An Expat's Road Trip from Penang to Taiping

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Sometimes we Penangites forget about the main land, the great body of peninsula Malaysia, because there’s so much happening on our small island. Now and again, it’s good to take a trip away to gain a bit of perspective. So a friend and I decided to take advantage of Malaysia’s fi ne road network and go for a spontaneous Sunday jaunt. We took the old crossing – the ferry to Butterworth – which gives you more of a feeling of leaving the island.

In the old days when Penang was a duty-free port, a customs official would ask each car as it left the ferry whether the occupants had any dutiable articles because Penang had free port status up until 1969. It has recently been suggested that Penang become a duty-free port again and I mused out loud that it would be difficult to monitor because of the volume of cars which cross on the bridge (and the soon-to-be-opened second bridge). “Nonsense,” my friend and driver for the day declared roundly. “They do it in Gibraltar, which has a land crossing with Spain, and it’s very efficient. Actually Penang and Gibraltar have a lot in common. And getting the duty-free status would really boost Penang’s economy in all sorts of ways.”

Once across the water, we headed for Taiping, one of Malaysia’s hill cities, with its rich heritage. In the old days, it was a stopping-off place for colonials seeking the cool air in the bungalows picturesquely situated on Maxwell’s Hill (Bukit Larut) which overlooks the town. Nowadays, one of the great draw cards for modern Taiping is the zoo.There is an island on the famous Taiping Lake devoted to orang utans and they are said to be some of the friendliest and most intelligent orang utans in the world.

One of the things people mention in the same breath as the name Taiping is the lake gardens. Arriving at the green outskirts of the town there were plenty of signposts to various hotels but none to the lake. I took a guess and said confidently (because I have learnt that as a navigator it is best to give the driver unambiguous instructions even if wrong), “Follow the signs to the Hotel Panorama.” In my mind’s eye, it would offer a panoramic view of the lake and have a delightful terrace upon which to take afternoon tea. Sadly, this was not the case and we found ourselves going into the centre of the town, a square grid of interlocking streets. But unlike George Town’s now-crowded thoroughfares, these were wide and airy.We passed the shuttered Kapitan’s Shop, which proudly declared that it bought “old stuff and antique items.”

The arcades of gorgeous old shop houses, some really in need of renovation and some struggling along, did remind me of George Town before it started its steep upward climb after the granting of heritage status in 2008.Taiping is still a working town, though its fortunes, derived from tin mining and rubber tree planting, are no longer its economic drivers.We found a building that looked as if it had been recently restored and promised history and a coffee shop. But alas, it was closed, though it’s normally open on a Sunday. “There was a wedding yesterday,” the curator gravely explained. Nothing more to say really.

There are some fine old buildings, such as the King Edward VII’s school and the Museum, which are in good condition.The New Club (perhaps the name needs revising for it was built in 1892) has excellent premises but no customers. Suddenly we found ourselves at the lakeside. I was expecting something more like the grand sweep of Kandy’s Lake, in the highlands of Sri Lanka, but Taiping’s lake is a series of picturesque vignettes, framed in reflected bamboo fronds. Not a natural lake, it was actually formed of abandoned tin mining pits. One cannot imagine a more spectacular transformation from industrial wasteland to willow pattern charm.We drove down a marvellous avenue of exquisite rainforest trees, some so old that their lichen-covered branches were actually dipping into the lake. A fleet of pedalos, constructed in the shape of rather chunky swans, were chugging to and fro. People were sitting and pedalling in what would be, anatomically speaking, the intestines of the bird, with a great canopy of snowy feathers over them as a protective, one supposes, against inclement weather. Of course Taiping is the rain capital of Malaysia, and whilst we were there it did thunder down.

Really hungry now, we headed back into the town for some lunch and noticed that Kapitan’s antique shop was now open. Despite the lure of “old stuff,” we decided to eat first at the Peace Hotel. Peace of course refers to the name Taiping which means Great Peace in Chinese, but it is doubtful whether they had any rooms. The simple local food was quite delicious but was more extraordinary was the art nouveau décor. A long panel tile depicted a bas-relief peacock, its multi-coloured tail flowing down the wall. A frieze of tiled birds ran round the eating area and the entrance was guarded by a gorgeous golden lion’s head.These treasures were treated quite casually; in fact, the lion’s mouth was used to hold plastic bags.

Although we searched in vain for Kapitan’s we never found it. Instead we did fi nd the Hotel Panorama, right in the centre of town, without any panorama at all. Such is Taiping, a town which always manages to surprise the visitor. But it was nice to get back to the familiar green hills of Penang after a long day away.


Source: Penang International April 2013 – May 2013


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