Life in a northern royal town


The beautiful Ubaidiah Mosque, which features an Anglo-Indian architectural language (introduced by the British and borrowed from British India), is a historical destination not to be missed in Kuala Kangsar. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

This royal throne of kings ...This earth of majesty ...This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves ... as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm ...

The noble words of William Shakespeare skitter across my mind as I gaze across a bank of wild grass at the Perak River on its indolent meander past the one-time exclusively royal borough of Bukit Chandan. Perak is the Bahasa Malaysia word for silver and Shakespeare could well have been describing this Royal Town – Kuala Kangsar – a precious stone set in silver.

Soft ripples fittingly accentuate the river’s name, glinting in the white hot morning light and formed by a welcome breeze skimming the water. The immense breadth of the river here is a quietly magnificent backdrop to Kuala Kangsar.

The vista has the boldness of an oil painting yet the gentle hues of nature’s palette. This is a setting made for pomp and ceremony, where the Sultan’s elephants of yesteryear would amble with stately polish down to the river at bath time.

The Rolls Royce transportation of its day, elephants have long ceased to promenade these banks.

Rather, the elegant ceremony in more recent years has played out afloat these silver waters, as seen during the 2015 coronation of the current Perak ruler Sultan Nazrin Shah.

Today, the royal barge Balai Gambang Cempaka Sari is available for public river rides on weekends. Photo: Shireen ZainudinToday, the royal barge Balai Gambang Cempaka Sari is available for public river rides on weekends. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

Following a custom dating back to the 1700s, the coronation observance included a specially commissioned royal barge, Balai Gambang Cempaka Sari, steering the royal party upstream to Teluk Intan, stopping at various points along the waterway to pay royal homage to past Sultans on their burial grounds.

Today, the enchanting Balai Gambang Cempaka Sari is available for public river rides on weekends.

The royal house of Perak was created in the 1500s after the fall of the Melakan Sultanate. Muzaffar Shah, scion of the last Melakan Sultan, united the local warlords establishing a strong sultanate within the state.

He arrived with 70 elephants (but of course) and a royal insignia that included the gendang nobat (royal drums), nafiri (pipes), serunai and bangsi (flutes), puan naga taru (betel-box), Chura Si Manjakini and Perbujang (state swords), kaya gambit (sceptre), kamala (jewels), ubar-ubar (umbrella), chap halilintar (seal of state), and built a palace upriver in Tanah Abang.

A quiet day by the waterway of Sungai Perak in Kuala Kangsar. Photo: Shireen ZainudinA quiet day by the waterway of Sungai Perak in Kuala Kangsar. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

Crowns are created and inherited with unions, alliances and vows that might bind, break or shift over the centuries. Like all variegated and extended families, the Perak royal family was complex, competitive and filled with intrigue.

Throw in an occupying colonial power, The Pangkor Treaty, murder and exile to the mix and the elegant Bukit Chandan, occupying a splendid and strategic position overlooking the river, found itself the chosen location for a newly installed Sultan, an array of relatives, palace courtiers, and a retinue of blacksmithers, embroiderers, dressmakers, chefs, doctors and a host of other industries that served the royal household. The British Resident’s home was positioned in front of the palace and seemingly this was part of the British blueprint for keeping everything in check.

The Perak River significantly divided the community and dictated how and where one lived, with the royals on Bukit Chandan and the rest of Kuala Kangsar on the opposite bank of Sayong. Bukit Chandan became a seat of royalty, perhaps like no other in the country. An exclusively royal neighbourhood where, urban legend has it, until fairly recently, even police regulation stopped at the archway at the foot of the hill and discipline was instilled by royal dictum.

The Victoria Bridge (named after Britain’s Queen Victoria) is gazetted as a state heritage site. Photo: Shireen ZainudinThe Victoria Bridge (named after Britain’s Queen Victoria) is gazetted as a state heritage site. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

Today, it is a gorgeous stroll up Bukit Chandan from the river. Go past Kuala Kangsar’s grandest hotel, The Casuarina, the charming pocket-sized public library, and the old Resident’s house (today a girls’ school) and it is easy to see how once upon a shimmering time it was a magical place. Today almost none of the royal coterie continue to live on Bukit Chandan and it is dotted with new and old palaces in various states from magnificence to those left neglected.

The palaces

There is of course the spectacular and architecturally distinctive Art Deco Istana Iskandariah, the official palace of the reigning Sultan and still used for all important royal ceremonies. The exquisite Istana Kenangan, locally designed and so finely constructed in 1926 that not a single nail needed to be utilised.

Originally a royal mausoleum it is now a museum housing the history of the monarchy. A bird’s eye view of this jewel of a palace, reveals a sword in its scabbard. The striking yellow and black facade is an intricate diamond-shaped weave (kelarai) that gives it a picture-book charm.

I am guided in my perambulation around this hill by a tiny clutch of articulate and welcoming young Rajas (the Perak state honorific for those of royal heritage). They are descended from one branch or another of this labyrinthine family and are entertaining and eager to share their hereditary tales. It is a cheat-sheet to a speeded up history lesson, with speculation and gossip thrown in. Anecdotes of land-disputes, arrogant aunts and straying grandfathers are mixed in with a real belief in spiritual protectors from another realm.

Through the window of the old mansion Baitul Annur. Photo: Shireen ZainudinThrough the window of the old mansion Baitul Annur. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

We stop by the abandoned Baitul Annur, a palace built by the master craftsman Tuan Haji Sofian. Now fallen into disrepair, the structure retains its lovely bones and discussions are lively as to how it could yet be revived for community purposes.

The call to prayer reverberates and we head over to Masjid Ubaidiah. An English architect Mr Hubback designed the mosque; much-delayed after an altercation between royal elephants (yes again!). Completed in 1917 it is a stunningly imposing piece of Moorish architecture that exudes idyllic serenity as one “surrenders to God”.

Master crafters

Kampung Padang Changkat is a village within Bukit Chandan and was once the bustling ground zero for all the craftspersons who served the palace. The numbers of master embroiderers and keris makers have dwindled considerably over the years as demand has fallen sharply but the handful of 4th generationers that remain are well worth a visit.

Abdul Mazin Abdul Jamil, affectionately known as Pak Mazin, is a master keris-maker whose great-grandfather was one of the earliest royal keris--makers. His son who apprenticed with him is carrying the family business into its 5th generation.

There is a waitlist for a keris commissioned from Pak Mazin; forged with 7 metals, fired then hammered with considerable skill on anvils. Each keris is uniquely hand tooled from design to the number of lok (waves) to reflect its owner’s personality. Far greater than a mere weapon, a keris is seen by Pak Mazin as a sacred part of its owner’s protection and identity.

A general view of the Istana Kenangan. Photo: Shireen ZainudinA general view of the Istana Kenangan. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

Azizah Haji Adam, purveyor extraordinaire of tekat benang emas (gold thread embroidery) to only the most discerning, has been running Azydar Enterprise for 45 years. She works with a young team – most of whom have apprenticed in this classical Perak craft with her.

The production of “tekat” is laboriously time-consuming and eye-wateringly pricey; from conceptualisation and modern-day laser cutting using a computer, through to the delicate process of embroidering on premium velvet pulled taut over a frame – these are stunning pieces of art used in ceremonial clothing and soft furnishings.

We cross over the river to Sayong that sits sleepily on banks of rich red clay, surrounded by paddy fields.

This happy accident has resulted in a 300 year old practice of moulding the renown labu sayong – a gourd-shaped water pitcher - from this same clay and burying it post furnace firing in discarded rice husks from the surrounding fields. It is this last step that gives the traditional labu sayong its shiny ebony colour.

The traditional labu sayong, or gourd-shaped clay water jar, is a familiar sight in Kuala Kangsar. Photo: Shireen ZainudinThe traditional labu sayong, or gourd-shaped clay water jar, is a familiar sight in Kuala Kangsar. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

Originally corked with banana leaves, the porous nature of the clay vessel keeps liquids cool in our warm weather, and locals have long believed that drinking from the Sayong clay pitcher holds health benefits.

Playing grounds

Exploring Kuala Kangsar’s tiny town centre is like wandering through a time capsule of a gently faded bygone age. Everything leads back to the colonial clock tower making it impossible to get lost and but ahhh ... do try to lose yourself in these delightful streets.

It is impossible to miss the oldest surviving rubber tree. Kuala Kangsar boasts the only surviving tree of the nine seedlings first brought over by a Mr Ridley from the Kew Gardens via the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1877.

The town’s centrepiece though is the playing field adjacent to The Clifford School built in 1897. The delicately carved octagonal viewing pavilion in the far corner was used by the royal family in days gone to cheer on their team in the polo matches that played out on this field.

The Yat Lai restaurant, which sells legendary pau – soft steamed buns with fillings like beef or chicken curry or sweet kaya. Photo: Shireen ZainudinThe Yat Lai restaurant, which sells legendary pau – soft steamed buns with fillings like beef or chicken curry or sweet kaya. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

It’s truly heartwarming these days to watch the Clifford boys at play on the very same field. Don’t miss the old Kuala Kangsar hospital in the opposite corner to the pavilion. Undoubtedly once one of the tiniest practising hospitals, the building is used for storage today.

But the school that really does put Kuala Kangsar on the map for most Malaysians is the residential boy’s school, The Malay College Kuala Kangsar, established in 1905. Across the road from the old polo field and in full view of its archrivals, Clifford, the graceful colonnaded building lends testimony to its old moniker, the Eton of the East.

A glorious raintree with a legend all its own frames the building on the right, affectionately named The Big Tree by all boys.

Certainly the list of “old MCKK Boys” rolls out to impressively include several Malaysian Kings, the 28th Sultan of Brunei, Tun Razak our second prime minister, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah our longest serving member of parliament, a very long list of industry and corporate heavyweights, Ikmal Hisham Albakri the renowned architect, and perhaps most charmingly Halim Saad, a leading businessman whose outdoor advertising company Big Tree, is named after THE Big Tree.

‘Roti enam ketul’

And if walking around town gets you hungry, Yat Lai Restaurant, sells legendary pau – soft steamed buns with fillings like beef or chicken curry or sweet kaya. Their paus are freshly available at 2pm with a daily allocation of 300 pieces that is almost always pre-booked. Do call early to reserve some and if you manage to snag a few do give me a call!

One loaf or two? In Kuala Kangsar, there is no shortage of old school bread selections. Photo: Shireen ZainudinOne loaf or two? In Kuala Kangsar, there is no shortage of old school bread selections. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

Farther along there is Kuala Kangsar’s oldest bakery, Soon Fatt Bakery, famous for its roti manis (sweet bread) and roti enam ketul (six nugget bread). Who needs sourdough? I bought this just for its name.

For all local lunch delicacies head to Teratak Warisan Kampung. Don’t miss the ikan keli bakar. My favourite? The gulai telur sotong (squid egg curry).

And one can eat “laksa kualer” at anytime of the day so pop by (makan shops) Laksa Lubuk or Laksa Pokok Limau for the local version of this Malaysia staple. And if you prefer, laksa telur sarang comes topped with an egg.

And for your final photo op, in the footsteps of local brides and influential Tik Tokers, head to Victoria Bridge.

Formerly a railway bridge completed in 1900, it lies about 9km from the town centre and was a strategic site in 1941 during the war and later during the communist insurgency.

In 2002, a new railway bridge was built next to it and Victoria evolved into a pedestrian and motorcycle bridge connecting Enggor to Sungai Siput.

This feature was commissioned under Think City’s Cultural Economy Catalytic project for Lenggong, Kuala Kangsar and Taiping in Perak, Malaysia.

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