In 1995 my wife Noelene and I lived in Malaysia whilst I was working for our company there to establish a technical centre, equip it and employ and train the staff. Id done the same thing in Japan earlier the same year and our stay in both countries was a wonderful revelation for the both of us. In KL we lived in the ex-patriate land of Damansara Heights but loved to get out and about, especially when we had free weekends. Because its generally cooler as you ascend the hills we visited most of the easily accessible highland areas including Genting Highland, Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill), the Cameron Highlands where we spent a delightful Christmas and, of course, Bukit Fraser or Frasers Hill.
At that time we were only able to make a day trip to Frasers Hill and I had always hoped to return one day, because its such a beautiful and charming place and about 10oC cooler than the tortuous heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur. Also, there was good walking to be had, or so I was told!
Once a year I attend our companys Regional Business Meeting for the Asia-Pacific region, usually held in or near KL and I follow this with some technical visits to our most important or developing Malaysian customers. As I had nothing planned for Friday 18th March and since the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix was being held that weekend, I decided to get away from it all and spend a few quiet days at Frasers Hill, simply taking it easy and doing a bit of walking, for which Id brought some basic gear with me, including the all-important Brasher boots. I had found the charming Old Smokehouse Hotel, with its wonderful olde worldy British colonial charm, on the internet and it seemed to be just the right thing.
First of all, though, a bit about Frasers Hill
(taken mostly from: http://www.journeymalaysia.com/MH_fraser.htm)
Not too far from the sweltering heat of KL, lies an ethereal land high above the sea - peaceful and calming. Morning dew settles on the fronds, reflecting rainbows of the sun like windows on soap bubbles floating on a breeze. Low, lingering clouds envelop the rolling hills sweeping in chilly air and thin frail mist in the wee hours of the morning.
About 103 km from Kuala Lumpur is an area of seven hills originally named Ulu Tras just coming down the Titiwangsa Range. This range is the backbone of Peninsular Malaysia which runs from the Thai border all the way down south, ending in Negri Sembilan rarely dropping below a height of 1000m.
Louis James Fraser's Hill
Some hundred years ago, when the hills and mountains on the Titiwangsa Range looked too daunting to contemplate climbing even by the British army, Scotsman Fraser was already recruiting a handful of guides and coolies to take him on his expedition to explore the upper ridges for gold and other precious metals. After hacking his way up the last 300m (height) to the top, he came upon an enchanting forest in the clouds. The moist environment creates a sublime forest of moss-draped trees and filmy ferns. The forest looks prehistoric, feels prehistoric and even smells prehistoric.
After years of providing a mule transport service between Kuala Kubu Bahru and Raub, Fraser finally found a home, 1524m up a hill and away from the gossipy colonial community down below. The reclusive Scotsman travelled to Australia in search of gold at the peak of the gold rush and yet some change of destiny brought him to Malaya.
Perhaps the same dream of striking gold in these hills was the reason for his coming. Gold he didn't find but instead he found rich tin deposits. He stayed on and opened a mine in the 1890's employing Chinese miners to work the area. The tin ore was then transported down a perilous route on mules, winding down the side of the range to the nearest town, Raub. To lift the spirits of his Chinese workers, Fraser operated an opium and gambling den at the camp. This shrewd method of retaining his wealth certainly worked well. The wages paid out to the coolies would more often than not find their way back into the Fraser's ledgers through these dens.
Despite his newfound wealth and status Fraser mysteriously disappeared without a trace some 25 years later when he went for a walk not far from where he had made his home. He left behind everything he had worked hard for over the years. A search party was sent by C.J Ferguson-Davie, Bishop of Singapore to look for him. The camp and mine were found deserted. They never found Fraser. Instead they discovered the perfect place for a hill station - a retreat from the heat of the lowlands. The British authorities had always been fond of hill stations where they could build little villages reminiscent of those in their beloved homeland.
Besides, the ongoing war in Europe had made it difficult for these expatriates to go home on leave. Upon his return to Singapore, the Bishop wrote a report to the government indicating that Fraser's Hill was ideal as a hill station for it could cheaply and quickly be developed. In 1919, work started on the access road to the hill station from the Gap and by 1922, the hill station named Fraser's Hill was opened to visitors. It covered 140 hectares of land and had over 50km of jungle paths. In a 1927 Handbook to British Malaya, it mentioned that there were 9 government bungalows for the use of government officials, 4 houses built with the help of Red Cross for ex-servicemen and women, 3 private homes, a country club, a golf course, and water supply was complete and of course a post office.
Fraser's Hill still retains its old colonial charm and should not to be missed. It is almost as if time has stood still for the 1,000 or so residents. They go about their same old ways throughout most of the week, waiting for the weekend to bring in a trickle of guests and visitors. Most of the old stone cottages previously owned by colonial traders have withstood the weather well. In the years of the British Empire, the British families retreated to the cool hill stations during the hot seasons. The cottages here resemble those found in their English villages, equipped with a cosy fireplace and meticulously cared for garden plots. An afternoon of croquet with friends was followed by afternoon tea and evening cocktails.
Hainanese people were employed to run their kitchens and to maintain the cottages when not in use. The Hainanese are a group of Chinese people who originate from Hainan Island in Southern China. They were taught to cook English cuisine and serve it the English way. Fiercely loyal servants, the Hainanese remained in their employment until the British finally departed. Out of employment, these people later opened the now famous coffee shops found in KL and other cities. They continued to practise their culinary skills passing on their expertise to their next of kin. A few families remain in Fraser's Hill maintaining the traditions of providing exquisite service and excellent English fare.
This hill station was also built for another reason. The British army believed that there should be a place for their injured soldiers to convalesce. The Red Cross set up a little rehabilitation centre there. It has been converted into a hotel called The Old Smokehouse. Instead of hospital bunks, the interior is now decorated with eclectic furniture and collectibles, some of which seems to be leaning a little toward bric-a-brac items. With open wooden beams, log fires and lithographs of the old Fraser's Hill, the place exudes fading elegance. English tea and scones are served on the patio or in the restaurant. The rooms, each with its own with individual characteristics, are worth a stay in, if only to experience a little of the past.
©John Gillatt, 2005