There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 3 March 2017

From the Cameron Highlands to Kuala Kangsar and George Town: Part 5 of the Malaysian Peninsula

Leaving the Cameron Highlands

Despite yesterday’s fascinating walk, another night of wind and rain meant we were not desperately sorry to be leaving the Cameron Highlands.

With A, the same driver who had brought us from Kuala Lumpur, a friendly young man with a good command of English, we headed north along the highland ridge, through some pleasant scenery…

The Cameron Highlands looking good

…and some rather less attractive. Fresh flowers and strawberries are the highland’s main crops and the growers have blanketed the once green hillsides with polytunnels. It is ugly and looks uncontrolled, but apparently regulations exist; we passed tunnels smashed by the authorities for being unlicensed.
The Cameron Highlands despoiled by plastic

Turning west we gently wound our way down to the coastal plain, leaving the state of Pahang and entered Perak. Cocooned within an air-conditioned car we failed to notice the steadily rising temperature.

On the plain we passed a marble quarry, an ugly gash in a mountainside, and a line of workshops. Buildings and vegetation were sprinkled with white specks of marble and dust hung in the air.

We stopped at a service station for fuel and a comfort break. Stepping from the air-conditioned car the heat was momentarily overwhelming. The maximum daily temperature in the Cameron Highlands is 22 or 23 °, on the coastal plain the overnight low is higher than that and day time temperatures hover round the mid-30s 365 days a year.

We reached the E2, Malaysia’s north-south Expressway in the outskirts of Ipoh, Perak’s capital and largest city. Founded during the tin-mining boom of the 1880s, Ipoh grew to become Malaysia’s third largest city with a current population of around 650,000, though the city has struggled since tin mining collapsed at the end of the last century.
Today's journey from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh, Kuala Kangsar and over
the bridge to Georgetown

Kuala Kangsar, Posh Schools and Rubber

Progress along the motorway was swift. Some 40km north of Ipoh A asked if we would like to see a rubber tree. We wondered what he meant, Malaysia is the world’s biggest rubber producer and although straight, slender rubber trees are now outnumbered by palm oil trees, plantations remain widespread.  ‘In Kuala Kangsar,’ he added as though that was important. We quickly said ‘yes’ as apparently light needed shedding on an area of ignorance.
Kuala Kangsar is only a couple miles east of the E2. It is a neat little town with several buildings painted to look like something they are not, but the town centre is dominated by the buildings and playing fields of Malay College, which likes to refer to itself as the Eton of the East, and its local rival Clifford College.

Kuala Kangsar and interestingly painted buildings

The rubber tree we had come to see stands beside a road between the two schools. Rubber is a native of Brazil which at first had a virtual monopoly on production. In 1876 British explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Wickham acquired (or stole) 70,000 rubber seeds in Santarém and took them to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Seedlings were cultivated and dispatched to likely parts of the Empire. According to A (and The Rubber Economist) 9 seedlings were brought to Malaya (as it was then) by Henry Ridley, first Director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens, who planted them in 1877, and we were looking at the last survivor.
The Old rubber Tree in Kuala Kangsar

Unfortunately, according to The Singapore Botanic Gardens (from whom I have ‘borrowed’ the photo below – thank you SBG) Ridley was not appointed until 1888.
Henry Ridley, the father of the Malayan rubber industry
Enthusiastic and eccentric, but not actually 'mad' Ridley married for the first time at the age of 83
and died in 1956 just before his 101st birthday

He is celebrated as the father of the Malay rubber industry and was so fervent an advocate of rubber he became known as ‘Mad’ Ridley, but either he did not plant this tree, or it was planted later than 1877 and is not an original ‘Kew seedling’. Either way, it is undoubtedly a very old tree and very different from the young specimens from which rubber is tapped. I should now make that point with a photo of a Malaysian rubber plantation, but I have none, instead here is a picture I took in India in 2010.

Tapping rubber, Kerala, Southern India, 2010

Driving to the edge of town, A paused by the bridge over the Perak River.
The Perak River, Kuala Kangsar
Kuala Kangsar; Two Palaces and a Mosque designed by an Englishman

We drove through prosperous riverside suburbs expecting to return to the motorway but there was more to see. Not content with having two elite schools and a venerable rubber tree, Kuala Kangsar is also the royal capital of Perak. Nazrin Shah, the 35th Sultan of Perak, (educated at Malay College Kuala Kangsar and Worcester College, Oxford) has occupied the throne since 2014. Istana Iskandariah has been the Sultan’s official residence since it was completed in 1933 but the sultan does not welcome unannounced visitors, so we left him in peace….

The entrance to Istana Iskandariah, Kuala Kangsar

….and went to see the nearby Istana Kenangan instead. The floods of 1926 persuaded Iskandar Shah (the 30th Sultan) that he needed a new royal palace slightly further from the river. The remarkable little Istana Kenangan was constructed as a temporary royal residence while Istana Iskandariah was being completed. Built of wood without the use of nails, the carvings and woven decorations were added later. It is now the Royal Museum of Perak, which, sadly, is closed on Fridays.
Istana Kenangan, Kuala Kangsur

Our wanderings had taken us right round the Ubudiah Mosque, so we went for a closer look.  In 1911, when Idris Shah I, the 28th Sultan, was taken ill, he vowed that should he recover he would build a mosque and this is the result. Building started in 1913 and took four years, a significant delay being caused by two fighting elephants destroying much of the stockpiled Italian marble.

The Ubudiah Mosque, Kuala Kangsar

The design was by AB Hubback who was also responsible for the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. It is surprising enough that this Liverpudlian brother of an Anglican bishop was entrusted with two of Malaysia’s foremost mosques, even before considering the design. Ubudiah is all right, maybe a bit fussy, from close to, but from a distance the proportions are strange and like the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, it presents a version of ‘the orient’ that only ever existed in the minds of Europeans. No matter, Idris liked it, so that was good enough.

From a distance the Ubudiah Mosque just looks wrong to me

Pausing only for a picture of botanical interest – this was in the flowerbed outside the mosque, I believe it is a member of the ginger family - we made our way back to the motorway.
A member of the ginger family, I think, cultivated at the Ubudiah mosque

Postage Stamps of Malaya and the Malaysian Constitution

We soon left Perak and entered the State of Penang, bringing on a couple of digressions.

I have probably not looked at my stamp collection for over 50 years, but it seems to be deeply embedded in my memory. In 1957, as the Federation of Malaya gained independence the youthful Queen Elizabeth disappeared from the stamps and the standardised designs, customised for each individual state, showed the head of the local ruler. I was fascinated by ‘faraway places with strange sounding names’ (actually, I still am), so re-encountering the states of Malaya; Selangor, Johor, Negri Sembilan and the rest was like meeting old friends. Today's journey had taken us from Pahang to Penang via Perak, names I remembered well.

9 of Malaya’s 11 states had hereditary rulers (7 Sultans, 1 Raja and a Yamtuan Besar) who appeared on the stamps, the other two, the former Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca used a heraldic device.

I liked the headgear of some of the rulers - particularly this one from Perak.

Now THAT is a turban
‘Perak’ is written at the bottom in Jawi script, Arabic heavily modified to suit Malay and related languages, though Rumi (Latin script) is now used almost universally in Malaysia.
Malaysia is unique in being a ‘federal parliamentary elective constitutional monarchy’. When Malaya gained independence in 1957, the 7 Sultans, 1 Raja and theYamtuan Besar (who are constitutional monarchs within their own states) met to elect one of their number to be Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the head of state and constitutional monarch of Malaya, for 5 years. They have met every five years since (or earlier if the grim reaper intervenes – they are not generally young men) to repeat the process. In 1963 Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo joined Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia (Singapore left again in 1965) and although none of them had hereditary heads of state, the system survived. In practice, this small and very exclusive electorate has avoided disputes by electing the monarch in strict rotation of the states. It is a pretty safe bet that in 2021 the successor to Muhammed V, Sultan of Kelantan, will be the Sultan of Pahang (though it may not be the current Sultan as he is already 86.)

Here endeth the digressions…

Across the Bridge to Penang

Penang is Malaysia’s second smallest but most densely populated state. It consists of a coastal strip on the mainland and Penang Island, with George Town, the state capital and Malaysia’s second largest city at its north-east corner.

We crossed to the island over the 24km long Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, Penang’s second link to the mainland, opened in 2014.

The Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge to Penang Island

And swung right up the coast to George Town.
Nearing Penang Island on the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge

The Georgetown World Heritage Site

Central George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and our hotel, 23 Love Lane, was right in the heart of it.
23 Love Lane, George Town, Penang

Inside is an atrium where complementary tea and coffee were always available, as were snacks in the late afternoon. We said goodbye to A, who had served us well for the last three days, enjoyed a welcome drink and inspected our characterful room on the first floor overlooking the courtyard.
The entrance 23 Love Lane, George Town, Penang

Our Kuala Kangsar detour meant it was now 3 o’clock and we had missed lunch (oh the horror!). Love Lane acquired its name when it was George Town’s red-light district, but apart from our chic boutique hotel it is now mainly occupied by back packer hostels. We repaired to one for soup and a beer.
The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering George Town’s characterful narrow streets. Street art is much in evidence. Some is for its own sake….

Street art, George Town, Penang
…and some is informative. Before it was a restaurant the premises below are where Jimmy Choo (born, George Town 1948) served his apprenticeship. I am at a loss to understand how anyone can become famous by designing shoes, but I have to admit even I have heard of Jimmy Choo.

Jimmy Choo first made shoes here, George Town, Penang

Dinner at the Red Garden Food Court, Georgetown

As we arrived A had pointed out and recommended the Red Garden food court, so in the evening we entered the large court lined with food stalls. As we looked around a beer man approached to explain the procedure - and sell us some beer. Having bagged a numbered table, you wander round the stalls seeing what catches your eye, you order a bit here and a bit there, give the stallholders your number and in due course the food is delivered and payment made. Then you go round again - if the fancy takes you.
Red Garden food court, George Town, Penang

Kuey Teow (fried flat noodles with egg and prawn), crispy duck with vegetables and rice and a handful of fiery satay sticks made an excellent meal. Our only regret was that we had missed Selina the lady-boy, who performs only on Thursdays.
Strolling happily back to the hotel through the warm night air under a shining half moon, I could not help but think that already I preferred Penang to the decidedly parky Cameron Highlands.


  1. Long time since I have been to the west side of Malaysia and Penang. Good to read your story. Never did get to the Cameron Highlands but every other Highland area we visited in Malaysia was decidedly soggy!

  2. Thank you for this informative introduction (for me) to Malaysia. Have sooo much to learn about that part of the world.
    We are currently watching Ken Burns's documentary on Viet Nam. Began with the "history" so badly misunderstood by our country.