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Jan 29, 2009

Visit Pengkalan Hulu

Got time, want a quiet weekend retreat, away from traffic jams, carbon monoxide, rush hour crowd... ? Want to get up to a view of a serene lake and hills? Contemplate? Close to nature, lake, water falls, hot springs and a cool climate?? Plus throw in a visit to Thailand 7 miles away for great shopping. In a budget? Think no further. Head to Pengkalan Hulu. Want guided tour, best place to stay, customised holiday experience? Email me at

Best Nasi Lemak in Pengkalan Hulu (the world)

This makcik sells the best nasi lemak in Kroh. Her stall next to the Surau in Kg Baru is packed with students between 6.30-7.30 and then followed by office workers who pack by dozens for colleagues at work. By 9.30 everything sells out. Her secret is in her sambal that she cooks for 3 hours till the oil breaks out and caramelises.

Looks humble enough, eh, dont judge a book by its cover, so they say. Only 60 cents, but after this, no other nasi lemak will live up to it again. Prejudices asid, it is the best nasi lemak in the world!

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Jan 26, 2009

My hometown

Most of us grow up and leave our hometown in search of better life. Then we get busy with life and rarely find the time to think about it.

But there always come a certain point in your life, much later, when you mellow down and start smelling the roses as they say or earlier, you begin to long to reconnect with your past. The wonders of childhood, of your favourite playspots, the old house where you grew up, the familiar scenes…the familiar face...the memories…

Well, I just entered that stage, a bit prematurely I guess. In last year, I frequently think of my hometown. How as a child I loved getting up in the morning and standing at the window and see the sun rising over the hills. I can still see the many hues of the sunrise in my mind and its simple wonders that filled my child’s heart.

My hometown is a small hilly border town perched at the edges of one of Asia’s oldest mountain ranges. It was called Kroh before a late Sultan changed it to Pengkalan Hulu. But most of us still prefer to call it Kroh. Some say it got its name from its muddy lake where once elephants bathed themselves. Kroh is a actually a valley surrounded by a circle of hills. The temperature is much cooler compared to nearby towns being i think about 300m above sea level. It was still surrounded by virgin forest 50 years ago.

My grandfather used to talk about his encounters with tigers and I have personally seen a herd of forest deers crossing the hilly roads, one baby deer even stopped to stare at me for a while before it vanished over the cliff. It was one the most memorable moments of my life. Elephants still periodically visit local orchards.

It is mentioned in one old scripture that Malaya (as it was known then) was once a part of an ancient Indian empire (that stretched all the way to Indonesia). This whole land was reserved as a huge park for recreational activities for the royal family and kinsmen. It was also spiritual retreat for revered sages and yogis in search of enlightenment. Perhaps that’s why there is still so much of peaceful vibes in this land till today.

There are two ways to Kroh i.e. via Baling from the west or Gerik from the east. The old roads used to be winding and narrow, originally cliff trails with plunging slopes on one side, a journey not for the faint hearted.

It is uphill drive all the way and I used to love looking at the forest trees as I pass by and occasional monkeys jumping around. It is a rejuvenating to the soul, the greenery and the fresh air. The stillness of age old trees, as though they are just waiting and observing...their leaves waving almost like welcoming your was almost an ethereal experience. These tree had existed for decades and most probably seen my great grandparents grow up and pass on. They had witnessed the days of yonder when only bullock carts and horses used to past the trails.

Now the forests are gradually being stripped away by progress..the hills cut through to straighten the roads to accommodate modernisation. In my heart, sometimes, I fear the day I will no longer see them, like losing your heritage.

There are many wonderful spots to visit in this small town. First there are the caves that purportedly lead you through secret passageways right into the famous Baling mountain, now famous for trekkers. Imagine ancient civilization using these same pathways and you trailing their footsteps. That would a great experience.

There are waterfalls tucked away in the nest of jungles for the adventurous one.
There are also natural hot springs where I used to enjoy many picnics with my friends, classmates in our primary school days when our hearts were filled with innocence and wonder. We used to pack nasi lemak, sardine sandwiches, kacang and air sirap and cycle all the way to Air Panas from Kroh town and spend blissful days romping between the then 2 hot water pools and the flowing river nearby. The extremes of cold and hot temperature made your skin tingle and hot plate of authentic nasi lemak never tasted any better.

Yes, talking about food, Kroh has the best ice-kacang they say…all 11 ingredient altogether for half of the price of the pittance they sometimes serve you in city stalls. Also the best nasi lemak was the one served in Sekolah Kebangsaan Kroh canteen during the 70s. Even after you finish eating, the smell of belacan sambal lingers on your fingertips.

Now there is a lakeside restaurant on the elephant made lake gardens in the middle of the town is famous for its view and some local fare. Nice to sit there in late evenings and watch the sun set beyond the hills over the Tun Saban school.

Seven miles to the north, you will find Betong, a Thailand border town. Whenever someone asked me where my border town was, I used to tell them, if I opened my front door, I will be in Perak, my back door leads me to Kedah and my side door takes me to Thailand!! It amused me to see the confusion in the faces.

Kroh also boasts one of Peraks largest golf course (nine hole) now where once used to be the biggest military camp. This was once a great meadow where we did our cross country running and cow and buffalos grazed lazily. I remember growing up hearing helicopters and caribous roaring in the background. But things have quietened down these days.

During school days, I would cycle to school in the morning dew, my hair and my uniform will be damp by the time I reached school. Being a hilly town, the air was extremely wet and cold in the mornings. Oil frozen in the bottles, the water was icy and you breath formed vapors as you spoke. Those days with no water heaters, bathing was like 5 cedoks (buckets) of icy water quickly emptied over yourself before you run out of the bathroom shivering in your towel. My late grandfather used to tease that i 'mandi kerbau' meaning taking shower in haste without actually cleaning urself.

No carbon dioxide jamming your nostrils, no traffic jams and none of the usual havocs of big city. Cool fresh air all the way and the sun's heat only came up after 10am. I remember never having to use the fan in the house. Roosters waking you up before dawn and birds chirping at ur windows. Some people say it is a great place to spend retirement provided over commercialisation doesnt kill its beauty.

Who knows, if I’m lucky I’ll do just that when I reach my sixties. The land where my great grandparents and my grandparents spent their entire lifetimes. There surely must be something special there. Because somehow I don’t feel they ever actually left. Maybe that’s what that pulls us to our hometown, the lingering presence of our forefathers, the memories of childhood when everything was simple and a sense of belonging..the link to our past, present and future.