Malaysia’s Route 66

Route66

When we hear the words ‘Route 66’ we naturally think of the famous highway in USA, the one where you ‘get your kicks’ according to the 1946 song. That road originally ran for 2500 miles heading west from Chicago through the heart of America all the way to Santa Monica, California.

It is less well known that Malaysia has its own Route 66, in Kelantan, a much more modest affair only 96 km long, running from Jeli to Dabong and on to Kampung Bukit Tebok where it merges with the Central Spine Road.

Malaysia’s Route 66 might be less famous that its American namesake but it does boast some fine scenery and a couple of natural attractions along the way.

Here is the map (click top right corner to enlarge):

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Jeli to Dabong is 51km. Route 66 continues for a further 45km after Dabong before joining up with the Central Spine Road.

The route begins at the small town of Jeli, not far from the Thai border.

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Heading south you soon approach the mountainous landscape of Gunung Stong State Park. I think these are the twin peaks of Gunung Stong (1433m) and Gunung Ayam (1504m).

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The State Park comprises 21,950 hectares of virgin jungle reserve and is intended to serve as a conservation area for rare creatures such as wild elephant, tiger, hornbills, serow and tapir.

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Despite the State Park’s protected status, I noticed some logging activity going on in various places.

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This is the Sungai Balah, a tributary of the Sungai Galas and Kelantan River which eventually flows into the sea near Kota Bharu.

The Jelawang Waterfall (or Stong Waterfall) is estimated to be 300 m high, one of Malaysia’s tallest, and easily visible from the main road at Dabong.

It is a short drive to the Gunung Stong State Park HQ where there is a ticket office, guides for hire, a cafeteria, toilets and accommodation. The resort, known as Stong Hill Resort, has seen better days but appears to offer basic accommodation for adventurous types.

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Termites seem to have eaten this chalet and all that remains are the concrete stilts and a toilet.

I paid RM 2 to enter the park as far as the waterfall. If you want to climb Gunung Stong you need to pay more and hire a guide.

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The waterfall is certainly spectacular although difficult to photograph in its entirety from this vantage point.

A party of local school boys had fun making the rickety suspension bridge wobble while I was walking across it.

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Next I stopped briefly in the quiet town of Dabong. Looking back from Dabong you can see the waterfall with Gunung Stong above.

There is a railway station (Jungle Railway) at Dabong and most tourists wishing to visit Stong arrive by train.

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A short distance outside Dabong is the Gua Ikan Recreational Park. This 150 million year old cave complex includes three caves, Gua Keris, Gua Batu Susun and Gua Pagar.

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I couldn’t find a way into the caves which did not involve getting very wet. The recreational park itself was badly overgrown. If I ever go back to this area I would hire a guide to take me up Gunung Stong and show me around the caves.

Malaysia’s Route 66 is a scenic drive. Let’s hope the logging companies do not spoil the scenery. It seems the forests are losing their battle with loggers but sometimes the trees find a way of striking back!

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High Road Across Malaysia – Conclusion

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This post records the final section of my coast to coast journey across Malaysia via Cameron Highlands, Gua Musang & Lake Kenyir.

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After a Thrifty Traveller breakfast of roti canai and kopi kosong for just RM2, I left Gua Musang for the nearby village of Pulai.

Kampung Pulai is famed for its Guan Yin temple, known as the Water and Moon Temple, thought to be over 400 years old, making it perhaps the oldest in Malaysia. Hakka Chinese settled here more than 600 years ago in search of gold and they maintained their traditional Hakka culture, largely undisturbed by the outside world until the first tarmac road to the village was built in 1988.

The village has a lovely setting, alongside a small river and a lake, surrounded by rubber plantations and overlooked by spectacular limestone hills. On the opposite side of the lake, facing the village is one such outcrop called Princess Hill which contains a cave with a Guan Yin statue. To reach the cave I crossed the suspension bridge over the river and walked around the lake.

The rubber trees appeared to be well looked after with tapping still going on. There was a large buzzing hive of wild bees on one of the trees which I was careful not to disturb.

I arrived just as the elderly caretaker was unlocking the steps up to the cave.

From the top of the steps there was a good view looking back over the village in the early morning mist.

Inside the cave were a couple of large stalagmite formations, one of which has been transformed into a Guan Yin statue.

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After this slight detour I returned to my trans Malaysia route, leaving Gua Musang on the Central Spine Road (highway 8) for some distance before turning onto Jalan Felda Aring (1744), a minor road serving the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) plantations and settlements in this part of Kelantan. This was the section of the journey that I was most worried about because I was unsure what condition the road would be in and whether it would be passable. It would have been a long way back if I had to turn around. In the end my concerns were unwarranted because it was in excellent condition and with very light traffic it was a pleasure to drive.

Throughout this trip I encountered a lot of logging lorries, far more than I remember seeing on previous travels. There are newspaper reports of rampant illegal logging going on in parts of Malaysia. I don’t know where these particular trucks obtained their logs. Most of the surrounding area looked like it was deforested some time ago to make way for palm oil plantations.

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Crossing over from Kelantan into Terengganu brought more lush vegetation as I approached Lake Kenyir. This massive man-made lake was created between 1978 and 1985 by damming the Kenyir River. It is the largest artificial lake in Malaysia with an area of 260,000 hectares. 

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A new attraction near Lake Kenyir is the Kenyir Elephant Conservation Village. I didn’t go in but I gather it is somewhat similar to Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary.

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At the lakeside itself, activities include the Kenyir Water Park, boating and fishing. They have some rather ugly houseboats for rent here but I feel Malaysia Tourism could do a lot more to bring in tourists. Some Kerala style houseboats for example would be a good addition. The Lake Kenyir Resort Hotel was closed for renovation.

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Penarik Beach – A nice place to relax after a long drive.

From Lake Kenyir, the East Coast of Malaysia is within easy striking distance. I would have chosen to end my coast to coast journey at Penarik which has one of best stretches of beach in the area. In the end I didn’t go to Penarik this time but continued my travels up to Kota Bharu as I had other places to visit which I’ll write about in future posts.

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High Road Across Malaysia – Part 2

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In this post I continue my coast to coast journey across Malaysia via Cameron Highlands, Gua Musang & Lake Kenyir. See Part 1 for the map.

After a 6am breakfast at Kampar I set out for the Cameron Highlands via the old Tapah road (Route 59).

First stop was a quick look around the Kuala Woh Recreational Forest. It is tucked away in a hidden valley at the foot of the Titiwangsa mountain range. The early morning air was refreshingly cool but the camping, chalet and toilet facilities looked rather run down and there were too many mosquitos around. The river looked clean enough and the whole place smelt of tasty durians since August is the peak season for this pungent fruit.

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Next stop was Lata Iskandar, one of Malaysia’s most accessible waterfalls being located right next the busy road. This place can get busy at weekends and holidays but since it was still early I had it to myself. I climbed the steps to get a good view of the upper cascade. Everywhere was clean with no litter so somebody had been doing a good job.

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From here up until the Cameron Highlands there were numerous roadside stalls selling handicraft items, fresh fruit and vegetables. Most of the vendors appeared to be from the Orang Asli community.

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Ringlet, Cameron Highlands

Where Perak borders Pahang the Cameron Highlands begins with the town of Ringlet, probably the least developed of the three Cameron Highlands settlements (Ringlet, Tanah Rata and Brinchang) at an altitude of around 1100 metres above sea level. My car thermometer displayed a very comfortable reading of 20°C, which is about the average daytime temperature for this high altitude district, cooling to a chilly 14°C at night.

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The Lakehouse Cameron Highlands. Hotel, Restaurant, Bar & Spa

It has been a few years since I’ve been to the Cameron Highlands. The towns themselves have not changed much. For some years they have been rather ugly, sprawling places with too much traffic. Anyone expecting a quaint colonial hill station would be disappointed although there are still some nice parts such as The Lakehouse  Hotel and the manicured tea estates. What has changed in recent years however is the explosion of land clearance for agricultural purposes, some of it illegal, which has resulted in vast swathes of the Highlands being covered in polytunnels (see this close up satellite view as an example).

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The Cameron Highlands are covered with plastic greenhouses and shade netting to protect fruits and vegetables from the elements and insects.

While it is generally a good thing that Malaysia should grow more of its own flowers, vegetables and fruit, the forest clearing and hillside levelling has been done in an uncontrolled way resulting in serious flooding and landslide problems in recent years.

While in Brinchang I took the opportunity to visit the Time Tunnel, an interesting museum crammed with photographs, memorabilia collections and artefacts from days gone by.

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Beware of the tapirs. An endangered species, the chances of meeting a tapir in the wild are close to zero.

At Blue Valley I turned onto the Gua Musang road (185) and soon found myself in Kelantan state. ‘Polytunnel-land’ continued for several more kilometres before finally turning into a more natural landscape as the road began its slow descent from the uplands. It was a good road, partly dual carriageway and elsewhere with frequent overtaking lanes, not that they were needed as there was hardly any traffic. A great road for trying out your new motorbike.

The town of Gua Musang is the administrative hub for the district of the same name which covers a large chunk of southern Kelantan. Until the Central Spine Road (Federal Route 8) was built, Gua Musang was a very isolated place and could only be reached via the Jungle Railway.

During the Emergency, its isolation made it a target for the Communist bandits who attacked the township with a 300 strong force and seized control on 17th July 1948, killing one policeman and capturing another 15. Their aim was to establish a liberated zone from which to extend their grip on the country. A relief force of army and police, supported by the RAF, successfully recaptured the town five days later.

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Gua Musang means Cave of the Civet Cats (or foxes). The limestone hills here are honeycombed with holes and the main cave behind the old railway station was believed to be home to a pack of mysterious civet cats, spawning various ghostly legends such as that portrayed in the 1960s comedy thriller film Pontianak Gua Musang.

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Being one of Malaysia’s more conservative states, alcohol is not so readily available in much of Kelantan. This traditional Chinese liquor shop in Gua Musang however had a surprisingly wide selection of spirits and potions.

I stayed overnight in Gua Musang at MyHome Hotel which was perfectly adequate apart from having no window. You can’t expect too much for RM 70 per night. On my receipt I noticed they had written my address as British Indian Ocean Territory. That should confuse Tourism Malaysia’s visitor statistics if they monitor such things.

I’ll continue Part 3 of my High Road Across Malaysia journey in the next blog post.

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High Road Across Malaysia – Coast to Coast via Cameron Highlands, Gua Musang & Lake Kenyir

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The usual way of crossing from the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia to the East Coast, at least for people in the Klang Valley area, is via the East Coast Expressway from KL to Kuantan. It’s an excellent road with some nice scenery and the 250 km journey can be completed in about 3.5 hours.

I wanted to try an alternative route, much longer and slower and hopefully even more scenic via the Cameron Highlands and Gua Musang and from there on minor roads though palm oil plantations as far as Lake Kenyir in Terengganu. Here is a map:

Google Maps calculates the distance as 502km and the travelling time as 8.5 hours though I would not recommend attempting it all in one day. I lingered 3 days on the trip.

I started my trans-Malaysia crossing at Kampung Pasir Panjang Laut, a small village near Sitiawan, Perak on the shores of the Straits of Malacca.

This was the western-most point of the route, a small patch of unhealthy mangrove forest in front of an interesting Chinese temple called Tua Pek Gong.

One of its main attractions of Tua Pek Gong temple was a bendy tunnel in the shape of a dragon which I entered through its mouth and emerged from its tail. The interior walls of dragon were lined with murals depicting the Ten Chambers of Hell and illustrated in gory detail the gruesome tortures which await those who do not live a moral and respectable life in this world. Enlarge the bottom right photo above for an example.

Having seen enough, I drove inland on Highway 5 through Sitiawan and Ayer Tawar.  My route road crossed the Perak River near Bota Kanan where I visited the Conservation Centre for River Terrapins.

There were some sizeable mature terrapins in a couple of the holding ponds but they were fairly shy and only popped their heads above water to take bites from floating cabbage leaves.

Continuing on Route A15, I passed a sign for Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge. I visited this place five years ago (and blogged about it) but decided to drop in again because I had read somewhere that it is now possible to go inside this giant relic from Malaysia’s tin-mining era. Sadly that was not the case. Renovation work was still ongoing and visitors were only allowed to view the exterior for the time being.

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Weaver birds’ nests at Tanjung Tualang.

Next stop was the small town of Malim Nawar. A quirky tourist attraction here was a brick chimney built by the Japanese during WWII for the manufacture of carbide, which is presumably the black charcoal like stuff shown below.

Next stop, still in Perak, was the town of Kampar, once a centre of tin-mining as evidenced by the large number of lakes left over from mining activity which can be seen in this Google Maps image.

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Google Map showing the lakes and ponds near the town of Kampar which were the result of tin mining.

Nowadays Kampar is thriving as a university town with the campus of University Tunku Abdul Rahman located here with other universities nearby. Here are some photos of the Kampar, mostly the old part of town.

Military historians will know that Kampar was the site of a significant battle during WWII and one of the few Allied successes in the whole Malayan Campaign. Most of the fighting took place on a series of ridges on the edge of town near the Chinese Cemetery. I tried finding the Green Ridge where some shallow trenches are supposed to remain. I know I was in the right general vicinity but failed to find any battlefield remains. I should have tried to contact a knowledgeable local guide to show me around this area.

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The Battle of Kampar was fought around here.

Considering the modest size of Kampar town, it has an enormous hotel, the Grand Kampar Hotel, with 155 rooms. Since they were offering the cheapest rates in town I opted to stay overnight. I asked the front desk manager if they ever managed to fill the hotel. Seldom it seems.

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I’ll continue Part 2 of my High Road Across Malaysia trip in the next blog.

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Jeli Eels

I was driving in Kelantan recently on the way to a north Malaysian town called Jeli when I noticed some unusual items being sold at the roadside.

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On closer inspection they turned out to be eels, still alive and writhing around in plastic bags. I believe Ikan Keli translates as catfish but they looked like eels to me. Maybe the blue plastic container at the foot of the photo is for catfish.

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The vendor told me that he caught the eels in the lake next to the road.

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He should consider opening a Japanese grilled eel restaurant here to improve his profit margins.

Later the same day I spotted another slithery thing draped over a milestone.

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Presumably this unfortunate snake (python perhaps?) had been run over while trying to cross the road.

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Not something you see every day, even in Malaysia!

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Enrique, Magellan & Lapu Lapu

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While in Cebu recently I took the opportunity to visit the Mactan Shrine, the spot where the explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed in 1521 during a skirmish with the local chieftain, Lapu Lapu.

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There are two monuments at this site.  The oldest is the Magellan Monument which was erected by the Spaniards in 1866 to commemorate their hero.

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The newer one, erected after the Philippines achieved independence, is a bronze statue of Lapu Lapu, who is regarded as a national hero for resisting Spanish aggression.

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Lapu Lapu may have won the battle but he lost the war because the Spanish were soon back in force heralding over 300 years of Spanish colonisation and spreading Christianity to much of the archipelago.

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Ferdinand Magellan (or Fernao de Magalhaes in his native Portuguese) is often thought of as the first person to sail around the world and he was leading that circumnavigation expedition at the time of  his death. He had earlier made another journey eastwards as far as Sabah, Borneo so it could be argued that he had been around the world, apart from the relatively small gap between Cebu and Borneo.

However another person can be credited with being the first to achieve a full circumnavigation and that was Magellan’s servant/slave and interpreter, known as Enrique.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan’s voyage, Enrique was a Malay slave, originally from Sumatra, who was acquired by Magellan during the conquest of Malacca in 1511. Perhaps he was one of the slaves from the Sultan of Melaka’s household. Magellan had him baptised with the name Enrique and he was taken back to Portugal and accompanied Magellan on all his subsequent trips and took part in the Mactan battle where Magellan met his fate.

Three days after Magellan’s death, Enrique went ashore as interpreter with a party of Spaniards to meet another chieftain but they were attacked and only one survivor made it back to ship, witnessing that all were killed except the interpreter. Some have claimed that Enrique helped plan this attack as he was bitter that the Spaniards were not going to grant him his liberty as Magellan had intended and specified in his will. It is not known what happened to Enrique after the attack but, if he did survive, it is quite possible that he made it back to Malacca, or even Sumatra, thus completing his circumnavigation, and that this took place long before Magellan’s surviving crew made it back to Spain.

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I have a light-hearted children’s book at home called First Around the Globe – The Story of Enrique, which claims that Enrique was in fact a Filipino from Cebu and that the reason he was found by Magellan in Malacca was because he was kidnapped by a band of pirates while out fishing. They took him to Jolo where he was sold to the slave trade in Malacca. The authors argue that Enrique could speak Cebuano which is how he was able to interpret for Magellan when he reached Cebu. Filipinos add that it is appropriate that the first person to have been around the world should have been Filipino because modern day balikbayan are such great travellers. 

Malaysians and Indonesians however would argue that Enrique was a Malay from Sumatra as evidenced by Pigafetta and he was able to communicate with the Cebu chiefs because Malay was the lingua franca among the ruling classes in the Visayas at that time. And Malays are famed for their seamanship skills.

Well, I don’t think I want to take sides in that argument but the possibility that this former Malaccan slave might have been the first person ever to sail around the world is certainly intriguing but I guess we will never know for sure.

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Temple of Leah, Cebu

I was in Cebu, Philippines last week for a short family holiday (yes, even travel bloggers need holidays).

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One of the more recent tourist attractions on the island is The Temple of Leah located in the cool, green hills of Busay overlooking Cebu City.

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This extraordinary building in classical Greco-Roman style looks totally out of place in tropical Philippines but that is what makes it unique.

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Like the Taj Mahal, this temple is one man’s extravagant expression of love for his late wife. The owner is wealthy businessman Mr. Teodorico Soriano Adarna and he explains his reason for building the temple as follows:

“Constructed as a symbol of my undying love for and ceaseless devotion to Leah Villa Albino-Adarna, my wife of 53 years.  All her lifetime collections are showcased in the 24 chambers of the Temple.”

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According to the roman numerals, construction started in 2011 but it is still a work in progress and the 24 chambers are not yet finished and visitors are confined to the marbled entrance lobby and the massive outdoor terrace enjoying fine views of the city.

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Though still a construction site, it is open to the public and the entrance fee of P 50 per person no doubt assists with defraying some of the ongoing building costs.

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This place may not be to everyone’s taste but it is worth going for the view alone and to experience the cooler mountain air.

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With a thunderstorm approaching we adjourned to the nearby Lantaw Native Restaurant for some tasty dishes while waiting for the rain to ease. It was a good trip.

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