IT’S an imposing sight. Juxtaposed against the more modest surrounding landscape of kampong houses, lowrise taman terraces, and a smattering of food stalls, the TH (Tabung Haji) Hotel and Convention Centre building always seemed to me a little out of place in the tranquil locale of Titi Gajah, Kedah.
It’s also hard to miss as it is located by the main road, which depending on which side of the road you’re driving, can either lead you to the town centre of Alor Setar or Jitra, Kedah’s fourth largest town, after Alor Setar, Sungai Petani and Kulim. It’s also near to Istana Anak Bukit, the grand royal palace and official residence of the Sultan of Kedah. I’d always wondered what the building was every time I turned into the narrow road leading to my aunt’s house for my annual northern pilgrimage.
On a recent trip back to Alor Setar, on a particularly busy long holiday, I was running out of options on where to stay as most of the usual suspects in the town area were fully booked. “Why don’t you try the Tabung Haji Hotel. It’s so big; I’m sure there are plenty of rooms left,” suggested my friend, a local Kedahan, who later professed to having a soft spot for the hotel, swayed in part by his penchant for its authentically Kedah culinary spread which, according to him, must be sampled on my visit.
“But I’m not going on Hajj,” I recall retorting, a statement that was met by a hearty chuckle. “That’s the biggest misconception about the hotel,” he replied, laughter subsiding. “A lot of people don’t know it’s also open to the public. Let’s go check and see if you’re in luck!”
A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION
Abandoning all plans to drive into the heart of traffic-and-human-congested Alor Setar, I decided to follow him. The drive from where I’d met him just on the outskirts of town was a little over 15 minutes and soon enough, the hitherto concrete vista suddenly melted away to reveal vast expanses of lush green paddy fields for as far as the eyes can see. And not long after... the majestic form of the hotel loomed into view.
If there’s one thing you have to give the hotel props for, it has to be the ample free parking space. Thanks to its location, on a vast plot of land all by itself, guests don’t need to jostle for parking under the sweltering Kedah sun. “You can fit buses here,” I remember muttering, to which the reply, “Yeah, those carrying pilgrims,” swiftly ensued.
The first impression of this six-storey hotel was a favourable one. Its spacious lobby area, dotted by comfortable couches, is linked to a coffee house and a restaurant called Tepi Bendang. The counter service whilst checking in, however, was nothing to shout about — standard and neutral. A friendly smile would have been nice but I guess the emphasis was probably more on efficiency rather than warmth.
Exhausted from an eight-hour crawl from Kuala Lumpur to reach here, I couldn’t wait to see what my abode for the night would be like. I’d been informed that I’d be given the family room, which sounded like music to my ears.
And I’m not to be disappointed. As I flung open the door to the room, dragging my heaving trolley bag behind me, an exclamation of delight escaped my lips as I clapped eyes on a spacious room large enough for a kick a round (of football).
I hazarded a guess that four single beds could easily fit in here, along with the ubiquitous furniture staples. All the usual comforts of a good hotel are present, with room amenities that included a fridge, coffee/tea-making conveniences, LCD TV, iron/ironing board, in-room safe, and yes, free WiFi! What could have been the icing on the cake would be a view of the lush paddy field when looking out of the window but alas, it’s the vast car park that assailed my sight. But no matter, slumber beckoned and I couldn’t wait for morning to arrive to sample the culinary delights that my friend had spoken so highly of.
AUTHENTIC KEDAH FARE
If there’s one thing I always enjoy whenever I head back to Alor Setar for a visit, it’s the food. Everyone raves about the culinary wonders of Penang, but I would any day plump for Kedah’s no frills but flavourful cuisine, which more often than not, reflects the country’s cultural diversity beautifully.
It’s hardly surprising that this state, known as the “Rice Bowl of Malaysia”, is especially famous for its rice dishes or rice creations, for example nasi ulam (rice mixed with fresh vegetables and spices) and the many variations of pulut, such as pulut sambal and pulut inti. Then there’s of course,laksa — rice noodles eaten with fish gravy and various other condiments.
Tepi Bendang, the hotel’s casual dining restaurant, under the creative stewardship of Chef Zainal Barkis, promotes local Kedah fare as its main culinary draw. That rainy afternoon, I got to savour a bowl of piping hot bihun sup utara (northern soup noodles) and nasi goreng kambing (mutton fried rice), served in a compartmentalised circular platter, with a side of mutton cooked in black pepper sauce.
The 46-year-old Zainal who was there to keep me company during lunch shared that the Kedahans love their mutton and fried rice. So he decided to give them both, doing away with the usual nasi goring pairing of fried chicken and satay. During the experimentation stage, he used various types of cooked mutton before deciding on roast lamb.
Something else that one should look out for when dining here is the delicious steamboat, which is served in an unusual way. The options for the broth are pretty conventional—pick from either tomyam or chicken, or both, and of course, the items to put in are pretty standard. What’s unusual is the set up. There’s a circular grill at the base which allows diners to nibble on some bites while they wait for the soup stock to come to a boil.
With the rain pelting against the window panes so mercilessly and a canvas of grey covering the world outside, there was not much else to do on that day except to enjoy the wonderful spread served by Zainal and his team. “And we have cucur udang for tea-time!” he quipped mischievously, and I could think of nothing more perfect!
The TH hotel is a great place to stay if you’re looking for somewhere to board for the night (or two) en route to wherever you’re headed and are not too fussy about frills. An interesting feature is the separate swimming pools, one for the ladies and one for the men — definitely a Muslim-friendly facility. But don’t expect any Olympic-size set up although the pool areas are pretty, with plenty of greens and natural sunlight filtering in. However, I can imagine they can get quite crowded if there are a lot of guests staying in and all wanting to use the pool!
Meanwhile, gym enthusiasts might be a tad disappointed to find that the “fitness centre” here is rather modest — in size and facilities. Basic gym staples are available but on my visit, it looked like the gym hadn’t been visited in a while. But I guess that’s the last thing to be concerned about when you’re here for a break to enjoy what Alor Setar has to offer.
Being a convention centre too, the hotel is well equipped to cater to large and small groups converging here for corporate trainings or meetings. The conference space and meeting rooms are very spacious and there’s also a business centre. All in all, TH hotel was a pleasant find and a great alternative to my usual selection of town centre lodgings. Its tranquil and picturesque location, away from the madding crowd, made for a peaceful sojourn. And of course, I got to satiate my appetite for delicious Kedah fare — in the comfort of a pleasant hotel. Would I come back? I think so!
TH HOTEL AND CONVENTION CENTRE ALOR SETAR
Lot 3860, Mukim Titi Gajah, Seksyen 2, Bandar Anak Bukit, Kedah.
TEL 04-740 3666
Within 10km of Darul Aman Stadium, Paddy Museum and Alor Setar Tower. The State High Court and Balai Besar are also within 10km.