SOMETIMES, train drivers will get on the public address system north of Taiping and tell passengers to have their phone cameras ready because they are about to cross a lake.
It is the Bukit Merah Lake Railway Bridge in Perak, which is 3.5km long and one of only five railway bridges in the world that crosses a lake.
Most of the train drivers give a good honk in acknowledgement when they see people on boats near the bridge, and I like to stop paddling to give everyone on the train a full-arm wave.
When the railway bridge was built in 2013, engineers built a concrete boat ramp on the side. This ramp offers boaters and kayakers a pleasant way to launch.
To get to this boat ramp, search for “Taman Tasik Bukit Merah” on Google Maps, but there is no actual “taman” (park). It is just an empty space next to the railway bridge with a boat ramp. From George Town or Ipoh, it is a little under an hour away. From Kuala Lumpur, it’s about a three-hour ride.
The passing trains and the solidly built bridge are just two of the pleasant things about Bukit Merah Lake.
A large degree of environmental disturbance is unavoidable when dams are built, but given time, nature adapts itself to the new circumstances.
And since Bukit Merah Lake was formed in 1906 as the first man-made lake in the country, nature has had plenty of time to reclaim its domain.
The fun thing about exploring here is that because it is both a water reservoir and an irrigation dam for padi farmers in Kerian, the water level goes up and down regularly, and so the scenery and vibes change with it.
When the water level is low, barren islands appear and fish more visibly play on the surface. Tree stumps jut out by the thousands, creating an almost dystopian landscape.
When the water level is high, you can paddle far into the upper reaches. On a kayak, you go deeper than explorers on motorboats.
You can paddle right up to the pitcher plants growing in rocks jutting out of the water and bring them back to nurture in your home garden if you know how.
In some months, underwater weeds produce hundreds of thousands of tiny yellow or purple flowers, creating a colourful carpet.
You can check the water level before going. Visit publicinfobanjir.water.gov.my, courtesy of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change.
In the Water Level section of the website, select Perak, and in the list, look for “Kolam Air Bukit Merah”.
This month, the dam level is between 6m and 7m, which is quite low because its normal level is 8.68m. But high or low, Bukit Merah Lake’s upper reaches offer admirable renditions of its rugged beauty.
Fishing-wise, prepare to be entertained by a healthy toman (giant snakehead) population.
There are also sebarau (hampala barbs) to be caught, and these are easier to target when the water level is low.
To get to the upper reaches of Bukit Merah Lake, you must cross the old single-track railway, which is built on a gravel causeway alongside the newer railway bridge.
Cross the causeway under its low bridge near the boat ramp, and if the water is too high to go under this bridge, there is a break in the causeway 150m to the east.
After crossing the causeway, it is a simple matter of heading directly northeast.
The journey is about 5km to the upper reaches, and with another 5km to return to the boat ramp, you will be looking at an invigorating paddle of at least 10km.
And look for a clump of three trees – the only ones on the whole lake – thriving out of the water. When the day gets too hot for paddlers, they offer blessed shade.