Imagine driving along a straight road towards the sunset, surrounded by a sea of golden paddy fields where the breeze moves the stalks like the ebb and flow of gentle waves.
Imagine facing an endless row of limestone hills, imperfectly carved with cracks and crevices that could be the gateway to a secret cavern or a secluded trail into the wilderness.
Imagine reaching the end of the road, be it at the shores of the Andaman Sea or the bustling border towns knowing that a step further leads to the Thai frontier and beyond.
This is what Perlis, the northwestern-most state of Peninsula Malaysia, has to offer. As part of a 5-day road trip up north with my wife last year, I set Perlis as an overnight trip where we drove around for the whole day and slept at the Kuala Perlis before heading back to Kedah the next day. In hindsight, I regretted the short length of stay because what Perlis lacks in attractions, it makes up in untouched beauty and unfettered freedom. Here’s a recap of my brief excursion into the state that never was.
BORDER TOWN SHOPPING AT PADANG BESAR
Most Malaysians know Perlis for two things: the Harumanis mango and the duty-free shopping at Padang Besar. Whilst the luscious fruit has its season, the bargaineering can be done all year long. Padang Besar is the second major border crossing in the north with its fair share of shops selling everything from giants pillows to bags of peanuts. One of the best items on sale are replica football jerseys where prices are determined based on their “grade.” As a rule of thumb, most items here are 40 – 60% cheaper than its actual retail price so make wise decisions when haggling with the seller.
THE COWBOY TOWN OF KANGAR
The administrative and financial capital of Perlis can be found in Kangar, a town so small it takes a 5-minute drive to pass through it. Pre-War shophouses familiar to the old days of Malaysia can still be seen lining the main street marked by the iconic clocktower and imposing State Secretariat Building. As a lover of classical mosque architecture, the visit to the 100-year old Syed Alwi Mosque was worth a visit. The Mughal-inspired mosque looks like a lite version of Zahir Mosque in Alor Setar but its white-washed features is a testament to the simple life led by the people of Perlis.
A TASTE OF THAILAND AT WANG KELIAN
A 40-minute ride north of Kangar brought us to another border crossing of Wang Kelian. Situated deep in a valley over the Nakawan Range, Wang Kelian is well-known for its weekend market where traders from neighboring Satun would descend to sell their produce. While some items here are also sold in Padang Besar, you can apparently get it cheaper over here as the items are not marked up. The fun part about this middle-of-nowhere market is Malaysians get to cross into Thailand without a passport up to 1 km from the check point to shop. At least you can brag about “illegally” trespassing into Thailand for once.
THE ENIGMATIC CHAMBERS OF GUA KELAM
About 10 km south of Wang Kelian lies the Perlis State Park and cave complex of Gua Kelam. It’s not the largest cave I’ve been to – Gua Tempurung in Perak and Gua Niah in Sarawak is much more spacious – but the unique rock formations in the many chambers of the cavern add to its aestheticism. A bridge built through the cave makes it easy to navigate and admire the shapes of elephants and warriors carved by nature before stumbling upon a nice picnic area by a stream when you reach the end of the tunnel. It’s not a must-see place but it’s a good pit stop after a long day of shopping.
ANOTHER SUNSET SEAFOOD AT KUALA PERLIS
We ended the day at Kuala Perlis, a small fishing village at the tail end of the Straits of Malacca. Kuala Perlis is an alternative port for those wanting to travel to Langkawi as it is closer to the island than its Kedah counterpart. Dinner was none other than seafood! Other than the usual catch of the day, the stalls here offer a variety of sea creatures from clams to horseshoe crab eggs. The Medan Ikan Bakar here has a reputation of serving one of the cheapest seafood in the country and with dinner costing us RM20 per person, I leave Kuala Perlis with its reputation intact.
Perlis is no paradise lost but it is a paradise to travelers who would want to experience a laid back rural life in its full splendor. It is a true representation of the Malay heartland where warmth and hospitality are not mere slogans but the embodiment of a culture steep in humility. It is but one small piece of Malaysia’s jigsaw puzzle that was once ruled by powerful kings of the land and sea. It might be a God-forsaken place to some but a blessed fertile to others.
This is Perlis Indera Kayangan, “The Land of the Gods.”
- The nearest airport is in Alor Setar, Kedah which is about 50 km away from Kangar. The best way to enjoy Perlis is by car since you have time to stop and enjoy the scenery.
- There’s nothing to do after-dark in Perlis other than to drive to the middle of a paddy field and stargaze all night. Perlis’ distance from major cities makes it a perfect spot to view the Milky Way Galaxy.
- Accommodation is pretty tight there with Kangar and Kuala Perlis being the best bet for a night stay. Check out Putra Palace Hotel if you’re in town or Putra Brasmana if you’re by the sea.