Malaysia is one of our favorite countries in Southeast Asia, and on previous visits Kuala Lumpur was just the place to keep us exuberantly busy. This time our experience expands to the city of Taiping in Perak State to join our long-time perpetual-traveler friends, Vicki & Paul, who know this city well, and locals that are like family to them; Phoebe, Leong and their teen son Jansen (an older son Jayden is away at the time of our visit). Our meeting is delightful and our Taiping experts whip us away to an outdoor market, followed by snacks at one of their choice eateries.
Taiping is known for its well-preserved British colonial architecture and Taiping Lake Gardens; the latter is a great place to start our meanderings. This public park was established in 1880 on the site of an old tin mine and covers 64 hectares. Ten scenic lakes and ponds, bridges, walking and jogging paths are all nestled in a wealth of greenery.
Along the roadways lining the lake are majestic rain trees that were planted around 1885! Some of the massive leaning branches of these giants seemingly are reaching out for a dip in the water, while others drop downward on the pathways, their heavy limbs now supported by columns. I would love to be here when these stunners burst forth into a riot of blossoms! Soaking up the natural beauty of these gardens is not to be missed!
Taiping parks are exceptional and superbly maintained. The recently opened Taman Botani Perak lives up to these high standards.
Trees are my thing, I notice them all. Jansen lends perspective to this impressive behemoth of quintuple trunks rising to a spectacular height into the azure sky.
More sites galore await us! Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory is a 30 minute drive from Taiping. This old-fashioned factory, operated by Mr. Chuah, bakes mangrove logs into charcoal.
Our eyes take in the zinc roofed wooden sheds with stacks of harvested logs leaning up against them. The air is rife with a smoky essence, and from over 80 years of operation the whole site has taken on the colour of its product. This makes for a startling contrast to the backdrop of the greenery of Mangrove forests on the banks of the Sungai Kapal Changkol.
We enter one of the longest sheds where we find rows of smoking kilns in which the mangrove logs are heated (not burnt) to remove the water that makes up the bulk of the logs weight, which is expelled in vapour billowing out an opening. This vapour is caught, condensed and sold as mangrove wood vinegar, said to cure common skin problems. Of each 40 to 50 tonnes of logs stripped of bark that are placed in the kilns, only 10 tonnes are left as charcoal when the firing process is completed.
Staff members are readily available wherein we learn the logs are mostly harvested from 30 year old bakau minyak trees (a type of mangrove) for which a sapling is planted for every tree cut down.
A map shows the harvest area, with Phoebe pointing to a small village where she was born and where her mother still lives!
The major export market for the charcoal is Japan, but across the narrow dirt road from the sheds are stalls where foot-long pieces of charcoal is sold (used for traditional cooking), and also an array of charcoal rich products such as face creams, shampoos, hair conditioners, toothpaste and such. I can’t resist a bar of pitch black hand soap!
It is then onto Kuala Sepetang a fishing village which we liken to stepping back to the way things were 100 years ago. Phoebe and family come here to visit her aunt who has lived here for many years.
We delight in meeting this lovely lady and her husband who runs a supply shop that includes heaps of fishing nets.
Boardwalks take us around to where boats unload their harvest from the seas. Although these wooden tumblers are not currently operating, Leong demonstrates how they spin to extract the sea water from cockle shells, before the small edible marine molluscs known as cockles are loaded into barrels.
A jaunt along a bridge over the river awards a great view of the village and the vessels that fill the waterway.
Bukit Larut, a.k.a. Maxwell Hill, is a popular hiking hill that rises up 1036m. “Many winged species have been seen here”, says birder Paul, “and we’ll no doubt see some of my friends set-up for bird-watching today.”
That is an understatement! A ways up the incline are three fellows with mega-telescopic equipment, bird-call instruments and tidbits to entice winged species – in this instance an Orange-headed Thrush.
We amateurs are given binoculars to glimpse this feathered rarity – which will forever be noted as Rick’s and my first ever formal bird-watching experience. On the way back to our vehicles a bunch of primates run to and fro, sit on benches, and seemingly find us humans as interesting as I have always found them to be.
Three cemeteries in-a-row day.
Taiping War Cemetery is the final resting place of 850 casualties of the World War II Japanese invasion and occupation, of which 500 have never been identified. As we walk among the headstones in this pristine cemetery our thoughts are of the devastation of war and those who in the name of freedom gave their all.
“Old Cemetery” as dubbed by our driver/guide Phoebe is an enthralling grave site. It takes on a special significance when Phoebe mentions her father and grandfather who passed away many years ago are buried here, and she and her husband come at times clear away some of the growth that sprouts up and to pay their respects. The family plots are defined by old concrete or stone semi-circular divisions in this aux natural setting with some goats and a few cows nibbling the lush grasses – an incredibly serene and entrancing place.
It is onto the modern Prestavest Memorial Park Taiping. Said to be one of the most expensive cemetery plots in the area, wherein purchasers can choose from various choices of marble, script and other elaborate detailing, to suit the family who place their loved ones in this eternal resting place.
Ceramic statues of ancient deities dot the grounds, each recognized for special characteristic in Chinese culture.
A large turtle with dragon head tells of the mythological tale of how this dual featured creature is symbolic of authority, longevity and wealth. Buddha images are also among the artistic displays.
Always time for a coffee, and where better to taste our favourite beverage than at Antong Coffee Mill. The signage claims, “Malaysia’s most historical, dating back to 1933”. The coffee aroma wafting out of the showroom is potent and welcoming.
We check out the various types of coffees in labelled glass jars, and then hustle over to the self-serve tasting urns – Rick’s choice is rich creamy sweet 3-in-1. Along the back the cash register rings with purchases of packaged coffee.
This small showroom building was once the villa of Hong Kong born Chen Cuifen known as the “Forgotten revolutionary female”. Cuifen is said to have lived in Japan as concubine and partner to Sun Yat-sen (a.k.a. the founding father of modern China) during the Chinese Revolution of 1911. She moved to Malaysia after the revolution and local history relates that Yat-sen lived for a time with Cuifen in this villa.
A stairway from the main floor of the showroom is filled with furnishings and memorabilia of these historic figures.
To the side of this building is the processing plant where coffee beans are turned mostly into a popular local-style kopi-o (back coffee) by traditional methods. A combination of Arabica and Robusta beans are roasted in these spinning ovens using wood fire; then transferred to turning drums to remove husks. We also note vats where the coffee beans will be cooked in thick syrup of melted sugar.
The resulting mix to be spread on plates to cool and harden, then smashed into small fragments before being ground and packed into tins, ready for delivery to local coffee shops.
Back in the city we are ready to check out the markets, which are always a good form of entertainment, and Taiping’s are great especially this “everything” market.
Our noses lead us to fish that give new meaning to “fresh”.
Most delicious is street food sold from stalls and where two can eat for 10 ringgit ($3.00 CAD).
Perak Museum is one of many colonial architecture gems promised in city descriptions. Opening in 1883, it is the oldest museum in the country.
We pop inside for the displays of indigenous crafts, tribal artifacts of Malaysia’s first peoples, the Orang Asli. In another section are zoological specimens in taxidermy and skeletal form. Some displays are said to be more than 100 years old.
Our men folk have disappeared. Us gals find they are not lost, but are outside viewing vintage cars, namely several Rolls Royce, a 1930’s Lorry first used as an ambulance and later a hearse, a 19th century steam engine used in the tin mining operations, and an old Perak State Railway carriage. A Malaysian fighter jet is also on display.
Another venture is Spritzer Eco Park. This fun addition to the Spritzer Natural Mineral Water Bottling Plant opened to the public in 2015. Jansen tests his skills on the 18-hole mini golf course. Paths through lush grounds take us to Cactus Rock, said to be 214 million years old.
Vicki and I grin as we momentarily fill the bench in the centre of a big heart. Inside a small building are some items of Malaysian heritage, some Spritzer history, and of course a souvenir shop.
The pit stops for sustenance during our Taiping stay held a variety of delectable foods, as everywhere we dined was a “tried-and-true” favourite of our cuisine aficionados! We covered a lot of ground in our five days here, thanks to the planning of our new and old friends. Being privy to local insights about the culture every step of the way was such a bonus and we just had so much sheer fun and enjoyment bopping around with our buddies!
Over our many years of travel we have found that every city resonates with its own vibes, and this amazing city and surrounding area left the impression of valued traditional ways and that lifestyle changes very little with the passage of time.