Kuala Lipis and I didn’t get off to the best start. After eleven hours on the train from Singapore, I was expecting big things. So a hotel room with mould growing up the walls and an insufficient number of beds was not quite what I had in mind. A night spent refereeing fights between children who objected to sharing said insufficient beds, did nothing to improve my opinion.
Wandering around the town the next morning, all I could see was grime and decay. The type of grime that you only get in Asia, layer upon layer of dirt on every surface, dead rats, piles of rubbish in corners, festering in the heat. The type of decay that you only get in tropical climates. Crumbling concrete, rampant mould, jungle creepers threatening to engulf the small town.
But then, like the creepers, it gradually started to grow on me. As the only Westerners in the town, with children to boot, we were objects of friendly curiosity. We talked Olympics with the guys hanging out in the clock shop (above), we were given bananas by the newspaper seller and the Chinese lady in the grocers’ shop said hello every time we walked past.
A town of this size in England would have a pub, a couple of greasy spoons and a Chicken Cottage, but Kuala Lipis has a dizzying array of food stalls and restuarants. We had Malaysian Curry for lunch, Chinese for supper, Indian roti chennai for breakfast. I would hazard a guess that we could have eaten in a different establishment three times a day for a month. And it was all good.
Then there’s the jungle. For hours and hours the train from Singapore trundled north through impenetrable emerald green forests, some of the oldest rainforest on the planet. Feeling very much like characters in an Evelyn Waugh novel, we took a boat down the swift, muddy, river, towering trees on either bank, to a small village with chickens, goats and pink lace curtains.
From there, our guide, Hashim, led us deep into the jungle, through shoe stealing mud, to limestone caves with fluttering bats and elephant droppings. All day we walked, meeting only a couple of hunters armed with machetes and shotguns. We saw rubber trees with cups full of white sap, and rolled the sticky substance in our fingers. We tracked elephant footprints, as large and round as dinner plates. We battled blood sucking leeches and lost. We emerged, tired, sweaty, muddy, victorious.
Kuala Lipis and I didn’t get off to the best start, but it grew on me. I forgave it the manky beds and the dead cockroaches in return for it’s quiet friendliness and faded colonial charm. And it’s hard to hold a grudge against a place with elephant footprints.