A Road Trip Back in Time
Malaysia is rich with history, not only from the Dutch or British era but also from the World War II events that took place on this land. My friend and I decided that we would make a trip to revive some forgotten times. Thus, we set off on a historical road-trip that we named “2 historical states in 2 days”!
For those attempting to follow in our footsteps, rest assure that driving on Malaysian roads and highways is totally safe and enjoyable with great infrastructure and amenities along the way. Your long-distance drive can be interspersed with stops along the clean RnRs (Rest and Relax lay-bys) where there are food stalls, restrooms, convenience stores, petrol stations and Muslim prayer rooms.
The Mammoth on the Lake
From Kuala Lumpur, our first historic stop was to visit a “machine” from the British colonial era. Driving up north on the North-South PLUS Highway, we headed to Tanjung Tualang in Batu Gajah, a forgotten town that used to be famous for tin-mining activities in its heyday.
Briefly, Malaysia used to be the world’s largest tin producer, but when tin prices fell in 1980s, tin mining as an industry slowly ceased to exist in the country.
The “machine” we were going to check out is the last remaining piece of Perak’s tin mining history. The made-in-England Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge No. 5 – or TT5 as it was called – stood heftily on the lake, measuring about ¾ of a football field. This mammoth of a machine is Kinta Valley’s latest attraction. It was newly refurbished as a public museum to provide a glimpse into Malaysia’s tin-mining era in the old days.
From afar TT5 looks like a giant metal ‘bug’ anchored on the lake. The mechanical dredger is actually a floating vessel with a built in dredger to mine the earth.
Once inside, you can see a lot of machinery alongside steel structures and pillars. Being a bucket dredger, off to one side was a line-up of 115 huge buckets on a sort of conveyor belt. These metal buckets, so huge that it could fit four adults, would dip into the bottom of the lake to excavate the earth, and hopefully, particles of tin.
Built in 1938, this tin dredge is simply a magnificent piece of engineering invention. It was originally steam-operated, but later turned fully electric in 1963.
Instead of an ordinary old-rusty machine, the TT5 dredger has been neatly refurbished with some parts re-painted to make it look almost brand new.
The inside of the dredge was sparse and you’ll definitely get the feeling that you are in a sort machine or factory. As part of the safety procedure, visitors are required to put on hard hats during the entire tour.
We were ushered to different areas (though many sections were off-limits) inside the huge machine and shown how it was operated. But to be safe, only 25 persons are allowed on-board at any one time.
We spent the rest of the tour with our well-informed guide, listening to how the tin dredge was operated and how the mines had changed not only the lives of people in Perak in those days, but also how the entire industry transformed and developed Malaysia. His explanations and stories painted a vivid picture of how the tin dredge worked and the economic importance of the industry.
One can explore almost all the areas of the tin dredge, touch and feel the machinery and also participate in some activities. We actually learned how to do manual tin mining – just to feel the experience of the original-time consuming method. After a “hard day’s work,” we took a sip at the lovely The Can Tin Diner, a small outlet which offers beverages and snacks.
The Original Tin Miners’ Club
We then left Batu Gajah on a 30 minute drive headed straight for Ipoh, the capital city of Perak which had its fair share of history to tell as well.
To delve deeper into Malaysia’s tin mining history, we visited Han Chin Pet Soo museum. For those who are interested to learn more about Malaysia’s tin mining history, there is no better place to do so than at this museum housed in what was once known as a private club for tin mining towkays since the 1890s. We explored three floors’ worth of old Malaya history through a guided tour and viewing unique exhibits such as a tin mine diorama, archived films, opium smoking paraphernalia, rare photographs and more.
That night, as we lulled ourselves to sleep at the Kinta Riverfront hotel in the city area, our dreams were of tin prospectors in old Malaya finding riches in the Kinta River.
Bridge to the Battlefields
The next day, we continued our journey to Penang and used the new Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah bridge to the island. This newly-built second link to the island was nearer to our ultimate destination, the Penang War Museum in Batu Maung.
It connects Bandar Cassia (Batu Kawan) in Seberang Perai on mainland Peninsular Malaysia with Batu Maung on Penang Island, and is the ideal bridge to take if you want to explore the southern parts of Penang Island.
It is the second bridge to link the island to the mainland after the first Penang Bridge. The total length of the bridge is 24 km (15 mi) with length over water at 16.9 km (10.5 mi), making it the longest bridge in Malaysia and the longest in Southeast Asia.
To abide by the Road Safety Audit, the bridge has numerous “S” shaped curves along its length. It took us about 20 minutes to cross the bridge.
Once in Batu Maung and as our car inched up the hill on which the museum stood, there was no mistaking that we were in “army territory” from the signages and war relics around.
The war bunker and fort at Batu Maung was erected by the British in the 1930s, but later came into the possession of the Japanese in 1941 when they turned it into a prisoners’ camp.
Exploring the various areas of the fort revealed many interesting relics such as pillboxes, underground shelters and bunkers dug deep into the ground. We entered a bunker that was once used as an ammunition storage area. A bit further down, we saw a tunnel used to safely detonate bombs, big machine guns or launchers. We also saw the area where executions were carried out. A look into the barracks, now camouflaged by jungle, was a glimpse into the tormented lives and routines endured by the soldiers.
This definitely wasn’t a place for the faint-hearted, but for those who have a genuine love for history, they will find many fascinating stories and artefacts here to add depth to their knowledge of Malaysian history.
The Home of Heritage
We left the museum drenched in sweat, and the only thing to perk us up again was a comfortable warm bath in the lovely and eccentric Penaga Boutique Hotel. This cosy Baba-Nyonya inspired hotel is a cluster of 15 pre-war heritage shop houses converted into a an elegant five-star boutique accommodation full of character, right in the middle of George Town’s UNESCO heritage zone. Stepping into this Peranakan styled hotel transported us back to the origins of the Chinese and Malay cultures that fused all those years ago in Penang.
Staying the night here was a fitting way to end our history-tracing road trip as we immersed ourselves in the rich and colourful past of George Town City, whose amalgam of culture, heritage and traditions earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.
And the best thing was the location – it was just a stone’s throw away from a legendary culinary establishment for the masses – Nasi Kandar Line Clear! Although the restaurant has its franchises, nothing beats the original flavours where it first became famous.
We left Penang the very next morning pleased that we had managed to go back several decades in time to relive Malaysia’s glorious past and enjoy the fruits of its present and future.
Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge No. 5 or TT5 Museum
Address: 9th KM, Jalan Tanjung Tualang, 31000 Batu Gajah, Perak
Time: 9.00 am to 6.00 pm (Monday closed)
Phone: +6014-904 3255
Fee: From RM5 to RM20 and free for kids under 6 (Limited to 20 pax per session)
Han Chin Pet Soo Museum
Address: No. 3, Jalan Bijeh Timah (Treacher Street), 30100 Ipoh, Perak
Time: 9:30 am to 4:45 pm (Monday closed) Entry is by appointment only
Phone: +605-241 4541
Fee: No entrance fee, though donations of RM10 per adult and RM5 per child is welcomed
Penang War Museum
Address: Batu Maung street, 11960 Batu Maung, Penang
Time: 9.00 am to 6.00 pm (Daily) Plus 8.00 pm – 10.00 pm (Saturday & Sunday)
Phone: +604-626 5142
Fee: From RM20 to RM35
*The museum is best reached by private transport.