Winding through Malaysia: Snapshots

It’s the June holidays and time for us to go on our yearly driving jaunts up country in Malaysia. This trip was a good mix of familiar haunts and new surprises. After 10 years of driving in Malaysia, it is nice to see new places and yet find comfort in the familiar. There are theme parks, river swims, twisty country back roads, old quarters, marketplaces to discover. We started the journey with a seven-hour drive to Ipoh. But we before we got there, there was a short detour to make. To the little-visited river park of Kuala Woh, just half an hour south of Ipoh town.

Off the Tapah exit on the winding road leading uphill towards the mist-fringed Cameron Highlands is a little park that few tourists visit. Most zoom on and up to Tanah Rata, never suspecting that nestled off the road is a shallow river speckled with smooth pebbles and pockets of hot natural spring water bubbling up. This is the Kuala Woh Recreational Park.

An orang asli village lies up the bumpy dirt path and the park facilities have clearly seen better days. The place looked deserted apart from some cats. Ours was the only car in the parking lot.

In the late afternoon, apart from a group of friends having a bath (yes complete with soap!) we really had the place to ourselves. Us, them and a whole bunch of butterflies the size of small birds – black, a red underbelly and iridescent blue-green wings. It was marvelous to see them flitting across the water, sometimes skimming the surface in a bright flash of emerald and onyx.

The river is not deep, mostly ankle-to-knee height but certain parts dipped a little and you could find yourself easily in thigh-deep water. A suspension bridge hangs over the river.

The kids needed no urging. Into the river they waded, t-shirts, shorts and all.

From the real river to the fake river…

That look sort of sums it up.

At the Lost World of Tambun at Ipoh, surrounded by tall limestone hills, the kids spent a whole afternoon in the lazy river, water slides and amusement rides. Because it was not the Malaysian school holidays, the park was relatively empty which meant no queues for the water slides, no elbowing in the lazy river and multiple rides on the ATV circuit – woohoo! Just something to consider when planning the next visit – avoid the public holidays and school holidays.

before the plunge…


…and away they go!

But our trip was not all about rides…

One morning we wandered through an old-fashioned market in Ipoh – the Pasar Besar, or literally the Big Market. This is the same sort of market I grew up seeing – slabs of bloody pig parts hanging from large metal hooks above stained marble stands (below). It was wet, dirty, smelly and I loved it!

For a generation who believe the chicken comes from the supermarket shelves, all nicely plucked and cleaned and white in their little plastic cases, this was a great chance to look at how things used to be – before Singapore decided to clean up and sanitise its markets – sniff. Now even wet markets in Singapore must have refrigerated glass cases for pork, chicken and other meats. While I appreciate that flies can no longer settle on my meat and raise children, it’s just not the same.

chaotic riot of greens in the vegetable section

We always find Malaysia a bit quirky. They make a great deal of effort in conservation and sprucing up the historical sights, but they somehow lack the finishing push.

Take this for instance, nice approach to the Birch Tower memorial in the old quarter of Ipoh, all cleaned up and paved over in the alleyways behind the buildings, it almost came as a surprise for us to see the gleaming white tower as clean and new as if it had been built yesterday.

But when you get to the top, between the memorial and the restored facade of the museum, what do you see? A hawker centre from the 70s or 80s sitting right smack in between the two stately structures.  Would it not be better to re-site the hawker centre so that there is a clear visual link between the memorial, the museum and then across the road, the old railway station?

I think conservation does not just mean maintaining or restoring a building alone but ensuring that the area surrounding it also complements the restoration. It is also about the spirit of the place, keeping the same energy, the same vibes. Similarly with Malacca’s famous Jonker street and environs, would it not be better to seal the area off from cars, pedestrianise it, gentrify it and carefully monitor the trades and businesses in the zone to prevent it from turning into a merchant souvenir circus? It’s already well on its way to becoming souvenir central. And having cars inch down the road, sometimes narrowly avoiding oblivious bunches of tourists gaping upwards or queueing for chendol does not not help.

Its a delicate, difficult balance to maintain. Even Singapore’s own Chinatown is no longer quite Chinatown – it is laden with cheap souvenir shops and the occasional antique shops selling at inflated prices. It is an artificial, carefully contrived version of Chinatown. But then again, who works in these shops? Very often these are Chinese nationals, the sinkeks (newcomers) of the 21st century. They don’t live there and they don’t hang out there – but in a strange twisted funhouse mirror way, I guess maybe this is Chinatown…

But I digress. I’m glad that things slow down in Malaysia, that they are sometimes in no hurry or maybe too tied up in bureaucratic red tape to change. I enjoyed walking through the old town. There are still places which time has not touched in there. In pockets of old Ipoh town, in the dark cool shophouses, some gems still stand. Like this printer’s shop we passed. Behind the screen are old steel and wooden cabinets still housing old type pieces, and looming in the back, old printing presses. Digital print has not touched this place.

I’m not saying that keeping everything the same is a good thing. Nor am I eschewing progress and development. But where I come from, we seem to be in a hurry to grow up much too fast. Maybe its worth slowing down and thinking a bit harder about how we can move ahead while keeping our sense of nostalgia, a sense of ownership about our past and our heritage.

So once in a while, its good to take a drive north, dip our toes into a running river, tailgate a motorbike on a meandering road, peer into an aboriginal village or wander through a market from the past. Its good for the soul.

old road to somewhere






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