Ipoh, Kuala Kangsar, Perak Tong, Kota Bharu: "Loosen Up? My Good Luck"



July 13 2006

Dear Family and Friends, 

I am up before dawn and in the dark I leave behind one of my favorite shirts drying on the line at the Sunset View Chalet. The ferry leaves for Lumut at sunrise.

Ipoh! Ipoh! Announces the driver of the red Roadway bas as we depart the stesen bas at 07:30.

At one point during the two-hour ride to Ipoh, through small towns and villages, stopping here and there for local school children and shoppers, I call the Hotel Excelsior!!!

Yes. I sprung for a HotLink Malaysian SIM card.

Loosening up a bit more, I check into a top-of-the-line mid-range hotel and head out for my stroll of the city.

"The City of Millionaires" made its fortune from the rich tin mines of the Kinta Valley. Replaced now by dozens of factories and guest workers, the tin miners are mostly gone but the girls remain. Don't worry sports fans, I'm not planning doing Ray Bolger, I mean Jack Haley.

The sights in town are mostly "colonial architecture:"

- "Taj Mahal" as the train station is known, is a blend of Moorish and Victorian architecture. - "Dewan Bandara" - "the town hall is a dazzling white neoclassical building of grand proportions."* - Plentiful colorful Chinese shop houses. - Several modern white and pastel bank and office buildings in a number of creative designs.

The next morning I really loosen up and hire a driver for the day and roll out northwest to Kuala Kangsar, the royal town of Perak State - the home of the Sultan.

My first stop in town is the Malay College - an impressive colonial building with white Greek columns and a red tile roof. Across the road stands the Pavilion Square Tower that "allowed royalty and VIP's to view Polo matches in comfort." *

"Beside the wide Sungai Perak - Perak River - the first striking example of the wealth of the Sultanate is the small but magnificent Masjid Ubudiah." * The minarets are white with Italian marble stripes and small golden domes. The larger main domes are also golden. The archways of Moorish design. The interiors are bright - large semi-circular windows at the top of the walls. Brtilliant crystal chandeliers. Italian marble columns and floors. Sculpted ceilings.

I only get a glimpse of the Istana Iskandaria - the opulent Palace. The gates are closed. I get a better close up of an earlier temporary palace made entirely of wood and woven bamboo - mostly muted tones of brown and black with generous gold crosshatching and decoration - and not one nail!

I get an eyeful at the Muzium Di Raja - the Royal Museum. So this is what it's like to live as a Sultan?

The Royal Museum is a two story affair with a bright white exterior, red tile roof (France), turquoise tower (Italy), copper dome (India), a large central fountain, elaborate pathways and plantings, and avenues of palm trees that are spaced and trimmed with Singaporean precision.

My brochure states in a humble manner: "The Gallery contains an exhibition of Duli Yang Maha Mulia (DYMM) Sultan Azlan Muhibbutin Shah, Sultan of Perak and Queen Permaisuri Tuanku Bainug: personal collection, books, souvenirs, royal regalia."

What's the finest china? Wedgwood? Limoges? What's the finest silver? Mario Buccellati? What about gold-plated flatware? Whatever the marque, it's all here displayed in glass cases along with the finest wood carvings, gold engraved weaponry and other "souvenirs." And that's what's in the Museum! Who can guess what's in the cupboards, sideboards, buffets, chests, cabinets, breakfronts, closets, attics and storerooms of the Place itself?

Also with appropriate restraint the brochure says "Automobile Gallery." The gallery is an annex to the museum. On display are a couple of hot-looking "bikes" (for the kids?) and count ' em, not one, not two, no not three, yes, count 'em, four, yes vier, cuatro, quatre, empat, quattro chrome encrusted, mirror-polished, one-longer-than-another Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. And not even a little Beemer for quick trips to the market? Here's a thought – “this is the museum; what's in the garage at the Palace?”

I think I'll keep my Honda - don't need to buy so much wax.

(I know I am being a little smart-assed here, and I shouldn't. In this part of the world, kings and queens, sultans and princes and princesses are taken quite seriously. In a neighboring state, the Sultan's birthday was celebrated with posters and banners of greeting and best wishes, the closing of schools and many businesses, a huge gathering in the local stadium, and a festival including a speech from the Sultan himself. Just recently in Thailand the entire country, the entire population celebrated the Sixtieth Anniversary of the King's Ascension to the Throne. The results of his recent surgery are banner headlines in every newspaper.)

From the museum in Kuala Kangsar on the way back to Ipoh, and after a nice Chinese lunch, we stop at Perak Tong. "Founded in 1926 by a Buddhist priest, Perak Tong is a temple complex consisting of a large and impressive complex of caverns and grottoes, with murals on the interior walls, done by artists from across Southeast Asia. There are several Buddha figures in the main chamber, as well as a huge bell that is rung every time someone makes a donation." *

"A winding series of 385 steps leads up through the cave and outside to the balconied areas above. There are good views of the surrounding countryside from here." *

Do I admire the murals? Sure. Do I admire the Buddha figures? Sure. Do I figure out how to adjust my Canon Power Shot A620 to get the best "indoor" exposures? Sure. Do I make a donation and ring the bell? Sure. With my bad knee, do I ignore the 385 steps? Ahem.

I rearrange my knee brace; and Boy-Scout-style, wrap my handy ACE elastic bandage on top of the brace, pop out my walking stick and head up, accompanied by two giggling Indonesian girls who are on their day off from the fiber-optics factory nearby.

TYB, My room at the Hotel Excelsior has a lovely, long and comfortable tub!!

I am apprehensive about my seven-hour ride from Ipoh to Kota Bharu. But I feel a little less nervous when I bought my ticket the night before. The ticket seller gives me an assigned seat and assures me that the bus is comfortable and air-conditioned, and will stop for lunch.

And would you believe, the bus pulled out of the station at exactly 09:00 and...Asian style...immediately pulled into a petrol station for a ten minute fill up!

The East-West highway (actually I am traveling west to east) is an "engineering masterpiece"* as it twists and turns its way through the Banjaran Titi, the north-south misty mountain chain. We stop for lunch just outside a small town called Gerik and have a tasty meal of chicken, fish, rice and hot coffee for a grand total of 4 RM - about a buck ten - less than my 5.2 RM coffee at The Mall!

Up and up and up on this modern roadway through the pass at 1400m. According to my trusty Nelles map of Indonesia and Brunei, just south of us is Mount Besar at 1749m and Mount Chamah at 2171m. (For my non-conversion minded friends, 1400m = 4620 ft.

The views of these green mountains are encouraging; the road over the expansive Tasik Temengar Reservoir motivates me to visit Danay Tasik Kenyir later in my journey.

In many places I spot large tracts of what I believe to be oil palm and rubber trees. What do I know from tropical agriculture? My mother cooked with butter or Crisco; the only rubber I ever met was my childhood rain gear, the ever-present Spauldeen, and in the trunk (boot) of my father's turquoise and cream, two-toned '56 Chevy Bel-Air hard-topped convertible, a real spare tire!

Kota Bharu is a worthy stop. There's an attractive mosque, assorted colorful public buildings, and a Royal Ceremonies museum with carefully arranged displays illustrating rituals for young princesses and princes.

The central market was vibrant with huge platforms laden with fruit and vegetables and freshly killed chickens.

And yes, I loosened up again and hired a driver for an excursion to visit the Tumpat District bordering Thailand. Despite the overwhelming Muslim population in this area and the very conservative Islamic practices, there is a strong Thai-Buddhist presence.

Wat Phothivihan has a 40m reclining Buddha. Wat Kok Seraya - a standing Buddha. Our last stop was a grand seated Buddha atop a temple with excellent wall carvings.

Sof, my driver, asks if I would like to have a "Muslim lunch." We eat at Restoran Hamid where I am served my best meal in Malaysia so far. Ayam Goreng Halia - chicken with ginger; Masam Manis - fish in a delicious sauce; ice tea, Thai-style with sweetened condensed milk.

I am feeling more and more comfortable in this Muslim country. I am enjoying my visits to the museums and mosques - many are quite striking.

Malaysians, whether ethnic Malay, ethnic Chinese or ethnic Indian are all gracious and hospitable and helpful. Even the taxi drivers smile. Everyone speaks and dresses and behaves modestly and properly. And everyone is happy to meet and chat with an American.

And yet. And yet. My visit to the Wats and my infrequent encounters with Khun Thai - Thai people- press me to return to Bangkok and to my adopted home – “The Land of Smiles.” But, enough! Onward southbound - to the beach.


Khun Jan * All of the references are from my Lonely Planet “Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei”



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