Kuala Muda: A Border Village Full of Hope and History

By Syafiqah Nazurah Mukhtar

June 2022 FEATURE
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Beautiful sunset at Kuala Muda, Penaga.

WHEN WE SAY “Kuala Muda” to people, most of them immediately think of Pasar Bisik Kuala Muda, the Kuala Muda Whispering Market. This is a market that acquired its unusual name from a tradition that has been practised for generations, of prospective buyers whispering their bids into the fish seller’s ear.

Apart from that quaint tradition, Kuala Muda is a hidden gem in Seberang Perai which boasts natural beauty, unforgettable sunsets and serene kampongs with haphazardly built traditional Malay houses, wind-blown coconut trees and expansive paddy fields in the backdrop. This you can see along the way to Kuala Muda from Penaga or Jambatan Merdeka.

It is said that the diversion of Muda River by the grandson of Merong Mahawangsa, the legendary first king of what is now Kedah, created a new water flow that went through Kota Aur and Permatang Bendahari, to empty at present-day Kuala Muda[1]. When the Acheh-Dutch War broke out in 1875 and the Acehnese sought refuge in Seberang Perai, Kuala Muda became one of their settlements[2]. Today, Kuala Muda is mostly occupied by Malay and Chinese people, the majority of whom work in the fishing business. Fishes, shrimps, crabs and clams are among the most common catches in Kuala Muda.

Clams on sale at Pasar Bisik Kuala Muda, Penaga.

But back to the whispering tradition that is quintessential of Kuala Muda; it is practised on both sides of the estuary – Kampung Tepi Sungai on the Kedah side and Kuala Muda on the Penang side. This unique custom is not confined by state boundaries; fishermen and villagers on both sides have long sold fresh catches through whispered bids. Prospective buyers must speak their offers quietly to the seller, who will then pick who he wishes to sell to. Little is known about the origins of this tradition,[3] but villagers and fishermen have steadfastly held to it for generations; that is, until the Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to it.

Read also: Kampung Selamat: A Resilient Village Inspiring in its Embrace of Economic Change

Other fresh catches are also available at Pasar Bisik Kuala Muda.

Since 2020, several SOPs were put in place to prevent the transmission of Covid-19, and these included social distancing. At the time, only middlemen were allowed to buy fish directly from the fishermen, who would whisper at a distance of one metre[4]. But now with the lifting of restrictions, the public is once again able to buy fish from the market. Even so, many are still wary of the virus and would opt for a more conventional way of haggling.

Today, the atmosphere in the market still feels different from pre-pandemic days; where it used to be quiet due to the whisperings, the market has become noisier these days.

Because the use of the whispering method is still prohibited following Covid-19, the market's once quiet atmosphere has become noisier these days.

With its natural beauty and rich customs, Kuala Muda has the potential to become a key agro- and eco-tourism destination in Seberang Perai. The Seberang Perai City Council's Department of Tourism, Arts and Heritage has already prepared a proposal for the development of Kuala Muda and other notable areas along Muda River. The development is expected to stretch about 14 kilometres along Muda River, from the Jambatan Keretapi Pinang Tunggal to Muda River’s estuary, where Kuala Muda is located. Apart from Jambatan Keretapi Pinang Tunggal, the proposal also includes Jeti Permatang Bendahari, Empangan Sungai Muda, Jambatan Merdeka and Pantai Kamloon, which will be upgraded and connected by bicycle route, pedestrian walkways and boat services.

In Kuala Muda, four areas for development are proposed: Dataran Tsunami, which is the site of houses left behind after the 2004 tsunami, Pasar Bisik Kuala Muda, Mangrove Walk along Muda River and existing stalls for the sale of seafood products.

Colourful boats with fresh catches.

Currently, Kuala Muda resembles a ghost town. Few stalls are open during the day and there is no semblance of nightlife. After 7 p.m., there is no longer any traffic on the streets. Where there used to be Chinese communities, vacant houses now stand, with only a few occupied houses in between. The town is definitely no longer as vibrant as it once was. Only locals, mostly from Penaga and nearby areas, visit the beach near Muda River’s estuary. Some locals opine that they prefer Kuala Muda that way – less crowded, peaceful and providing more space for them and their loved ones.

Personally, I think that a place like Kuala Muda, which is rich in local cultural traditions and character, should find a balance between necessary development and retaining its local charm. The danger lies in becoming overly touristic, to the point where tourism activities impinge on the lives of the local residents. But if a good balance is achieved, both tourists and locals can appreciate and enjoy Kuala Muda at their own pace and preference.


[1] http://dlan6658.blogspot.com/search?q=kuala+muda

[2] https://www.academia.edu/35690235/Pelan_Pembangunan_Penaga_SPU

[3] http://butterworthguide.com.my/index.php/seberang-perai-utara/68-n-02-seberang-perai-utara-rural-and-traditional-architecture

[4] https://suaramerdeka.com.my/hanya-peraih-boleh-berbisik-di-pasar-bisik-kuala-muda/

Syafiqah Nazurah Mukhtar

is an urban studies researcher who also loves to decorate homes and spaces.