>Fresh from Japan and hence, kinda broke, we decided to make an abbreviated trip up north this time. We usually go about two to three times a year to Malaysia – its nearest and cheapest a place for all of us to visit on a regular basis. Plus the fact that Mama’s got a condo in Malacca does help to save us some of the hotel money.
But because we’d been going up so often, the ennui factor is setting in for us. Malacca and KL are gradually losing their shine because we don’t quite know what else *new* there is to do there. Apart from the eating and shopping, that is.
So this trip we decided to just go to Ipoh (our new favourite haunt) and then check out Fraser’s Hill (about two hrs away from KL by car) and of course, one last stay at our beloved MiCasa Hotel which would be closing for good thanks to a change in hotel management and some rebuilding plans.
First stop: KL. The weather was sucky when we left Singapore that afternoon. It rained buckets with a real thunderstorm flashing and clanging in the skies. I was just glad the house was renovated and there were no more leaks. Weather like that really made me just want to stay home and enjoy my now leak-proof house.
But the car was already packed to the brim with the usual assortment of gadgets (four different mobile phones and MP3 players plus a variety of CDs in case we get sick of the 400 tracks in the MP3 players), games (a chess set and travel Ludo), snacks (very unhealthy ones loaded with enough sugar to fuel my kids and get their engines going all 5hours of the way to KL!), pillows and cushions (half the living room’s cushions now ended up on the second row of the car), blankets and comforters (you’d think they were going to sleep in the car except that these spoiled kids would definitely baulk at any suggestion of spending the night in the car – nothing but nice hotel rooms with cable tv for them!). When you add in luggage (we used backpacks from our Japan trip), and packed the kids into their seats and childseats, boosters etc, there would hardly be any space left to move! I’m just glad to be sitting in front where I have some decent legroom. heh.
So off we went, windshield wipers wiping furiously, in the midst of a drenchingly bad downpour. We made good time, no jams at the 2nd Link. KH drove all the way for 2hours until the rest stop at Ayer Keroh outside Malacca. We stopped for dinner at the KFC. Its quite a nice rest-stop – relatively clean toilets, a smallish mall selling souvenirs and several foodstalls and restaurants. The rain was intermittently a drizzle and a drench but it never ceased for a minute.
We reached Aunty Vivian’s house in the outskirt of KL around 8.30pm. The dogs went wild at the gate. While my kids are generally calm and loving of animals, they were initially a bit nervous with Aunty Vi’s bunch of noisy snarly dogs. It took a while for the human cousins and the doggie cousins to get to know each other all over again but by the end of the evening, all was generally peaceful! Vi and I headed out for drinks and a heart-to-heart sister-yak while the kids and men and dogs stayed home (hmm, there is some word association thing going on there…).
We were out bright and early the next morning. Vi and Paul had to go to work in the office and we had the second half of the journey to complete – to Ipoh! Brekkie was wanton mee KL-style swimming in black sauce, at a hawker centre at the foot of the hill below Vi’s house. No chilli added to the wanton mee – just green cut chilli on the side. For us, used to the Singapore style, it took some getting used to. I remember the first time we ate this at the same place, I thought it rather tasteless and bland. But this time, it tasted loads better. Guess my tastebuds just grew used to it.
Bellies full, we headed to Ipoh. Weather started nice but ended drizzly again as we neared Ipoh. Have to say the limestone coverd cliffs and caves overlooking the NS Highway looked extra majestic and mysterious with the rain and the mist. We initially planned to stop at the river and the hot spring near the turn-off to Cameron Highlands. But with the weather so poor, we changed our minds.
We checked into our favourite Ipoh hotel – the Ritz Garden – a smallish business hotel but with immaculate rooms that are very good value for money. For some obscure reason, hotels in Ipoh (not exactly an international destination) were charging ridiculously high rates for rooms that were either seriously dated, in poor condition and generally just not worth it. We were miserable our first trip to Ipoh thanks to the lousy accomodation values. But thankfully one trip ago, we found this place and we decided this is the best for us – decent accomodation, right in the heart of the city and with good prices. This time, instead of taking two rooms, we took the Family Deluxe at RM230 – came with a king bed and a queen bed – comfy enough for all of us.
From there, the rest of the afternoon was spent at Tambun, at the Sunway Lagoon water theme park. Being the school hols, it was more crowded that the last time we were there but still quite manageable compared to the KL version. Since Trin is now old enough to join in the fun, I decided to make one of my rare appearances in the pool. Good friends of mine know how rarely I put on a swimsuit and head in. Even my kids were slack-jawed when they realised that mom was joining them in the pool this time.
I didn’t go for the rides or the water slides, but I really liked the hot springs. Er okay, not the most pristine of conditions – best to close one eye against the sandy feel of the pool bottom, the strands of leaf, grass and other assorted debris floating past. Nonetheless it was pleasantly warm – not to the point of the rotemburo in Kangetsu Ryokan, but a nice memory of it. Lunch was a yummy mee goreng fried on the spot by a skinny Indian man in a splattered apron. The cooking looked sloppy and rather messy, and you really would not want to look too hard at the cooking area, but somehow it came out smelling fantastic and tasting just the right amount of spicy, sweet and salty. Very yum. Funny how swimming and water games always makes us ravenous – the mee goreng was devoured in quick time, spicy though it was.
The kids had a good time in the wave pool, the kids’ pool and of course the hot springs. I think I spent about 2hours max out there before taking Trin with me, nursing her and snoozing under a shelter while the rest played on. The weather was dark grey, cloudy and drizzly. And yet, despite that, I still managed to get sunburnt – the only one in the family to do so! I ended up with lobster pink shoulders that the kids evilly loved to poke in the days ahead. I don’t know how I always manage to do this. KH loves to bring up the old story of how we went kayaking in the sea off Changi and Ubin for 2hours and I ended up with 3rd deg burns while he was just nicely brownish-pink.
So I wasn’t a very happy camper that evening. When it came to washing up, even worse. I have this aversion to bathing in public bathrooms – something to do with grotty bathroom floors, strands of other people’s hair floating past and sometimes, squabs of wet tissue paper etc. Ugh. I think the bathroom of Sunway is already better than most others by Malaysian standards, but even then I just could not get over the ick factor. So I just rinsed and changed Trin and myself instead of bathing there. One reason why I hate going swimming.
I was grouchy until we hit the hotel, bathed and changed and went out for dinner in the old part of Ipoh town, braving the incessant rain because we were going to have my favourite food in Ipoh – Ipoh hor fun!! Despite the rain, the place was packed with people. The flat, thin white slippery noodles are coated with chicken stock and oil and they just slide right down the throat with one slurp – ooh heavenly! With a poached chicken, stir-fried crunchy bean sprouts, and accompanied by a tawny brown iced longan tea, it was a simple but so deliciously satisfying meal. And one that I can only have once a year. Just writing this makes me feel so hungry for it. Sigh.
Next day we checked out after breakfast and drove to Fraser’s Hill.
All the way there, I was nervous. The weather was not really lifting and we’d been travelling thus far under constant rain, cloudy skies. I had heard that the road was old and very narrow in places. With roads slick with rain, I was a bit apprehensive about the drive up. More importantly, I was worried about throwing up. I have this thing about motion sickness and I do throw up very easily on windy roads – threw up once on the road coming down from Cameron Highlands, threw up three times on the windy road to Hana in Maui, Hawaii, turned green on the Amalfi coast. Even going up windy public carparks set me off. And I know that once I get sick like this, I really need lots of time just lying horizontally, sleeping it off etc – by which time it would be time to go downhill again!!
I armed myself with barf bags (the children cheerfully reminded me: Mum, here’s your NTUC plastic bag in case you puke!) and anti-nausea meds, but these did not always work. So I was just bracing myself for the snaky drive up. Not looking forward to it.
We turned off from the NS Highway towards KL at the Tanjung Malim exit. From there it was trunk roads into KKB (Kuala Kubu Bahru), the last major town before the road climbed.
I was pleasantly surprised to note that the first approach was smooth and straight – it was part of a new road that was built thanks to the Sungei Selangor Dam project. The dam was built to alleviate flooding in the valley and to provide a source of hydroelectric energy/water needs for the area. To do that, the river had to be diverted a bit and a large valley flooded. The project meant relocating the orang asli village in the valley to higher ground. I don’t know enough about anthropology or orang asli to comment if this was the right thing to do – to uproot a community from the familiar, impacting their lifestyles and habits along the way to build a dam but I imagine this is a constant struggle in many other countries, the most significant of our times being the impact of the Three Gorges Dam in China. Here in Malaysia, albeit on a much much smaller scale is a similar situation.
We stopped at the dam. It was a lovely site ringed with forested hills and with ‘islands’, once hills of the land now flooded, floating in the middle. What caught our fascination was the curve of the overflow – a jelly mould of water rushing over and down. It gave me a wobbly feeling bordering on a bit of vertigo to look at that and imagine the rush of water. We took the time to wander about the visitor’s centre taking some pictures before I very reluctantly got back into the car, knowing that from this point on, it would be windy and uphill the rest of the way.
We passed the new orang asli village – spanking new, designed nicely to resemble a posh eco-lodge, but I didn’t think it had the spirit and character of the orang asli original village – that would have been lost. I remember thinking as I saw it: I wouldn’t mind living in one of these rather sophisticated tropical-modern designs, but that’s me – a city girl attuned to city life. And if that is so, then how must the orang asli feel? Even though they did choose the design of the houses etc, there was no denying that they were still uprooted. Okay, not getting into this debate here.
We passed over an old bridge, a rushing river beneath, waterfalls and yes, the road started winding up. As we wended higher and higher, the air got noticeably cooler, the vegetation changed a little and we saw lots more giant bamboo. KH tried to drive as slowly as possible but I did end up feeling queasy. Not to the point of throwing up, but vertigic and giddy. About two-thirds of the way up, we passed a Hindu shrine and this marked the spot where Sir Henry Gurney, the British Commissioner to Malaya was killed, ambushed by Communist guerillas in the Emergency back in the 50s. I stopped to look for a plaque that marked the place but could not find it.
Apparently it was just meant to be the usual Communist terrorist ambush – they did not bargain on nabbing the Commissioner himself. Henry Gurney and his wife were heading up to Fraser’s Hill when they were ambushed. The car was peppered with gunfire. Gurney, according to anecdotes, got out and walked calmly away from the car, as if to draw fire away from the car and his wife who was still crouched on the floor of the car. It was only later that the Communists discovered they had killed Gurney and needless to say, it was a huge triumph for them and marked a low point in the Emergency. Read The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerrillas, 1948-60 by Noel Barber – a very excellent book that I’ve read over and over again until dog-earred.
After that point, we reached The Gap – which was nothing more than a quaint old black and white English-styled building. As in the old days, it still provided tea and meals for travellers making their way up to Fraser’s Hill.
From The Gap it was another 9km of snaking road uphill. And this is where it got challenging. The road was a one-way road, largely flanked by overgrown bushes and a precipice on one side. It was misty – such that we could barely see what was 10m ahead of the car. Phone connections were continually disrupted since KH’s office was also trying to get him at that time. We inched our way up but it was so winding that even Gillian complained that she was feeling ill. Miraculously I did not puke. About 20min to half an hour after we left The Gap, we pulled into the carpark of our hotel.
We booked a night at Frasers Pine Resort. The development is built into the hillside and there is no lift to the apartments so we had a lot of stair-climbing to do. Note also that there is no shelter from the carpark to the apartment, so the stairs were slick with rain and debris, the handrails were rusty and broken in areas due to wear and tear. The apartment had three bedrooms although we booked only a two-bedroom one. There was a damp, musty smell in the place. The furniture was very dated and worn, broken in places and the bed mattress was lumpy. Everything did not look well-maintained in the least and it had a somewhat eerie air about it. The only good thing going for it was the huge terrace outside the master bedroom and the living room. From there we could see far into the horizon of hilltops stretching bluish-grey, as the sea of clouds made islands of them.
It took us a while to recover and settle down. The rain was still intermittentlydrizzly. Later in the afternoon, we set out to explore Fraser’s Hill. It was a hill station built on seven hills. We passed a paddock which advertised horseriding and archery, a small golf course, which used to be the old tin mine. Right at the end of the road was the town ‘centre’, a small area whose landmark is an old ivy-covered clock tower, now used as a roundabout for cars. The road leading down on the left leads all the way down to the Gap – this used to be the old road. The road we came up on is the ‘new’ road built recently – in the past, when there was only one road up or down, and it being a single-lane carriage, there were fixed times for cars to go up and cars to go down. But with the new road, this schedule was abolished.
We stopped at the town centre, had lunch. Everywhere was quiet. There were few tourists and some shops were closed. We liked the many quaint old buildings, the Dispensary, the old police station, the post office and so on. A drive round the area took us past many rambling old bungalows. We even saw a familiar Singapore ‘celebrity’ – a TCS 8 actor, who looked mildly self-conscious to be recognised by our car-load of kids who had their heads out the window looking at him. But apart from driving around looking at houses, unless you’re keen on trekking and birdwatching, there’s really not much to be done at Frasers Hill.
We dawdled at a rather damp and flooded playground for a while, drove past a small lake and wanted to get on a paddle boat, but alas it was closed. All in all, it was a sleepy quiet place and we didn’t quite know what to do. The good thing about Frasers is that at least the air was still cool – unlike Genting or Cameron Highlands. With all the development going on at Camerons, it is no longer a cool hill station but rather muggy and hot these days.
We hung around the apartment until it was dinner time. Ended up with steamboat in a hotel down the road. We were the only group there in the dining room aside from one other family – again adding to the rather desolate air that Frasers Hill had. Steamboat was okay but it was very pricey – about RM180 for a simple spread, largely noodles since the kids were such noodle-fans.
Frasers Hill had generally, a lonely, spooky air about her. Maybe it was the mist, or the many old houses standing in the hills. Or maybe it was the closeness of the jungle – one didn’t get so much a sense of Frasers Hill cutting into the jungle as it was the other way around – the jungle encroaching on a small tired township.
Next morning, we left after breakfast. The air was white with cloud and mist as we slowly, gingerly made our way down. Credit goes to KH who went so slowly that you could get out and walk beside the car and still not be outrun. I didn’t throw up despite the many twists and turns. Going down was more pleasant that going up. We rolled the windows down to catch the morning air, drawing in deep lungfuls of it. From time to time we heard the piercing calls of an animal, probably a primate somewhere in the trees. At one point, it sounded incredibly close but try as we did, we could not catch sight of it. The sun had finally come out and the sight of it hitting the trees was lovely.
It took us about an hour to make our way all the way down to KKB again and another hour and a half stuck in trunk road traffic before we re-joined the NS Highway. From there, it was an easy 40min drive into the heart of KL city where we easily found our way to the MiCasa hotel.
The next two days were spent watching a movie (our favourite pastime in KL since it was much cheaper to do this here than in Singapore), checking out the new mall in Mid Valley, the Gardens (too posh and expensive for me!) and wandering around chinatown.
Well now that I finally got my curiosity about Frasers Hill satisfied, I doubt I will go back. I did not enjoy the hairpin bends that led all the way to the top, and since I am not very keen on birdwatching or trekking, I don’t think I’ll be back. Still, I did like the rather sad air of mystery, desolation and forgotten-ness that the resort had.
Oh well, more places in Malaysia to uncover, now that I can tick Frasers Hill off my list.