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Jan 6, 2011

Taiping's emerald gardens

In some quiet corners of Malaysia, there are sanctuaries that flower and bloom in solitude. PHILIP LIM feels privileged to re-visit one of Perak's heavenly attractions half-way between Ipoh and Penang.

TAIPING: On a clear day when the skies are crystalline blue, with nary a cloud, the Lake Gardens of Taiping is a testament to a healthy, living planet.

The Lake Gardens which was once mining land was conceived in 1880. The man credited for bringing the gardens into being was Colonel Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker.

Walker, who was the British resident of Perak and Selangor, was admired for his sense of justice and fair play in settling labour disputes among the local communities.

If not for the largesse of Perak Kapitan China Chung Thye Phin, a one-time member of the Perak State Council who donated the abandoned mining site to the people, the park would have remained a figment of someone's imagination.

Thye Phin was the son of one of Penang's prominent tycoons Chung Keng Quee.

The landscape of Taiping Lake Gardens was due to the genius of British town planner Charles Compton Reade.

The 96.4ha lake gardens was the first of its kind in Malaya. Eight of the 10 lakes and ponds have been named Pavilion Pond, South Lake, Swan Lake, West Lake, Almanda Pond, Oblong Pond, Island Pond and Jungle Lake.

Its original size was about 62ha. It was officially opened to the public in 1893 by Perak British Resident Sir Frank Swettenham.

Records reveal that Swettenham's wife Constance Sydney Holmes and mining inspector William Scott also had a hand in developing the green lung.

Manual labour was amply provided by Taiping Prison inmates who were probably quite glad to be outside the prison walls.

In the 30-odd years that I have been in and out of Taiping, the beautiful lake area has basically retained its pristine image. The magnificent angsana trees are still there.

Since Malaysia is close to the Equator, there is plenty of rain and sunshine for the lush greenery that make up 99 per cent of the Lake Gardens.

The pollution-free atmosphere and the silence that prevail over the place, except for the chirping of birds, are what draw visitors and residents to the area.

There are few benches because guests are supposed to walk and soak in the panoramic scenery as they make their way around the ponds and lakes.

The oldest golf course in the country was in the lake gardens until it was shut down in 1995.

With Mother Nature casting a spell on one of her most precious jewels, Taiping stands proudly as the only town in the country that has the magnificent lakes-in-the-garden. In its early history, Taiping was designated the Larut Settlement.

Later, it became known as Klian Pauh. Despite its unimpressive size, Taiping is still the second largest town in Perak, after Ipoh.

From 1876 to 1937, Taiping was the capital of Perak.

From Lake Gardens, the sight of Maxwell Hill or Bukit Larut is simply breathtaking.

The Taiping Chinese, who are mainly Hokkien-speaking, call it Kopi Suah or coffee hill.

With a population close to 200,000 (2007 statistics), Taiping's history is founded on blood spilt by the Hakka and the Cantonese tin mine workers who fought four major wars.

Peace gradually descended on the town after 1885 when the first railway in the country was established between Taiping and Port Weld.

But whatever the reason a visitor may have for coming to Taiping, the lake gardens will forever stand as a monument to its unblemished natural beauty.

Notwithstanding its reputation as the wettest town in the entire peninsula, Taiping's unusually high rainfall, between 2,000 and 2,500mm per year, has made the lake gardens into a glittering emerald of natural wonder that takes the breath away.

If a motorist were to drive the full circuit of the lake gardens area, the entrance of the Taiping Zoo would soon spring into view.

The zoo has a side attraction called Night Safari.

Adults are charged RM12 per entry and for children under 12, it is RM8.

Night Safari hours are from 8pm to 11pm. In 2008, the zoo had 635,967 visitors.

Also in the lake area is Malaysia's oldest museum, the Perak Museum, established in 1883.

A stone's throw from the museum is the Taiping jail.

Originally named the Perak Prison, the Taiping jail shares the fertile surroundings with its other inhabitants besides humans -- migratory birds and countless insects.

If a visitor is hungry, there's an eatery nearby whose owner has cheekily named "Mom's Prison Corner".

Over the decades, the Taiping Municipal Council which takes care of the Lake Gardens has added jogging and reflexology tracks, an open air gymnasium, two bridges (zig-zag and Pagoda) and a Japanese Garden to the landscape.

For keen roller skaters, there is a skating rink in the grounds and paddle-boat rides are available for visitors who like the feel of water at their feet.

The Lake Gardens is not the only jewel in Taiping's crown.

The town was also home to three newspapers which first set up offices here.

They were the Malay newspaper Seri Perak (1893), Tamil newspaper Perak Verthamani (1894) and English language newspaper Perak Pioneer (1894).

The Ceylon, Punjabi and Indian Associations also had their beginnings here.

They were established in Taiping in 1899, 1903 and 1906, respectively.

Taiping consists mainly of 26 suburbs and neighbourhoods.

The familiar ones are Kamunting, Aulong, Pokok Assam, Changkat Jering, Bukit Gantang, Matang, Kampung Boyan and Simpang.

In a way, it is a blessing that Taiping does not have to bear the economical pressures like Penang or face the commercial awakenings of Ipoh.

If progress marches inexorably into Taiping town, the tranquillity of Lake Gardens might be stirred and the town's exquisite "emerald" might lose its lustre.

Its present loveliness is incumbent upon the caretakers who are the guardians of one of Malaysia's greatest natural legacies.

May it remain so for the next 100 years.

Source: News Straits Times