The International Steam Pages

Taiping Weekend - Unspoiled by Progress
Taiping Town

Just as when I lived in Penang in the 1970s, I rarely feel the need to go to the mainland but a visit to reportedly unspoiled Taiping was overdue. We had a most enjoyable visit to northern Thailand with John Baker from Bangkok in January 2016 and he was keen to visit too. So it was that we took the brand new ETS (Electric Train Service) from Butterworth for a 3 night stay in early March 2016 overnighting on the edge of town for the usual reasons of economy. However, the Beverly Hotel had the inestimable benefit of an attached food court whereas the hotels in the Lake Gardens area such as the Flemington with better ambience were some distance from similar establishments. Our timing was right, Rapid Kamunting buses had just launched themselves and for a month were free to ride, one route (10B) ran past our hotel from Taiping to Kamunting, another (20A and 20B) offered journeys round the 'heritage trail'. The visit was voted a success by Yuehong and we plan to go back and have a more detailed look next time around.

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Officialdom has made a conscious decision to leave Taiping in a 1970s or even earlier time warp and concentrate development around Kamunting some way north. That's a good decision, Malaysia generally is very uncaring about its heritage which by and large means no more than the World Heritage Sites of George Town (Penang) and Malacca. However, it will need a lot more resources and a lot more than words to create a sustainable tourist attraction that is also a good place to live and do business in. There is a very real risk that it will simply fall down as some buildings have done both in the town and up Maxwell Hill.

Taiping ('Heavenly Peace') was a creation of the explosive development of tin mining in the late 19th century. While the Sultan of Perak officially ruled from the royal capital of Kuala Kangsar, the state was effectively run by a small number of British colonialists brought in when rival groups of miners got so out of control that they were effectively fighting a small war. Walking round the town today, it's still possible to imagine it as it was 50 or even 100 years ago. Very recently, a heritage trail has been established:

No one in their right mind would follow it all on foot in the tropical heat as it must amount to some 6 km at least from the old railway station in the west, through the town centre and the Lake Gardens to the foot of Maxwell Hill. That's obviously where the new bus service comes in and I wish it every success - probably it needs a 'stop on demand' system rather than dedicated bus stops which are too far apart at the moment. The whole project is in its infancy and right now there's a distinct lack of signage; for a start each one of the 'attractions' needs an information board (in Bahasa Malaysia and English) outside together with a copy of this map (with appropriate 'You are Here' arrow). We were still tired from the hike up Maxwell Hill and barely scratched the surface of what is available, we plan to return and spend a few days here to do it justice.

Our starting point was the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at the base of Maxwell Hill. There are hundreds of graves here, mostly containing bodies recovered from unmarked burial places and as such most are 'Known to God'. From here it was not far to the Burma Pools originally a recreation spot for the British Army and now a local favourite watering hole on a Sunday morning. Sadly, the amount of litter in the surrounding area was considerable, in contrast to the rest of the town which is neat and tidy.

We cut through the Lake Gardens which almost unbelievably were once a tin mining area. They are indeed a credit to the town. The columns presumably came from the remains of one or more houses devoured by termites.

Beyond is the monument to the 'turf wars' between rival Chinese factions, Taiping's famous jail. It's still in use for its original purpose and I think they will struggle to find an alternative use once it is considered no longer suitable for incarceration.

From here it was a short hop to the museum, which is probably more notable for its improbable establishment more than a century ago rather than its rather drab contents. However, there are some interesting outdoor exhibits. The Garrett portable engine is said to have been used in the tin mines. The old Perak State Railway coach was preserved for a long time on the platform at Ipoh station, its presence here is quite appropriate as the country's first railway ran from Taiping to Port Weld. Finally, of the motor vehicles perhaps the most interesting is this Star automobile made in Wolverhampton, UK.

The walk to town had a distinct colonial feel to it. First up is the original All Saints Church - a new one has been built behind the next door vicarage and down by the Padang is an army mess still apparently used for its original purpose.

The Esplanade Padang is still used for traditional team games, behind is the New Club and behind that Maxwell Hill. Today the clouds were brewing for a traditional downpour.

Many attractions have this small pavement plaque outside, unfortunately, they are not scuff proof. The 1897 town hall is now the district land office, there's a modern one next door.

The town centre was very quiet, maybe because it was a Sunday but Yuehong found just what I needed right opposite the bus stand, we were told we would have about half an hour to wait, just right!

And afterwards as the rain started to fall we had a free ride back to the hotel. Note the registration, these are Penang buses 'on loan' together with their drivers.

Next day, before on our train home we had a chance to see what is today's KTM's idea of heritage. It's an old weighing machine and the bare remains of the old station with a lever frame and a room full of old pictures. I know it's not the original station (that was where the King Edward VII School is now) but I would give them 2/10 for imagination. They could easily have kept the old ticket office and the station master's room with the single line control apparatus for a start. 

A great weekend and we're very grateful to John for suggesting it.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson