Taiping is a quiet, timeless little town that seems to be perpetually dozing in the heat of a vanished colonial day. Its Chinese shophouses are crumbling gracefully; its wide streets are quiet and made for ambling walks; its gutters and sewer canals are populated with prowling cats and the terrific splashes of monitor lizards. Once an endless battle ground for the Chinese secret societies, then a booming tin mining town that boasted of some 40 “firsts” for Malaysia – including its railway, prison, post office, newspapers – Taiping is today known mostly for its beautiful lake gardens, Taman Tasik Taiping.
The gardens are absolutely stunning, large circular ponds connected to a series of sculpted lawns dotted with stands of palms and jungle. Its setting – a disused tin mine actually – at the foot of an old hill station provides a grand backdrop of slumbering, cloud-wrapped hills. I walked through the paths for about two hours, pausing at countless playful monkeys rolling down from the hairy trees to scavenge in bins and lope across the grass. Lovers sat on benches, coyly romantic in their restrained, Muslim way. I almost forgot my inexplicable teenage fear of lizards, until a 5-foot monitor lizard burst out of the water in front of me in a scaly, graceful splash. I swore so colourfully a sailor with Tourette’s syndrome would have been shocked by the outburst.
I was halfway through the gardens, annoyed with the attention-seeking monkeys and still wary of another monitor lizard, when through a thick wall of trees I heard the roar of a tiger, then the trumpet cry of an elephant. It was a full, nervous second before I remembered there was a zoo in the middle of the park – they have a night safari program popular with children. I think myself adventurous, but I never said I was brave.
Behind the gardens a few kilometres in a peaceful clearing is the Commonwealth Allied War Cemetery, where the neat white rows of headstones mark fallen allied soldiers. There are graves of British and Australian servicemen, soldiers of the Indian army, the Punjab regiment, Ghurkhas and the Federal Malay States Volunteer Force. The names on the headstones are a mix of Anglo-Celtic, Indian, Arabic, Chinese and Malay names. All the fallen men – and at least one woman – are recorded at the war graves commission website. Its easy to forget that people of such diverse nations fought and died together in these now beautiful, quiet lands.
At night the monkeys and lizards had left the gardens, and white birds filled the trees. The afternoon downpour was typically short and thick, a cool end to the day. Taiping is a marvellous old town, with a sleepy charm that hangs thick in the air. Even though I only spent the better part of a day there, it quickly felt like an old friend. It still does.