An opportunity to visit one of the best museums in the country unexpectedly arises while Alan Teh Leam Seng waits for his ferry at Kuala Perlis
THE verdant forest clad limestone hills in the background and the nearby padi fields with barely 2cm-high seedlings piercing the water surface contribute to the allure of the traditional Malay architecturally-inspired single-storey complex.
“This is a hidden gem. So it’s true that Muzium Kota Kayang is one of the most picturesque museums in Malaysia!” I tell myself as I begin clicking away with my camera.
After more than 10 minutes soaking in the serene atmosphere, I venture indoors.
The air-conditioned interior is a cool respite to the searing noon heat outside. I check the information board located by the main entrance.
It provides an overview of attractions throughout the sprawling complex. Apart from the six indoor galleries, which are arranged according to chronologically ordered themes, there are also outdoor display areas as well as a royal mausoleum scattered throughout the 1.94 hectare compound.
I head to the west wing of the main building to kick off my brief historical sojourn by immersing in the state's earliest recorded history.
The Archeological Gallery is home to an amazing array of artefacts dating back more than 50,000 years. The gallery itself is further divided into three periods according to various social and cultural evolutions. I marvel at the rapid development of various primitive tools used as the exhibits progresses through the Stone, Iron and Bronze Ages.
The detailed research conducted during archeological digs is so comprehensive that I soon find myself being transported back in time.
Feeling very much like a time traveller, it only takes me minutes to experience what human civilisation took eons to achieve. Human ingenuity is awesome! What our cave-dwelling ancestors began tens of thousands of years ago has reverberated through time, paving the way for us to be where we are today.
I peer out of a nearby window and gaze upon the surrounding hills with fresh eyes. The thought of people living in these Bukit Papan, Bukit Lambong Panah, Bukit Kubu, Bukit Tok Poh dan Bukit Besi Hangit caves at the dawn of time sends ripples of excitement throughout my body. Perlis history really does go back a long way!
The more recent history displays begin with several ancient Acehnese tomb markers that were discovered in Utan Aji, a district in central Perlis. It is said that these heavily carved and inscribed sandstone markers, some dating back to the 15th century, mark the arrival of Islam in this region of the Malay Archipelago.
Interestingly, the final few displays here as well as those in the other galleries relate closely to important historical events happening in the state as well as their relevance to the development of this very site where Muzium Kota Kayang was built on.
The presence of a large number of porcelain shards unearthed during the construction of the museum in 1999 lends weight to the theory that there was already a thriving society with international trade relations here more than 600 years ago.
Experts have confirmed that these pottery pieces once originated from as far away as Siam, Vietnam, China, India and Europe.
A large fort, which lends its name to the museum, existed here during the 17th century. The bastion, backed by the insurmountable hills in the southern perimeter, had 2.13 metre-high mud walls surrounded by a wide moat.
During troubled times, Perlis warriors would scale the limestone hills as soon as the alarm was sounded. From their vantage point, they would pinpoint their enemy's Achilles heel and launch counter attacks.
The old istana or palace is located within the walls of this fort. It is said that the palace guards would escort the royal family to one of the hidden caves in the nearby hills each time an attack was launched on the fort.
These elite guards were armed to the hilt with various weapons such as the sundang, keris and tombak.
A large collection of these ancient weapons are on display at the Weapons Gallery. In the past, skilled empu or ironsmiths lived within the palace grounds. They were tasked with the production of battle-worthy weapons that were both easy to wield as well as lethal.
The remaining galleries are located in a separate annex building located just after the guard house. Agricultural activities, which are the mainstay of the state's economy, are given emphasis in the Cultural Gallery.
I like the display that shows the different types of traditional equipment used to catch freshwater fish. Many of them look quite different from the ones found in other parts of the country.
Among these are the tuar which is a fish trap made from a thorny shrub and tangkul udang, a specially designed net for catching estuarine prawns.
The Royal Gallery features all the Rajas who have occupied the state throne since Perlis seceded from Kedah in 1843. During that time, the Siamese made Syed Hussein Jamalullail the first Raja of Perlis.
Gazing at a Bunga Mas replica in the gallery, I begin to recollect the events that led to this historic separation and the recognition of Perlis as a separate vassal State. Trouble began in 1821 when the Siamese army invaded Kedah.
The invasion was justified on the grounds that the Sultan of Kedah at that time, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin had failed to send the Bunga Mas tribute to Bangkok. Matters were made worse when the Kedah monarch refused to comply with Siamese demands to help subjugate its neighbour, Perak.
This Siamese intrusion saw Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin together with thousands of Kedah refugees seeking refuge from the British in Penang. The Siamese forces remained in Kedah for the next 21 years.
During this period, Kedah warriors made several unsuccessful attempts to drive out the foreign occupiers. This further enraged the Siamese King who was convinced that Kedah had to be taught a severe lesson in subjugation.
Phya Si Phiphat, the commander-in-chief of the Bangkok army, was dispatched to Kedah with the sole purpose of ensuring lasting peace in this restive southern vassal state. Phya Si Phiphat soon began dismantling the formidable Kedah administration by breaking the state into three separate territories.
A much weakened Kedah was then handed to Tengku Anum to govern, Kubang Pasu to Tengku Hassan and Perlis to Syed Hussein.
Realising the futility of armed insurrection, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin sent an emissary to Bangkok, pledging loyalty to the Siamese throne. He was subsequently allowed to return home in 1842 and Kubang Pasu was reintegrated back into Kedah. Perlis, however, remained a separate vassal state, never to return to Kedah again.
In the 19th century, monarchs ruling vassal states in the Malay Peninsula including Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah, Perlis, Pattani, Nong Chik, Yala and Setul had to each send large and expensive tributes once every three years to their Siamese overlord in Bangkok.
These gifts included two small trees made of pure gold and silver, a large cache of weapons, expensive goods and a large number of slaves.
As I still have time after viewing the informative Menteri Besar Gallery, I decide to check out the outdoor exhibits. Apart from several official Rolls Royce cars, there are also ancient boats unearthed from the banks of the nearby Perlis River.
The lake located at the back of the main museum building is said to have been a place for rain water collection during ancient times. This place is teeming with wildlife.
A sudden rustle in a nearby fruiting fig tree alerts me to a presence of a squirrel. A few minutes later, I see a troop of grey macaques walking along the path just metres in front of me. They remain steadfast in their position even after noticing me. The monkeys here have grown accustomed to humans and do not look scared at all.
Then, just as I begin to shift my attention to another squirrel which appears out of nowhere, I notice a small cave. Its entrance is partly obscured by the thick vegetation. I wonder if this could have been one of the hiding places of the royal family when Kota Kayang was under attack.
My plan to explore the depths of the cave is hindered by the untimely shrill of the alarm from my phone. It is time to make a move or I will miss my ferry to Langkawi.
I am glad I took the ticketing attendant's advice earlier. I must make plans to return soon to explore the nearby hills. Who knows, I may uncover more hidden secrets of this amazing place.
Muzium Kota Kayang
02000 Kuala Perlis
Tel: 04-977 0027
Fax: 04-978 2678