Sometimes all it takes is a single image; the spires of the Sagrada Familia, the crumpled silver folds of the Disney Concert Hall, the gleaming onion-shaped domes of the Ubudiah Mosque. It was the latter that sent me on a quest to Kuala Kangsar.
Located approximately a three hour’s drive outside of Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Kangsar in Perak is an old town with a long royal heritage and a treasure trove of colonial architecture to discover. Many describe it as a small town, but that’s misleading as its attractions are spread out and best navigated by car or bicycle. An overnighter is best to fully appreciate its sights.
With a stop for coffee at the drive-in Starbucks at Rawang and a breakfast detour to Tanjung Malim’s Yik Mun, it was lunchtime when we finally arrived in the royal town. I wasn’t sure we would know where to go as it was our first visit, but as we approached the clock tower-cum-roundabout there was no mistaking Kuala Kangsar’s historical heart.
FEASTING LIKE KINGS
With ample parking located around the town’s pre-war shop houses, we picked a spot behind Medan Mara near the Tourist Information Centre and wandered along the five-foot way to Yut Loy. Alternately known as Yat Lai, for the last 85 years this family-run kopitiam has been serving up simple breakfasts of boiled eggs on Bengali bread for breakfast and classic Hainanese fare like chicken chop and egg steak. The latter is a favourite amongst cash-strapped Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) students.
Portion sizes are small for the price, which rival that of KL, but hey, that’s the price of nostalgia. Sadly we missed out on Yut Loy’s most celebrated item, their pau, which are made on the premises daily and sold from 2pm onwards until stocks run out – which can be fast, so be punctual or call ahead.
Keen to try the local laksa, we headed past the rows of stalls selling local crafts like tudung saji (a food covering made of woven mengkuang leaves) and labu sayung (a clay water vessel typical to Perak) to the food courts by the jetty.
Kuala Kangsar has a unique mode of public transport. For a paltry dua kupang, or 20 sen, you could secure return passage across Sungai Perak in a sampan – 20 sen upstream and gratis downstream, since it doesn’t require the use of a motor. I had to try it! But alas there were no water taxis to be found. Had bridges and access to motorised vehicles changed all that or had we visited on the wrong day?
Distracted by a row of three stalls of freshly cooked Malay dishes like patin tempoyak (river fish cooked in a fermented durian and coconut curry) and ulam (wild herbs), we sat down to a lunch of mixed rice. I also ordered a Laksa Kuala Kangsar to share and cendol from the Pak Ngah food truck parked across the street.
Reputed to serve up the best of both in town, the cendol’s gula melaka was thick, dark and smokey, but too salty for my tastes. The laksa, on the other hand, I liked. Served with thin, cloudy fish broth akin to miso, with noodles that are coarse like soba rather than easy-to-slurp rice noodles, Laksa Kuala Kangsar or Lakse Kuale is similar to Laksa Kedah, or Laksa Penang minus the thicks chunks of mackerel and sweet otak-otak paste.
A HISTORICAL HEART
Now pushing 3pm, we made haste to Bukit Chandan, the royal heart of Kuala Kangsar and the location of a multitude of royal palaces, past and current, grand and modest.This area has been transformed by Bukit Chandan Kampung Ku (BCKK) into a makeshift museum honouring former Perak royalty and its lineage.
Were it not for a love for the old, we would have bypassed Baitul Anor, but I’m glad we didn’t. From the floor tiles to the hibiscus carvings framing the doors and windows, this former royal household is a crumbling but exceptional example of traditional Malay architecture, housing a makeshift museum to former Perak royal family members.
Jumping back into the car, we looped around Istana Iskandariah, the sprawling royal abode of Sultan Nazrin Shah, when Istana Kenangan came into view. It’s quite a sight to behold. The official residence of the Perak Sultanate for the three years it took to build the neighbouring Istana Iskandariah, it has been the location of royal receptions and a royal museum, and marked a location shift in palatial accommodations from the previously favoured riverside to the more strategic and less-flood prone hillside of Bukit Chandan.
Today it stands empty. We were informed by its guard that its columns and floors are rotting and needed to be replaced, which is why it’s closed to the public. Building conservation can be a long and tedious process requiring great skill and care; hopefully plans are already in motion.
In the interim, artefacts and other royal exhibits have since been transferred to Galeri Sultan Azlan Shah. Once known as Istana Ulu, this former residence of Sultan Idris Shah I has since been converted into a royal museum, largely dedicated to the life and times of the 34th Sultan of Perak and Malaysia’s 9th Agung (king).
Featuring artefacts from Sultan Azlan Shah’s childhood, academic years and a life of service to his state and country, entire rooms are dedicated to his sporting glory (he was an avid hockey, cricket and golf player), lustrous legal career and personal interests, including his collection of luxury watches.
I started my tour where it should have ended – in the Sultan’s Gallery of Cars. Located opposite the Gallery of Gifts, this glorified garage is not only home to his luxury chariots (Rolls-Royce, no less), it houses the plinth upon which his coffin was placed and carried from palace to mosque to mausoleum by 40 armed personnel after he passed away in 2014.
And so on to Masjid Ubudiah. I can’t remember when I first laid eyes on it, but its exotic minarets, Moorish arches and gilded domes have beguiled me ever since. Seeing it in the flesh did nothing to dampen my awe.
What did surprise me was its modest size, which says a lot about our expectations for the future – that even forward-thinking architects failed to anticipate the population boom or predict the size that towns and cities can grow to become.
Commissioned by Sultan Idris in 1913 and designed by prolific British government draughtsman Arthur Benison Hubback, my favourite tale about Ubudiah’s construction is of two fighting elephants that halted work when they wrecked the imported Italian marble that was to be used for the flooring. Oh, to be a fly on the wall then when elephants were a common sight in Malaya!
BRIDGING THE GAP
With the sun slowly setting, we had one last stop to make – Victoria Bridge in Karai, 15 minutes north of Kuala Kangsar. Enroute, we found out it’s not the only bridge worth a visit.
Mid-way is Iskandar Bridge, the longest steel bridge arch in Malaysia. Completed in 1932, its beautiful metal arches are best appreciated on the approach, and a stroll on its span reveals picturesque vistas of the surrounding mountains. Interestingly, it was an expensive build for the time – a whopping $1.5 million.
It’s only as we approached Karai that signs for Victoria Bridge came into view. No longer accessible to trains now that a new concrete bridge is in place, I tried crossing the century-old truss bridge along its rail lines, but vertigo set in. The gaps between the rotting timbers are only a foot but the distance had started to play tricks with my mind.
Using the pedestrian path was nearly as perilous. Shared by motorcycle traffic, pedestrians have to dodge the oncoming vehicles by stepping off the iron strip and in between the girders. Watching two motorbikes try to squeeze past each other from opposite directions was like witnessing an awkward tango.
We stopped for a drink at Fatty Kitchen in Enggor before heading to Ipoh for dinner and driving home. There were countless sights we had yet to explore in Kuala Kangsar – Madrasah Idrisiah located opposite the mosque and Malay College Kuala Kangsar, the stomping ground of author Anthony Burgess, for example. We tackled what we could in the space of a half-day, but I reckon this royal town deserves the two-day, one-night treatment.