The most beautiful Lake Garden

If you’ve always bypassed Taiping on your journeys, make a point of stopping there for the night. You won’t regret it.

Taiping is a place that’s pretty much off anyone’s radar, unless it happens to be your hometown and you are looking forward to your annual balik kampung break.

It’s a full hour’s drive from Ipoh using the expressway and two hours on the old trunk road. The fellow behind the wheel (a.k.a. my husband) had had a long day and he was getting grouchy. We had been to Ipoh, and he’d really rather be heading for home in KL now.
Out of order?: The trees in Taiping are let to grow to its own accord and in the end what you get is gorgeous greens. – STEVEN CHING

“But there’s nothing in Taiping,” he complained. “The car doesn’t run on water, you know?”

Luckily, we were already halfway there when he started his protest, so it made little sense to turn back. Besides, we hadn’t been to Taiping before, and weren’t we supposed to be on a hunt for good local food? But yes, the enthusiasm had started to wane.

That it rained in Taiping when we got there didn’t help much either. We were confined to the hotel for the rest of the evening. The brochure boasted that Hotel Furama was the winner of the “Golden America Award for Quality and Excellence, New Millennium Award from Geneva, Switzerland” and the “28th International Award for Tourist Hotel and catering Industry from Madrid, Spain”.

Now, with credentials like that the hotel must be amazing, right?

But what we had found ourselves staring at looked like a cross between a low-rise office block and an apartment building. The hotel had tiled walls, floors, stairs, and plastic kumquat trees with blinking lights. It felt like some towkay’s Chinese New Village home.

It was very basic with no lift, fridge, coffeehouse, or bathtub. But to its credit, everything was spotlessly clean. Delightfully, the hotel provided free, uninterrupted WiFi service. The rate being only RM71.40 per night, we had no cause to complain at all.

The best part about this nondescript hotel with its somewhat doubtful international credentials is that the famous Taiping Lake Garden and the Taiping Zoo is just a stone’s throw away. When morning came, my bedfellow was his usual get-up-and-go self again.

Hmm, it must have been the rejuvenating effect of a good night’s sleep and waking up to fresh clean air. Interestingly, this hotel with the rural feel grows on you.

You even get to hear the roosters crowing in the distance at dawn.
Making the call: An old-fashioned phone booth in front of the Information Centre.

But Taiping the town is no sleepy hollow. The makan shops were already serving the morning crowd before 7am. We settled on some dim sum at a coffeeshop. How much do you reckon you’d have to fork over for one tai pau (big meat bun), two char siew pau (barbecued pork buns) and two servings of dim sum?

RM6.50, the lady in the shop told us. This was half what we were used to paying in KL, but of course, we didn’t tell her that.

That day, we went where our noses led us.

Along Market Road, the aroma of char kuey teow from a stall in Tai Chen Kopitiam stopped us in our tracks. We put our usual mind-your-cholesterol alert on the back-burner and ordered fried rice, fried mee-hoon and fried kuey teow.

We finished the lot without a tinge of guilt or regret.

There were three things we liked about our serendipitous find: the taste, the price, and the generous helping of big delicious prawns. Paying only RM2.80 a plate, we wondered if Taiping was the last of the inflation-proof townships in Malaysia.

A little further down, we found a kopitiam dedicated totally to local fried desserts. This made us dig into our pockets for loose change. Nope, we weren’t holding back.

Restoran Goreng Pisang PSL fries bananas, yams, sweet potatoes, currypuffs, popiah, and ninko (sweet, sticky Chinese New Year cake) sandwiched between yams slices in full view of passers-by. At only 50 sen per piece, these were unsurprisingly all sold out by evening.

The proprietress, Madam PSL (we didn’t find out her full name) is a Chinese lady who started her goreng pisang business 20 years ago. Her 88-year old mother still potters around, helping to separate the pieces of fried delicacies that got stuck together and re-arranging them on the trays. It was evident that Madam PSL had done pretty well for herself, for she had upgraded her business from a road-side stall to a coffeeshop.

According to the records, Taiping was the first major town to be developed by the British. Consequently, it lays claim to a string of firsts in the country – the first swimming pool (the Coronation Pool built in 1870), the first port (Port Weld 1877, now Kuala Sepetang), the first museum (Perak Museum 1883), and the first lake garden and zoo 1880.

We left the best of Taiping for last – its renowned Lake Garden.

The council signboard said that the Garden had been acknowledged by the government as the most beautiful public garden in Malaysia. All it takes is one good look around, and you too would readily agree with the assessment.

The lake may be man-made, the remnants of a mining pool, but it has been expertly shaped and landscaped into grounds that are so scenic they take your breath away. Parts of it made us feel like we were trespassing on immaculate golf green.

The roads bordering the Garden are lined with ancient rain-trees with twisting gnarled branches that arch right across the road to slope down and dip into the lake.

Some of the trees even appear as though they are part of an enchanted, petrified forest. There was this one tree that looked like a resting stag with branches growing out of its head.

After visiting the zoo and walking the entire perimeter of the park, we sat down on a bench to rest. When we looked out across the lake, what we saw made us feel we were a million miles away from the world of rush-hour traffic and the urban crawl.

At that point in time, we felt like we were part of a perfect picture, a sort of Dorian Gray scene where nothing ages or changes.

There was the tranquil, shimmering body of water, beyond which was the gorgeous Garden with its clusters of tall, rust-leafed trees, and beyond this was the magnificent blue-green mountains of the Bintang range. Perfect.

I have been to quite a few parks and gardens in my time, and I dare say that the scenic beauty of the Taiping Lake Garden is on par with some of the best in the world. And it is right here in our own backyard, too.

By KIMMY FAM – The Star