We took a bus from Penang and Peter came to meet us at the bus terminal. Taiping was the entry point into Malaysia for the British as they expanded their empire. As a result the architecture around the town, most especially in the centre and the prime higher level real estate on the outskirts, is very much in the colonial style. The British also had a major military presence here during the second world war and the evidence of a garrison town is prevalent both with the remaining barracks and officers quarters as well as the well tended military cemetery at the foot of Maxwell Hill. We drove through this area as Peter gave a running commentary and made our way above the level of the barracks to a newer development slightly further up the hill.
An automatic gate drew back and Peter eased his Honda into his driveway. He lead us into one of the most beautiful home gardens I have ever seen. Buddhist and Hindu statues sat amongst lush plants, trees and bamboo. A stone pathway weaved through the gardens leading to a fountain filled with golden koi overseen by a 4" statue of a woman then to another rectangular pond with steps which appeared to float on the surface. A four or five foot ceramic vase spilled water over the edges into the pool which housed yet more koi. A covered wooden walkway illuminated by red Chinese lanterns lead to a hexagonal pavilion lined with seating and a small table in the centre. Another space at the other end of the walkway offered more seating options and atmospheric lighting over a mini bar. Fans allowed for constant air movement. This balinese style garden; a perfect home oasis.
Peter immediately suggested we go for a hike through his jungle to which we eagerly agreed. The trail followed a river and we soon came across a large swimming hole filled with local people cooling down from the afternoon soon. We were greeted by many people with smiles and waves and the occasional curious stare; Taiping is not a place tourists often venture and seeing us was an obvious anomaly.
The rest of the climb was a bit of a slog; hiking the concrete road to the summit but interspaced with ever more spectacular views in the occasional tree clearings and local animals as we crossed paths; a troop of monkeys, a snake struggling with a meal too big to swallow, a centipede (the only animal Peter appeared cautious of) more eagles overhead and butterflies and dragonflies flitting amongst the hedgerows. Magically, Peter pulled a frog from his pocket! Must have hitched a ride from our recluse at the waterfall.
The trail lead us to the peak of Gunung Hijau at 1,449 m above sea level. An open sided pagoda and a collection of small cottages remain at the summit, unfortunately in the process of deteriorating, along with several archaic love swings and an old children's playground, the garden party setting carved out of the jungle with typical colonial tenacity (and no doubt an awful lot of Malaysian perspiration). At once you might hear the ghosts of jazz music in the air from a crackling gramophone playing weekends years in the past and imagine the sounds of laughter as the military officers and the gentry relaxed with their families over afternoon tea. To our great dismay, the Tea Garden House was in fact no longer serving, although we were compensated for our efforts with panoramic view of Taiping, the Lake Gardens and suburbs giving way to the salty waters of the Malacca Straight and the horizon beyond.
A telecommunications tower is the only maintained structure here although the gardens receive a modicum of care as well. The once proud multi story pagoda is not longer safe and inviting with its rotting wood and questionable staircase. We sat and rested in the shade of a pavilion. My eyes scanned the grounds; tulips in bloom stand amongst pieces of litter scattered amongst the grass. I can hardly stand the constant presence of it throughout this beautiful land and proceed to collect all the rubbish in the immediate area to put in the bins provided.
As we make our way back down to sea level, Peter cries out "Careful! A scorpion!!" Shocked and excited at having come across a creature I have long since been fascinated with we keep our distance and admire the fully armoured lethal killing tank. We soon realize it had been run over by a vehicle and inch forward to take a closer look. Julian hesitated and I encourage him to face his fear head on. It was, after all, no longer able to cause him any harm.
That evening the entire family joined us for more street fare, at a different location this time, Chinese influenced. Uncle and Peter wandered around ordering various dishes for Julian and I to experience and hours were spent passing numerous plates around the table until I was beyond the point of being stuffed. Again, the conversation was enriching and lively and we continued back in their Balinese garden well into the early morning hours.
We had every intention on leaving the next day but our Malaysian family was insistent. We have not yet fully experienced Taiping and we must spend another night; Uncle had another meal in mind for us.