Kuala Lipis - Pahang Malaysia

The birth of Kuala Lipis

The houseboats that used to line the banks of Sungai Jelai. Courtesy of Arkib Negara

Tucked away in a corner of rainforest reserves and plantations, is the cosy little town of Kuala Lipis. It's the sort of town that brings memories flooding back of days of frontier towns where immigrants and locals alike came from faraway lands to make a new and better life.

Or, at least for the elderly, that would be memories. As for the rest of us, we can only imagine life in the early years constructed from the history pages and autobiographies of colonial and foreign travellers.

All the same, we at least have much of old Kuala Lipis town left to help us piece together what it could have been at the turn of the last century. The town today has undergone some modification but the essence of its importance as the old capital and administrative centre of Pahang still lingers on in its structural and colonial architectures.

Imagine, in the 1880s. Imagine a town in the middle of nowhere; accessible only by river, which took at least a couple of days to a week of paddling to get to. Why carve a town in the heart of the jungle? Why not just make do with the seaside towns for convenience and accessibility? But unbeknownst to many, Kuala Lipis may have a history far older than that written in our history books. There is evidence that the Kuala Lipis area may already have been 'discovered' long before the modern man came to conquer. A specimen of the 'Tembiling knife', a Neolithic stone tool was unearthed by archaeologists in Kuala Lipis, indicating that early humans may have lived, traversed or used this land between 4,500 - 2,500years ago.

jungle rail - the old railway tracks laid by the British are still in use today but will soon be replaced by the high speed rail unfortunately

Thousands of years later, Kuala Lipis was again chosen as a site for human settlement. Geographically, the area may not be as isolated as it seems. In fact, it is more accessible and organised then many other frontier towns due to its strategic location at the confluence of the Lipis (Sungai Lipis) and Jelai (Sungai Jelai) Rivers. These are only a few of many rivers emptying into the great Pahang River.

In the early centuries of civilisation, travellers used rivers as main access routes into the interior. It took an average of 2 weeks to reach Kuala Lipis from Singapore through tricky trails hacked into the virgin jungles. They embarked on treacherous river journeys fighting against the dangers of wild animals and flash floods.

With intentions of opening up the interiors of Malaya, the British built a road connecting Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Lipis in 1890s that stretched through 130kms up into hills and down valleys. The only type of road transportation then was the bullock cart and it took weeks to arrive at their destination. It was not until the introduction of the motorcar in the 1930s, was the road finally utilised to its fullest. Even in the 1950s when cars were no longer a novelty, a traveller would have had to physically cross dozens of river and streams often finding themselves immersed in the rushing torrents after a rainfall. Travelling into Pahang was truly an adventurer's fantasy and a traveller's nightmare!

Kuala Lipis: A trading centre

The town began its life as a trading centre for jungle products such as animal parts for medicinal values, feathers from exotic brids for decoration, roots and herbs, and gaharu (a fragrant aloe wood used for joss sticks) collected by the tribes in the interior and traded with Chinese middlemen for rice, salt and other basic necessities. A friend who recently visited the Kenong Rimba National Park, chanced upon the Batek people, an indigenous tribe still living a life as they have for generations. The Batek people are nomads and gatherers. During conversation with the head of the tribe, it was found that the Batek continue to this day, their old business of gathering and selling gaharu wood chips to traders who come from as far away as the Middle Eastern countries. However, the depleting supply of this aromatic wood and troubled times in the Middle East have forced the Batek people to look elsewhere to provide them income.

The old mosque opposite the bus station is still in use today

The town grew as their reputation as a trading centre brought Chinese and locals from afar to the area. The Chinese businessmen built the atypical Chinese shophouses that still line the 400m long main street called Jalan Besar . As tin mining fever finally spread across to the interior, the colonial government built the railway to transport precious ore out of the jungle. In 1920, the railway line extended from Gemas in Johor in the south to Kuala Lipis, linking these isolated trading centres to the ports. Travelling on the 12hour long train ride from Kuala Lumpur to Wakaf Baru station in Kota Baharu, one can only imagine the enormous task that the British engineers undertook in clearing areas of thick jungle and building bridges over jungle rivers that were well prone to monsoon flooding. The bridges and railway lines are in use till this day.

However, the promise of riches from tin and gold in the interior fell below expectations of the colonial government and locals alike. The British failed to attract more Chinese traders and miners to settle in Kuala Lipis and eventually found that the poor economics of the area was eating into the Government's pockets and later reallocated the administrative centre at Kuala Lipis to Kuantan by the coast. Kuala Lipis fell into oblivion only to be revived not too long ago when a mining company began mining gold nearby.

The Kuala Lipis Resthouse

Sir Hugh Clifford, the Resident of Pahang spent much of his productive life in Malaya and he loved this country. Despite his busy schedule as an administrator for the British government, Sir Clifford found time to travel far and wide. His interest took him into the interior, into the jungles, to villages, to people's homes. He could speak perfect Malay and loved interacting with the locals. His experiences similar to Sir Stamford Raffles, led him to write copiously about his working life over the 5 decades that he had spent in South East Asia.

Having been transferred to Kuala Lipis, he set to build his house on a hillock overlooking the town.One can imagine Sir Clifford looking out from his study in the early evenings, watching as the mist set in over the top of the hills in the distance - feeling contented that he may have found his ideal home. This beautiful colonial house was converted into a rest house some years back, but unfortunately, the place has not been well maintained.

The artefacts and 'museum' pieces containing a collection of Malay weaponry and bric-a-brac donated by colonial officials and locals; and even the old photographs that donned the walls have been transferred to the state museum. The foyer is now left with empty display boxes and shadows of old framed photographs.

The rooms are a tad musty but has an attached bathroom and with air-conditioning or fan. If your idea of staying at Kuala Lipis is to catch a train or boat to the Kenong Rimba Park the next morning, it may be a good idea to stay in town. (Unless you have your own transportation, willing to pay taxi fare or don't mind the walk).

The Lipis District Administrative Building

The colonial buildings were strategically located on knolls. Not difficult to understand the move. The British architects and engineers were all too familiar with the great floods that so frequently crippled towns and villages. In 1926, the swollen rivers spilt over and inundated the entire town. The waters gushed through the town and finally settled, reaching the garden of Hugh Clifford's house! Only the Resident's house and the administrative buildings survived the floods as they were on higher ground. Today the buildings serve as the district's law courts. Although the general structure is wonderfully preserved; modifications such as the tinted glass windows and aluminium canopies looks somewhat mismatched.

Hugh Clifford school

At the base of the hill, sits Hugh Clifford school, the first multiracial private school for boys, was built in 1913 and was partly funded by Sir Hugh Clifford. The original buildings with its low veranda and old fittings, is now a high school (secondary school). As the population expanded, the primary school was later built on the outskirts of town to accommodate the younger children. During the 1970s flood, the high school was the hardest hit, being situated by the river.

Pahang Club

Walking into Pahang Club is like being transported back in time - to the 1800s. The creaky floorboards; the long, cool verandas where planters, miners and managers in their panamas and light linen jackets lingered into the late hours served with stiff drinks by silent waiters clothed in white. Built in 1867, the Pahang club was the first building constructed by the British in Kuala Lipis. It later served as Hugh Clifford's temporary residence.

Although the grandeur of its glory days have all but disappeared, the club retains a handful of loyal members who while their evenings away in the bar, just down the hall, to the right. There is also a snooker room and a badminton court, which is frequently used by several of its 60-some members. Outsiders are welcome for drinks at the bar and some food. A good time to go would be from 6pm - 8pm when the regulars turn up for their happy hours. They can whip up some great stories about their town and are happy to chat with visitors through the night.

Dwindling members and poor funding is a big setback for the club for it is at an advanced stage of disrepair and if nothing is done to save such beautiful period buildings, it may be soon that Kuala Lipis will lose its quaint and unique flavour.

Town activities

For most of the week, the town rolls over in its sleepy mode, lying in wait for Fridays when the town livens up with a night market. People from nearby villages and towns converge into Kuala Lipis to stock up on fresh produce, shop for shoes and clothes, bargain on fish prices or perhaps just to meet with old friends for a chat over kopi (coffee) and kuih (cakes).

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