Puchong. Wednesday 4th January 2018.
With Jan safely back on the plane to England it was time for me to re-adjust my focus to the solo lifestyle, and make plans for my own onward travel. Our visits to various places, albeit somewhat low key, had given me some ideas as to where to go next.
I went back to Tony and Maggie’s with a list of jobs to do on the bike. After some lunch I dug out the parts Jan had brought over for me and spent a productive afternoon installing my new clock, new GPS and various other parts. Many of you will understand how a bit of successful spannering makes Geoff a happy man.
In the morning I went over to The Tire Store to do all the other jobs. New tyres, an oil change and fitting the new chain and sprockets. I cleaned and oiled the air filter and, while I was in there, replaced the spark plug. There had been some misfiring in traffic lately, so it seemed a good idea. Not everything went smoothly but I’m not going to bore you with the details. Suffice to say that the good people at The Tire Store put themselves out to make sure everything ended up well. I was more than happy to pay them what they asked, especially as it wasn’t all that much anyway. I was extremely grateful to Tony and Maggie for their hospitality and for looking after my bike over the Christmas period. Fine people indeed.
Time to move on and the first place on my ‘I need to go there again’ list was Melaka (Malacca is the English spelling). It was the first place in Malaysia to be occupied by Europeans and is therefore the cradle of the country’s colonial story. But it has a fascinating history that pre-dates that time anyway.
One point to make is that Malaysia is made up of thirteen states and and three federal territories, rather like Australia. As time went by Melaka’s story became interwoven with various other parts of what is now Malaysia but I’ll link them together as my travels roll on.
Melaka first grew to prominence after a Sultan was driven out of what is now Singapore and settled in the small village of Melaka, around 1400. Allied with the local fishermen, he drove off the sea pirates and developed a huge port, big enough to hold 2,000 ships. He built warehouses and facilities to encourage traders to come there. Melaka lies at the southern end of the Straits of Melaka, which sit between the Malay peninsular and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and its biggest advantage was that it benefited from trade winds coming from both the north and the south, each at different times of the year. Therefore traders from the south could deliver spices, sandalwood etc., and traders from the north could bring silk, cotton, porcelain, metal ware and so on. They also brought new ideas about religion and in the early fifteenth century the Sultan adopted Islam as the state religion. He was happy to blend in ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism too, but his main enthusiasm for it was that it already had a well written and established legal system. Traders could now use the port knowing there was a fair system of resolving disputes, both land and maritime related, and this was one of the other reasons for Melaka’s growth. Indonesia, China, India, Arabia and Venice all came to trade. Melaka and its Sultan became rich and their area of influence spread as far up the coast as the current border with Thailand. It became a centre of Islamic learning and study too, so strong was the Sultan’s commitment to the religion.
Many new people made Melaka their home, especially the Chinese, who were happy to find local Malay or Indonesian women as wives. This racial and religious mix survives to this day, both in Melaka and throughout Malaysia. Tamils came to settle too, especially Muslims from the area. It was their influence which indirectly led to the downfall of the city.
The Portuguese wanted to push out the Venetian merchants so they grew their shipping fleet and began trading in the area. In the early 16th century they established a base in Goa, Southern India, and looked to Melaka with envious eyes. They sent a trade mission there in 1509 but the Tamil Muslim influence in the court, with memories of their suffering in Southern India, led to the decision to imprison the Portuguese delegation and capture their ships. The ships and most of the delegation escaped but the Portuguese returned two years later with an invasion and rescue force, using Goa as a base. The Sultan of Melaka eventually had to flee when the city fell.
Did the invaders now revel in the riches of the port? Well no, they didn’t. They had actually instigated its decline. The defeated sultan set up a trading port at Johor and other local rulers also got in on the act. So instead of being focussed on a well run, safe and friendly port, the Asian trade was now scattered among several different ones, all in competition with each other. Islam held strong as the regional religion despite the Portuguese’ best efforts to spread Christianity. They built a church and a fort in the town but were never really allowed to settle. The ousted sultan kept trying to retake the town and although he ultimately failed, it was enough to disrupt trade. The Chinese authorities were also very angry about the situation and harassed Portuguese ‘pirates’ throughout their region of influence. When the Dutch came along, in the guise of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), along with the forces of the Sultan of Johor, famine and disease convinced the Portuguese to give up and go home. In 1641 Melaka came under Dutch rule.
Having been granted the town by the Sultan of Johor, the Dutch VOC kept to their agreement not to colonise any other parts of the peninsular and mostly used Melaka as a base to support their trading activities in Indonesia, especially Java. They strengthened its defences and built administrative centres, houses for the VOC personnel, schools etc. They left the local population pretty much to themselves and practised an open approach to religion. In fact they created a street, now know as Harmony Street, where they allocated plots of land for the building of a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Chinese temple. Their own churches were in other parts of the town. Because of the opening up of other ports in the region, Melaka declined as a trading centre but the Dutch made sure no other Europeans could invade it, knowing that such an event would threaten their activities among the Spice Islands. During the Napoleonic wars, when Holland was invaded by Napolean, Britain administered the port, using it as a naval base against Napoleon’s fleet. It was handed back to the Dutch but eventually, as part of the Straits Settlement (more on that later) it came under British rule in 1825, after one hundred and eighty three years of Dutch occupation. That’s a record length of time for this area.
What was there to see in the city? Lots of history, buildings, old streets, temples, cafés and museums. It took me several days to see it all, mostly because I developed a very bad throat and needed to rest between visits. I’d found a nice hostel, less than fifteen minutes walk from the old town. One of the first places to visit is always the Visitor Centre, where I got a rather small and hard to read map to guide me around. I also noted two tours. One of the old town and another of a special part of Melaka which contained some special houses.
I had a look around the Anglican church. It had been built by the Dutch in 1753 but was adopted by the British and renamed. I’s very simple inside but I noted a couple of memorial stones. One was to a missionary who opened schools for Malay children; the second was to a women who, along with her three children, died of diphtheria. I was struck by how they represented two very typical stories, which will have been repeated in many places during Europe’s colonial adventures. The former Dutch town hall, the Stadthuys, contained a museum explaining the history of the city, it’s occupation and activities, along with displays showing how the Sultans lived, dressed, fought and celebrated. There were a number of buildings to explore and I really enjoyed seeing the story of how Malaysia survived the Japanese occupation and then gained its independence from Britain.
Late in the afternoon I went up river a bit to join the tour around Kampung Morten. This is a special village (Kampung) which was created in the 1920s when local residents were forcibly moved from an area near the port because the authorities wanted to build a wet market there. They were given some land next to the river and built around one hundred and twenty traditional style houses. Since then no-one outside of those families has been allowed to own a house there. It’s a heritage area, with funding from the government to help preserve it, although there are no conservation style restrictions on alterations. When the tours first started, over a year ago, the residents weren’t too keen. I’m not all that surprised really. Who would want to be objects of curiosity? But as time went by many of them bought into it and make their house or garden available for our guide to show us things. One resident is very keen on celebrating independence and has painted a Malay flag on her roof. We went inside, admiring the collection of old radios, typewriters etc., collected by her son, and she dressed us up in traditional costume. Silly photos ensued, all good fun. Our guide took us to a local warung (café) where they sell a local dish called Nasi Lemuk, which is rice cooked with coconut milk and banana leaves, giving it a unique flavour. As it was the end of the tour at that point a couple of us stayed to eat there anyway and we enjoyed it very much.
In the morning I went down to the visitor centre again, arriving just as the rain started. They loaned me an umbrella for the tour so things weren’t too bad. At least the rain was warm. Melaka is built alongside the river of the same name and up until about ten years ago the area was a real mess. The city invested in a refurbishment of the whole river front area, modelling it on a similar scheme in San Antonio, Texas. There’s walkways on both banks and lots of cafés and small shops. Many of them used to have their frontage facing the road, but following the upgrade, they turned themselves around to face the river, and the tourists’ money. It’s become a very nice tourist area. Our guide explained all this to us as we walked around, looking at the remains of the Portuguese fort. The British blew most of it up but Sir Stanford Raffles insisted that one of the gates be saved, and the city authorities have dug up some of the old walls, exposing their line. They used to be alongside the sea but land reclamation means they are not too close to it now.
Across the bridge our guide showed us the houses on Heeren and Jonker Streets. The first had nice houses for the VOC officers, the second was mostly shophouses, for traders. They looked very small from the street, but tended to go back a very long way, even up to one hundred metres. The Dutch taxed a building based on its width. The solution was obvious. I mentioned Harmony Street earlier, and we walked down there to admire the Hindu and Chinese temples, which are always very decorative. The mosque was quite plain, as mosques often are, and are none the worse for it.
After the tour I found the Kaya Café, a place where they sell Kaya, a fusion of coconut milk, eggs and sugar. It’s very popular throughout SE Asia, I’m told, and it was very nice when spread on cheese and toast.
Afterwards I went on a tour round the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum. I mentioned earlier about inter-marriage between immigrant men and local women. In this case the Baba are the Chinese men and the Nyonya are the Indonesian women they married. These particular marriages were of a higher class than most of the others, with the Chinese traders often being quite well off and their brides coming from good families. It’s been happening a very long time, pre-dating the arrival of the Portuguese. The museum was once the house of a very rich merchant family, originally built in the 18th century and rebuilt in the 19th. It is much wider than its neighbours but still adopts the principle of being far deeper than wider. An architectural feature I liked was the presence of air wells, which are small areas open to the sky. The idea is to draw cooling air into the house and the area just beneath them are made into small, indoor gardens. The whole house is full of beautiful furniture, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold leaf. I was particularly taken by the very decorative staircase, with beautiful carvings. The family is scattered now but comes to the house seven times per year to honour their ancestors, a very important thing for the Chinese.
This house has a very striking interior.
Nearby was a Nyonya café (Babas obviously don’t do any cooking) so I tried their version of mee goreng (fried noodles) with seafood and all of it in a soup. There are many different foods to try in this city and this one didn’t let me down. By the riverside I’d spotted a pub, selling Guinness and other European beers. The first pint was very nice, sitting there watching the boats on the river. The second one equally so.
Sid deserved a visit.
Next day was all about museums. I’d made a list! One thing I had to watch was that being a Friday, the lunchtime closure in some of them was close to three hours long, to allow for Friday prayers. My journal tells me that I saw so much, in so many different museums, that by the time I got back to my hostel I’d forgotten what I saw where. Regardless, there were two in particular that I enjoyed. The first was the Museum of Architecture, which talked about how building design would reflect an area’s history, religion, practical needs, and a simple desire to be different to anyone else. Important buildings were of hard wood, and heavily decorated if the occupant was important. The second museum I really liked was the one inside the replica Portuguese ship, which lies near to the sea. It covered pretty much all of Melaka’s history, and told it in great detail. I expected the ship to be as naff on the inside as it looked on the outside, but I was pleasantly wrong. A replica Sultan’s palace was filled with clothing, jewellery, furniture etc. There were some stories told there, in tableau form, about significant battles between historical figures, and displays of weapons. The Malays used an ornate dagger called a Kris, always made with care and a bit of magic too. Myth and legend figures large in the history of this area.
Time to move on. I’d really enjoyed Melaka. I love history and there’s lots of it there. I’d discovered how important this area had been to the world in the past. Firstly as a supplier of many exotic goods; secondly as a cradle of Islamic learning; thirdly as a kind of European colonial testbed. Portugal got burned, the Dutch VOC did well for a long time and Britain came in and cleaned up the mess – or so it thought. Now I was going to head north to Kuala Lumpur for a second visit there.
‘Kuala’ refers to a confluence of two rivers, and is included in the name of many other Malay places. ‘Lumpur’ means ‘muddy water’. In the heart of the city you can see where the rivers Klang and Gombok join together, although I don’t know which of the two was the muddy one. This very big and very modern Asian city started out as a supply base for nearby tin mines. It is generally agreed that it was founded and named in 1857. Most of the people there were Chinese, brought in to work the mines by two local Rajahs, and its history is more like that of a wild west frontier town than the rural village life you might have expected. There were rival gangs fighting for control of the best mines; it was regularly flooded and was razed to the ground by fire. Many people died of malaria and other jungle diseases. But it somehow hung on, especially when the value of tin increased in the late 19th century. The British Resident (Colonial Administrator), Frank Swettenham, brought order to the growing town by such means as insisting buildings were of brick on wider streets, to reduce fires, proper sanitation, roads linking the mines to the town and a railway running between the growing town and Port Klang, on the coast. When the Federation of Malay States was formed, KL was chosen as its capital. Now it is the capital city of Malaysia and is one of three Federal Territories of Malaysia, enclaved within the State of Selangor.
To a visitor it seems to be a vast urban sprawl, with no really obvious central area. There are flyovers twisting this way and that, carrying traffic in all directions. It has a very good rail system, essential for the commuters of the city, and very useful for visitors. So far, so modern. But it does have many gems, dotted around the city, most of them well served by the transit system. I visited several while I was there and was delighted by what I found. My cheap hostel/hotel was in Bukit Bintang (Star Hill) and was very handy for transport links.
Perhaps the most famous KL landmark is the Petronas Twin Towers. Built in 1998, they were the world’s tallest building up until 2004, and remain the tallest twin towers. Owned by Malaysia’s state oil and gas company, Petronas occupies one of the towers and leases out the second. They stand just shy of 352 metres high, built on which piles go down as far as 114 metres. Their stainless steel construction looks fabulous, except that it’s actually concrete, with cladding. There’s lots more info here about the problems they had building it and why steel couldn’t be used.
A train ride out to the edge of town took me to Batu Caves, a natural limestone cavern with a number of Hindu shrines built inside it. Discovered in the mid 19th century, local Hindus used it as a place to build a temple to one of their gods, Subramaniam, in 1892. The cavern is vast, with shrines dotted here and there. Some of it is open to the sky. Getting to it is a challenge. There’s a flight of steps leading up to the entrance – two hundred and seventy two of them! And there’s no Stannah Stair lift either. Next to the steps is a giant golden statue, presumably of Subramaniam. He wears an inscrutable smile but I reckon he’s just amused by all the puffing and panting from the visitors as they struggle up the steps next to him.
Every January/February the three day festival of Thaipusam takes place. It begins with a procession from Sri Mahamariamman Temple, in the city centre, which sets off at 4am. There is a chariot with a golden statue of Subramaniam on it, which arrives at the caves around midday. Then the fun begins. Devotees go to ritualistic prayer meetings, then get themselves skewered – yes, really! – before carrying Kavadis, which are containers filled with milk and weighing up to 100kgs, up those 272 steps. They are in such a trance-like state that they feel no pain from any of this. More praying, after which the hooks and skewers are removed and their families take care of them. Up to one million visitors attend across the three days of the festival. Read more here.
For my part I was happy just to look around the cavern and then take a fascinating tour into the deeper recesses of the caves. Naturalists explored them early in the 20th century and found an underground treasure trove of animal and plant life, some of it unique to these caves. Bats, birds, insects, worms and the Trapdoor Spider, which is only found here.
After a hard day’s sightseeing it was nice to walk down to Jalan Alor again and enjoy the night food market. While I was eating a European guy, with Rastafarian dreadlocks, was cycling along the road proclaiming the benefits of veganism, handing out leaflets and being largely ignored by the hungry crowds. Bukit Bintang is in one of the main tourist areas of KL. As I walked the short distance back I saw, on the street corner, our vegan friend trying to hand out leaflets to passers by. But this wasn’t going very smoothly because a woman kept walking up to him, haranguing him in Malay, then walking off. Then she’d turn round and come back, harangue him some more before going off again. At one point she crossed right over the street before turning round and coming back to deliver another tirade. He did his best to ignore her and eventually she wandered off. A guy standing next to me reckoned she’s a bit touched. I felt sorry for the vegan warrior, even more so when two police officers came up and seemed to be demanding to see his permit. That was an argument he couldn’t win so he packed away his leaflets and he and his bicycle beat a retreat.
Bukit Bintang is a main through route, with several large junctions, all of which seem to have plenty of pavement space. These areas become evening entertainment arenas at weekends and I saw several quite decent bands playing and drawing large crowds. One included a young girl singing rock songs. She was quite good but this western eye definitely found a rock chick in a hijab to be a little strange. I saw her at another street corner the next evening and this time she was wearing her hijab in a Gypsy style and was therefore showing a certain amount of hair. Very daring! On another corner, by a McDonalds, a different rock band was playing and there were plenty of people sitting around watching. The poor young guy in the McFlurry bar was kept very busy indeed on such a warm evening. On the way back to the hostel I was tentatively approached by a young lady who wished to discuss business. I declined but asked her if she wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on my bike between clients as it was parked in the side street just behind her pitch. She may have sworn at me but I’m not sure.
Night scenes at Bukit Bintang.
Two more sightseeing visits were made; one involving birds and another buildings. If you’re a pigeon of course, they go together. But not for me. Another train ride and a longish walk got me to KL Lake Gardens wherein lies the twenty one acre Bird Park. It’s home to over sixty species and is full of trees, rocks and streams, forming a fairly natural habitat for most of the birds. The whole area is covered with high level netting, allowing most of them to roam free. Some are in aviaries, particularly parrots and similar. There were plenty of peacocks and peahens, with the cocks putting on some fine displays to attract the hens. Some of them got lucky, judging by the occasional flurry of activity, many didn’t. But it was fun watching them. Some of the species are endangered so the park provides an opportunity for breeding those at risk, always a good thing for such places to do. The entry price was steep, at around £15, but it was well worth it in the end.
At the bird park.
From there it was a short walk down to the National Museum, a place Jan and I had visited briefly. This time I had plenty of time to wander around and was very impressed by the range of history it covered. It included plenty of natural history and as well as covering the years pre-dating the Sultans, it covered the colonial period and the post war era, when independence became an issue. For the first time I saw information about the communist uprising, which affected the country post war. I’ll detail some of this history later. Some other buildings displayed the more cultural side of the country including a display about the Asli. These are an indigenous people who came there about 70,000 years ago, long before the current races arrived. It reminded me that this area, and the islands further south, saw several waves of immigration over the millennia, at a time when sea levels were low, including those who eventually reached Australia. Many of the islands have remnants of such people, especially Borneo.
My last cultural visit was to Merdeka Square. This place is jam packed with people on Independence Day and New Year’s eve, but on a sunny Sunday it was relatively peaceful and I could wander around to my heart’s content, especially as the main road through the square was closed to traffic. The most striking building here is the Sultan Abdul Samad building. Now used by some government ministries, it used to house the Colonial Administration during British rule. It was designed by a British architect but in deference to Malay sensibilities he incorporated many Moghul features into it. You have to walk a long way back to appreciate its splendour because its frontage is so long. It’s almost 140 metres and the central clock tower is 41 metres high. It was built using soft red bricks and it looks beautiful. Opposite the building, right across the other side of the square is the former Selangor Club, used by colonial officers for cricket and so on. This is a typical English building in a mock Tudor style and is still a sports club today. Nearby is the original central railway station, also built with Islamic design features. The rear of the Sultan Abdul Samad building faces the river, where there is walkway. The back of the building is more functional in its design but still shows some very nice architectural touches. But I think one of the things I was most taken by here was the very beautiful mosque, built on land that is formed by the V where the Klang and Gobek rivers join. Not a big place by any means, and it’s dwarfed by the skyscrapers behind it. But it seems to be saying, “Forget all those big government buildings and those towers of finance, this is where the true heart of the city lies”. I didn’t disagree.
Now that I’d discovered the delights of KL more fully, it was time to head north once more. Ipoh was my next destination, capital city of the state of Perak and close to the Cameron Highlands. Hills, bends and cooler temperatures up there, I hoped. The journey north was what might be called ‘interesting’, for several reasons. In my last blog post I mentioned that the bike had developed some misfiring problems. I thought it may have cured itself but it came back with a vengeance. After about 80kms the engine began to stutter, eventually get so bad that I had to stop. After a few minutes it ran OK and I got another 10kms under the wheels before it stopped again. I filled up with fuel at the next services, even though it wasn’t really empty, and it ran OK, but only for 10kms. I reached the next services in 10km hops and stopped for some lunch and a good think. Here I got chatting to a young German guy, Eddie. He had gone to Singapore and bought a bicycle and was on his way to Bangkok. That’s a very long ride by muscle power. We chatted a while and when he left he said we’ll meet again because ‘you always meet people twice’.
He left, riding into the low and threatening clouds. I finished my coffee and was just kitting up ready to leave when the skies opened up, hurling huge drops of water down onto anyone who was caught outside. I stayed put, feeling very sorry for Eddie, out in the rain. I set off after a while, wondering how the bike would run. 120kms later I reached my hostel having had no problems whatsoever. Well, there was one small problem. I missed the turning for Ipoh and had to ride an extra 70kms. But it was a good test of the bike, I kept telling myself. And this is the thing. The problem is so inconsistent.
Consideration for bike riders.
Ipoh is a great little city, although I stayed far longer than planned. Mostly that was because I still had a head cold and just didn’t feel like moving anywhere. So I explored the town in a relaxed fashion, walking around and eating good food. I stayed at Le Bug and Boat Backpackers’ Hostel, run by two friendly young Aussies, nicknamed Bugsy and Boatsy. They bought it from a Malay/Belgian couple and have been busy refurbishing and upgrading since the start of the year. They have become very knowledgeable about the city and its surrounds, which makes it a great place to stay. The fact that they, and their generally young clientele, like to party sometimes also helps, but always done in a non disruptive fashion. If you ever get down that way, find them on Facebook. I don’t normally promote hostels; after all, they’re mostly just about showering and sleeping. But they go out of their way to provide a good welcome, so I’m making an exception this time. And guess who turned up later? Eddie, my German cyclist friend. What he said is true then.
What does Ipoh have to offer? History, food and coffee, mostly. The Old Town area seems to be peopled mostly by Chinese and Indians. The hostel was on the edge of Little India and only a few doors along was a handy Indian restaurant. Chocolate Naan Bread, anyone? Or cheese? They make great late night drinking snacks, or to cure the munchies, if you happen to enjoy that. My favourite was Kashmiria Naan, with pieces of Tandoori chicken, making a delicious and cheap meal.
A walk down to the visitor centre gained ma a few brochures, including a map. There was a Heritage Trail and a Mural Art Trail to explore, completed over a couple of days. Ipoh’s modern history is founded on the tin that was discovered in the Kinta Valley and it boomed for a while, until prices dropped. The town suffered a severe fire and was rebuilt on a grid system. Most of the colonial buildings were built at that time, ready for the second boom in the 1920s.That kept the city busy until the 1970s, when a drastic drop in prices ended tin mining. The city’s economy now relies on tourism for much of its income, something that Bugsy and Boat are trying to tap into. It’s also a key transport hub between KL in the south and Georgetown to the north, which helps to bring visitors in. Its other claim to fame is that it’s the home town of Tony and Maggie, my friends in KL. But not many people know that.
Examples of Ipoh architecture.
The buildings were impressive, as the type often is, and were worth the walk round, although none of them was particularly ‘stand out’. I enjoyed looking at the murals. Finding them was good exercise too, as some were a bit tucked away. There’s usually some kind of message or story behind these murals; sometimes it’s easy to see, often not. They were similar in style to those I’d seen in Georgetown, but I suppose that would always be the case given that they’re painted on buildings.
Ipoh White Coffee, Tauge Ayam and Chicken and Rice, Indian style. These are three of the ‘must try’ dishes in Ipoh, and I did. The coffee gets a particular flavour from its beans having been roasted in palm oil butter. It tastes really nice with a shot of hazelnut syrup in it and deserves its reputation. The Indian style chicken tasted good but was a bit tough, so therefore disappointing. Best of all was the Chinese Tauge Ayam. This dish is centred on steamed chicken, cut into oblong pieces and served with lightly cooked bean sprouts. A dash of soy sauce and sesame completes the flavour and you can have rice or noodles, according to taste. And it is DELICIOUS. There are two well know places that serve it, but as they’re aimed at tourists like me, their reputation isn’t so good among locals. But one of them was an easy walk from the hostel so I was happy to go there a few times. My first visit was in the company of the hostel boys and a few other visitors. Once we’d eaten we went to the nearby night market, a closed off street filled with stalls selling all the trinkets, clothes and electronics that these places usually do. We wandered up and down a bit but then Kate, one of the other visitors, and I spotted a guy selling ice cream from a cart. I can safely say I’ve never had ice cream like it. He had a number of frozen blocks in the bottom of it and he simply cut a piece off and stuck a stick in it, then handed it to you with a tissue. Kate had potato flavour, I had grass. Yes, really. And he had plenty of other weird flavours too. The taste? Surprisingly good. It certainly made a change from vanilla. On the walk back home along the riverbank we came across some puppies, clearly living there. And with no mother to be seen. Bugsy said they get abandoned at an early age and would never be any good as house pets because their parentage means their back legs don’t develop properly and they can’t run. What happens to them? I’ve no idea.
A couple of the murals spread around the town.
So much for what to see in the city. What about the surrounding area? Like KL, there are limestone hills near to Ipoh and that means caves. And in this region, caves means temples. Finding religion is quite easy once you’ve programmed the GPS and one morning I set off for a look. Three cave temples, potentially very similar. But in reality very different. Sim Po Tong is a large cavern with plenty of Buddha statues in it, and a large reclining Buddha on the roof outside. Very nice too, but its best feature is out the back, through the cavern and into a small garden. There’s a disused temple there and a pond. What’s in the pond? Tortoises! Some Terrapins too. Did you know that Tortoises can swim? Me neither. There were probably about a hundred of them, of various sizes. My family had one when I was young but I’d forgotten how odd they are. I was amused by the way their head pulls into the neck, rather like a collapsing telescope. This seems to be their first line of defence before the full withdrawal into their shell. And they have a beak, something I’d never noticed before.
Temple two was Kek Lok Tong. More nice statues but the key feature here was the ‘secret’ garden. A walk through a passage at the back of the cavern brought me out into a very beautiful formal garden, surrounded on three sides by limestone cliffs. The wild nature of the plants on the cliff provided a contrasting backdrop to the carefully laid out lilly pond, and shrubs of various types. It looked peaceful and charming in the warm sunshine. The third one, a bit further away, was Perak Tong. This one had a thirteen metre high Buddha statue inside, along with some beautiful artwork on the walls. But it also held a challenge. There was a trail of five hundred steps, leading up to the top of the cliff where there was a pavilion and a wonderful view over the city. Well I must have taken a wrong turning somewhere because I could only find three hundred and forty five of them. I came out to a nice view, but no pavilion. What a shame, but I had no desire to try again.
The contrasting approaches to temple decoration.
At about this time I had a little mystery to solve. My sandals, left out on the landing as is common practice, disappeared. They weren’t there when I came back in. Next morning they’d reappeared, so I thought no more of it. Next evening, they’d gone again. So I complained to the management (Bugsy) who had no more idea than of me than where they’d gone. Next morning they came back again and I realised that their movements matched those of an Indian guy who was in the bed next to mine. I asked him if he’d been using my sandals and he said no, he had blue shoes. Which was true, but I was still suspicious. So now I hid them away, which solved the problem. I’m pretty sure my Indian roomie was the culprit though, despite his denials.
A second ‘awayday’ found me riding up into the nearby Cameron Highlands. This area of hills is famous for its natural beauty but also, perhaps even more so, for the tea plantations. As well as having a day out of the heat I wanted to find out what was involved in the making of my favourite drink. The bike acted up again as I rode up there. I took off the fuel cap, thinking the problem may be vapour lock, but it made no difference. So I put in my spare five litres of petrol and all was well. Hmmm, I had by no means run out but it did seem that a low-ish fuel level exacerbated the problem.
The Boh tea plantation has a well organised visitor centre and they run tours, up until about 1pm. I got there at 12.30 but there was no sign of a tour guide. But it was easy enough to do a self guided tour, simply by following the marked path and reading the info boards. All that was missing was the commentary and somebody to ask questions of. The tea making process is quite straightforward but has become quicker and more efficient over the years as mechanisation has moved in. The leaves used to be picked by hand, but is now done mechanically. The degree of mechanisation depends on how accessible to bushes are. Some can be picked by a wheeled machine, other with shears. But hand picking has gone. Some of the machines in the factory are from the 1930s, surprisingly, particularly the roller machine. The picked tea is left out for a few days to oxidise then is rolled to break the leaves up, after which it goes off to be dried by warm air. It is sieved according to size then goes off to be packed. Boh tea company is now the only one that carries out end to end production, from plant to packet, on the same site. Most of the employees are Tamil Indian, descendants of those brought in by British plantation owners in the 19th century. After all that learning it was nice to sit down and sample their wares, along with a slice of apple pie. I think Archie Russell, who started the plantation in 1929, would have been proud.
The area has long been a place from which to escape the heat of the plains and there are plenty of hill stations out here. Natural beauty is plentiful for those who like to walk or clamber. As well as tea, strawberries and lavender are popular crops. What else is plentiful up here? Land Rovers. There plenty to see, of all ages, types and conditions. While waiting for the rain to stop at Boh, I chatted to one of the drivers there and he said they’re all ex-government stock, bought by the farmers and plantation owners. Along with the tea, I had a real taste of home that afternoon.
The route back was wet. Very wet,to the extent that there were rivers of rainwater running across the roads. But it dried out as I got lower down and I called in at the tin museum as it was on my way back. It wasn’t located at an old tin mine, or anything like that, but did have an interesting display about the history of the industry in this area, along with machinery and geological information. Infoboards had information and photos of the key characters involved, most of whom were Chinese. That seems to be a very common story in this industry. The museum closed at 5pm, just as the heavens opened up to deliver some seriously heavy rain. The custodians closed the doors but were happy to let me sit in the porch and take shelter until it stopped, I’m very pleased to say.
Thaipusam. I mentioned this festival when I was writing about Batu caves and the same event was happening in Ipoh too. The Indian community all join in with this and when I took a walk down into Little India on the evening of the festival I was amazed at the display I saw in one of the squares. Garish doesn’t begin to describe it and the models of gods that were on display were covered in LEDs of all colours. The parade had begun earlier in the day, at a temple over on the other side of the city. Late in the evening I went out to find it as it neared the old town. Not difficult to do, just follow the crowds and then the noise. The chariot bearing the figure of Subramaniam was big and even more brightly lit than the stalls I’d seen earlier. It had a truck following along, carrying a large generator to provide the power needed. I couldn’t help wondering how it would have looked in the days pre-dating electricity. It was impossible to imagine in the glare of present day illumination. The music was loud, the crowds large and the celebrations by the faithful were very entertaining. At the front of the parade was a truck, from which people could buy offerings to place on the chariot. At intervals along the route were piles of coconuts, which people picked up and smashed on the road in front of the chariot. I stood and watched this: the chariot passed by; the generator was next; then came a bus load of police; next was a team of sweepers who cleaned up the coconuts; lastly came a degree of peace and quiet. Raucous doesn’t begin to describe it. I walked along with it for a while, until it reached Little India, from where I went back to the peace and quiet of the hostel. The parade wouldn’t finish until it reached another temple, sometime late in the morning. An amazing sight to see, which attracts visitors from far and wide, such as my sandal borrowing Indian friend. It’s a time when families get together too.
Some photos of the celebrations.
I spent over two weeks in Ipoh, although it’s hard to say why. It was a combination of not being well for a while, feeling chilled out and comfortable in the hostel, enjoying the occasional party night, and taking the opportunity to catch up on my blog. I managed to completely redesign the pages and add some extras. I’m much happier with it now. It was great to mingle with other travellers. German Eddie had long since moved on but two German girls had arrived and would be heading to Georgetown, my next planned destination. The three of us got on very well so I suggested I meet them there one evening for food and drink. They agreed, so now I had the motivation I needed to leave this comfortable place and get back on the road.