24 Hours in Taiping

After listing Kuala Sepetang in my 2015 Wish List, I finally made it there, a year and 10 months later but better than never.

After facing a week of perpetual deadlines I was desperate for a change of scene. Richard and I hadn’t road tripped since April left for Toronto and his birthday was mere days away. Cue getaway. 3 hours after departing PJ, we were in Taiping. First stop – lunch.

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The ‘modern’ clock tower located in front of the market. Not to be confused with THE Clock Tower which is now Taiping’s Tourist Information Centre.

12.30pm Old school kopitiam lunching
Yut Sun is a charming old school Hainanese kopitiam that enjoys a mixed clientele thanks to its pork free menu and cool, breezy ambience. And like many classic kopitiam, its food is stuck in a  culinary time warp. Take Richard’s Beef Steak – it didn’t look like much: a thin strip of tender meat dipped in batter, fried an unappealing beige, then drenched in gravy and served up with peas and roasted sliced potatoes. But he loved it! My Hainanese Mee on the other hand was a bit salty but the kitchen did accommodate my request for no meat, and the service was prompt and friendly. Got to love that!

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Yut Sun kopitiam – easy, breezy and unassuming.

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Unlike Ipoh, Taiping was incredibly quiet and we had the streets to ourselves. We briefly snickered at a pawn (not porn) shop called Nen Nen (the Hokkien word for breasts), before being enticed by the sweet smell of cempedak goreng (jack fruit fritters) to PSL Goreng where soft gooey bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, samosas and spring rolls were being deep-fried for teatime.

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Death by deep fry. Richard filled a pan up with golden delicious treats to take back to the hotel, while I grabbed a small jar of muruku for my workmates.

At Taiping’s Clock Tower, now its tourist information centre, we barraged caretaker Lisa with questions about her hometown. Antong Coffee, Malaysia’s oldest coffee factory and Kuala Sepetang’s charcoal factories would be closed while we were there. Fortunately there were plenty of others things to do.

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The beautiful Matang Larut District office.
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Once part of a large wooden fort, Taiping’s clock tower has been both police and fire station but is now a tourist information centre.
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At the Tourist Information Centre: “Hi! This is Richard and I’m Muna and we’re about to ask you 1000 questions….”

3pm Checking in 
When planning the trip, I had hoped to stay at Happy8 Retreat in Kuala Sepetang, but its website was down. Sojourn, according to booking sites, only had dormitory bunks on the ground floor left. So we ended up at Richard’s pick of Louis Hotel.

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My hotel room, overlooking the old market.
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All packed up for the day Inside this stunning 130 year-old wood and cast iron market structure.
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Locals refer to the market as Siang Malam or Day and Night as it used to open at all hours in the days before the North-South highway.
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My Deluxe King room for the night.

It was a good choice. Aesthetically not my thing, but spotlessly clean and very comfortable. The rooms were a decent size and the amenities plentiful: TV with satellite channels, air-conditioning, safe, kettle, local coffee (and tea), showers with good water pressure, hot water, hairdryer and even house slippers. It lacked a fridge, and the towels smelt a bit musty (dry laundry must be a challenge in Malaysia’s wettest town) but its location – downtown by the market – was excellent, the service was warm, and both CCTV and the kindly guard kept an eye on the car. After a brief lie down and some hastily scoffed cempedak goreng – which were delicious – we headed out.

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Catch a boat for the mangrove or firefly tours here.

5pm Wandering the mangroves of Matang Forest 
Situated 15 kilometres outside of Taiping, our drive to Kuala Sepetang passed the Ngah Ibrahim Fort and Museum and stalls selling ketam lembut (soft shell crab). It was when we came to a long straight road hemmed in on either side by a watery ditch and tall skinny trees, we knew we had arrived at the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve.

We paid the entrance fee (RM5 each for Malaysians, RM15 each for non-Malaysian, RM10 per car – although we weren’t charged for our vehicle), and at the jetty watched as boats dropped off passengers at the end of their mangrove tour. I would have loved to have done the same but worried about time, Richard and I wandered the boardwalk instead.

I hadn’t expected much, maybe something short and poorly maintained, but Matang’s 1 kilometre stretch of well-maintained boardwalk was delightful. Winding its way past chalets for hire, and down towards platforms that put you at eye level with the water-logged forest floor, it was quite beautiful, and for somewhere boggy, smell and mosquito free.

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The chalets which are located just off the river are available for rent.
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A local jogger bounds past us.

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Locals used the green lung as a space to jog and speed walk, but the place is also a source of livelihood. Gazetted a permanent forest reserve in 1908, the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is sustainably logged for use in the town’s charcoal making industry. As a breeding ground for crustaceans like crabs and prawns, and a nursery for fish, it supports a  thriving fishery too.

Richard and I found the wildlife abundant and easy to spot. As we strolled the planks, the sounds of water gently burbling under us, we spied butterflies, a monitor lizard, a squirrel, storks, a pair of woodpeckers, and heard gibbons. Pretty impressive – I see a lot less in the dense jungles on my hikes and CAT Walks.

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Just the kind of place you might imagine the rare fishing cat to live. I wondered if I wondered if a population of ten might be icing somewhere in this 40,000 hectare maze of mangrove.

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When we finally emerged, it was past 6pm – just enough of a window to get to Kuala Sepetang town for a very special dinner.

7pm Sunsets and seafood dinner on Sungai Sepetang
Set on the second floor of a riverside building where the daily catch is brought up and processed for distribution,  the view at Restoran Tepi Sungai is breathtaking. The wide open Sungai Sepetang before us, moored boats bobbing in the water to our right. Finally I could appreciate how expansive the mangrove is – over 40,000 hectares stretching as far as the eye could see, from Kuala Gula to Pantai Remis. Richard and I had only experienced a small fraction of it.

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Take the stairs on the left to Restoran Tepi Sungai like we did.
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Or choose the stairs on the right and chance it at Kedai Makan Tepi Sungai.
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One of the residents.
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I really don’t know the history of the two eateries but the split looks recent and as result each restaurant is absolutely tiny. Glad we got a table.

As the sun sunk below the horizon and the colours of the sky and water changed from pink to gold, pewter to Prussion blue, Richard and I struggled to tear our eyes away. Boats carrying tourists on their way to Kampung Dew to see the fireflies zipped past, larger fisher boats chugged out of the dock along the river towards the sea where dolphins and dugongs play; while in the sky one beautiful Brahmini Kite after the other flew past, occasionally dropping to the river to snatch a meal before it headed inland for the night.

It was only when our meal arrived that we finally sat down. The restaurant’s railing obscured our eyeline, but by then the sky was inky and dark anyway.

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Dinner is served.

I had anticipated a bill upwards of RM120 but it came in just under RM70 for four dishes and drinks. Bargain!

Richard had ordered steamed fish in ginger and soy sauce, chilli mantis prawns, sweet soy sauce fried prawns and garlic greens. Of those, the fish and prawns were winners for me, while the veg – usually my favourite – got a thumbs down for its muddy taste. Still, fresh seafood + affordability + view = hard to beat.

9pm Street food and weekend wheelies downtown
Back in Taiping, the edge of the old town had sprung to life. Patrons filed the open air stalls between Restoran Prima Taiping and Prima Coffee Shop (a food street if ever there was one) as stall holders rushed around chopping, cutting and delivering food orders.

Across the road, in the square behind the restored Larut Matang District Office, kids of all ages zipped past in rollerblades, miniature cars and hover boards rented from vendors at Bazar Cross Street.

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The restored Larut Matang District Office. The Victorian building was officiated in 1898, and cost a considerable sum to paint.
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One of many stalls at Cross Street’s night market, this one rents out rollerblades, scooters, hover boards….
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Richard stopped to try the fresh coco-date juice here. It tasted like a sweet chocolatey milo.

10pm Drinks and music at The Atrium
The Atrium Lounge was our last stop before calling it a night. Older than the District Offices even, the Shun Tak association building was converted into a beautiful restaurant and bar over a year ago and appears to attract young Taiping-ites and families.

Convinced by our wait staff to take advantage of the 2 for 1 special, Richard and I sat in the open air courtyard nursing more than our fair share, as a young trio rendered Cantonese and English songs folk style. All in all a lovely way to end the night.

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The Shun Tak Association was created to take care of the welfare of immigrants and acted as a community centre for social, cultural and religious events.
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As of October 2015, the association building has been restored and turned into a very cool space for dining and music.

Saturday, 9.30am In search of breakfast
The following morning I woke up later than intended. The plan had been to catch the town in its best light but it was wet and gloomy outside, clouds clinging to the edges of Maxwell Hill. That’s Taiping for you – Malaysia’s wettest town.

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Sin Kuan Kee, is a lovely corner lot kopitiam. Operational for the last 70+ years, they were selling dim sum and freshly baked biscuits and pastries, and even invited us in to sit down with them. I rarely come across anywhere so convivial. To the lovely people there – thank you for being awesome!

When we finally dragged ourselves out, Peace Hotel was our first port of call. Once a grand mansion, then rest house and restaurant, its simple, hard working setting could not hide its glamourous past.

Beautiful coloured tiles in vivid teal and marigold decorated cornices with images of sparrows and peacocks, and golden lion heads fiercely guarded its five-foot ways.

We clearly picked the wrong time. Most stall were dormant, with the exception of the duck and char siew rice place which was doing brisk business, but I wanted boiled eggs and toast. Lesson: Peace is best achieved at brunch than breakfast. Ohm….

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The Peace Hotel and Restaurant – a grand old dame of a building.

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A thing of beauty or horror depending on your perspective – on the middle tile a butterfly becomes food fro a hungry bird.
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If the grand columns and arches, tiles and grilles beguile you, then stop by for more at Tai Aun coffee shop on the same block.
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Operating as early as 10am, the roasted duck and char siew stall was doing brisk trade.

For that we scooted across the road to Larut Matang Food Court, where it felt as if the whole town had turned up to eat amongst the rows of stalls – halal to the left, non-halal to the right.

Whether you are here for late breakfast or early lunch, anything is possible – kuew teow or economy rice, roti canai or nasi campur. Uncharacteristically, Richard had a walk in the Lake Garden on his mind.

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The buzzing Larut Matang Food Court.

10.30am A walk in the park
The first public gardens in Malaya, Taiping Lake Garden was established in 1880 by the British Administration, after an old tin mine was donated to the community by Taiping-born, Penang-raised Kapitan Chung Thye Phil, then subsequently landscaped by town planner Charles Reade.

Encompassing 64 hectares with 10 lakes and ponds, there was no way we could get around it all – cycling or peddling a big plastic swan across the water would have been quicker – but it was nice to wander its tranquil grounds with no immediate destination.

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Cycling for the sun-shy.
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A glimpse of Taiping’s elegant Lake Gardens.
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Mighty angsana trees surround the gardens. Only a surprise roar from the big cats in the nearby zoo interrupts the tranquility of the park.
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Maxwell Hill / Bukit Larut (1250m) struggles to hold back the rain clouds.
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Look at me swanning around….
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The Titiwangsa Range in the background.
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A kingfisher perches in the lower branches in a marshy section of the gardens.

Our only complaint was the littering, which was rampant despite abundant signs posted around the park strictly prohibiting it. I don’t know how many times I’ve said this, but who do people expect to clean up after them? And what if they came across the rubbish, would they not themselves be put off? Sigh….

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Showing a complete disregard for the environment they had previously enjoyed, some errant park users had abandoned their discards without any consideration for nature or other park users. We also McDonald’s packaging from the nearby fast food joint. I would never hold the fast food chain responsible for the litter, but even they must see the value of launching an anti-litter and clean up campaign as a community CSR project.

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Fastest eco-friendly way to get around the lake.

After checking out of Louis Hotel, we went in search of a helping of Malaysia’s favourite dessert.

12noon Just desserts
Good cendol is plentiful in Taiping. Bismillah’s friendly hole in the wall has been doing it since 1993, plain, with beans or pulut, or both and can be enjoyed with a plate of Pasembor or a bowl of Laksa Utara from the motorbike stall parked nearby.  Richard and I stopped there for a refreshing pick me up after exploring the quiet streets around King Edward VII State School.

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Part of a council initiative, you can find street art by Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) artists on the walls of Kedai Bee Poh along Jalan Ong Saik / Cross Street No. 4.

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One of the oldest schools in Malaysia, KE7’s alumni include luminaries such as former MCA Chairman  Tun Ling Liong Sik, two Perak sultans – Sultan Iskandar Shah and Sultan Abdul Aziz, actor and director Jins Shamsudin, former Armed Forces Chief General Tan Sri Mohamed Ghazali Ch Mat and a bunch of national hockey football players, to name but a few. Go Tigers!

A street away, the competition, Ansari Famous Cendol has been doing it longer – since 1940 – but as we still had to leave room for lunch we couldn’t make a comparison.

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Bismillah serves up cendol, but if you fancy something savoury you can order up a plate of pasembur, or a bowl of laksa utara from the motorbike parked nearby.
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Predating Bismillah is Ansari, located just around the corner opposite King Edward VII School.

2.30pm Mee udang lunch in Kuala Sepetang
When in Taiping-Kuala Sepetang, Mee Udang Banjir is a must do, and for that reason we made Mak Jah’s our last stop before heading home.

Despite it being his birthday weekend, Richard opted for the Mee Udang Banjir while I plumped for the Mee Udang Banjir Special – the difference being that I would get much bigger prawns.Regardless of size, both dishes turned out to be generous in their helping of freshly caught crustaceans.

Richard liked his, but I was less keen on the broth, which was a thin sweet and sour soup with next to no vegetables. Good thing I ordered up the deep fried prawns, which were scrumptious.

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Patrons can enjoy live music courtesy of Rosidi Harun who performs here in order to save up enough money for his medical treatment. Do give generously.
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Large but simple set up at Mak Jah’s in Kuala Sepetang.
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Mak Jah’s sought after Mee Udang Banjir – brimming with big juicy fresh prawns but otherwise not all that. Sorry.
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Udang goreng tepung – huge ass prawns dipped in a spicy egg batter and deep fried until crispy.  Dee-lish!

With Taiping and Kuala Sepetang, we had only really scratched the surface. All the things that were closed or we missed were already on our list for our next visit – this time not another year and 10 months later.

Directory

Stays
The Happy 8, LC151A3, Tepi Sungai, Kuala Sepetang, Perak. F: www.facebook.com/thehappy8
Sojourn Beds & Cafe, 54 Jalan Kota, Taiping, Perak. T: 60 5 805 4048 F: www.facebook.com/sojournbc W: www.sojournbc.com
Louis Hotel 129-131 Jalan Pasar, Taiping, Perak. T: 60 5 808 233 / 807 0333 W: http://www.louishotel.com.my

F & B
Ansari Famous Cendol, Jalan Chung Thye Pin, Taiping, Perak. (Halal)
Atrium Lounge, 36 Jalan Kota, Taiping, Perak. (Alcohol served)
Bismillah 151 & 139 Jalan Barrack, Taiping, Perak. (Halal)
Larut Matang Food Court, Jalan Panggung Wayang, Taiping, Perak.
Mee Udang Banjir Mak Jah, Kampung Menteri, Kuala Sepetang, Perak. (Halal)
Peace Hotel and Coffee Shop, 32 Jalan Iskandar, Taiping, Perak. (Non-halal)
PSL Pisang Goreng, 85 Jalan Pasar, Taiping, Perak.
Restoran Tepi Sungai, 150 Jalan Sungai Manggis, Kuala Sepetang, Perak.
Sin Kuan Kee, 41 Jalan Kota, Taiping, 34000, Perak.
Yut Sun 78-80 Jalan Pasar, Taiping, Perak. T: 05 808 3250 (Pork-free)

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