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A 1,000-Kilometer Backroad Trip in Malaysia


A loop through misty peaks, laid-back river towns and primeval rain forests gives new luster to the forgotten gems of northern Malaysia's emerald interior. BY MARCO FERRARESE. PHOTOGRAPHED BY KIT YENG CHAN.

Published on Aug 2, 2016

 

PAVED HIGHWAYS BE DAMNED, we're going rogue. When our local friends take a road trip, they rarely explore beyond the convenience of the coastal North-South Expressway's guardrail. But we have our sights set on adventure, as we pull out of the driveway of our home in Penang in a tiny Perodua Kelisa (a Malaysianmade clone of the Fiat 500) to drive in a loop from the archaeological town of Lenggong to Kuala Kangsar, Perak's royal city. By the route we're taking, a 40-minute drive becomes an eight-day, 1,000-kilometer back-road expedition via little known towns and viridian river valleys that dazzle in our headlights.

Drive to Kuala Kangsar
Drive to Kuala Kangsar.

 

PENANG TO LENGGONG
DAY 1
l Drive Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes

With the 30,000-year-old cave-art attractions currently fenced off for renovation, stopping at one of Malaysia's least known UNESCO World Heritage sites may, at first, seem like a waste of time. But sitting among chatty locals at hole-in-the-wall Loh Dee Wan Ton Mee (Jalan Baling-Kuala Kangsar), I learn that my bowl of hand-pulled noodles with wontons is just one of many reasons to linger. Five minutes outside of town, the 10,000-year-old Perak Man, Malaysia's oldest known resident, is waiting to meet us at the museum in Kota Tampan. The observation tower gives a bird's-eye view of Lenggong Valley, where a meteor struck about 1.8 million years ago. Eight kilometers south along Federal Route 76 we find the 50-meter-high Lata Kekabu waterfalls. No ticket is required to listen to the local insect philharmonic reverberate into this amphitheater of rock, water and jungle vines.

Loh Dee Wan Ton Mee
Wonton noodles at Loh Dee Wan Ton Mee.

Loh Dee's customers tell us that sunset is best at Tasik Raban, a shimmering lake nestled farther south along the highway and the scene is as stunning as promised. Come nightfall we're craving Lenggong's staple dish—steamed river-fish belly—so we steer to Chat Sook Restaurant (+60 12 598 1733) where it is served with soy sauce and spicy sambal. Sated we head to the basic Soon Lee Hotel nearby, right on the main road. For longer sojourns, 4WD-accessible farm stay Permaculture Perak offers jungle hideaways atop the valley's flanks.

 

TASIK TEMENGGOR
DAY 2
l Drive Time: 1 hours and 30 minutes

The best way to appreciate the ancestral forests surrounding man-made Lake Temenggor is from the water. Belum Rainforest Resort organizes day excursions into the Belum-Temenggor reserve (from RM150 per person including boat transfer; permits for Belum require seven days advance application). The jetty at Pulau Banding offers lake cruises on houseboats (Banding Crew Nine Enterprise: +60 13 453 0190) stopping at waterfalls, aboriginal villages and a salt lick where, if you're lucky, you'll see wild deer and tapirs.

Tasik Temenggor
Tasik Temenggor is a perfect fishing trip.

 

GUNUNG STONG
DAY 3
l Drive Time: 2 hours

Despite the promising elephant-crossing signs, rugged Route 4 is pachyderm-free. We drive down the Titiwangsa mountain range at the Jeli turn-off where the limestone caves of Batu Melintang are a worthy pit stop. Stalagmites reach up to a ceiling where hundreds of bats take their daylong siesta. Another half hour along jungle-flanked Route 66, and we're peering up at the 300-meter-drop, seven-tier Jelawang Waterfall cascading from 1,440 meter-high Gunung Stong like a river of tears. Avoid the park headquarters' neglected wooden chalets, and hike two hours to Baha's Camp, at the base of the five-hour hike to the summit (guides RM180 per day for 15 people maximum). It's worth roughing it for a night to rise at 5 a.m. and catch the sun blazing purple, dripping dawn over a blanket of misty clouds.

Batu Melintang
The towering limestone caverns of Batu Melintang in Gunung Stong.

 

DABONG, GUA MUSANG AND KAMPUNG PULAI
DAY 4 
l Drive Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes

Breakfast along the Jungle Railway at Dabong's train station puts us in touch with yet more friendly locals. After a cup of frothy teh tarik, we follow an invitation to visit Gua Ikan, a cave complex five kilometers south of town. The massive entrance leads to a warren of narrow tunnels that extend through the cave and into adjacent Gua Kris. We decide to skip the crawl through mud, and stay back at Dabong's railway station to play a game of checkers with the local trainspotters instead. For lunch we head to Kak Zah Restoran. We are deep into Kelantan's Islamic heartland, a cradle of zesty Malay cuisine, and this restaurant has dished up traditional fare for three generations, with recipes that have only gotten better with time. Their nasi kerabu (coconut-flavored blue rice) is great with or without a serving of tangy rendang chicken.

Dabong
Choose from checkers or caving at Dabong.

As the day winds to an end, we navigate to the river town of Kampung Pulai, eight kilometers south, to take in the sunset. This odd slice of bamboo-strewn southwest China, floating in the middle of Malaysia, started off as a secluded Hakka gold-mining settlement six centuries ago, and only opened to the outside world when the first tarred road was built in 1988. The Water & Moon temple, one of the country's oldest Chinese shrines, rises above a quiet river that flows in the shade of jungle-clad karsts. We hike along rubber estates to the top of Princess Hill just before sun clocks out for the day, where a stalagmite carved into Goddess of Mercy Guanyin gives us a stone blessing. We're transfixed watching the river glint in the valley below while the surrounding jungle blends into dusk. We spend the night in a cozy wood-fitted room at Pulai Holiday Village, an unbeatable spot set beside a karst and underground cave.

Kampung Pulai
Kampung Pulai, Malaysia's Islamic heartland.

 

TAMAN NEGARA SUNGAI RELAU
DAY 5 and 6
l Drive Time: 40 minutes

This less-visited entrance to Taman Negara, the world's oldest rain forest, has three hiking loops that can be self-explored in a day. Ten minutes into the jungle, and we shriek like schoolkids when wild boars emerge from the thicket to check us out. The next day, our morning call is the equally high-pitched hoot of colorful rhinoceros hornbills. They flutter about, picking their breakfast of fresh fruit from the treetops. And if that's not enough wildlife, chartered 4WDs venture seven kilometers farther into the jungle to the Bumbun Rimau hide, where dorm-style rooms overlook a salt lick. The end of the jeep track at Kuala Juram marks the starting point of guided four-day expeditions to the summit of 2,187-meter Gunung Tahan, peninsular Malaysia's highest peak. While there are lodges at nearby Merapoh, we backtrack to Gua Musang, where Welcome Inn (+60 9 912 2912) is a perfect mid-range option.

Taman Negara
A colorful rhinoceros hornbill in the Taman Negara rain forest.

 

CAMERON HIGHLANDS
DAY 7
l Drive Time: 2 hours

We arrive at this former British hill station and famous tourist spot from Kelantan's back roads, ready for a break from the road. Gorging on fresh strawberries with whipped cream at the top of Raaju's Hill farm (+60 19 575 3867) and browsing through a cornucopia of Malaysian vintage pop and colonial memorabilia at the Time Tunnel Museum is just the respite we are after. Spending a night by the fireplace at The Smokehouse, a piece of Tudor style built in 1939, may be the closest to an evening in rural England as we will ever experience in the tropics.

Raaju's Hill farm
Fresh strawberries at Raaju's Hill farm.

 

KUALA KANGSAR TO PENANG
DAY 8 and 9
l Drive Time: 4 hours

As we explore the rich evidence of colonial history, well-landscaped boulevards and the ornate golden-domed Ubudiah Mosque, we marvel that we are the only travelers here. A stop at the Malay College, one of Malaysia's premier schools where A Clockwork Orange's author Anthony Burgess taught between 1954 and 1955, is a must for every literature and history geek; Malaysia's first rubber tree still stands opposite the school's gate.

Ubudiah Mosque
Ubudiah Mosque in Kuala Kangsar.

We drive around the colonial clock tower and arrive smack in the compact city center where we stop by Yut Loy kopitiam (+60 5 776 6369), a Chinese shop more than 50 years old, for their homemade traditional Hainanese pau (buns stuffed with sweet and savory fillings, like curry chicken or yellow bean), which are worth the trip alone. We have dinner at Sudut Nyonya (GF, 6 Taman Suria; +60 5 776 6410), small and packed to the gills with hungry locals. A feast of curry fish fillet with sambal belacan kangkung (vegetables in spicy fish paste) and deep fried assam prawns in caramelized tamarind juice is so deeply delicious it makes us dizzy. After so much backcountry driving, waking up the next morning at boutique hotel and bistro The Shop Hotel to a steaming cappuccino feels like a well-merited indulgence. We decide to drive the last hour and a half back to Penang along the North-South Expressway, but 10 minutes among speeding cars and we're already missing our off-road mojo. We steer the wheel to the next exit and back to life in the slow lane. We'll get to Penang eventually, but really, what's the rush?

 

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Lush scenery on the drive from Pulai to Cameron Highlands.
  • The sleepy Dabong station on the Jungle Railway line.
  • Tasik Raban, a stunning scenery of a shimmering lake.
  • Taman Negara Sungai Relau, the world's oldest rain forest.
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