Southeast Asia is known for its ancient civilizations, which left behind magnificent centuries-old stone edifices. Among the region’s main tourism draws are ancient temple ruins like Angkor in Cambodia, Ayutthaya in Thailand, and Borobudur in Indonesia. But did you know that the region’s oldest civilization can be found not in these countries but in Malaysia?
Among the best-kept secrets of the country – and perhaps the entire Southeast Asian region – is Bujang Valley (Lembah Bujang in Malay), a sprawling archaeological area in the state of Kedah, 400 km north of Kuala Lumpur, where evidence of an ancient trade entrepôt complex has been discovered since the mid-19th century.
The most ancient structures unearthed, which date back to 788 BC, belong to a riverside settlement that processed and exported iron. UNESCO has endorsed the historical complex for inscription as a World Heritage Site since 1987, and proposed a masterplan. Unfortunately, the nomination of the area has been stalled by racial politics and a lack of confirmatory research over the decades. On the bright side, archaeologists continue to make new discoveries in the area, since less than half of the more than 120 archaeological sites discovered have been systemically excavated. In September 2023, the discovery of a large Buddhist temple structure, dating back 1,200 years, was announced.
A visit to the National Museum of Malaysia (Muzium Negara) in Kuala Lumpur makes for a great introduction to the Bujang Valley civilization. Before traveling to Bujang Valley, I spent an afternoon at the museum to see artifacts on display related to the ancient trading complex.
Most of the Bujang Valley pieces are displayed in Gallery A, which focuses on Malaysia’s pre-history and early civilizations. Among the artifacts on display are stone and terra-cotta artifacts, some of them featuring relief sculptures. My favorite piece was a worn-out terracotta sculpture of a seated bodhisattva, excavated from Site 21/22 and listed as National Tangible Heritage Object in 2009.
Other sculptures include a terracotta elephant, a replica of Nandi (the bull mount of the Hindu god Shiva), and a replica of a kala (mythological monster head). Another interesting item was a scale model of There are a few more artifacts on display at Gallery B: stone bases which held up the wooden posts of the candi (temple).
Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum
From Kuala Lumpur, I rode a pre-booked overnight five-hour bus from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS) to Sungai Petani, the usual jump-off point to Bujang Valley. There’s nothing much to do in this sleepy city in southern Kedah, but I relished its quiet atmosphere and the old world charm of its pre-war clocktower, shophouses, and commercial buildings.
The following day, I was picked up at 7:00 am at my hotel by tour guide Selvakumaran “Kumar” Periasamy, who arranged a private full-day tour in his car. A passionate heritage advocate for the Bujang Valley, Kumar has been guiding tourists around the area for the past 15 years.
The archaeological sites are about half an hour’s drive from Sungai Petani. After detouring to a rice field for me to take some drone footage, followed by a hearty breakfast at AIMST University, we drove to the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum (Muzium Arkeologi Lembah Bujang). Inaugurated in 1980, the free-admission complex is situated at Bukit Batu Pahat on the foothills of Gunung Jerai (Mount Jerai), featuring two museum galleries and restored ruins of excavated Hindu and Buddhist temples called candi.
While waiting for the museum to open, Kumar led me below the galleries to a stream that cascades over a bed of granite, where my enthusiastic guide points out evidence of quarrying in ancient times. One can see portions of the granite outlined in preparation for being cut out into stone blocks to be used in temple construction. Strewn around the vicinity of the stream are granite blocks that were, for unknown reasons, left behind.
Gallery I was closed for renovation, however, the caretaker allowed us to see the available artifacts on display, which weren’t properly sorted and labeled yet. Thankfully, Kumar was there to shed light on what the artifacts were. Of particular interest were remnants of snānadroṇī (ablution basins) and somasutra (channels), both carved from stone, which were used in ablution rituals of the lingam, a cylindrical votary object that symbolizes the god Shiva, inside the ancient temples. There were also stone blocks with intricate lotus-inspired relief carvings, and a stone finial, which was believed to have been placed at the very top of the temple structure.
There are more interesting artifacts on display outside Gallery I in the open air, like the perahu sagor, wooden sailing boats uncovered at different archaeological sites. These were believed to be the main mode of transportation along the waterways of the Bujang Vallery in ancient times. More stone artifacts were also displayed outside such as mortars, grinders, pillar supports, and a long block with kala carvings (which was probably part of a banister).
Gallery II, on the other hand, displayed artifacts related to ancient trade like porcelain, coins, and jewelry, which were not only recovered from archaeological digs on land but also shipwrecks off the coast of Peninsular Malaysia. An important exhibit is the iron smelting furnace and the display explaining how iron ore is processed into ingots. This information is essential in understanding the industry of the valley’s oldest settlement at the Sungai Batu Archaeological Site, 8 km away from the museum complex.
After exploring the two museum galleries, we returned outside to climb up the side of a hill towards the archaeological park, where the restored remains of four candi (temples) can be seen. The temples are Candi Pendiat (Site 16), Candi Bukit Batu Pahat (Site 8), Candi Pengkalan Bujang (Site 21), and Candi Bendang Dalam (Site 50). Of the four, only Candi Bukit Batu Pahat is an in-situ restoration; the other temples were originally located elsewhere and transferred to the park.
Walking up the hill, the first temple we saw to our left was Candi Pendiat (11th century), originally located at Kampung Pendiat and now permanently sheltered from the elements under a hut, bordered by railings. This candi was discovered by archaeologist HG Quaritch Wales and his wife Dorothy in 1936. The British couple were among the first pioneers to study Bujang Valley, discovering around 30 sites. Constructed from reddish laterite blocks, the Hindu temple features a mandapa (pillared outer porch) and vimana (inner sanctuary).
Farther up, on top of the hill, is Candi Bukit Batu Pahat (12th to 13th century) sitting on a large grassy clearing. Also discovered by the Waleses, this is the largest and most celebrated among the temples of the Bujang Valley. This site was originally dated to the 7th to 8th centuries, but some scholars suggest that the 12th to 13th centuries are a more accurate period. The structure was built from granite, believed to have been sourced from the nearby river, where we earlier saw evidences of quarrying. Unlike the first temple, this candi wasn’t restored with a shelter, which makes it a a more attractive sight against the lush foliage of the surrounding mountain.
The third temple was Candi Pengkalan Bujang (11th to 12th century), housed in a shelter like the first one. This smaller temple stands beside Candi Bukit Batu Pahat, and is constructed from terracotta. Discovered by the Waleses in 1936 and relocated between 1976-1977, it features an eight-sided stupa similar to the Hindu temples in Odissa, India. Interestingly, this Hindu-style temple yielded Buddhist artifacts, including five terracotta Buddha statues and a bronze bodhisattva.
Located farthest away from the museum entrance is the fourth and last temple: Candi Bendang Dalam (12th century). It was discovered much later than the others at Kampung Bendang Dalam in 1969, then excavated in 1974 and 1982, before finally transferred to its present-day location in 1983. The structure is mostly made from laterite with a foundation of granite. At its original site, several artifacts were unearthed by archaeologists, including remnants of lingam (Shiva symbol), yoni (Shakti symbol), somasutra (water channels), and kala (monster guardian).
Destruction of Candi No. 11
I first learned about the Bujang Valley civilization in 2013 through heartbreaking news reports of an ancient temple bulldozed by a real estate developer, which outraged the international community. Believed to have built between the 11th and 13th centuries, Candi No. 11 in Sungai Batu was one of the temples restored in its original location in 1974.
En route to the Sungai Batu archaeological site from the museum complex, Kumar brought me to the site of Candi No. 11, which has been reduced to a featureless grassy field. There’s nothing left to see of the 1,000-year-old landmark. It was a sobering reminder of how priceless heritage can be lost to greed, ignorance and apathy.
Sungai Batu Archaeological Site
Our final stop, before returning to Sungai Petani, was the Sungai Batu archaeological site. The 4 sq km complex is comprised of several archaeological digs housed in protective shelters amidst an oil palm plantation, bisected by a highway. The area was once the site of a bustling settlement that processed iron ores into ingots that were exported via a nearby river.
Among the evidence unearthed thus far are fragments of furnaces and tuyeres (air conduits) used in iron smelting, as well as remains of jetties, administrative buildings, and a ritual site all constructed out of bricks. The ritual site consisted of a stupa-like structure built over a much older circular foundation, believed to be used for animist worship before the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism. The oldest site has been carbon-dated to 788 BC, however, other academics contest the veracity of this dating and estimate the port civilization to have started much later between the 2nd and 10th centuries. More studies are needed to settle the dating of Sungai Batu archaeological site once and for all.
How to Get There
Sungai Petani, the jump-off point to Bujang Valley excursions, can be reached by bus or train in approximately five hours from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS) or KL Sentral, respectively. Bus rides are considerably cheaper than taking the train. The roundtrip bus tickets I conveniently booked using the Red Bus smartphone app cost only MYR 94.50 (₱1,123).
From Sungai Petani, the archaeological sites of Bujang Valley in Merbok town are within a half hour’s drive from the city. Unfortunately, there’s no mass public transport to get around, and one must splurge a bit and take a taxi or book a Grab. A cost-efficient way to explore Bujang Valley would be to arrange a private tour.
Local tour guide Selvakumaran “Kumar” Periasamy arranges 12-hour day tours of Bujang Valley for solo travelers for only MYR 250 (₱2,970), inclusive of sedan car rental, fuel, guide fee, and three meals. He can also arrange trips for groups. For inquiries, contact him at +60103895860 (available on WhatsApp).
Where to Stay
I stayed at SP Star Hotel, a budget accommodation in Sungai Petani, where a single air-conditioned room cost me only ₱824. The hotel was conveniently situated along the main highway of the city, a short walk away from old shophouses with street art, affordable restaurants and food courts, and the city’s historic clocktower. Check room availability and find discounted rates here!