John arrived bang on time to collect me for today’s adventure and we set off to leave Ipoh.
I asked him whether the city was usually this quiet. On weekdays, yes but livelier on weekends.
As we drove through the valley, John explained that the city is surrounded by mountains and there are only two ways in and out of the long narrow valley – tunnels through the mountain.
He warned me that these are accident black spots – landslides and poorly maintained trucks. Vehicle safety isn’t well enforced.
As we passed the Perak Cave Temple, John advised me that the view may not actually be worth the climb to the top of the cliff. Once upon a time it was but the area around has been heavily industrialised.
I decided to bear that advice in mind.
I was the only passenger on today’s tour and I was relieved to find a company that would actually take a solo booking. Obviously, the cost corresponds. Solo bookings cost 820MYR two people 430MYR and a group of four 230MYR.
First stop: breakfast what, I asked, was a hawker centre?
In Malaysia, they’re actually called coffee shops – a large space filled with the type of mobile cooking stalls (as used in Vietnam) that street vendors or hawkers would use.
When Ipoh was awarded city status in 1988, a decision was made to move the hawkers indoors to ensure improved hygiene. So, few few street vendors and street food is under a roof.
John recommended shrimp and roast pork noodles in a soy sauce with sambal (chilli in a shrimp paste) on the side. It was delicious and I also watched the cook steam rice noodle sheet with the pork and shrimp, before wrapping and slicing.
We headed out of Ipoh, on a road with steep, forested mountainsides rising up around us before heading through a tunnel into a wider valley.
Our next destination was an hour away, mostly through forests but also the occasional palm plantation.
Destination: Bukit Merah… also known as Orangutan Island – a conservation sanctuary.
One of my favourite characters in literature is the Librarian of the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork on Discworld. He’s an orangutan… he didn’t start if that way but as the books progressed he became more orangutan and less wizard – messing with his books was not considered wise.
I rarely miss an opportunity to see the animals.
The lake, where the island sits, is manmade – built as a reservoir to supply paddy fields – and access to the island was naturally by boat. Besides John and I, there were two other passengers.
Come on a weekend and this place would be packed.
The orangutans roam, largely, free on the island and it’s the human visitors who are caged. I say “largely free” as there are separated territories- you can’t have two alpha males together… this territory ain’t big enough for the both of them.
The Sanctuary rescues and breeds orangutans for release back into the wild in Borneo. Some arrive as injured adults while others are orphaned babies.
Ilyia, our guide, explained that there are currently only sixteen animals here as eight have been successfully released. She told us that to prepare animals for reintroduction there is a smaller island just across from the main one, where the Sanctuary isolates orangutans for up to a year – no human contact and fending for themselves.
The orangutans here all know their names and Ilyia called to them encouraging them to show themselves.
Some were more reluctant than others preferring to remain in the shade away from the heat. Mango and even coconut did not entice but it became clear that peanuts were Hiroshi’s weakness and he barrelled out of the trees to grab them.
The fence is slightly electrified so he used a stick to reach through to grab a few stray nuts.
These had probably been dropped by the long tailed monkeys climbing overhead. They know there is food on the island and they can swim so they have moved in.
Because there were only three of us, Ilyia opened the metal gates and allowed us close to the inner fence to see the animals more closely.
Vijay, the alpha male even posed for the camera – I know small children that are less cooperative.
Jiden sold her soul for a few bananas with an impressive aerial acrobatic display and Ilyia said that she was sorry we had not seen more orangutans – I saw more than I see on an average day.
This was an astonishing opportunity.
Visiting the Sanctuary can be done more cheaply, rather than as part of a tour, costing only 40MYR (£8) to visit but the tour included several other destinations and no worrying about how to find my way there – plus John need to be paid, obviously.
Next destination was Taiping with lunch at a chop house.
Taiping was the first tin mining town in Malaysia and settled by Hainan Chinese who adapted the British love of chops and created chop houses, where the menu (with the exception of the rice) wouldn’t look out of place in any of Manchester’s current chop houses. Lowry would probably have approved.
Today there are no pork chops on offer but plenty of chicken and beef, with tinned peas on the side.
After lunch John drove me around to the Taiping Gardens – once a tin mine but after it was exhausted, it was handed over to the British who turned it into a huge garden.
The raintrees whose branches lean towards the water have been here over 130 years and their low branches have resulted in the closure of the road and creation of a walkway.
It became necessary after buses got stuck.
After a brief stroll we headed off to the Antong Coffee Mill where we arrived in time to see the roasting equipment being cleaned.
The Mill roasts for small coffee shops which once upon a time used to roast their own but nowadays it’s more cost effective to commission a mill to do the work.
This one has been in business since 1933 and is also notable as a hiding place for the first president of the Republic of China as he travelled among Chinese communities in Malaysia building support for a revolution to topple the Emperor.
Mining bosses did not support him, but their workers did.
We drove through the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve which has been protected since 1903.
We visited a charcoal factory which uses burning techniques introduced by the Japanese during the World War Two occupation.
Much of the charcoal produced today is shipped to Japan.
There are around 500 kilns in the forest but there are limits on how much mangrove wood can be harvested each year. Each tree is around 30 years old before it is cut down.
The logs and the charcoal are transported by small boats along the canals when the water is high.
We also visited a dragon incense factory. These huge… ‘sticks’ hardly does them justice…can be three metres tall and larger.
They’re decorated and painted with dragons and used for important festivals like Chinese New Year.
I asked John if, like the charcoal to Japan, these were imported to China though I added that I had never seen these while I was travelling through the country.
John wasn’t surprised – when the People’s Republic was founded, dragon incense was one of the traditions that was lost in mainland China. Communities elsewhere continue to use these to celebrate.
The final stop after what had already been a packed day was a visit to the Matang Museum to improve my understanding of some of Malay history, in relation to tin mining…
… the Taiping tin being discovered by the sultan’s elephant…
… the assassination of Birch the British Resident of Perak who annoyed the local lordship by banning slavery and directly collecting taxes from the people.
50 people were eventually charged with Birch’s assassination. Some of the roads and buildings named after Birch are now being renamed for Maharaja Lela – one of the men behind the plot to kill Birch.
It was a busy day – I saw places that I wouldn’t have visited or seen without taking this tour. I learned a lot, some of it quirkier than I expected and… of course, I saw orangutans.
So was it worth it? Oh, yes.