One of the most popular attractions in Alor Setar, the capital of Kedah, is its Pekan Rabu, which literally means Wednesday Market, a shopping arcade selling every traditional stuff that Kedah is famous for.
For such a long-standing traditional market, there’s bound to be a history behind it, right? The history of Pekan Rabu actually goes as far back as World War I.
A prince from the royal household of Kedah, the late Tunku Yaacob Almarhum Sultan Abdul Hamid, wanted to encourage more Malays to take an active role in commercial activities. So, in the early 1920s, he initiated a weekly market, open only on Wednesdays, along Sungai Kedah near Tanjung Chali. This open-air market became a training ground for the Malays to do business. As its success grew, it evolved into a daily market and was relocated to Jalan Tunku Ibrahim in 1932, where it stands till today.
Today, Pekan Rabu is still a favourite shopping “mall” for many Malaysians, especially those hailing from Kedah. This one-stop-centre has everything under one roof.
If you ever set foot in Kedah, make sure “Visiting Pekan Rabu” is on your check-list. And while you are there shopping for all-things Malaysian, take pleasure in these nuggets of trivia, and who knows, you’ll soon be regarded as a Kedah-born native!
In 1975, the weekly market operating from attap shacks became a multi-storey arcade selling a wide range of stuff from traditional delicacies like “dodol durian” (a gooey, sticky and caramelly sweet made of durian fruit and loads of sugar) to mengkuang mats woven from screwpine leaves and apparel. The brick-and-mortar shopping complex was built on Jalan Tunku Ibrahim and was officially opened in 1978 by the then-Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. It had 347 stalls with a variety of businesses and became one of the important landmarks of Alor Setar. The Phase 2 of the shopping complex was built in 1990 and later, in 1995, the original building was renovated.
However, there comes a time when an old traditional market has to blend with the modern atmosphere. So, in 2014, Pekan Rabu was given a total makeover in an effort to make it more attractive to tourists. Even though the upgrading of the complex involved building a four-storey complex with a modern architecture, the original concept of Pekan Rabu, which made it unique, was maintained, including its traditional Islamic architecture. The new building is much more spacious and is well-organised, making it easier for visitors to shop. The walkways and aisles provide ample space for shoppers to walk comfortably.
The former Pekan Rabu used to have two separate buildings but the new building has everything under one roof to make shopping more comfortable for its visitors. It currently has 355 business lots, as well as 48 kiosks and 24 food stalls. There is also an exhibition area on the ground floor and a basement parking lot. It is open daily from 9 am to 9 pm.
And now comes the best part – what to hunt for when you are at Pekan Rabu. As it was originally a traditional market, this one-stop shopping arcade sells everything that is related to the Kedahan Malays, be it traditional clothes, headgear, snacks and delicacies, traditional medicines, handicrafts. You name it, they have it.
One of the most popular items there is the bahulu, a traditional Malay sponge cake that looks a little bit like the French madeleines, only bahulu is softer and fluffier. In Pekan Rabu, all the bahulu is freshly-made on the spot so customers get to see how the bahulu is made. Each stall owner has his or her own style of baking bahulu and their own secret family recipe, which is passed on from one generation to the next. The traditional bahulu is golden yellow in colour and has the shape of cermai (Malay gooseberry) and fish, where else, the modern bahulu is more colourful with various flavours from strawberry to pandan. Bahulu can be eaten hot or cold and goes well with coffee and tea. Make sure you don’t miss buying this bahulu when you visit Pekan Rabu.
If you really want to know what traditional Malay cookies look like, then Pekan Rabu is the place. There you will find rare traditional cookies such as kuih bangkit, kuih putu kacang, kuih karas, cucur peneram, cakar ayam, and kuih loyang, to name a few. These traditional kuih or cookies are made from different types of flour like wheat, corn and rice and has a distinctive taste but unfortunately, the making of these delicacies is becoming a dying art.
There’s actually a huge demand for the fermented freshwater fish from Pekan Rabu due to their aroma and delicious taste. Many local and international tourists like the taste of it including those from New Zealand and Lebanon, as told by one of the traders at the market.
Apparel-wise, all sorts of traditional Malay clothes can be found here such as baju kurung Kedah, sampin, and songkok (traditional headgear). Speaking of songkok, there is one stall selling songkok made from a thick velvet fabric from Korea, which is lighter and foldable. For your information, the ordinary songkok can’t be folded. This particular design has become a favourite of Tun Dr. Mahathir, Malaysian current Prime Minister when he was first introduced to it. The songkok is now dubbed “Songkok Style Tun” and is one of the most sought-after items at Pekan Rabu.
For the Kedahans, Pekan Rabu is a complete shopping mall that fulfils all needs, while for tourists, it is a glimpse into the daily lives of both traders and the local customers.
Last but not least, did you know Malaysia’s fourth and currently seventh Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, born in Alor Setar, was once a trader there. Yes, you heard it right! During the Japanese Occupation, Tun Dr. Mahathir’s studies were interrupted so he decided to return to his birthplace and become a trader at the old Pekan Rabu, selling fruits, banana fritters, coffee and handicrafts until the World War II ended.
By Car or Taxi
From the North-South Expressway (PLUS), take either the Alor Setar Selatan or Alor Setar Utara exit and follow the signboard heading to Alor Setar City Centre. From there you can see the signboard showing how to get to ‘Pekan Rabu’.
Who To Contact
Koperasi Pekan Rabu Alor Setar Berhad
Tel: +604-733 5929