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Taiping of the Raj Era

Travelogue & Photographs by P Ravi Shankar

Lotuses in Taiping

We were traveling at over 140 kmph. The train felt stable and comfortable. We were just entering the state of Perak, just north of Selangor state in Malaysia. Perak means silver in Bahasa Melayu. Getting out of Kuala Lumpur (KL) was slow with several stops for signal clearance and the train was now making up for lost time. The Electric Train Service covers the distance between Bandar Tasik Selatan and Taiping in around three hours and ten minutes. The train is an electric multiple unit and accelerates and brakes quickly.

My friend, Binaya and I were on the evening train to Butterworth scheduled to reach Taiping at 9.22 pm with a bunch of students. We were making excellent speed. Watching the progress on Google Maps reminded me how far we had come technologically. We pulled into the new Taiping railway station only about two minutes behind schedule. The creation of the railway line right to the Thai border was a major technological achievement and the electrified line offers quick and reliable transportation. The old railway station was next door and we resolved to come visit this heritage property during our stay.

By the time we reached the hotel, it was after ten at night and our first task was to grab some dinner. We thought the huge shopping malls would offer us some choices. A chain restaurant called Nasi Kandar Pelita was open. We ordered rice with chicken curry and vegetables there. While waiting for the food, we noticed they had a website giving the origin of the name — nasi kandar. This was the name given to hawkers who would walk through the streets, door to door, bearing rice (nasi), vegetables, curries and meats in vessels suspended on a yoke (kandar). Eventually many of these hawkers settled down and opened their own stores.

Old lores always interest me. I tried researching the name of the town. The name is said to be derived from two Chinese characters, tai (great) and ping (peace). The discovery of tin in the nineteenth century attracted immigrants from China. For several years, there was a bitter war between rival factions. The colonials eventually restored peace and named the first capital of the state of Perak.

Taiping was among the first town established by the British in Malaysia and was near important tin mines. The first railway was constructed to transport tin ore to the coast. The abandoned tin mines were converted in the 1880s to Malaysia’s first public gardens. The gardens have a well-earned reputation of being well-maintained.

We started by visiting the Taiping War Cemetery. Over 800 soldiers, who lost their lives during World War II, are commemorated here. We visited the Burmese pool and slowly walked back to the Lake Gardens. The area was vast, the sun was becoming hot, and I was soon tired. The garden, spread over 64 acres of land, is famous for the rain trees and angsana trees. Many poems have been written about the splendid rain trees. After wandering through the gardens, we took a ride to the Perak Museum. The museum is the oldest in Malaysia and was founded in 1883 by the British resident, Sir Hugh Low. The museum mainly concerns itself with natural history and the history of the area. There are some excellent assembled animal skeletons. The museum is located in a heritage building opposite the Taiping goal. There are four galleries, Nature Gallery, Cultural Gallery, Indigenous People Gallery and a Temporary Gallery.

 The sun had grown very warm, and the weather was humid throughout our stay. Taiping is famous as the place with the highest rainfall (over 400 cm) but we did not see much of a downpour.

Dataran Warisan

In the evening we went to the Dataran Warisan Taiping, the main public square. The land and district office across the square is a heritage building completed in 1897. Across the street was a lively market with many photo opportunities. As one of the first towns to be established by the colonials, Taiping has several other old institutions including the King Edward VII school and the St George’s institution. Our dinner was again at Nasi Kandar Pelita.

The Taiping Zoo was our primary focus the next morning. The zoo was established in 1961 and is the oldest zoo in the country. The zoo is spread over 36 acres and has over 180 species of animals. We opted to walk around the different enclosures. The orangutang were a major attraction as were the tigers and the giraffes. Animals have enough space to move around, and care has been taken to recreate their natural habitat as much as possible. The zoo also conducts a night safari with animals seen in lighting that replicates natural moonlight. We debated whether to take the night safari, but we did not have our own vehicle and we were not sure if taxis would still be operating at 11 pm when the safari ends. Discretion won and we stayed back in our hotel. 

 After the zoo we went to the Lake Gardens in Kamunting. The gardens are still being developed. The Lotus flowers growing in muddy water are a major attraction at both lake gardens. In the evening, we went to the old railway station and were glad we did. The first railway in Malaysia was built in 1885 to the port of Kuala Sepatang to transport tin. The current old station was built in 1893. The old signalling equipment and the old photographs transport you back in time. Most of the station has been transformed into cafes. We had a wonderful cendol[1] at one of the cafes. Binaya was reminiscing about his university trip to Melaka. The girls in his student group had cendol while he stuck with watermelon juice. We also had a roti tisu [2]at one of the stalls and bamboo puttu[3]. Puttu never fails to transport me back to Kerala.

We were taking a bus to KL next morning. We went to the bus station at Kamunting but our bus was around twenty minutes late. The ride along the expressway was smooth as highways in Malaysia are excellent. We had spent a delightful three days in the oldest town in Malaysia with several firsts to its credit. The town is not on the circuit of most tourists but is well worth a visit due to its historic attractions, old architecture, the lake gardens, the zoo and the friendly people!  


[1] Iced dessert

[2] Sweet flatbread from Malaysia

[3] A South Indian food made of portioned rice and sweet or savoury filling

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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