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Rhythms of Taiping: wet, wild and eternally endearing!

Taiping train

I CAUTIOUSLY sip my freshly brewed Antong coffee, purchased enthusiastically that very morning. It is mellow, full-bodied and roasted, as it has always been since 1933, in a traditional wood-fired oven.

From the vantage point of my 12th floor hotel room window, the town rolls out at my feet like a playground. I can see the famed Lake Gardens in the distance, a muted deep green under a gloriously ominous bank of grey clouds.

Distant brahminy kites swoop in graceful formation towards the gardens, seemingly buffeted by the rise and fall of an invisible breath, before suddenly and abruptly wheeling away.

Behind the gardens, the low-lying dipterocarp forest that clads The Hill formerly known as Maxwell reaches 1,250m to where Meranti and Malaysian Oaks grow. The clouds break, a promise of sunshine hovering teasingly before, right on cue, the rain bullies past, pouring in thick silvery sheets.

Taiping, the wettest town in Malaysia, lies on the relatively narrow plain between the Malacca Straits and steep inclines of the Bintang Range. Hence, the extravagant rains that feed the many rivers and underground water sources.

Like my cup of brew, the town is seemingly steeped in both history and ceremony, both natural and cultural. Antong Coffee Mill is the oldest coffee mill in the country. This is a town full of firsts (but more of that later).

Antong possibly strikes the right touch between tourism and tradition with a shop that is housed in the former Changchun Pu Villa, a cheerful yellow wooden dwelling right next door to the mill, that was once home to the founding father of modern China Dr Sun Yat-Sen, and his partner, Chen Cuifen.

So many of the names one stumbles upon in this town are almost lyrical in their familiarity. One is invited to look a little closer with these names now plumped up by charming stories. Life is breathed into one’s old musty history text books and one gets to authenticate the experience for oneself. It all comes together in Taiping, the dichotomies of modernisation and decay, alongside the multiple epochs, sprinkled with the spice of local legend.


Taiping Heritage

The most romantic words in a heritage town (Taiping was awarded heritage status by the Perak government in 1999) may well be “pre-war building”. The Taiping Heritage Trail then would be an architecturally-laden love fest spreading over 11km of elegant historical monuments and colonial buildings.

The town’s famed “33 Firsts” are largely included here in a dizzying list, from the first zoo in the country, to the first prison, the first railway station, the first English language school, the first museum, the first telegraph office, the first public swimming pool and of course, the first hill station — to name a mere eight “firsts” that spring to mind.


But, appreciation for the detailed loveliness of the Municipal Building’s stone and wood structure, or the lure of the nation’s first English-language school renamed in honour of the British King Edward VII’s coronation in 1905, or the lore of the most infamous resident of Taiping Prison — yes, Botak Chin — aside; the real significance of all these “firsts” is perhaps to underline the strong establishment of British administration in Perak since the Pangkor Treaty was signed in 1874.

Taiping, which was then the first capital of Perak, wasn’t administered the same way as the towns under the Straits Settlements. The glories of Taiping’s many firsts were in fact a strong statement by the administrators that favourably charted history for its residents.

Today, along the Heritage Trail, the derelict Rest House still retains its faded beauty even as it awaits future occupancy. Klian Pauh, the site of the first tin mine, is now a girls’ school with Taiping Prison situated diagonally across.

The Esplanade is still a beautiful focal point, with Jalan Taming Sari running down one side of the padang (field) towards the Officers’ Mess (Wisma Perwira) and the All Saints Church. Check out the old Taiping Clock Tower and chances are a huddle of Tik-Tokers will be strutting their moves. Ditto the Taiping Market.

For those in search of a spooky tale, there’s always the Anglo-Indian-style Peking Hotel in Jalan Panggung Wayang — even if the old cinema is no longer there. We are reminded that communities are organically interwoven with Buddhist and Hindu temples, churches and mosques side by side in Jalan Kota.

Then there is the poignant beauty of the Taiping War Cemetery. It is impossible not to be moved by the simple dignity of the grave markers of many unnamed young men who fought and died for our young nation.


The Dobi Fields

Some things have endearingly remained a constant in Taiping. Driving past The Dobi Fields in Jalan Sultan Abdullah, one is greeted by the enchanting redolence of a Taiping ritual that has taken place every sunny day since the 1970s. It is the voluminous swath of colourful laundry flapping dry as nature has always invited.

The plainly named Dobi & Dry Cleaners Taiping laundry operates from the neighbouring block of flats and still services the smaller hotels and old folks’ homes around town. Oh, and do take a stroll along Jalan Barrack and stop discreetly at No. 100 to admire one of the very few exquisitely kept private homes still in existence amongst all the trade there.

The most popular attraction in Taiping will always be the third generation of food stall operators whipping their unique dishes at food courts all over town. The best food is comfortingly homemade and if one is lucky enough, these home cooks will set up a stall and serve their grandma’s authentic recipes in a bustling open-air dining experience.

Go to Casual Market or Padang Circus, which was once an actual circus site that older residents still recall with excitement, for the best yong tau foo, popiah basah, prawn mee, combat mee goreng (no longer wrapped in daun simpoh though) and cendol.

Roti and Teh Susu

For murtabak and teh tarik nipis, pop into Haji Midin. And do drop by at the Hainanese Yut Sun Kopitiam to savour that particular blend of Chinese food adapted to the colonial palate. There should always be space for chicken chop, hailam mee or soft-boiled eggs on toast.

And after all that, if there’s still residual hankering for iced lattes and sourdough, some third generationers have transformed old traditions to feed newly developed tastebuds. Jalan Kota and Barrack Road are now bustling with hipster energy radiating from cafes, juice bars, and B&Bs. Check out Sojourn, Yinn’s Patisserie, Monday Brew, Double Tap café, Triple Shot Bed and Coffee and even the STG Café at the Spritzer EcoPark.


Raintree walkers and cyclers

The name Taiping originates from the Chinese words “forever peaceful”, though in more recent years it has proudly worn many monikers and accolades. In 2019, Taiping was awarded third place globally in the “Best Cities” category of the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations at the International Tourismus-Börse travel trade show in Berlin, Germany.

Part of the credit for this is surely due to one of its most renowned landmarks — the glorious 135-year-old angsana trees lining the Raintree Walk in the Lake Gardens. There are eight former tin-mining lakes within the gardens.

Tin miners of yesteryear named these trees the “five o’clock trees” because the leaves would fold in on themselves almost precisely at 5pm when they too, are done for the day with work.

There is an aura of nobility in the architecture of the moss-furred branches arching towards the waters in majestic embrace. It is truly heartwarming to witness how much the townfolk love the Lake Gardens and its Raintree Walk. From families picnicking to practitioners strutting their tai-chi skills, and serious runners to languid flaneurs, there’s a little slice of green for everyone.

But do trudge just a little farther where the cultivated turns wild. Whether one says Maxwell Hill or Bukit Larut, this is where social climbing takes on a whole new wholesome meaning for a community where ascending this hill is their daily pilgrimage.

Via forest trail or tarmac, whether a ramble, a stroll or a power run; the fungal and the jungle will hold you in their hypnotic embrace. “Something” happens and daily walkers will attest that this ritual is more than mere exercise.

And if one should need a cooling off, there’s the Coronation Pool at the foot of the hill (oh yes, that aforementioned first public swimming pool in the country), refreshingly unchlorinated and naturally sourced from the underground waters here.

For a dip in an even more natural setting, there’s the Burmese rock pool along Sungai Batu Tegoh located a few brisk minutes away. Legend has it that it was named as such as it was sculpted by Burmese soldiers damming the river with strategically placed rocks in the 1920s.

Taiping — rainiest, forever peaceful and age-friendly. The angsana leaves still close every evening but the bloom has not faded. Perhaps one has to delve a little deeper, reach a little higher, soak a little longer to better acquaint oneself with the rhythms of Taiping. But when you do, in this town of firsts, that first visit will not be the last.

This feature was commissioned under Think City’s Cultural Economy Catalytic project for Lenggong, Kuala Kangsar and Taiping in Perak, Malaysia. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinion of Think City.

By Shireen Zainudin – August 14, 2022, NST