The reopening of Malaysia’s borders on April 1 after two years of travel restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 could see Taiping claim a place on the tourist map.
The second largest city in Perak State and its capital before 1937, Taiping is an hour’s drive south of Penang Island but receives only a fraction of its visitors, despite its many historical attractions and natural.
In March 2019, at the international tourism fair Tourismus-Börse in Berlin, Germany, Taiping was declared the third most sustainable city in the world, behind Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Vancouver, Canada. But he was unable to capitalize on this honor as, a year later, the Covid-19 shattered the dreams and expectations of Taiping business owners.
Taiping flourished under British colonial rule thanks to its booming tin industry. Its name means “eternal peace” – a tribute to the end of the brutal conflict between Chinese immigrant clans in the early 1870s.
The city was an important colonial administrative center and boasts many firsts including British Malaya’s first prison, the Lake Gardens and the Trading Railway – to Port Weld (now Kuala Sepetang) – which opened in 1885 to transport tin 16 km to the mangrove-covered coast.
Nevertheless, it is a “second” that puts the city on the map. Maxwell Hill (Bukit Larut in Malay), which overlooks the Taiping Lake Gardens like a giant viridian fan, became British Malaya’s second hill station in 1884, following the establishment of Penang Hill in 1787.
Visit Maxwell Hill today and three new winding hiking trails climb through lush rainforest to a misty world of abandoned colonial bungalows.
Previously, the only access to the 1,250m high upper ridge of Maxwell Hill was a 12km-long narrow colonial-era road that was closed in 2019 pending repairs.
The new routes owe their existence to the Malaysia Mountain Trail Festival (MMTF), which since 2015 has held races on the hill named after colonial administrator George Maxwell.
“Initially, I was only focused on running, but I realized that Taiping doesn’t have a permanent hiking trail like those in the outer islands of Hong Kong or Bukit Timah in Singapore,” said the president of the MMTF, Ewegene Tan.
The new trails offer five- to ten-hour jungle treks that pass by waterfalls and pools. Camping is permitted in designated areas, and three of the eight old British-style wooden bungalows at the top offer basic accommodation.
The trails became fully operational after the last MMTF race, in December 2021, which also served practical purposes.
“The topsoil in many Malaysian environments is still very loose and it’s difficult to create permanent trails,” says Tan. “But when you have 2,000 to 4,000 people running in one place, the loose ground eventually breaks up and you’ll get a good track.”
This was especially true for the trail formed from the main racecourse, which climbs 8 km through the jungle to the Box – also known as Sri Kayangan – the Sultan of Perak’s holiday home since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.
Tempting the trail, which passes through dense jungle and over various rock formations, I rest on an outcrop 350m away, gazing at Ranting Waterfall. Later, battling the leeches, I emerge soaked in sweat, rain, and a little blood, in front of the Misty Box.
Half mustard yellow wood, half exposed brick, with high white timber-framed windows, the bungalow stands in the middle of an overgrown lawn, permanently closed to the public.
Flat pathways flanked by Jurassic-like ferns pass colonial buildings that, due to a shortage of tourism amid the pandemic, have long stood empty.
The three buildings awaiting hikers and runners include the Federal Bungalow (also known as Angkasa), which comprises two sets of quarters connected by a breezeway, and Rumah Treacher (Tempinis), an ash-white wooden structure with a black sloping roof and surrounded by a green lawn. Both are managed by the local council.
At 1260m is the Nest which has just reopened under the management of the MMTF event team. Built for the use of Scottish businessman John Fraser in 1887, it is a graceful white wooden house with a pitched roof over a veranda.
None of the eight colonial bungalows – others opened as basic nursing homes before the pandemic – have been significantly restored.
“We think it’s a waste, but we also think the more people who come up the hill, the more buildings will be revived to accommodate them,” Tan says. “Local people will be more willing to take a chance and turn these disheveled heritage buildings into real vacation homes.”
The second of MMTF’s routes is a 10km trail that starts at Burmese Pool – a forest park with a swimming hole near the entrance to Maxwell Hill and the start of the old road – and climbs Bukit Larut to at its summit of 1,360 m. A telecommunications tower stands at the top, at the end of the road.
At 14km, the third trail is the longest. It also leaves the foothills near the Burmese Pool but reaches the Telecommunications Tower via Taman Suria, a forest-lined area that is home to a clear, swimmable pond and waterfall. The trail then reaches the Box, winding its way up the side of the mountain until it loops back to the first trail.
Visitors wishing to climb Maxwell Hill need a hiking permit (about 15 Malaysian ringgits, about S$4.80) and must hire a guide, who is responsible for, among other things, keeping hikers on the trails.
“Maxwell Hill is a permanent pristine forest reserve, and as such no one is allowed to stray off the trails and [past] their markers, which we placed between one and three meters from each other,” says Tan.
It is replicating Taiping’s new infrastructure in Endau-Rompin National Park in Pahang State and is also promoting the model elsewhere in the country, such as on Tioman Island off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula.
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.