Posted by: Richard Marshall | February 17, 2018

Bukit Larut March 2016

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View of the forest at Bukit Larut

Dalat has always been one of my favourite places in Southeast Asia, and while living in Penang I hoped I could find a similar place to get away from the heat and the chaos and just relax in the mountains. The Cameron Highlands was the most famous hill station in Malaysia but I had already visited with my parents and been disappointed by the traffic and hideous over-development. Fraser’s Hill near Kuala Lumpur sounded great, but was expensive and difficult to get to from Penang. So I decided to investigate Bukit Larut, formally and still familiarly called Maxwell Hill, outside of Taiping. It was one of the original British Hill stations and still had few old bungalows available for rent. Since we had a holiday coming up, Luke, Emily and I decided to spend a few days in the hills.

We took the train to Taiping which was only a few hours from Penang. Taiping itself is a pleasant, neglected little town with some fine old colonial buildings and a few streets of Chinese shophouses. It is famous for a zoo, night safari and theme park, none of which we troubled ourselves with, and it’s Lake Garden. The Lake Garden was one of the first botanical gardens founded in Peninsula Malaysia and although it lacks the resources and imagination to really live up to it’s potential, it fairly well maintained and a very pleasant place to walk. The gardens and the hill itself are very popular with Taiping locals: it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of Asia that while governments either neglect or actively destroy green spaces people are desperate for them, and any green space in the crowded Asian cities I’ve been to has been heavily and enthusiastically visited.

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View of Taiping from Bukit Larut

After a quick wander around the gardens we went to the park office at Bukit Larut. At first all seemed well, but after an irresponsibly hair-rising land rover trip to the bungalows the problems began. Some aspects of the trip were great, but regrettably some less so. We had been told the bungalows had been renovated, but it was far from clear that this was the case as they were all in very poor repair. I suspect they periodically were fixed up but then not maintained and this, combined with one of the highest rainfalls in peninsula Malaysia, meant they quickly fell apart again. Also, our bungalow was filthy as it had been used by workers trying to clear some trees. Although we subsequently realized the manager was present on the hill when we arrived, he didn’t identify himself to us. The bungalow was also hopeless poorly equipped. If we hadn’t brought a barbecue with us we would have had to leave, though we did discover that a rice cooker can be used for everything from popcorn to bacon and eggs. Another annoyance was that the staff spent a lot of time tearing up and down the mountain road in their government vehicles and, I suspect, poaching. Finally, after our trip we tried to remonstrate with the manager (they had charged us double the quoted price on the basis of the supposed renovation), but the whole thing ended up in a shouting match. Unfortunately the people working there seemed to embody the very worst of Malaysian bureaucracy: lazy, corrupt, incompetent and racially entitled.

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One of bungalows on the hill

The shouting match in the end was a particular shame because on the whole I, and I hope Luke and Emily too, had actually had a reasonably good time. The forest was truly magnificent and teeming with all sorts of life. I saw wild boar and heard gibbons hooting in the mornings and evenings. I did a lot of walking and bird-watching and saw numerous new species. We had plenty of food and booze and blessedly the barbecue to cook it on. I’m glad I went despite the endemic Malaysian neglect, mismanagement and corruption. One hopes that one day the bungalows will truly be renovated and the place will live up to it’s potential, and hopefully avoid some of the crass over-exploitation that has happened to other Malaysian hill stations.

Thanks so much to Emily for the photos!


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