About a couple years back I began travelling again – alone since my friends were mostly all settled.
I am an introvert, and I don’t drink. I also lived far outside the city. All these kind of rules out most of the usual options for meeting new people even if I had felt up to it then.
But I was done waiting on friends to be available, and persuading them to be up for the kind of wandering I wished to do.
I didn’t really have any particular idea what to do with long weekends (note: Malaysia public holidays are drawn from at least 4 calendars and so shift year on year. Each year it’s a surprise how many long weekends there are, and when!). I thought that local destinations would be best. It would fit in the shorter time available while still being slow enough not to be superficial. So I did what I normally do when I can’t decide on any particular order. I just started from the top.
And that’s why the first destination for 2015 was Perlis. It is simply at the northernmost end of Malaysia, and to the left.
The limestone lookout hill
When I was looking up places to visit while in Perlis, some obscure old blog entries caught my eye. The limestone hills of the northern states of Malaysia are of course reasonably well known – especially those around Ipoh, Perak. But the Perlis limestone landscape has its own charm.
However, there were reports of one limestone hill in particular, in the middle of Perlis flatland, that could be hiked up for an incredible all around 360 degree view. There was very little reference to it on official and semi-official tourism sites. There wasn’t even a clear name cited (at the time).
And this, of course, lit my hunting instinct. I just cannot resist treasure hunts.
I set off to find this obscure limestone hill.
Perlis is a very small state. You can pretty much stay anywhere within it and be able to drive anywhere within it with ease. I stayed at a place near the lake dam of Timah Tasoh. The roads are good, and the density is low, which means Road tripping heaven!
You will be tempted to stop at random points along roads to take photos of its particular combo of jutting limestone and flat rice fields – and unlike its southern limestone cousin Perak, you can do this in Perlis quite safely and without annoying a hundred other motorists. I also saw a decent number of cyclists, and thought, huh, this fad is really catching on after all.
While its southern neighbour Kedah is well-known as the rice producing state of Malaysia, I found the rice fields of Perlis more appealing. Kedah’s rice fields are by this time quite industrial in its landscape. Wide open fields stretching right up to the horizon, unbroken by any features. Unsurprising, considering the production levels demanded.
But Perlis perhaps is the last state in peninsular Malaysia where the landscape of rice fields still looks the most like our illustrations of rural nostalgia. Like a Malaysian version of UK family farms, the fields are hedged with living fences, sometimes of trees, with rambling vegetation here and there. Buffalo still seen sometimes, slowly roaming. Iconic limestone outcrops scattered across the horizon.
So it took me a while to reach the vicinity of my best guess for where this limestone hill lookout is. There were so many charming landscapes along the way.
The hill proved harder to find than expected.
My best guess was based on a clue that said it was near a cave, Gua Cenderawasih. The map pin led me to the parking lot next to a lone hill surrounded by flat land for miles. There was a small playground at the foot of the hill that was vacant.
I looked for the cave, and there did seem to be one, but it was very small. Was this it? After Gua Kelam the day before my calibration of caves was set at quite a bit bigger.
I walked a bit and looked around, but could not readily see anywhere near the cave that might be the start of a hiking trail. Besides the blog implied that you could drive up it as well. It was impossible with this hill. There was no need to look closer.
This can’t be the hill.
I looked at the map. I looked at the distance further south on the road. Map pins are notoriously unreliable anyway, so maybe it isn’t here. This is just a children’s playground, albeit indeed labelled ‘Taman Cenderawasih’. But maybe the cave of the same name is really somewhere else.
I thought maybe I ought to aim for the area that had more hills. There’s a bigger chance that the real Gua Cenderawasih was there, and just probabilistically, the lookout hill would be there too. Right? If you’re looking for the ‘best hill’, you go first to where there are more hills rather than fewer, right?
So I got back in the car and drove on. It was easy. Perlis is very easy to keep driving in.
Sometimes turning back is the right thing to do.
The road came to a slightly more undulating terrain, with connecting hills to the left or to the right. There were more trees, and less flatlands.
There were no signs that signalled anything remotely about caves. Sure, there were more hills, but it felt wrong. The vista all around would be wrong, and I had the pictures I had seen on the internet as my guide. But I drove on. Because the only hill that felt right, was clearly the wrong hill. It didn’t, couldn’t, have a road. I simply needed to aim for a bigger hill. Enough said.
But as I went ever further south, I realised I would soon reach the state of Kedah. This was too far. It had to be wrong. But there were only so many roads in Perlis. Where was the hill? How could I have missed a second entire plain of rice fields with a hill sticking up from it?
Annoyed with myself, I turned around and drove back. Slower. As if to make sure I wouldn’t miss the second rice plain that way.
The invisible limestone hill
I went all the way through the undulating area and past the area of the first hill. I stopped and considered the terrain. There were no other hills. I drove on, taking a different road. There were rice plains, but no hill.
This freaking lookout hill is bloody invisible! Where the heck is it?!?!
I drove around and around in that obsessive compulsion you get sometimes when you could feel the answer to a puzzle is right at the tip of your hand but you cannot see it. And you intensify activity, as if this would help.
But eventually common sense kicked in and I stopped for lunch.
Eat, pray, and breathe.
It’s amazing how much difference it makes to your sanity with a bit of food, and a bit of pause. Regroup and re-strategise.
At the corner mamak restaurant I looked back through my information. Connected to the internet and carefully re-read the whole of the blog post again, systematically analytical.
Suppose not all of the information was correct. I tried to eliminate each piece to see what the target location would look like. I had assumed the Gua Cenderawasih map pin was the least reliable piece of information, but is it? The photo of the view of the roadside view up the hill looked verrrry familiar. Very similar to the view up the winding road in the hills near the border with Thailand, where the border market is held. I had gone the day before. Maybe that was the false lead.
Suppose the hill need not be large enough to accommodate a road. Could the first hill be the one?
Man is hasty.
I went back to the same parking lot by the children’s playground. Now that the hill didn’t have to accommodate a road, I took it more seriously. There was a cave, and the playground was associated with the name Cenderawasih. Fair enough. I got out of the car and walked purposefully all around the base of the hill.
I found it, angled away so that you couldn’t easily see it unless you approached from the other side. The steps leading up the hill.
In life we are often confused about the clues that we hold concerning what we want. Especially when options are abundant and easy to come by, we quickly move on to the next try, go to where there seemed to be the most choice, wander on, scroll down… swipe left. We think we know what we’re looking for, but don’t understand that there is priority between clues.
So we are left chasing windmills time and again. Unless we turn back and think more deeply about what is essential, and what are just nice-to-haves. And let go some things.
This is not ‘settling’ or ‘compromise’. We have to let go of what is false, or the prize we seek is unattainable. Not because it’s too hard to find the prize. But because it can be right in front of us – in this case, the first thing, in fact – and yet because we hold on to the false, it is invisible to our eyes.
I found the limestone hill lookout hike, because I finally had the sense to understand that the view I was looking for from the top, is the essential. The other clues, are lesser in priority. Once you throw some things away, you start to see different things.
You see, the surrounding landscape had to match the view. Even if that means there was but one unlikely hill to choose from, and over there it seems you have a lot more choice.
You don’t need many choices if the only choice is the right one.
The hike up Bukit Cenderawasih
It was a fairly easy hike. Although I wouldn’t say the hiking route was impeccably maintained, nonetheless the steps and concrete hand rails were sound.
Huts at various intervals offered a bit of shade and rest – painted a bright red, and sometimes perched dramatically against rock.
But it was a hot day. Blistering hot. It was midday and February; the heat and dryness was significant. I stopped partway up the hill at one of the huts for a rest and some hydration.
The view was pretty good even from here.
When you’re on the right track, press on.
I had not been physically active in recent years. Further, the difficult circumstances preceding my odyssey had left me waif-like. I had not hiked in heat for a long time so I wondered if I should press on. After all, I was alone. If I passed out, I may not be found.
But I was watered, and I felt able.
And I was done with telling myself what I could not do. Even if I was not yet used to telling myself what I could.
So I went on up the steps, past the exhaustion and through the haze of heat. Past the buzzing of what sounded like a beehive somewhere above. Just press on (and note to self: bring antihistamine next time, you’re allergic you idiot).
The view at the top
I reached the pinnacle. Actually once I was there, looking back, it wasn’t that hard at all. Sure, the heat was still palpable, blazing on my skin and my clothes, but it was not a big deal.
The view? One side of the view was not that much different from halfway up the hill.
But the thing about being at the top, is that you have a vantage of all around. You get to see all sides, and see how they merge into a single landscape.
And you can’t get this perspective, unless you are prepared to toil through some difficult, boring, stressful, sometimes risky bits, with not much more than trust in the story told by those who had gone before you.
What do you think, worth it? I thought it was.
For a different Malaysia road trip quest idea, check out: 7 Megalith Sites of Melaka: The Hunt into Myth.
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