Perlis Road Trip for the 'Invisible' Bukit Cenderawasih
When I decided to look for Bukit Cenderawasih on my road trip to Perlis, it was during a time when I had begun travelling again - solo, since my friends by this time were mostly all settled.
I am an introvert, and I don't drink. I also lived far outside the city at the time. They combine to kind of rule 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. So I decided, I'll just pack up to go on my own.
I had decided, for lack of a better plan, to travel within my own country, state by state. This kind of travelling would fit into the Malaysian long weekends, while still being slow enough not to be superficial (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!). Doing 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 - a state not usually visited for tourism. It was simply the state at the northernmost end of Malaysia, and to the left.
- The limestone lookout hill near Cenderawasih cave
- Road tripping in Perlis find an obscure limestone hill
- The invisible Bukit Cenderawasih
- Hiking up Bukit Cenderawasih
The limestone lookout hill near Cenderawasih cave
The limestone hills of the northern states of Malaysia are quite well known - especially the famous hills around Ipoh, Perak. But the Perlis limestone landscape has its own charm. Looking up places to see while in Perlis, a few obscure old blog entries caught my eye.
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.
Yet 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. I couldn't match the blog descriptions, with any hill mentioned as a local attraction.
So this, of course, lit my hunting instinct. I cannot resist treasure hunts.
Road tripping in Perlis find an obscure limestone hill
Perlis is a very small state, and perfect for road trips. You can pretty much stay anywhere within it and be able to drive to anywhere with ease. Every place in the state, can be an easy day trip thing. The roads are good, and the traffic density low - which means road tripping heaven!
During my long weekend there, instead of going to the capital Kangar, I stayed at a nice local place near the lake dam of Timah Tasoh.
You will be tempted to stop at random points along roads to take photos of the particular Perlis landscape combo of jutting limestone and flat rice fields. Unlike its southern limestone-hilled cousin Perak, you can do this in Perlis quite safely and without annoying a hundred other motorists (the perks of an off-the-beaten path destination).
But I did see a decent number of cyclists, and remember thinking, huh, this cycling fad is really catching on after all.
The Perlis authentic rice field landscape
While its southern neighbour Kedah is well-known as the rice producing state of Malaysia, I found the rice fields of Perlis more appealing.
As Malaysia continued to develop post-independence, so did our agriculture. 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 is where you should go, if you're looking for the original idyllic Southeast Asian rural countryside in Malaysia. It is perhaps the last state in peninsular Malaysia where the rice field landscape still looks the most like our artists' 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 are 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 limestone 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 little lone hill surrounded by flat land for miles. There was a small playground at the foot of the hill. In the waxing morning, the playground was vacant.
I looked for the cave, and there did seem to be one. But it was very small - more like a 'hole'. Was that it? After visiting Gua Kelam the day before (Perlis' main limestone cave attraction), my calibration for caves was set at quite a bit larger.
I walked a bit around the area, 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 the hill as well. That was impossible to do with this hill.
There was no need to look closer. It must be the wrong hill. Maybe 'near' is relative.
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 Gua Cenderawasih was not exactly here.
Perhaps the pin merely marked the children's playground, albeit indeed labelled 'Taman** Cenderawasih'. But maybe the cave of the same name is really somewhere else.
I thought I ought to aim for the area that had more limestone hills. There would be a bigger chance that the real Gua Cenderawasih would be there, and probabilistically, the lookout hill would be there too. Right? If you're looking for the 'best hill', you go 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 slightly more undulating terrain, with connected hills to the left or to the right. There were more trees, and less flat land. But there were no signs that remotely signalled anything about caves.
Sure, there were indeed more hills, but it felt wrong. I had the pictures I had seen on the internet as my guide, and the vista all around is looking wrong.
Nonetheless, 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. That was surely too far. This had to be wrong too. 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 Bukit Cenderawasih
I went all the way through the undulating area and past the area of the first hill. Then I stopped and considered the terrain. There were literally no other hills. I drove on, taking a different road at an intersection. There were rice plains in this direction - 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 finger but you cannot see it. So 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 a bit of food makes to your sanity. Regroup and re-strategise.
At a corner mamak restaurant, I reviewed my collection of clues. I switched on my mobile data and carefully re-read the whole of the blog post again, systematically analytical this time. Suppose not all of the information was correct?
I tried to eliminate each piece to see what the target location would look like without that clue. I had assumed the Gua Cenderawasih map pin was the least reliable piece of information, but is it? The photo showing the roadside view up the hill actually looked very familiar. It was very similar to the view up the winding road in the hills near the border with Thailand, where a Malaysia-Thailand border market is held. I had gone the day before, but that was much further north.
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, after all?
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. OK, there was a cave, albeit small, 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.
And I found it, angled away so that you couldn't easily see it unless you approached from the other side. There were steps leading up the hill.
In life we are often confused about the clues 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 more choice.
We wander on, scroll down... swipe left. We think we know what we're looking for, and try to bargain to get the option that has as many of the things we were looking for as possible. More boxes ticked, means a better deal. Right?
We don't understand that there is priority between clues. Some are essential, and others are not important. Red herrings, even.
So we are left chasing windmills time and again. Unless we turn back and think more deeply about what are true signs, and what are just nice-to-haves. And let go the false leads.
The hill becomes visible.
This is not 'settling' or 'compromise'. We have to let go of what is false, or the prize we seek becomes unattainable.
Not because it makes it too hard to find the prize. But because the prize can then be right in front of us - in this case, the first hill I found, in fact - and yet because we hold on to false beliefs, it becomes invisible to our eyes.
I found the Bukit Cenderawasih limestone hill lookout, because I finally had the sense to understand that the view I was looking for from the top, is the essential thing. The other clues are lesser in priority.
You see, the surrounding landscape had to match the view. Even if that means here there was but one unlikely hill to choose from, whereas over there it seems you have a lot more choice. Once you throw the blinkers away, you start to see different things.
You don't need many choices if the only choice at hand is the right one.
Hiking up Bukit Cenderawasih
The actual hike up Bukit Cenderawasih was a fairly easy one. 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 re-birth odyssey had left me waif-like. I had not hiked in heat for a long time, so I wondered if I should press on.
My cautious mind hesitated. After all, I was alone. If I passed out or something, 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, pushing 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 idiot!).
For the view at the top
I reached the pinnacle.
Actually once I was there and looking back, the hike wasn't that hard at all. Sure, the heat was still palpable, blazing on my skin and my clothes, but it was not that big a deal.
And the view? Well, 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 view all sides, and see how they merge into a single, unbroken landscape. The big picture.
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.
*Gua is Malay for 'cave'.
** Taman is Malay for 'garden' or 'park'.
Inspired to go road-tripping for an obscure limestone hill you're not sure even exists? Pin this to reflect on!
For a different Malaysia road trip quest idea, check out: 7 Megalith Sites of Melaka: The Hunt into Myth.