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?

Tech­no­rati Tags: ,,

Share your thoughts