The English are a funny lot. Completely unsuited for the tropics and yet they set off to colonise whole swathes of it and then to impose their laws, administration and more. These pasty-faced peoples suffered gamely in the heat, braving malaria, dysentery and all manner of maladies, and yet they stuck at it for a couple of hundred years.
They were rather clever in some ways though. They certainly knew how to build houses for the tropics, for one. Wide verandahs, long roofs, high ceilings - they all helped to make life indoors that little bit more bearable in heat that was a good 15ºC more than they were used to in the home country.
And when they could not quite deal with the heat and humidity and needed some respite, they established their hill stations. Yes, of course off the backs of local labour. Told you they were smart in many ways…
They marked out some hills around the peninsula and built holiday and convalescent homes at relatively high altitude, allowing themselves some slight reminder of home. And they named these Hill Stations after some prominent Brits. There was Fraser’s Hill, named after Louis James Fraser, a Scotsman who found tin, set up a mine and also a gambling and opium den, then disappeared some years later.
It took C J Ferguson-Davie, the Bishop of Singapore, no less, to realise the hill’s potential as a hill station and by 1922 a road had been built up and the hill was opened to visitors.
The Cameron Highlands, named after William Cameron, a geologist, covers a much larger area than Fraser’s and is one of the oldest holiday places in Malaysia. It has expansive tea plantations, vegetable farms and orchards.
I’ve been to both of these hill stations a number of times but only visited the third hill station, Maxwell’s Hill, for the first time just a couple of weeks ago. In fact, it is only now that I refer to it as Maxwell’s rather than the more popular Maxwell Hill. It is, after all, named after another British person of note so should have followed the convention set by Fraser’s Hill.
This particular person is William Edward Maxwell who was the Assistant resident in Perak. Although the Hill is officially now called Bukit Larut, Maxwell’s name is the one on most people’s lips. Well, most people around my age, anyway.
Mei and I had planned to go many years ago but one thing led to another and we never made it. Since then, Maxwell’s has faded from the spotlight. Many of the old chalets are no longer occupied or even managed and the hill has fallen on some pretty barren times.
There’s been a bit of a recent resurgence, however, and facilities further down the hill have been revamped and upgraded. Nearer the top, things have been slower to change though one of the bungalows is now occupied - apparently the only one on the hill permanently so - and open to bookings for vacations.
|Only one way to get up Maxwell's Hill - Land Rovers!|
|I watched fascinated as these guys changed tyres by hand.|
|OK One hydraulic press to release the bead of the wheel, but everything else was by hand.|
|On the way up.|
|After a set of concrete steps, the rest of the trail to The Nest is like this. Quite easy if you go steadily.|
The Nest is a 130+ year-old bungalow of brick and wood previously managed by the Methodist Church and used for retreats and so on. Suet Fun and Peter took on the lease a couple of years ago and had to do quite a bit to bring the bungalow up to hospitality standards. They’ve largely succeeded, and since then have indeed cemented a decent reputation as hosts.
We recently spent a night there and had a wonderful time. Starting with the thrilling RM10 per pax half-hour Land Rover ride up along the narrow tarmac road where you are bumped and swung around as the driver attacks each hairpin with nonchalant vim and undiminished pace… I’ve always loved Landies and this trip up was a pleasure and incentive to maybe some day own one of these iconic and very capable offroaders.
There were four of us staying over at The Nest. Mei and I just for the night and two gentlemen, Lam & Leong who were staying another night. The Nest is a 300 m walk up from the point where the Landie had dropped us off and it gave us a chance to enjoy a view of Taiping from on high, as well as a peek at Speedy’s Bungalow whose glory days were now passed. Perhaps it will one day be refurbished as The Nest has been.
|On the left is the steps to a now-ruined bungalow while beyond that is Speedy's which is being used as a store of some sort.|
|It's still used, apparently.|
|View from the verandah at Speedy's.|
|Back of Speedy's.|
The forest trail introduced us to the flora as well as leeches. Mei picked up two and I had one. At The Nest, Peter brought out a little pump spray which contained a mix of vinegar and salt water and that got rid of the little suckers quickly enough - the solution irritates them and they disengage immediately.
Suet and Peter are a lovely couple. The very best relationships are balanced ones. It may seem a cliche but this, in my experience, is true. Volubility needs quietude. Vim and vigour needs some placidity. Thinkers need doers. And in many ways Suet and Peter seemed balanced in that way.
She is the talker, introducing us to the bungalow and its history with fluency and smoothness. She guided meal-time conversations with a fluidity that surely had her years in Public Relations to thank for.
He, on the other hand, seemed more thoughtful in approach, preferring, perhaps, activity to dialogue. It’s not that words seemed difficult to come by, but more that Peter needed to be comfortable with his audience before he opened up.
Suet is a writer who is rather adept behind the camera lens too. Peter is a Kelabit from Bario in Sarawak and in fact the two lived there for some time before trading that hilly region for this one closer to her native Taiping.
Stays at The Nest include all meals and every one is a delight. Commenters and reviewers have all said that Suet’s cooking is marvellous. And trust me - it is. Even simple dishes have that little extra zing in them.
|Streaked Spider Catcher seen from the dining table.|
|The hall of The Nest.|
The Nest is set in and surrounded by nature. You will hear birdcall, incessant insect noise and even see birds and other wildlife come up near the bungalow. Or you can take walks up- or downhill. Bring binoculars, and/or a camera with a long lens. In fact, keep your eyes peeled and your ears pricked for you’ll see and hear sights and sounds that have become alien in an urban setting. Birds, squirrels, cicadas, spiders and more will be everywhere.
A little downhill is a cluster of huts among which is the Cendana which used to have accommodation as well as a cafe open on weekends but it now also seems to be closed. Further on from that is the Rest House which also seems not to be operating, then the midway point which is a busy place with a cafe and garden areas.
|Patterns in nature...|
|Near The Cendana.|
|I was maybe 15 feet away from this and with a slight breeze blowing, could hardly focus on this large spider web.|
|The country's smallest roundabout?|
|Remember your school lessons? Spores on the underside of a fern leaf.|
|Open your eyes and you'll see fauna everywhere.|
|Quite busy here and the cafe seems open. Don't know the hours, though.|
At night, if you’re lucky, the skies will clear and you can see a night sky undisturbed by light pollution. We were indeed lucky to have about an hour of relatively clear skies - you can see the pictures I managed to take.
|The dotted line is a plane flying overhead in this 30 second exposure.|
The drive down the next day was almost as quick as the drive up the day before. We were slowed by a Toyota Hilux and our driver was frequently on the brakes, inches from the other car’s rear bumper. I told you Landies were good…
Maxwell’s Hill is only an hour or so from Penang and is a wonderful getaway form the hustle and bustle of urban life. You’ll be surrounded by nature (though expect leeches as they are part of nature too) and will have a wonderful time. Don’t expect activity by the bucketful. Do expect leisurely walks, cool air, great conversation, delicious food and a comfortable setting you’d be happy to spend a few days in.
I love small owner-operated vacation destinations and I rate them highly if I arrive a guest and leave a friend. We rate The Nest highly indeed.
|'Luke, I am your father....' The mist and my LED torch allowed me to play the fool a bit. Something I do rather often, admittedly...|
|Maxis? Sorry lah... no coverage unless you walk down a little ways...|
For stays at The Nest you'll need warm clothing as the night time temperatures will drop into the low teens. Be prepared for encounters with flora and fauna including leeches. Get leech socks if you don't like the little suckers clamping onto you on your walks. And yes, walk. That way you'll get to see stuff.
The Nest is contactable on Facebook here: