Ghost of a steam train – echoes down my track / It’s at the moment bound for nowhere

As you pass through Malaysia it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by the infrastructure. From the KLIA, to the Twin Towers to the bridge from Butterworth to Penang, it’s incredible and makes my home country look a little less developed than this developing nation. And then there are the roads.

Grand sweeping highways, often cut through seemingly impassable terrain and sculpted out of the mountains, cross the country. True, the driving may be less than perfect at times and trucks still belch black fumes but after Indonesia, it’s still a relief and I have to say I really enjoyed driving in Malaysia – more so than Bali, Australia or NZ. Especially when filling up is less than US$30 (about the same price as Indonesia but roads everywhere in Indonesia are appalling and often filled with charming people who become lunatics when given a vehicle).

Leaving Kuala Lumpur, heading to the town of Ipoh, we drove north on the variety of ring roads intending to visit the world-famous Batu Caves just north of the city, but in our rush to leave had not partaken in breakfast, thus our eyesight was blurred and we missed the turn off (true story: a guy that worked for us in Bali drove our car into an obvious wall once – his argument was that it was midday and he’d not had lunch yet. The logic works for me).

So we travelled further north, spinning past a variety of food outlets (‘that looked good’) and made the split decision to flag the coastal route (it looked like it wound a bit) and make a detour up to the Cameron Highlands.

The Cameron Highlands are very famous. They are famous for their beauty, for their tearooms, market gardens, and, in my mind, even more famous as the place where the legendary Jim Thompson disappeared – offed, so speculation goes, either by the CIA, those damned Commies, or some corrupt Thai politician.

The thought occurred that perhaps we could figure out our likely scenario on Jim’s fate. I like a mystery, and this really was one.

Thus, off the six-lane highway we went. The map said 45km to the central town of Tanah Rata which seemed do-able. And the road wasn’t bad as it goes – very windy, and quite narrow but better than large parts of State Highway One in my native land.

That said this relative ease was complicated by a few things. Firstly, we were all starving. Forget Jim Thompson, we need lunch. No, make that breakfast. Secondly, we had some little shit in a cheap Japanese sports car lookalike who took pleasure in slowing down to 10km in the centre of the road for some extended periods then racing off – his Jim Thompson moment was about to come if we’d managed to get our hands on him. Thirdly, the road may have been ok, but it went on and on and on and on and on and on, and forever upwards. This was further complicated by the fourth factor: our petrol seemed to have gone from half a healthy tank to none almost in an instant. And there seemed to not be a petrol station. At least in Bali we have the alternative of those Absolut bottles full of watered down (often with vegetable oil) Premium on every corner as a last resort, but not Malaysia which seems to have left that past far behind.

However, it being a rental car, an Absolut bottle filled with anything (even Absolut) would’ve been helpful. Brigid suggested we turn back but Jim Thompson kept calling, as did the thought of some alpine café serving sates or something similar – so onwards we went with the clear knowledge that if there was no gas station in the first town, the oddly named Ringlet, we were, to use a kiwi-ism, profoundly rooted and wouldn’t make Ipoh that night.

As we went around the curve into Ringlet Blake spotted a Petronas sign and we cruised, ever so confidently, into that quite wonderful Pompa Bensin to fill’er up.

I wandered around the back, noted that one of the toilets was flooding out the door but the staff member near seemed unconcerned so I thought I’d let it pass too – when in Rome…

In the interim our navigator at the time, Blake, had found a map which indicated that perhaps there was another route to the north out of the Highlands. The chap from the station spoke no English and seemed confused by the questions so in my Indonesian tinged Bahasa Malay I asked:

Jalan itu paling cepat ke Ipoh dari disini?

Ya he answered, and we were on our way north, towards Tanah Rata for that lunch and then a quick flash through on whatever road that was, to our booked destination.

Sadly it was the highlight of the Cameron Highlands. I think Jim Thompson decided he’d had enough of this place and had taken flight to a better place. Any place would’ve fitted that description – the Cameron Highlands was a dank, grotty place littered with tourist traps and ugly pseudo Swiss Chalet styled hotels. The food in uglier Tanah Rata was shocking. I refused to eat it and decided I’d wait till Ipoh whenever it may be. I had a strawberry.

We moved north, past more grotty tourist traps and a garbage dump, quickly looking for the way out and before we knew it we were sweeping down the new – not yet on any maps – multi-lane Highway 145, clearly designed as an escape route from the unappealing Cameron Highlands. If only Jim Thompson had waited….

And into Ipoh we went, past the huge Limestone mountains and the temples carved into their sides and down the boulevards of the former colonial mining capital to our pleasant, and pleasantly cheap, hotel.

A quick shower, still delirious from hunger we wandered down to the famous old railway station where the Raj sent tin trains south to fill the coffers of London’s merchant banks, for a hundred years or so, before the ore was depleted.

Clearly business there was still a little slow as the Station Hotel – listed in a few guides as an attraction, was now a brothel. Well, there you go. Humans always seem to find an industry when the last one expires.

After a wander around the station cum knock shop (if you will) we unwisely looked at the map and headed off for the Wooley Food Centre – much recommended – to finally kill the delirium.

It was nowhere near the map location. Indeed, some of the roads on the map had never existed. It’s embarrassing how lost we were and how close we were the whole time  – and it may be better not to mention the nice Moslem family, with headscarves, running the saté cart who politely declined to sell Sandra the pork sates she tried to order.

The Tiger Beer arrived at our table and we were in Ipoh but where was Jim Thompson?

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