Flee to the hills

  • Travel
  • Saturday, 19 May 2007

Fraser's Hill offers an escape route for the weary urban soul 


You adore moss-covered trees. You relish long walks, misty mornings and stillness and silence. Add to that a chorus of twittering birds and the bracing wind on your cheeks, and you have Fraser’s Hill.  

Nestled in nostalgia among West Malaysia’s major mountain range, it was the place that had Sir George Maxwell waxing lyrical.  

The clock tower in front of the post office. The police station, built in 1919, is on the right.

“Fraser’s Hill will always be the most exquisite and the most dainty hill station in Malaya . . . ,” the chief secretary of the Federated Malay States said in 1925.  

Walk around, breathe in the invigorating hill-chilled air. Stroll down the narrow, winding streets, trek along the nature trails and explore the abandoned buildings ravaged by time and the elements. As the ghosts of the past accompany you on your excursion, let your mind wander and imagine.  

Notes on nostalgia  

Escape was on the minds of the colonial masters when the hill resort was first “discovered” and developed. Offering a pleasant respite from the debilitating heat and humidity of the lowlands, Fraser’s Hill was the perfect antidote to the pressures of urban life.  

With its picturesque vistas and spacious grey-stone bungalows, the place was a piece of England in the tropics. Roaring fires in the hearth, afternoon tea on the patio and ravishing rose gardens out front reminded the colonials of their home. So did the fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding, garden salads, scones and bread-and-butter pudding that the Chinese (mainly Hainanese) chefs were trained to cook. Not to mention the perfect cup of tea.  

Mist-shrouded trees entice even the most reluctant walker.

But the colonials could only take the air in much-needed peace and quiet, so the natives were banned from speaking during the weekends. 

As the climate was conducive for convalescing, the Red Cross built a bungalow for injured British soldiers to recuperate. The 1914-18 war and its aftermath made it extremely difficult for British expatriates to return to their motherland. Fraser’s Hill became a home away from home.  

In 1916, after an unsuccessful search for Louis James Fraser, the founder of this hill resort, Bishop Ferguson-Davie returned to Singapore and wrote a report about his trip. Taken in by the hill station’s natural contours and curative capacity, he recommended that the cool hills located in the Titiwangsa mountain range be developed to offer tired minds and bodies a place to rest and restore.  

Painstakingly planned, the hill station has architectural appeal, with the charming town centre, built in 1919, at its core. The post office, its grey-stone walls covered in creepers, is from another era. So is the police station next to it and the medical clinic opposite. 

Across from the quaint clock tower that serves as a roundabout lies Malaysia’s first golf course, built on the remains of Jean Louis Fraser’s century-old tin mine. Not a single par or curve on the course has changed over the decades.  

Live the English lifestyle at Ye Olde Smokehouse. — JACQUELINE PEREIRA

If you take the short Hemmant trail, cutting across the left side of the golf course, you can’t miss the remains of a tiny communications centre built by the Japanese Army during World War II. The hills were the foil, and the peaks offered perfect coverage of the lowlands. Shielded from the prying eyes of the Allies, the vault nearby was where Japanese soldiers stashed critical documents and weaponry.  

Dotted all along the few narrow roads that eventually meet in the town centre are the English-style bungalows, built not only to accommodate the clamouring need to flee the daily grind, but to last. With romantic names such as The Glen, The Bishop’s House, Wray, Parr, Aubyn, Kindersley and The Lodge conjuring up a glorious colonial past, the legacy lives on.  

Nature’s nature 

The centuries-old forest is undoubtedly the main attraction. Without the patter of frantic feet treading all over it, Fraser’s Hill is peaceful and quiet, perfect for a sit-still-and-do-nothing holiday.  

The jungles that surround the hill station simply astound, so the nature trails must top your must-do list. Beginners may choose the 20-minute Hemmant Trail — it cuts around the golf course, and ends at the supposedly haunted ruins of Victory Bungalow. (Local folklore includes suicides and tiger sightings there.)  

The toughest trail for experienced hikers is Pine Tree Trail. Located at the hill station’s highest point near the Admiralty and High Pines bungalows, the entry to this trail is sheltered beneath enigmatic rows of pine trees. This 6km hike, mostly a vertical climb, can take up to five hours, unless the rest spots and the unfolding magnificent vista distract you. The other six well-marked trails are Maxwell, Abu Suradi, Bishop’s, Rompin, Kindersley and Mager.  

It’s best to drop by The Fraser’s Hill Nature Education Centre (FHNEC), a joint venture between Fraser’s Hill Development Corporation (FHDC) and World Wildlife Fund Malaysia (WWF), for maps, tips and guides. There have been a few cases of trekkers who have gone missing and only discovered days later, so it’s imperative to let FHNEC know your planned whereabouts.  

A nine-hole game on the greens of the country’s oldest golf course is an ideal way to spend a morning for avid golfers. Its town-centre setting, wide-open spaces, surrounding hills and cool air make a world of difference. So will the wild boars that leave unsightly signs of their visit in dug-up greens. 

Fraser’s Hill has been gazetted as a protected area, with the success of the Annual International Bird Race. Now more than 250 bird species call it home. Bird-watching aficionados descend on the hill every year when the race begins, intent on spotting any number of birds in a pre-determined time. 

Ponies for hire offer a high-country experience, although it’s mostly children who enjoy the rides in a penned paddock.  

There’s also Allan’s Pond, with paddle-boats for those who are keen. Jeriau Waterfall, located a distance away from the town centre makes for a fine picnic excursion, although only a very few are able to brave its freezing waters.  

Joggers find the narrow winding roads a challenge as it’s mostly an uphill endeavour. Seasoned athletic types enjoy their run in the invigorating air. A brisk walk around the main road that circles the resort’s central area could take less than 45 minutes, though most are prone to a leisurely taking-in of the sights and sitting it out at the numerous — but mostly unimaginatively designed — rest spots.  

Restorative charm  

Despite nature always being the main appeal, the current lack of visitors to the hill station shows a lack of appreciation for the natural environment as opposed to manufactured tourist attractions. Fraser’s Hill retains its old colonial charm, with picturesque bungalows set in a scenic vista. Time has almost stood still, but the rot is beginning to set in. A number of bungalows lie derelict as the jungle creeps in to take over. Vines cover the sturdy houses in moss and mould. 

As the number of visitors dwindle by the day, the hills lie forgotten. Fraser’s Hill looks unattended to, wrapped only in its fading memories.  

Two decades ago, it was a much sought-after holiday retreat with visitors from Singapore and other countries. One would be hard pressed to get accommodation if it hadn’t been booked weeks in advance. A healthy bustle and buzz permeated the hills, with restaurants, cafés, a tavern and outdoor activities for children as well as adults.  

Nevertheless, Fraser’s Hill retains its capacity to tug at one’s emotions in the face of nature’s moving beauty. The temperature remains a conducive 18°C during the day and drops to a chilly 14°C as dusk descends. The well-planned, ingenious historical model of a mountain retreat and the exquisite artisanship in its colonial buildings still entreat you to explore.  

So what ails Fraser’s if its tranquil nature and recuperative appeal still draw in the weary urban soul and nature lover?Unfortunately, the marasmus of Malaysiana dulls the senses as soon as you arrive. There’s the ubiquitous sale of garments, pasar-malam style, right in the centre of town. Hawker stalls and a couple of restaurants offer mediocre meals and a menu that hardly changes. The Hill View and Arzed restaurants are most popular, along with Strawberry Café whose options include sipping strawberry tea and eating waffles next to the berries growing in neat rows. Other than curling up in bed with a good book, there are no options for nightlife here, other than a fireside drink at Ye Olde Smokehouse.  

Accommodation varies — from apartments to mid-range bungalows that come with mismatched furniture, to private rented luxury bungalows that are well-decked with housekeeper et al.  

Windswept and weather-beaten, the hill station lolls. What it needs is a spruce-up. Revive the charm of the countryside, maybe a couple of recuperative spas, walking and trekking holidays, and a variety of food and drink options.  

Then perhaps the legacy of an invincible spirit will live on, and be celebrated, surrounded by the forests so loved by Fraser and by most of us who trace the same path.  

  • For more information call Fraser’s Hill Development Corporation, at: (09) 3622 044.  

    Getting there 

    Only 1040kms from Kuala Lumpur and at 1,524m above sea-level. Fraser’s Hill lies in Pahang and Selangor. The pleasant two-hour drive from the city was once accessible via an 8km, one-lane road known as The Gap. Vehicles had to take turns to go up and down the hills at alternate hours. Now, a new road ensures that access is available both ways, at all hours. Taxis do ply the route, and so does a twice-a-day bus. It’s best to drive, though, as this way you can enjoy the atmosphere as you ascend the hill at your leisure.  

    The story of a resolute Scotsman 

    In 1910, Fraser’s Hill was “discovered” when Bishop Ferguson-Davie of Singapore went in search of his friend, Louis James Fraser, a miner who had disappeared.  

    After a steep and arduous trek up from The Gap, Ferguson-Davie found the mine and the workers’ camp deserted. Though disappointed, he nevertheless found the hills restful and rejuvenating. In his report, he recommended that they be developed for colonials to escape the lowland heat. The site was surveyed in 1919 and developed by the Government of the State of Pahang. By 1922, a road had been cut through the moun tains to the valley, which soon sprouted bungalows and Malaya’s first golf course. It was named Fraser’s Hill, after the enigmatic man who was never found. 

    At that time, the daunting Titiwangsa mountain range must have looked impenetrable, even to Fraser the Scottish gold prospector, who had started out in Australia. He recruited Chinese miners and found rich deposits of tin here in the 1890s.  

    The miners slogged to mine the ore, while Fraser operated a mule service to take the loads to the lowlands, trekking through perilous jungles enroute to Kuala Lipis, Tras, Tranum and Kuala Kubu.  

    His entrepreneurship, unfortunately, extended to setting up opium and gambling dens to entertain his workers and to increase his profits. He himself lived in a shack near the site of the present Pahang Bungalow. 

    The tin finally ran out in 1913, but Fraser had made his home in the hills, and away from the restraints of English society in Kuala Lumpur.  

    Almost a century later, his mysterious disappearance remains unsolved.

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