NOT too long ago, the only way to get to Kuala Pilah from Seremban was through Jalan Bukit Putus, a serpentine trail that wound its way through thickly-forested hills.
Negotiating the road, a section of Federal Route 51 from Paroi to Ulu Bendul, was often described as a white-knuckle drive due to its hairpin bends.
Believed to have been constructed in the late 1800s and improved upon in the following decades, the road was built to connect Seremban to the many plantations that dotted the district of Kuala Pilah, and the timber town of Bahau in the Jempol district.
Later, the road also became an important inland transportation link to towns on the east coast.
If, by day, the twisting hill-hugging curves were approached with caution, by night, it sent shivers down the spine of motorists, who feared, more than the headlights of oncoming vehicles, close encounters of another kind!
Sightings of apparitions along the route, real or imagined, added to Bukit Putus’ notorious reputation.
The challenging, and sometimes nerve-racking drive, however, had its rewards, as Kuala Pilah, both district and town, has a number of attractions.
Located in the heart of Negri Sembilan, Kuala Pilah district is a bastion of heritage and culture, and home to the royal town of Seri Menanti.
The first rulers of the state hailed from the Minangkabau Highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia, and brought with them unique cultural practices that include adat perpatih (matrilineal customs).
Apart from heritage buildings and palaces, Kuala Pilah is also known for its emerald green paddy fields and pretty kampung houses that greet visitors en route to Kuala Pilah town.
Fortunately, today, motorists need not endure a nail-biting drive to visit Kuala Pilah.
The construction of an alternative route began in 2006, and three years later, a 6.9km bypass was opened to traffic, cutting travel time from Seremban to Kuala Pilah, and reducing traffic congestion along the Bukit Putus stretch.
Before arriving in Kuala Pilah town, located about 40km east of the state capital Seremban, motorists will first pass Ulu Bendul, a recreational park situated in the Angsi Forest Reserve.
Ulu Bendul is often a pit-stop for travellers looking for a place to cool off or stretch.
Stalls lining the entrance to the park hawk everything from plastic sunglasses to inflatable tubes, and cold drinks as well as snacks for the picnic crowd.
Popular among day-trippers and campers, the site is known for its gushing waterfalls and hiking trails.
Mount Angsi — among the highest peaks in Negri Sembilan at more than 800m — can be hiked via the recreational park.
Another peak, Mount Jono, located a short distance away, is also quickly gaining popularity.
The recreational park also has another unique attraction — slithery serpents! In 2010, Taman Ular or Snake Park, opened its doors to the public.
Set in a natural forest, the park aims to conserve threatened snake species including pythons through education and awareness.
Even if one does not choose to stop at Ulu Bendul, there are still many other interesting attractions en route to Kuala Pilah.
Paddy fields and orchards line either side of the road as the Seremban-Kuala Pilah route traverses several villages before arriving in town.
Picking up a unique souvenir is as easy as pulling up alongside the many roadside stands managed by villagers.
Here, one can purchase locally-made handicraft that include rattan chairs and food covers, as well as fresh produce such as wild honey, seasonal fruits, daging salai (smoked meat), lemang (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo), discs of belacan (dried shrimp paste) and petai (stink bean).
You can even duck into one of several fish ponds along the route and hook your own dinner!
Just before the village of Terachi, one of several villages that line the route, is Tapak Megalitik, a collection of ancient megaliths that could be hundreds or thousands of years old.
While the actual age of the monoliths are anyone’s guess, the natural stone structures are considered sacred.
Locals refer to them as batu hidup (living stones) as they are said to grow with each passing year!
Further along the route is the junction to the royal town of Seri Menanti, a picturesque hamlet surrounded by mountains.
The main draw of the town, besides its rolling green hills and 18-hole golf course, is the Istana Besar Seri Menanti, the official residence and palace of the state ruler or Yang di Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan.
The palace is also the site of ceremonial and official functions.
The former palace or Istana Lama Seri Menanti is now the Seri Menanti Royal Palace Museum and opened to the public.
The chengal-wood building constructed at the turn of the 20th century is said to have been built by master craftsmen without a single nail!
The museum houses a collection of royal regalia and weaponry, and is worth a visit for insight into the history of the Negri rulers.
Less than 15 minutes away from Seri Menanti, is the town of Kuala Pilah.
Typical of small towns all over Malaysia, Kuala Pilah prospered during the tin mining boom of the late 1800s and boasts a multi-cultural population.
On Jalan Raja Melewar, the town’s main drag, the ornate and colourful Sri Kanthasamy temple has been the place of worship for the town’s Hindu population for more than a century.
Next door is the Gurdwara Sahib Kuala Pilah, which was built in 1937 as a place of worship for the town’s Sikh population, many of whom served in the police force.
On the street parallel to Jalan Raja Melewar, the red-walled San Sheng Gong temple that once served as a place of worship for the town’s Chinese residents, is still a draw with visitors.
Believed to be more than a century old, the shrine honours Guandi (God of War) and several other deities.
Opposite is a small garden with an arch dedicated to Martin Lister. Lister was the first British Resident of Negri Sembilan (1889-97) and was credited with resolving the conflict between the town’s Chinese secret societies.
The arch was commissioned by a local towkay in honour of services rendered.
These places of worship and a mosque are all located within the same vicinity, a common feature of many other small towns across the country that boast close-knit communities.
Inside the many pre and post-war shophouses that line the main street, traditional businesses still thrive.
Locals still pass the time and share daily gossip over cups of steaming coffee in the kopitiams (coffeeshops), and barks, roots and traditional cures for all manner of ailments are stored in glass jars inside the Chinese medicine shop.
Life goes by at a gentle pace and only the sound of passing vehicles remind one that the Kuala Pilah road is an important thoroughfare.
Today, modern hotels offer accommodation for weary travellers, but back in the day, visitors to the small town would put up in the Rest House, a government-built guesthouse located in the fringe of town and close to a verdant park.
The still-standing building, though improved upon over the decades, was constructed during British rule for travelling officials and businessmen.
Another edifice of note is the Tuanku Muhammad School (TMS). Built in 1914, this prestigious school was the alma mater of choice in its time.
The premier school also has a dark past.
Teaching was suspended during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, and the premises were used by the Kempetai (Japanese military police) for interrogation purposes.
The Occupation years were a difficult time for Kuala Pilah folk.
In nearby Parit Tinggi (northwest of town), a memorial commemorates the lives lost here during the war years.
On March 16, 1942, an estimated 675 Chinese villagers were brutally killed by Japanese soldiers.
Despite this dark chapter in the town’s history, Kuala Pilah is a cheerful town characterised by the warm and friendly nature of its residents.
While traditional trades are fast vanishing with the young migrating to larger towns for work, the town still mantains its proud traditions and is a gem in the heart of Negri Sembilan.
The best way to sample what Kuala Pilah has to offer?
Simply check into the many homestays advertised by locals here for a one-of-a-kind experience!