Taiping and Kuala Kangsar

April 27, 2007

Our requisite “off-the-beaten-path” stop for Malaysia is Taiping. An hour-and-a-half south of Penang by express bus, it is a pleasant small town, easily walkable in several hours.

Once a tin mining town, Taiping boasts “32 Firsts” in Malaysian history – first English-language newspaper, first museum, first railroad, etc. And while its star has fallen since those times, Taiping still draws in some visitors, although not many. In two days, I have seen no other foreign travelers; come to think of it, I think we may be the only guests in our hotel. Other than our homestay in a Cambodian village (which, being a village, had no tourist attractions whatsoever and therefore doesn’t count in my mind), this is another true first.

dsc02757.jpgActually, I really like Taiping. Its main draw, the famous Lake Gardens, do not disappoint; they are very green, flowering, and well-tended, with charming gazebos and old-fashioned lamp-posts. The mountains in the background remind me of the Japanese gardening “borrowed scenery” technique, except unlike in Japan, Taiping has not spoiled the view by building ugly, concrete apartment buildings.

The city has a small-town feel, with only a few main drags. Except for the KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and 7-11, most stores are mom-and-pop deals. People here are as friendly as you would expect small-towners to be; one man actually stopped his car, got out, and asked if we needed help as Shin and I tried to decipher the map in our guidebook. On the other hand, foreigners here must be rare, judging from all of the stares and “hello’s!” that I get from the local kids.

One reason we decided to stop in Taiping was its proximity to Kuala Kangsar, royal town of the Sultan of Perak. Kuala Kangsar is famed for two buildings – the Ubudiah Mosque and the Royal Museum. It’s an easy day trip – only one hour on local bus – from Taiping. Although even smaller than Taiping, Kuala Kangsar vaguely reminded me of Weston, a chichi suburb of Ft. Lauderdale. The town center felt very Malaysian, streets lined with Chinese shophouses, small general stores, a grocery store, a KFC. But walking further afield towards the mosque, the houses suddenly became very swanky, the landscaping very purposeful. While there are more SUVs and guard-gates in Weston, I could tell that some very well-to-do people must be situated in Kuala Kangsar, the richest being the Sultan himself.

Before arriving at the Ubidiah Mosque, we stopped in to Galeri Sultan Azlan Shah, a museum dedicated to the Sultan of Perak. Housed in a wonderful British colonial style mansion with blue-tiled fountains along the perimeter, the gallery featured everything from the Sultan’s four Rolls Royces to his judicial robes, various official uniforms and costumes, golf trophies, and Olympic passes from every year since the Seoul games. While the exhibits were only marginally interesting for me, the presentation was quite good, the building itself was beautiful, and the air-con was on full blast, very important when it’s 95-degrees outside. Overall, I don’t regret the RM 4 ($1) I paid for admission.

Visiting the museum had unfortunate consequences, however. Our next stop would be the uber-famous Ubidiah Mosque. The Roughdsc02770.jpg Guide described it as “Islam’s answer to Cinderella’s castle,” but anyone who knows their Disney would probably say it looked more like Aladdin’s. More than anything, I’d call this mosque very fun, although I’m not sure if the architect planned it that way. Dozens of tall, thin spires painted in black-and-white stripes rose up around the main dome. It glinted in the noon sun, resembling a shining, golden onion. The tragedy, however, was that we arrived at 12:09. Visiting hours were from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (thanks for mentioning that, Rough Guide), with the mosque reopening from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Disappointed, we resigned ourselves to snapping photos of the outside only.

On we went to see the Sultan’s palace, a monstrosity set amongst lovely, tropical foliage. The architectural style was British colonial meets Islam, with elements of the stately mansion topped off with bulbous, golden domes. Too lowly to be allowed within the premises, again, we gaped from the outside.

dsc02777.jpgOur last stop in Kuala Kangsar was the Royal Museum. Approaching the gate, we saw a handwritten sign posted there: Closed for Renovation. Again, we could only take pictures of the museum’s exterior. Nevertheless, the main draw of the Royal Museum is its exterior, so I didn’t feel so bad. Geometric patterns painted in the royal colors of yellow, black, and white cover the sides of the building. Raised on stilts in the traditional Malaysian way, the building also contains no nails, which is something I’ve seen before in Chinese and Japanese furniture and architecture. I think it has something to do with the nails being bad luck. The effect of the building, with its bright colors, crazy patterns, and charming shuttered windows was like something out of Hansel and Gretel, minus the candy and gingerbread (darn.)

Between the mosque and the museum, fairy tales could have been the theme for the day, along with crap luck and seeing buildings from the outside only.

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3 Responses to “Taiping and Kuala Kangsar”

  1. That’s a good post on Taiping. I visited this city in 2004. I linked to your post from my blog.

  2. sailorjes said

    Thanks for the compliment! I checked out your blog and your report on Taiping is quite detailed. Thanks for linking to my blog, too.

  3. Cheng Leng said

    I vaguely recall my “Sejarah” teacher explaining that the reason nails were not used was because nails were not yet invented. So people had to be creative with the way they place their woods so that they’d still stick up.

    The memory is hazy though, I might be totally wrong.

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