Saturday, 30 June 2012

Taiping Impressions (1 of 3)

June 10th - June 15th, 2012

** COUCH SURFING is a large travel community who open up their hearts and homes to strangers.  People make profiles telling about themselves and offering a hand in the travel experience of others coming through their hometown.  I have been a part of this community for a number of years now and the experiences have been invaluable. Sometimes people come into your lives for a reason and Couch Surfing is very much repeated proof of this.  To spend time in the homes of local people enhances the experience of travel so greatly; to have the insight and local knowledge combined with a personal cultural exchange has enriched my life over and over again.**

A few weeks prior I have received an invitation on Couch Surfing from Peter Chaing in Taiping to come and spend time in his family home.  Initially we had no intention on visiting Taiping; it was slightly south of our intended route, however, seizing spontaneous moments like this is exactly what makes the experience.  "It's not a very glamorous or high class chic upper class place but if you like the outdoors , this will be the ideal place . We can go hiking, swimming by the river, there's a wonderful zoo nearby and fantastic seafood. I can show you the best local food, not fancy restaurants and McDonalds but street local food …."  Peter warms in his message.  Sounds ideal. 

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.  

Peter had a different spot in mind though. He lead us further along the trail surrounded by lush jungle where eagles flew overhead and a chorus of birds and cicadas fill the air.  I looked down when a felt a sting in my ankle to find a massive black and red ant which I quickly swatted away. Feeling another bizarre sensation a few minutes later, this time between my toes, I kicked my shoes against the ground but when it persisted, removed my shoes to find something black and slimy had attached itself to my skin.  "Uhm… guys, what are these?!"  I asked, fearing that I have finally come in contact with a creature I dreaded encountering. 
"Oh, leeches!"  Peter confirmed.  "Don't worry, they're quite good for you.  Helps with circulation."
I assure him that I have amazing circulation without the help of these blood suckers and asked him the best way to remove them. 
"Salt works"  He informed us. 
Unfortunately I forgot to bring my tin of salt this time and was stuck with the alternative option of ripping it off.  We all enjoyed multiple encounters with leeches on this hike and each time we stopped we each collected two or three from our feet and legs and returned them to the jungle. 

Peter brought us to a deeper section of the river just above the dams which source the water for the village.  He suggested a swim and jumped in.  Every body of water I immersed myself in up until now have all been just as warm as the air.  I gasped at the unexpected coolness of this freshwater stream and sighed in relief, my fantasy of cooler temperatures momentarily satisfied as I felt the heat drain from my body.  It was beautiful location; the river tumbled between water worn boulders and heavy vines hung from the trees; the jungle so thick only a machete could possibly grant entry.  The canopy offered complete shade here and the cool temperature of the water allowed us to escape the mid afternoon heat in Peters jungle. 

A fabulous meal of street fair was to follow in the company of Peter and his friend Fiona; a beautiful, down to earth, humble doctor.  They picked and ordered the dishes they wanted us to try; we shared dishes of curried clams, frog leg soup and Malaysian style chicken wings amongst other things.  Surrounded by food vendors and a couple hundred people sitting on plastic patio furniture we lost ourselves in enriching conversation sharing stories and learning about each others cultures and lives, getting to know our new friends on a deeper level. 

We met Peters family that night and were received with open arms.  It was home away from home.   Having never had a daughter, Michelle, whom we called Auntie in the Chinese manner, expressed how nice it was to have another female around amongst a house of males; her husband, whom we called Uncle and her two sons, Peter and David.  She immediately took me on as a daughter which was heartwarming and humbling and we were welcomed as family. We sat together in their Balinese style gardens, getting to know each other over a couple of beers into the early morning hours. Our intention to go hiking early the next morning postponed until afternoon to ensure a quality sleep.  It was the first time in weeks that we have had the luxury of air conditioning while we slept which was a relief as Malaysia was experiencing temperatures higher than usual even for this part of the world, the monsoon delayed by a month or more and a heat wave passed through the country. 

"Maxwell Hill was named after William Edward Maxwell (UK), who was appointed Assistant Resident of Perak in 1875. At that time, the British was looking for a hill retreat away from the tropical heat for its senior officers & wives, a place similar to Simla in India. After much searching, Maxwell discovered that there’s a hill right on his doorstep.  The journey from foot to peak is 13 kilometres, making it suitable for the purpose intended. Hence Maxwell Hill was born.  
Steps were immediately taken to develop Maxwell Hill as it was then known. By the 1870′s, among the visitors included famous names like Isabella Bird and Ambrose Rathborne. In those days, the visitors have a choice of walking, taking a pony, or being carried on a “mountain chair”. It wasn’t until the mid 1940′s that the road was widened and made suitable for vehicles. That was during World War II, when Taiping was declared the administrative centre for Perak and Indonesia by the occupying Japanese forces, the Japanese official made Maxwell Hill his residency. He forced the prisoners of war to build the road up the hill. Although the road was only opened in 1948, three years after the Japanese surrender, much of it was built through the sweat, blood and lives of ragged prisoners of war."  - (source: 
Two choices of routes were on offer; a paved road gradually zig zagging its up to the summit (ideal for vehicles), or, for the more adventurous and physically fit, a more direct route.  A steep path leads directly up the slope as thick roots interweave through and over the soil.  The mighty, solid trees including mature hardwoods like teak and mahogany offered support as you cling onto their hand and foot holds, climbing your way up towards the summit.  The heat was draining but the physical activity energizing; it was a relief to find water running off loose tree roots which hung over the trail where the earth had given away.  We stuck our heads beneath the cool stream of water; our body temperature significantly more tolerable.  This trail soon ended however forcing us to follow the cemented trail for the rest of the way up.  Monkeys played in the trees; swinging from branch to branch and occasionally playing on the overheard electricity wires.  

A cool stream flowed down the slopes often offering cascading waterfalls.  Slightly ahead of the others, I climbed my way up the waterfall in hopes the upper tier offered a pool deep enough to submerge in.  My efforts went unrewarded however; determined, I peered off my trousers and saw beneath the falling freshwater stream, closed my eyes and lost myself in this moment.  We all enjoyed this spot for an extended period of time, rinsing the heat of the day momentarily from our pores. 

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 "Watermelon Club" was perched as we neared the half way point;  a group will hike up to their hut with a watermelon and offer piece to passersby.  So refreshing!

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.

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