocery shops to a hotel to an opium den.
The owners turned it into a cafe which is arguably the coolest place to hang out in Alor Setar.
The beauty of Pekan Cina is the old still exists with the new.
After my Sewangi Melati tea, my friend suggested we go to a curry noodle stall that opens from 10.30pm to 5.30am.
“Wow! the stall closes at 5.30am. Alor Setar actually doesn’t sleep,” I thought.
Midnight Curry Mee stall is a legend in Alor Setar.
It has been there for decades, serving blue collar workers to towkays. I was amazed that I could order about three dozen ingredients for my curry mee. Yummy.
I was in Alor Setar for political tourism. I wanted to get a lowdown on the 15 parliamentary seats in Kedah. In GE13, out of the 15 Kedah parliamentary seats, Barisan Nasional won 10, PKR four and PAS one.
The political landscape in Kedah has changed. What a difference the 49 months since the 2013 general elections have made.
Now, there’s a new player, PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia), the party of Kedah icon Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Pakatan Rakyat (consisting of DAP, PKR and PAS) is dead. Pakatan Harapan (DAP, PKR, Amanah and Pribumi) has been born.
Amanah has split from PAS which is expected to go on its own against Barisan and Pakatan Harapan.
Most politicians and political analysts I spoke to said that Barisan would have the advantage in a three-way contest between Barisan, Pakatan Harapan and PAS.
A PKR MP thought otherwise. He said the Opposition would have the advantage.
We’ll see, depending on your political bias, whether the Kedah results in GE14 will be wow!
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