I like making road trips, because you get to cover a lot of distance and yet also be able to make detours when you want. However, unless it’s a completely open-ended road trip, you have less time per location than if you only went to any of the places on purpose. I wondered if I ought to have broken the journey in Temerloh, when I did the long drive along Sungai Pahang from Kuala Lipis. And when I began looking around, I thought that perhaps I should have allocated Pekan more than a single day.

The morning did not seem promising. I had booked myself into the best hotel in town, the Ancasa Royale, at the bend of the Pahang river as it widened to an estuary. But the view from my suite was dominated by sand mining activities. A local man I met later told me that a royalty-linked company owns the rights for the sand mining*. But I guess, a lot of sand washes down the rivers, and maybe the river needs to be dredged anyway.

Interestingly, despite the sand dredging, the estuary is less tea-coloured than the river that I saw the previous day. And I felt somehow glad to see a man out fishing on the river. It felt like Pekan’s environment could still supply food, even though it is a town and not a village.

Man out casting a net from a small sampan in a back channel of the Pahang River in Pekan.
The estuary still supports artisanal fishing

A city of ancient times

Although Pahang’s modern capital is Kuantan**, for almost the entirety of its history, this was Pekan. Pekan’s importance as a settlement and trade harbour extended well before its sultanate history, something under-appreciated by many Malaysians from modern or British-built suburbia and cities.

The settlement at the mouth of the Pahang had been a vassal of the Khmers since at least the 2nd century BC, based on Chinese records. Indeed, the name Pahang itself is thought to be from the Khmer word for tin. In ancient times, outsiders probably knew Pekan as synonymous with Pahang. After all, ‘Pekan’ simply means ‘the town’, and probably the endonym. Its other name was Inderapura (not to be confused with the other Inderapura in Sumatra).

In the 5th century, during the era of Pattani influence, Pahang sent its own envoy to China. Pahang then came under the influence of a succession of major regional powers, such as Srivijaya, Majapahit, and Siam, before being captured by Melaka. Its history then became bound with Melaka and its successors for the next few centuries. It then entered a period of anarchy with the demise of the Melaka royal lineage, and ended when it merged into the Johor-Pahang-Riau-Lingga empire.

Following the 1824 Anglo-Dutch treaty, Pahang separated out from the empire and became self-governing. Civil war broke out not long after. It was in this state that the British came into the picture***, signing Pahang up into accepting a Resident Advisor.

Throughout all this history, the main city of Pahang was not Kuantan, but Pekan.

First impressions of Pekan

Although my morning impression was doubtful, it improved when I crossed the river into Pekan town. This isn’t because of any particularly amazing building. There wasn’t anything that catches your attention as outstanding. In fact, the town looked like it was working with a budget. Not tight, but not flush with cash either.

Rather, it was more like the things that were there, were tasteful. It was not pedestrian-focused, but there were nice sidewalks where it mattered. Parking was easy, and often underneath large, shady trees. There were reasonable pedestrian crossing locations, but even when there were not, it didn’t really matter. Because, Pekan’s drivers would stop for you.

Yes, that’s right. The motorists in Pekan actually stop for pedestrians. They even stop when you’re at the side of the road, in case you intended to cross. For that matter, I noticed while driving across the entire state that Pahang drivers generally actually drive like we’re supposed to. Now, you might say this is because of the post-pandemic timing of my visit. But that would eliminate drivers from elsewhere, meaning that it’s much more likely that these were all Pahangites. For those of us from states with much worse driving etiquette, it may sound unbelievable, but it was true.

There were little touches in more temporary things as well. Like the banners in front of the Pahang Museum. I drove past it one way, and only noticed the reverse side when driving back the other way. Instead of being blank or repeating the text, the reverse side is printed with textile patterns of Pahang.

It’s these classy little touches that I remember about Pekan.

Six things to do in Pekan

I would remember more things about Pekan, had more things been open during my visit. Alas, I couldn’t visit all the places on my list. This was partly due to having only one day in Pekan, and partly because they were not yet ready for visitors, being so soon after the pandemic controls. So this is a list of things that I think are the highlights of Pekan – those which I have visited, and those I did not. I guess I’ll just have to come back one of these days.

1. Pahang Museum

The Pahang Museum is centrally located in Pekan. It is worth seeing both for its building as well as its displays. It’s so central because the building had once been the Sultan’s official palace and called the Istana Kota Beram (Kota Beram Palace), replacing the old Istana Sri Terentang. Prior to that, it was the abode of the British Resident of Pahang, hence the western architecture.

In the early 1960s, a new palace was built for the Sultan near the original Sri Terentang palace location. The building then became the Pahang State Museum.

Galleries and exhibits in the Pahang Museum

The original palace building is flanked by the balairung (audience hall) and a matching building on the other side. Recent upgrades to the museum involved creating a courtyard behind the buildings, and the addition of new galleries beyond. It’s a really nice complex now.

The original buildings contain exhibits about Pahang royalty, the history of Old Pahang to modern times, as well as cultural artifacts and religious philosophy of Pahang. The latter include martial exhibits like weaponry and keris smithing, to artistic crafts such as woodcarving and textile weaving, jewellery of the nobility and court musical instruments, as well as ancient scholarly manuscripts.

White 2-storeyed brick building with double columned galleries and a terracotta roof. Istana Kora Beram and former house of the British Resident of Pahang, now the Pahang Museum.
Pahang Museum

The new galleries were not quite ready for viewing then. The parts that were open showed the traditional culture of ordinary Pahang people. According to the museum staff, the new sections will house exhibits related to key historical figures of Pahang, ancient ceramics from its centuries-old trade with China, and the pre-historical era of Pahang. From the Facebook Page, it seems they’re open now.

Pahang Museum grounds and exhibits

The museum also showcases the culture and artefacts of Pahang’s aboriginal people. But these are mostly not inside, but in the new outdoor spaces. I thought it was quite fitting, given the culture of aboriginal people is mainly outdoors. Indeed, that was the essence of divergence between the Austronesian ethnics in the ancient times. Where some assimilated technology and new culture from outsiders, intermarried, and built infrastructure to keep nature at bay, and others kept their old ways of living within it.

Along the courtyard, there were sculptures of the Malay signature weapon, the keris dagger. The sculptures featured its different traditional hilts. Elsewhere on the grounds were sculptures of men in combat, as well as modern military vehicles, underscoring Pahang’s martial tradition. And while the museum exhibits focused on the human history and culture of Pahang, there were also sculptures of elephants and deer, a nod to the jungles that were such a prominent part of Pahang and its civilisation.

2. Sultan Abdullah Mosque Museum

Near the Pahang Museum is another museum in an interesting building. Built in 1932, the Sultan Abdullah Mosque was the primary mosque of Pekan until the current one was built in 1976.

The current Sultan Ahmad Shah mosque is right next door. I can only assume that the reason for its construction was the need for a larger mosque, to accommodate present-day population, because it is nowhere as aesthetic as the old one.

Unbelievably, this beautiful building was left vacant for 40 years. It only became a museum in 2016. Unfortunately, it was still closed during my visit.

Multi-domed white building of the old Pekan mosque, with arches and minaret inspired by Mughal architecture.
Sultan Abdullah Mosque Museum

This museum (and possibly the weaving institute – see below) is in the background of the music video for a modern rendition of the Pahang folk song, ‘Joget Pahang’ by the iconic Pahang-born Malaysian singer, Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza. She is the same singer mentioned in my earlier Kuala Lipis article.

3. Mangga Tunggal Palace Museum

Istana Mangga Tunggal (“Lone Mango Palace”) was the home of a Pahang duke, its first modern Chief Minister and grandfather to the current sultan. It was built in 1934 by a Malay master carpenter named Awang Mat Ali, who built many palaces in his time. The building is a palace by virtue of having been the residence of a king at some point. Sultan Ahmad Shah stayed in this palace before moving into the current official Palace nearby.

I drove past the palace but didn’t try to visit due to time constraints. It turns out that it didn’t matter, because the palace only became a museum in 2023. The current sultan was born here, and wished for it to be open to the public.

4. Pekan River Front

A new area in Pekan is the Riverfront esplanade. It is located along the main road of Pekan, opposite the bus terminal and at the tip of Pulau Bugis. It seemed new at the time I visited, with a row of eateries and plenty of space to view the river from.

The path along the river extended quite some distance, all along Pulau Bugis to the Pekan-Kuantan bridge. If anyone is as fascinated by water engineering structures as I am, there is a lock not far from the esplanade, for the backwater channel between Pulau Bugis and another river islet, Pulau Beram.

Looking down the river lock to Sungai Pahang. On the far bank are great piles of sand surrounding sand mining machinery.
River lock near the Pekan River Front

Watercraft Gallery – will it re-open?

I discovered the River Front esplanade in the first place, because I was looking for the Watercraft Gallery (Galeri Pengangkutan Air). It’s across the road from the Pahang Museum, on the river islet of Pulau Beram.

I had hoped to see what kinds of watercrafts Pahang had in its history. After all, while it may not have been a famous seafaring power, the river was key to its history. Moreover, many Bugis refugees migrated to Pahang following Dutch colonisation of Sulawesi, and perhaps they brought their famous maritime culture to Pahang. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem open. And it seems that it still hasn’t re-opened at the time I’m writing this post.

5. Royal Pahang Weaving Institute

Another must-visit place of Pekan lies just outside the main town. If you drive just a little bit upriver from the town, you’ll come across a sign for ‘Kompleks Kampung Budaya Pulau Keladi’ (“Pulau Keladi Culture Village”). Turning into the junction will take you to the training centre for a Pahang heritage textile craft, the Tenun Diraja Pahang, or the Royal Weaving Craft of Pahang. Finding it without online navigation is not straightforward, as you will drive past banal housing areas. You need to keep a lookout for signs that say something like ‘Tenun Pahang Diraja’.

When you find the Culture Village, park inside and look for two attractions. First, the traditional Malay houses in the complex, which are also where the weavers provide demonstrations of the royal weave. The Tenun Pahang Diraja is notable for its minimalist patterns, relying on fine craftsmanship for its elegant look. Like the Scottish plaid, some weave patterns indicate the wearer’s ethnic belonging and social position.

Unfortunately, the weaving exhibits were not open when I came. It seemed that the institute decided to do maintenance during the pandemic downtime.

The other notable building is the house where Malaysia’s second Prime Minister was born. Considering Tun Abdul Razak was technically a hereditary duke of Pahang, the Orang Kaya Indera Shahbandar (albeit in modern times, the title no longer comes with feudal authority), it is a surprisingly humble building. Perhaps he was not born in the family home. Like the weaving workshops, the building also did not seem open.

Exhibit in the Pahang Museum: a set of maroon 'kurung Pahang' traditional garment, interwoven with gold-coloured accents.
Old wooden building with a wood shingle roof near Pekan. The house is where Tun Abdul Razak was born.

Left: The ‘kurung Pahang’ traditional garment for women in Pahang weave; exhibit in the Pahang Museum. Top: The birthplace of Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister.

6. Meow Island (Pulau Kucing)

Meow Island is a place that I did not know about at the time of my visit. And even if I did, odds are it probably wouldn’t have opened yet anyway. Meow Island is a free-range cat shelter located on a river islet. It seems that the islet is actually named Pulau Keladi, but since the establishment of the cat shelter I guess it’s called Pulau Kucing now! It seems that you get to the island across a small bridge from the riverbank behind the cultural village.

How to get to Pekan

Pekan is on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. I visited as part of a road trip following the rural Pahang riverbank roads. But if you were to come here more normally, it’s less than 4 hours’ drive from Kuala Lumpur. Go east across the Titiwangsa range via the Karak Highway, then follow the East Coast Expressway until you reach the Gambang exit. Exit the highway and follow the signs to Pekan.

You could try to come by public transport, but this easily doubles the travel time. Buses to Pekan depart from Kuantan. Regardless of whether you travel to Kuantan by bus or train, the journey there still involves multiple train and bus transits from wherever you start, and then from wherever you arrive in Kuantan to Pekan.

Where to stay in Pekan

Pekan is not really a tourist attraction. In fact, it’s a surprisingly sleepy little town, considering it was once a capital city for so long. Consequently, this also means that there are few accommodation options there.

Fortunately, it is still the royal capital, so there is one good hotel in town. This is the Ancasa Royale, a 4-star hotel with a large number of rooms and standard modern hotel amenities. I was in a splurging mood, and got myself the junior suite, which was way overkill for a solo traveler. But the Agoda deal was excellent, considering the situation at the time.

Maybe it’s because I booked one of their best rooms, but I thought the hotel was pretty good. It felt like a classy place, though not excessive or opulent. The interior was modern, but with discreet touches of Pahang or Malay motifs. I thought it matched Pekan’s vibe.

But most importantly, the restaurant serves a lot of Malay foods (among other dishes), some of which are rarely found in other Malaysian hotels of equivalent level. For example, there’s pulut kuning and nasi impit in the breakfast buffet. I can’t even easily find links to web pages in English to explain these foods. And I thought, for a hotel in a royal capital, this is exactly right.

Two servings of pulut kuning with kuah rendang and two servings of nasi impit with kuah kacang.
Pulut kuning and nasi impit from Ancasa Royale’s breakfast buffet. The former is a glutinous rice stained yellow with turmeric and typically eaten with rendang. The latter is a white rice compressed under pressure; one of the popular ways to eat it is with peanut sauce.

Aside from the Ancasa Royale, the accommodation options in Pekan comprise of a few budget hotels in shophouses, and homestays (regular houses turned into short-term rentals).

What to eat in Pekan

If you were wondering whether there are specifically Pahang foods to try, this is the correct question on a trip to Pekan. The royal capital is a good place to sample signature dishes of Pekan, and Pahang in general. In fact, my friend Yana specifically told me to try the second one in the list below (though I didn’t). Anyway, these are what you should look for, when eating out in Pekan.

1. Patin tempoyak

Patin tempoyak is a must-eat dish in Pahang. This is a famous dish that consists of the patin river fish, which is traditionally caught in the Pahang river (though nowadays also farmed), cooked with tempoyak in a watery, mildly spicy turmeric stew. The patin is an oily fish, and contributes taste to the soup alongside the tempoyak, i.e. fermented durian. It is eaten with rice.

This dish used to be rare on the west coast, but now gaining popularity even in the cities.

Gulai patin tempoyak in a black bowl, with a side of long beans.
Pais patin tempoyak | Photo 133070464 © Ellinnur BakarudinDreamstime.com

2. Murtabak in Kampung Mengkasar

Murtabak is a kind of Asian lasagna consisting of layers of the better-known roti canai flatbread, and spiced mince in between. Although it probably was invented by South Indian migrants, the famous one in Pekan is in Kampung Mengkasar, one of the oldest villages of Bugis migrants. The village was founded by Kraeng Aji near the royal palace, and is thought to be named after the homeland they left behind.

Like most Bugis migrants to the peninsula, they arrived in the 18th century. And as they have done in history, Pahang absorbed the new settlers, accepting the addition of their technology and culture. For instance, the Pahang textile weave was improved with Bugis techniques, and thereafter granted the distinction of being the royal weave. The newcomers even had the opportunity to rise to the highest positions in the land. A Pahang ducal lineage, the Orang Besar Indera Shahbandar, descends from the Bugis newcomers.

Murtabak Mengkasar, however, is a dish that has nothing to do with Bugis cuisine. Nonetheless, it is a family recipe of a local in Kampung Mengkasar, and is a local Pekan favourite. I don’t know why I didn’t look for it, but at the time I was not in the mood for food adventures. (This is a downside of solo travel; sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated.)

Close-up of Malaysian martabak
Photo 55766749 © Dchanstockphoto | Dreamstime.com

3. Puding Raja

Puding raja (‘royal pudding’) is the signature Pahang dessert. It is a banana pudding garnished with cashew nuts and fruit, topped with jala mas, which are sugary egg strands. This webpage explains the dessert’s composition and historical context much better than I can. I had the opportunity of trying this at Kafe Belibis but didn’t take it. Alas, I can only eat so much, and as someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth, I ran out of space after eating the savoury things.

4. Pahang cuisine at Kafe Belibis

Which brings me to the most interesting cafe in Pekan. Kafe Belibis is hard to miss, since it’s located next to Pahang Museum and has a literal train next to it. In fact, the cool thing about this cafe is that you can dine inside the train cars. Part of the cafe is a disused train, whose interior has been modified to accommodate diners. There are also al fresco seating in a roofed area overlooking a stream.

If you’re looking for a one-stop shop of Pahang cuisine, you’ll get it here. The food is served in traditional crockpots and you basically order what you want from the selection.

Al fresco seating of Kafe Belibis in Pekan. On the left is the dining area inside disused train cars, and a greenish stream is on the right.
Kafe Belibis

Road trip suggestions for Pekan

If you’re making a road trip to Pekan, you could combine it with these destinations:

Tasik Chini

Tasik Chini is a lake in Pahang, famous for its UNESCO Biosphere Reserve freshwater lake ecosystem. It is about 80km from Pekan, making it suitable as the stop before – or subsequent to – a trip to Pekan. Steeped in myths of a resident dragon and a lost sunken Khmer city, the lake is known for beautiful vistas of lotus and water-lily.

Kuantan

You could also add the modern capital to the road trip. Kuantan is about 50km from Pekan. While the young city isn’t particularly known to be interesting, it is surrounded by worthy attractions, ranging from beaches, a lovely waterfall, and mining history in Sungai Lembing. Make it a base for even more exploration of Pahang.

Notes:

* Similar to how it was human disturbance that uncovered one of the most important geo-archaeological sites in the Lenggong Valley, industry activities in the river led to discoveries of great importance to local history and cultural identity. In 2020, the sand mining in the Sungai Pahang riverbed uncovered ancient Chinese artefacts spanning several dynasties, providing primary evidence of a trading port in Pekan during the era of Old Pahang. Staff of the Pahang Museum informed me that some of the ceramics and coins would be displayed in the new Pohuang gallery (named after how Pahang was named in the Book of Song). But it was not open yet at the time of my visit.

** Kuantan was made the modern capital in the late British era, due to its location at the mouth of the Tembeling river, downstream of Tembeling’s tin mines. However, this does not mean that the location has no claim of being historic to Pahang. Archaeological findings from across the palaeolithic to metal ages have been found in the Lembing Valley (Valley of Spears) area.

*** This indirectly means that the British descriptions of Pahang are that of the state following iterations of anarchy and civil wars. As Pekan had always been eclipsed by other regional capitals, and never a literary centre itself, there doesn’t seem to be any surviving descriptions of Pekan at its height. However, the now-demolished Seri Terentang Palace was built by local craftsmen in 1908 and looked pretty grand. And that palace was reportedly only built from funds paid by Selangor in return for military aid during the Civil War there.


Save this article for your Pahang road trip plans!

4 Responses

  1. Terri says:

    I love the idea that the Belbis cafe is a disused train. Clever! I’d love to see how the interior has been modified to accommodate diners. But I’d probably chose to dine in the al fresco seating in a roofed area overlooking a stream.

    • Teja says:

      Good point! I didn’t take a photo of the inside of the train – I can’t remember why now. I also dined at the al fresco seating. But let me embed an Instagram post from the kafe for what the train seating looks like.

  2. Sharyn says:

    Everything sounds nice – nice drivers, nice food, nice architecture – so I’m glad you had a nice time.

    • Teja says:

      That’s a good way to put it. Pekan is… nice. Not over the top, but not generic. It’s not a must-see but then again, it’s a nice stop on a road trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.