Small Wonder

by Audrey Lim, Feb 13, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia / Perlis

It may be the smallest, but it is definitely not overshadowed (nor afraid) of its neighbors.

It may be the tiniest of them all, but in many ways, it is the giant amongst the rest.

Perlis, the smallest state in Malaysia, boasts of rich coffers of natural, cultural and historical treasures. Many visitors to Malaysia tend to put the small state aside or even leave it entirely out of their travel agenda, but I must say, if you do want to see something different and unique, you have got to remember Perlis with all its splendors rivaling that of bigger states.

Once you step foot onto this state, you will be able to feel as if an unseen force has stopped time? that the quaint villages, picturesque surroundings and centuries' old culture did not move with the development of the country. If you are looking for some peace and quiet, then tranquil Perlis is the place for you. The crisp kampung (village) breeze that greets the visitor is like a breath of fresh air and the touch of dew on the grass in the morning - clean, clear and refreshing!

Located at the northwestern tip of the Peninsular, Perlis is one of the states that border Thailand at the north. Its eastern and southern sides are flanked by the state of Kedah while the western side of the state graces the Straits of Malacca with its rugged coastline. All in all, Perlis is only 810 sq. km. and is home to a rough figure of 220,000 people. The center of activity takes place in the state capital known as Kangar. Just a mere 10 km away is the state's Royal town, Arau. As mentioned before, Perlis may be small in size but it is a very pretty place to start your trip at. Where the eyes meet, the landscape is pleasing to the soul and mind. The rustic rural surroundings and the flat rolling green paddy fields is a sight to behold.

The state of Perlis used to be a lot "larger" than it is now. Many years ago, Perlis was actually a part of the state of Kedah, having been conquered by the Thais in the years 1821. However, when the ruler, the Sultan of Kedah, regained power of the state of Kedah, Perlis was separated from it and became a state in its own rights. However, a few "transfer of hands" procedures took place for this tiny state, having been passed by the Thais to the Brits and then back to the Thais again by the Japanese during the Japanese occupation. This historical moment was marked by the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. Then, Perlis was once again transferred to the British after Japan surrendered from the land. It was not until the Independence of Malaysia in the year 1957 that Perlis became a state free from foreign ruling and became a state of Malaysia, then known as the Federation of Malaya.

To understand why the state has remained untouched throughout the years and almost oblivious to the surrounding growing economy of the country (especially towards Central Malaysia), one must comprehend the economic activities of Perlis. Generally, the economy in Perlis is made up of agriculture, fishing and the forest industry. And of course, the very next time you pick up a glass of cold sugar cane juice to drink, you know you have got Perlis to thank for. As it is, Perlis is home to the largest sugar cane plantations in the whole country. Asides from sugar cane, rubber is also extensively cultivated while mango and watermelon are the state's main form of fruit produce. With time, the state slowly moved towards development and started on medium-scale industrial and manufacturing activities. Although still not highly active in it, the state does have a sugar refinery at Chuping and other industrial locations at Bukit Keteri, Jejawi, Chuping, Kuala Perlis and Padang Besar. Apparently, the hands of modernization have touched Perlis, although it barely scraped the surface just yet!

The population of Perlis is made up mainly of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Thais. With such an interesting melting pot, you can only expect a rich culture, heritage, religion and traditions. For fun times, the people of Perlis indulge in traditional games, dances and other interesting "hand-me-downs" entertainment. If you have the opportunity to check out some of the exciting and unique pastimes, then you must not miss the "Tarian Canggung" and "Tarian Ayam Didik". Both these form of dances are not often seen nowadays but it sure is feet stomping fun!

So, what is Tarian Canggung? This is actually a form of traditional dance, which came about many years ago. It is normally a dance performed after the harvest season and participated by a group of people. In Tarian Canggung, a form of musical poetry recital is done whereby the people will sing and exclaim words in stanzas while the other person tries to reply to it. "Berbalas pantun" as it is called is done with the accompaniment of music and usually done in jest and playful manner.

Asides from Tarian Canggung and Tarian Ayam Didik, the Tarian Terinai is used during a royal ceremony. Tarian Terinai is a form of dance and musical presentation. Music is made using drums played by five musicians. The beating of these Gendang Terinai (drums) are what gives this dance its rhythmic swings and time.

If you are in Perlis, you must also keep an eye out for other forms of entertainment besides the dances, for it is in Perlis that you will get to feast your eyes and mind to a form of cultural experience not to be found elsewhere in the country. The uniqueness of Malaysia is that each state offers the visitor something different. I can say that if you are traveling in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), you will be able to see a lot of cultural dances and performances as well, but to each its own. In other words, what you may see in Perlis will probably be unavailable in Sabah or Sarawak. Therefore, while in Perlis, do indulge in another activity that took place during the olden days - the Awang Batil, the Malaysian version of the minstrels of old England. An Awang Batil is somewhat like a storyteller, an expert that can spin a yarn and tell ancient tales accompanied by the beatings of a small drum and a tune by the flute. These rhythmic interjections are to go with the storyline when necessary. An Awang Batil performance is normally seen during a big feast or during some sort of festive celebrations!

Martial arts, kung fu, and kickboxing? The Seni Silat is the Malay's traditional art of self-defense. The silat involves movement of body and artistic representation, dependent on the origin of the art. Now, the silat performances are usually available for viewing during a function or festive celebrations. It can be performed as a team or by an individual. Silat is not only well known in Perlis - it is an important cultural aspect for Malaysians throughout the country, especially for the Malays.

Do keep in mind that many of the cultural aspects, dances and entertainment of Perlis may no longer be widely practiced today as it was many years ago. For the uninitiated, you may not even be able to come across to some of them. But if you do keep an eye out for them, who knows? You may be in luck.

Entertainment aside, what is Malaysia without the food? The most interesting and must-do activity in Malaysia is "try its cuisine". With so many different races, traditions and ethnic groups found in this country, it is no wonder that the food available are of an equally rich variety and promises to tickle the taste buds and satisfy even the most fickle stomach! Whether it is continental bites or local delights, Perlis has all these for you. Perlis is probably the state that serves the best tom yam in the country, thanks to its neighboring relations to Thailand. Besides Thai dishes, you must also try the exotic traditional Malay fare, Chinese cuisine and Indian meal. You will be pleased to know that prices are kept to a reasonable rate whilst service is both efficient and courteous. In Perlis, a visitor can choose to eat at either luxurious fine dining spots, air-conditioned restaurants or go casual by dining al fresco at the hawker centers. It doesn't matter where you go, for the foods are great regardless. All in all, you just need to prepare your stomach for a scrumptious time!

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Visitor Information:

Getting There:
The main entry points to Perlis are usually Padang Besar and Bukit Kayu Hitam, which is near the Thai border in the north. Alternatively, you can get to Kuala Lumpur first and then make your way to the state. If not, you may go for another option, which includes taking a trip to Penang Island first then hopping on to Perlis. Of course, if you are a visitor coming in from Singapore, you can get to Malaysia through Johor Bahru, then travel upwards towards Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang then onwards to Perlis. Whichever options you choose, you must try to check out Perlis while in Malaysia.

If you are traveling to the country by air, please take note that there are no direct flights to Perlis. Don't forget, the state is really very small. However, if you insist on flying, the nearest stop is at Alor Setar, Kedah, whereby you can take a cab to the capital of Perlis, which is Kangar. The ride will take you about 45 minutes. Be careful also of unscrupulous taxi drivers who sometimes tend to rip off foreigners (or foreign looking/speaking visitors). Check the rate with the taxi driver before getting onboard. The usual rate is about RM35 per vehicle.

You can also get to Perlis by ferry, but I am only familiar with this if you are traveling from Langkawi to Kuala Perlis. At a rate of about RM12 to RM15 per adult, you can get to Perlis in about an hour on the ferries. Ferries depart from Langkawi's Kuah Jetty at 9 in the morning whilst the last ferry leaves at 2:15 pm. The last ferry from Perlis back to Langkawi is at 4 in the evening. Therefore, if you are holidaying in the famed Langkawi Island, you can go to Perlis for a quick day trip and not have to stay overnight at Perlis. Either way, the options are open and it is entirely up to you to check out the sights in the best possible way. Do give Perlis a chance. You could be in for a delightful surprise!