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Off the beaten path: Taiping

The decrepit shop houses that line the sidewalk of the main road hardly encourage tourists to check out what the town has to offer. Many look abandoned and stand as remnants of an era passed, when trade must have bustled and the tin industry that helped fuel an industrial revolution in the west was at its peak.

Without a mall, theater, beach or port, and without a lot of buzz going around, the town of Taiping in the state of Perak, Malaysia, is easy to ignore. About the only thing it is known for is its zoo, which draws 700,000 visitors a year, mostly students who go on excursions to see the animals.

But there is more to the town than meets the eye. Unquestionably off the beaten path, Taiping rewards the adventurous traveler with experiences that are infinitely more profound than mere merry-making and leisurely sightseeing.

“We are a small town [but] we have a beautiful background of heritage. We still have our old buildings, and we have our nature,” says Hanim Ramly, the head of Taiping’s Tourism, Education and Publicity Division.

Developed by the British to be the administrative center in Perak in the 1880s, Taiping does not hide its age. A walk around the city reveals architectural treasures and heritage buildings at every turn. The District Offices building in the heart of the town was built in 1897 and continues to stand in full colonial splendor.

Other restored structures that transport visitors back to the era of the Empire’s occupation include old schools and churches set up by the British during their stay in the town, centuries-old houses and the first garrison to be built in peninsular Malaysia, the Taiping Prison, which was built in 1879. Other telltale signs — like a red phone booth reminiscent of the ones seen in old movies — also serve as serendipitous finds for those who take the heritage stroll.

Two museums in the town are perhaps more remarkable for their age and history than for the collections they house. The Perak Museum, also in the heart of the town, is the first museum to open in peninsular Malaysia and is a study in colonial architecture with its whitewashed walls, intricate towers and decorated windows. Built in 1883, the structure houses a collection of 8,474 items, of which 5,074 are cultural, 523 are nature-related and 2,877 are archeological. Adding to its vintage feel are a World War II aircraft and an old steam train that are parked on the grounds.

A side trip to the district of Matang, meanwhile, brings one to the second museum: the Matang Historical Complex, also called the Ngah Ibrahim Fort. Built as a residence of tin miner Ngah Ibrahim in 1858, the house is made in the style of old Malay buildings, with wooden floors and heavy wooden staircases running from both sides of the main door. At the threshold, visitors are met by an elephant in the room — a statue of it that depicts how Ngah Ibrahim’s father Long Jaafar made his fortune from tin mining. According to legend, the elephant, owned by Long Jaafar, went missing and when found days later, was discovered covered in mud that had tin ore embedded in it.

Over the years, the residence changed hands. It fell under the British, who used it as a court to try a Malay chief for the death of a British officer; and the Japanese, who turned it into a strategic operations center during World War II. It is now under the Perak government, which has turned it into a showcase of its own history as well as that of the man who originally owned it.

Also in Matang is the Matang Mangrove Forest. Boardwalks beside the river lead visitors from the administrative office to the deeper parts of the forest, and visitors are guaranteed to see some wildlife. Our party, led by Taiping residents Dina and Hidir, had barely gotten to the starting point when a seasnake poked a diamond-shaped head out of the water and started eyeing us. Less than five minutes later, while we were still on the platform, Hidir pointed out another snake, about three feet long, sleeping with its body wrapped around a tree root.

During the 15-minute walk which saw us going half the distance of the trail, our party saw crabs in the mud below the boards, a woodpecker pecking on a tree, different tree species, and fish. We could also hear monkeys calling, but before we could get to them we decided that it would be safer for us to head back.

Dina assured us that the trail was safe. We did meet several forest rangers roaming in pairs during the short trip we took around the mangroves, and a lot of log houses, which are rented out, are built on the river.

The natural endowments of Taiping are also visible in the town proper, where centuries-old trees that line its main roads droop towards the ponds and lakes of the Taiping Lake Gardens, a former mining ground that was converted by the British into a public garden. Close by, at 1,000 meters above sea level, Maxwell Hill hosts nature trails and boasts not only cool weather and flora but also the best view of the town below it.

Ms. Hanim, Taiping’s tourism head, acknowledges that while the town has a lot to offer, more needs to be done to get it to figure more prominently on the tourism map.

She notes that when tourists visit the town, they usually stay for only two or three hours. She also notes the lack of foreign tourists, saying that of the 700,000 visitors the town gets annually, only 0.8% come from overseas.

But promotions are under way, she said, and the town is working with the governments of neighboring cities to get more tourists.

There may yet come a time when more tourists would walk down Taiping’s paths, and the town would gain the recognition it deserves.

For the time being, though, the feeble shop houses that line its streets continue to guard its secrets, and only those who dare to see what lies beyond would discover the riches that this quiet, aged town hides.

June 06, 2013
By Jennee Grace U. Rubrico


Dutch cyclists fall in love with Taiping

THE beauty of Taiping has attracted the attention of a Dutch couple who made their way here on just two wheels.

Williem and Roslie Freeke, both aged 63, who have been travelling around the world for two years on their bicycles, found their way to the quiet town of Taiping recently.

Williem (pic), in an interview, said they were amazed by the beauty of Malaysia, adding that they were earlier in Penang to enjoy the hawker cuisine before making their way to Taiping.

“We love Taiping so much that we are considering extending our stay. The lake and the natural environment are so breathtaking that we will recommend it to our friends when we get home,” he said.

Roslie said among the places they had visited so far was the Taiping Zoo and the Night Safari, adding that they loved the zoo’s open concept.

“To actually experience the sights and sounds of Taiping is so much more enjoyable than just browsing through the pictures in a travel website,” she said.

The retired couple has travelled through some 15 countries after cycling more than 15,000 km.

 – The Star – March 15, 2011