Monday, August 6, 2012

Fraser’s Hill – The Tortuous Road to a Colonial Malaysian Hilltown

What intimidates me? Altitude, destitution, pain, disfiguring accident, growing old ugly, smelly and despicable (haha), but more than this plethora of woes is my fear of getting stranded in a place, with mobility stifled by limitations of situation, transport, finance, and accommodation. I am petrified by the possibility. This is why it took me forever to visit Fraser’s Hill, a colonial-era hill station in the mountainous Pahang State of Peninsular Malaysia. The town, occasionally fog-bound and embraced by verdant mountain foliage, stands at an elevation of 1,524 meters, thus boasts of cool atmosphere all year round. This is why at a distance of 105 kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur, the hill station should easily beacon KL urbanites and the wandering backpacker for an easy 2 hour drive, right?

Not exactly.

For some reason, public transport in the hill is non-existent. There used to be a bus that commutes to the hills from Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB), but this has stopped operation. These days, to get to Fraser’s Hill, you have to arrange for a private car (taxis) from KL, which is expensive (try 200 ringgit for a one-way ride). The other option is to take KTM Komuter’s northern line (train) from KL Sentral, change trains at Rawang, then depart for KKB. From KKB, you have to find, wait and arrange for a car that will take you uphill and arrange for your return. As per experience, there isn’t a queue of competing taxis at the KKB station. When one is available, you’re at the driver’s mercy, really. And don’t you just love placing oneself in such situation? The going rate is 80 ringgit (one way) for an hour’s traipse into one of the most sinuous, death-defying ride this side of amateur Formula One. But I am getting ahead of myself.

So let me start in KL where I partook (sounds “iffy”) my breakfast at the Beltif Hotel. All day the previous day, I was conflicted about Fraser’s Hill and this was more pronounced during my visit at the Tourism Office. They didn’t have much to offer: no brochure, no information about group tours, no inspiring tales. In fact, what they had, I knew already. So you can understand the trepidation swirling inside my head. But I am bullheaded. I probably won’t stop until I see myself dangling down a mountain perch, waving and hanging on for dear life. 

Breakfast at Beltif Hotel

KL Sentral
At 9 AM, I had my Imbi train to KL Sentral. I bought my KTM Komuter ticket to KKB (5.60 ringgit), and after 8 stops, I alighted at Rawang to change trains. Rawang, with greens embracing its surroundings, and buildings turning into low-ceiling structures, was mostly deserted. I climbed the overpass to get to Platform 2. A train car would eventually take me to KKB (the second to the last stop of the line, with Tanjung Malim at the end of the line). I waited for 30 minutes, still cloaked in a sea of indecision. Was I really doing this? For 30 minutes, I calmed myself until my ride arrived. Four stations later, I was in KKB, in another sparsely used station with very few souls. They could film any “Day of the Dead” sequel here, I thought.

Outside the station, I asked someone if he knew where I could find a “taxi” that would take me to Fraser’s Hill. There were no vehicles parked outside. My anxiety grew by a notch, of course, but I was there already. There was no turning back. Like an incantation, a car stops right across the entrance. The guy spoke to the driver who kept sneaking glances my way. I also noticed that a young, English-speaking Malaysian couple was looking for a ride. I later realized that they would share a car with me – at 80 ringgit a piece! Oh my goodness, this driver was making hay! A single ride should fetch 80, not 80 times 2! But it was too late to complain. So with bated breath, I took my front seat; the Malaysians took the back.

Shiraz, our Indian driver, was almost oblivious to his Malaysian customers; local tourists. When he opened his mouth, he would look at me so we were “buddies”. I was, after all, the foreigner. How long will  this ride take? I asked. “About an hour, although some drivers will take an hour and a half, but you watch me,” Shiraz proudly declared. Valid, but wrong question. For the next hour, Shiraz regaled us with his most horrific speed-racing, spine-tingling skill, sliding through zigzags like he was breaking some world record – or the sound of light, for that matter. It was a respite then when he stopped to “delight” us with some sight-seeing hospitality and photo opportunity – with a view of the sprawling, scenic dam!

The rest of the ride, we were all silent. I and my Malaysian colleagues were frozen stiff. I actually said my prayers, but tried to keep it cool, occasionally telling Shiraz we were not in a hurry. I somehow expected for an eventual leap through the rails and down some steep ravine. I have never felt so close to the end of my days until then. This was like a badly prognosticated cancer, a death sentence, a trapeze act without the harness and net down below. What’s worse, I knew I was gonna experience this again on my way back! He was after all my only ride back to civilization!

From KL Sentral's KTM Komuter station, there are 8 stops to Rawang where I changed trains at platform 2.

We finally arrived at midday. The Malaysian girl was ready to hurl as they were taken to their hotel (Silverpark Resort Hotel). I was gonna stay for a few hours, while Shiraz waited, before heading back to KL. I knew that if I could get another ride, I would jump at the chance and leave Shiraz who, by this time, was quite smug for having made it in less than an hour. Watching his face, I swear I could peruse elements of voluminous orgasm. I on the other hand had shivers. Now I know what “driving like a madman” truly meant.

Shiraz dropped me right in front of the Clock Tower, the symbol of Fraser’s Hill. He parked nearby then dozed off for the rest of my afternoon gallivanting. I shook off my nerves and calmed myself. Fraser’s Hill looked like an English county! With narrow, yet tortuous, uphill streets, you could wake up from a dream and get disoriented.

Fraser’s Hill was named after Louis James Fraser, a Scotsman who failed to find his gold in Australia in the 1890s. He instead struck “tin” in this peninsula. Fraser was a willful opportunist. He operated mule trains down the mountains, employed cheap labor through Chinese miners, opened gambling dens and jumpstarted the opium commerce in the region. Such shady activities were believed to have cost him his life. Fraser disappeared and was never found.

Though the tin industry eventually dwindled down, its rich foliage allowed the hill to be turned into a resort in 1913. Road projects were initiated sometime in 1922, and one of the country’s first golf courses came to being. Nothing much has changed since then. In fact, I hardly saw anything that bespoke of Malaysian urban rejuvenation: no 24-hour convenience stores, no malls, no KFC or McDonalds franchises. The place is riddled with bungalows, a Post Office, a Police Station (circa 1919), hotels, small restaurants, a souvenir shop, a mosque and more importantly, the Clock Tower (where Genting Street and Lady Guillemard Streets intersect) at the heart of town. Nothing else.

The Clock Tower, suffused with creeper vines looked like it got transported out of a sleepy Dorset town. It was designed and constructed in 1989 by Z. Jaal, a Malaysian architect. Moreover, Fraser’s Hill is a bird watching destination. In fact, some 250 species have been recorded here. There’s the Jeriau Waterfalls on your ascent into the hills. Swimming could be had there, but it’s a 30 minute (5 kilometer) ride from the center of town. Aside from golf, another popular activity here is a traipse in the jungle through one of the 8 trails in the area. However, it’s easy to get lost and guides are therefore recommended – but where from? The tourist office is closed most of the time. Aside from getting lost, you might encounter leeches along the trails.

After a walk around the center of town, I found a small restaurant that read Kheng Yuen Lee Eating Shop. I ordered a “fried mee” (fried noodle/pansit) and a coke (6 ringgit and 2 ringgit). It started to drizzle while I consumed my noodle. “It hadn’t rained in a while until today,” offered Shiraz while we were making our way down. My driver was 34 years old, married with a daughter. He could be a little more circumspect if he wanted a longer life with his young family, I thought.  

I went back to KKB thankful to the heavens that I was still in one piece. Shiraz handed me his number. We were friends now, he grinned, so he could offer me and my friends discounts in the future. I wasn’t sure I’d get grateful pats on the back if I were to recommend him. LOL

I bought a ticket back to KL Sentral – 5.60 ringgit, cheap for a train ride that almost takes two hours one way. A day out in Fraser’s Hill is not such a worthy itinerary. I wouldn’t recommend it because the whole travel time takes 5-7 hours and there’s very few things to see. Hiking would probably make a visit worthwhile, but you need to stay – at least – overnight for that. I don’t have intentions of doing that. What would I do after sundown, look at the walls? Honeymooners might enjoy the place though. Cool weather, no distractions. Perfect for cuddling – and, like I said earlier, nothing else.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Rawang Station

Rawang Station, the line's 2nd to the last stop.

Overpass to platform 2

Here are beautiful images from Fraser's Hill

KKB Train Station here

Here's the 30-minute wait at platform 2 for my Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB) destination.

A mosque beside Rawang station.

My train to Kuala Kubu Bharu

Shiraz, my car ride to Fraser's Hill at the KKB station.

Start of the tortuous ride as it begins its ascent up the hill.

Scenic dam

Shiraz dutifully does photo duties with my Malaysian carmates.

First stop was Silverpark Resort, my Malaysian carmates' hotel.

Silverpark Resort

Scale model of Silverpark Resort

Map of Fraser's Hill and its 8 trails: Maxwell Trail, Bishop's Trail, Rompin Trail, Mager Trail, Abu Suradi Trail, Hemmant Trail (an easy 20-minute trail north of the gold course), Kindersley Trail and Pine Tree Trail (a full day, 7 to 8 hour, 6 kilometer trail).

Town garden overlooking Puncak Inn where I planned on staying had I decided on an overnighter.

Fraser's Hill Golf Course, a 9-hole walking course that's open 8 AM to 7 PM.

Post Office

Police Station circa 1919

My 6 ringgit fried mee at Kheng Yuen Lee Eating Shop. Thought it looks nasty, this actually tastes good. Coke costs 2 ringgit.

Kheng Yuen Lee Eating Shop

Jeriau Waterfalls. This photo only courtesy of flickr's macloo/mindy mcadams.

Clock Tower, the town's most popular sight, is filled with creeper vine. Constructed in 1989.


Patrycja Photography said...

A wonderful blog! I really like it.
Have a nice evening!
+ I also invite you to me

"Do not give up on dreams, you never know when need be."

eye in the sky said...

@ Patrycja:

Thanks. I love the photos in your blog as well, and I shall be coming back. :)

NRIGirl said...

That was an awesome trip! I can say that from the 'safety' of Internet!

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Haha. It was eventful, that's for sure. :)