Although I began this Pahang River road trip in Fraser’s Hill, where its headwater regions lie, it is Kuala Lipis where you actually start to be able to drive alongside the river. This is not really a surprise, since it is the uppermost town along the navigable river (as in, there was a jetty). Before the British Resident Hugh Clifford turned it into his administrative capital, it was already a small river market junction.

I had been to Kuala Lipis once before, as part of a work trip. However, that trip was necessarily brief, as Kuala Lipis was only one of several stops I had to make. I was lowkey glad to return to it as part of my river-themed road trip.

Pahang’s short-lived capital

Today, the capital of Pahang is the coastal city of Kuantan. But this is recent, since Kuantan only became the capital in 1955. The capital was moved there from Kuala Lipis, itself a short-lived capital.

The third British Resident of Pahang, Hugh Clifford, spent much of his pre-Resident experience in Pahang’s upper reaches, far from the royal capital in coastal Pekan. When gold was discovered in the hinterlands of Pahang, Kuala Lipis became a gold mining centre. The British then became interested in it, especially since the upper Selangor area just across the mountain range had become a tin mining centre.

So Clifford lobbied for the new Pahang capital to be moved to Kuala Lipis. As a result, in 1898 Pahang’s capital moved for the first time in centuries, to Kuala Lipis.

The Resident's house in Kuala Lipis, on top of Resident's Hill. The red building is trimmed in white and is in Indo-English architecture.
The Resident’s house, on top of Resident’s Hill.

This didn’t last long. The mines depleted earlier than expected*, and it was too hard to connect the rail line across the mountains. So Kuala Lipis became a town too remote for a capital. The British turned their attention to Kuantan, which became the centre for the tin mines in Gambang and Sungai Lembing. I’m pretty sure that if the World Wars hadn’t happened when they did, the British would have gotten around to extending the rail line to Kuantan.

Exploring Kuala Lipis

As it’s just a small town, you can explore Kuala Lipis quite easily, especially if you have a car. There are roughly three zones of interest. Looking back, they seem unusually small given the quality of the original buildings. And I guess, that speaks to the initial ambition to grow Kuala Lipis as a capital city, and of that ambition never fully realised.

Note that municipal parking uses a coupon payment system. So you have to buy coupons and display them on the dashboard.

1. The old town of Kuala Lipis

The old town of Kuala Lipis is really small. It’s basically three relatively short streets along the river. It’s best to just park your car and walk the area. Built in the gold rush colonial era, the town was settled by many migrants. Like many small towns in Malaysia dating from this period, the shophouses have a distinctly Chinese facade, because many of the migrants came from China to work in the mines.

A Buddhist temple, the Thean Hou Temple, is at the south end of town. It dates from the founding of the capital, and just after the little mosque on the other end, which was built a year earlier.

Although the mosque became the State Mosque by default when Kuala Lipis got promoted to state capital, it was built by a Yemeni Arab. Judging by the simple construction, I think he never envisioned that he was building what was soon to become the State Mosque.

Another historical building is the Sikh gurdwara not far from the old state mosque. It was built in the 1910s to accommodate the Sikh police who often served the British administration in the colonies.

The old and new train stations are next to each other, on one side of town. Nearby lies the old post office, with the 0km Kuala Lipis milestone in front.

The market junction of old is where the Lipis river flows into the Jelai, a tributary of the Pahang River. The old jetty is gone, but on the river side of town there is still an arch and some steps down to the riverbank to mark where it used to be.

Street in the turn-of-the-century town of Kuala Lipis, Pahang.
Kuala Lipis old town

2. The administrative hills

South of the old town centre are the historical (and actually current) administrative areas. The house of the British Resident sits on a hill of its own, called Bukit Residen (Resident’s Hill). A distinctive red-and-white masonry house, it commands a good vantage of the surrounding areas. Following Pahang’s independence, the building went through a series of uses, from museum, hostel, and government rest house. You used to be able to book a stay in it when it was a rest house, but nowadays it seems to be neglected.

The administrative complex of Kuala Lipis sits on a hill further south. The complex buildings are historical as well, and have the same red and white masonry architecture as the Resident’s quarters.

At the base of the hill, towards the bank of the Lipis river, is the first English school in Pahang. Established by Hugh Clifford, it still bears his name and is still a functioning school. Within, there is another historical building, the Malay Hostel. But as it is within school grounds, you can’t visit it. A famous alumni of the school is the Malaysian pop icon, Siti Nurhaliza. To her credit, she used her success to sponsor the school, which proudly displays the connection out front.

The town hospital dominates the hill opposite Resident’s Hill. At the back of the hospital there is an old wooden building which used to be the Resident’s quarters before the red-and-white building was built. It then became the police inspector’s quarters, and then the Pahang Club. Despite the name, nobody from Pahang could get in the club back then, as it was meant for colonial officers only. Later on, membership was no longer racially exclusive.

View of Kuala Lipis from Resident's Hill, surrounded by green jungle.
Panoramic view from Resident’s Hill

3. Kuala Lipis Heritage Museum

Another historical building sits on yet another hill. The former Pahang State Secretary quarters is all by itself on the interestingly named ‘Anaesthetic Hill’ (Bukit Bius). It was all the more interesting since the medical facilities are on a completely different hill. But alas, I couldn’t figure out where or when there might have been anaesthesia on the hill.

Anyway, this particular government quarters is significant, because it was once the home of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, when he served his home state as State Secretary. It was also where the sixth Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was born. It’s interesting to see the humble house he was born in, and surprising to find it isn’t better maintained.

Today, the building is a local heritage museum, Muzium Warisan Lipis. Unfortunately, I visited right after travel restrictions were lifted in 2022. Like most attractions at the time, the museum wasn’t open yet.

There is a palace on the same hill, nearer the main road – I guess you can call it a ‘summer palace’ for the Sultan of Pahang, although in Malay it’s just called ‘istana hinggap’, i.e. any palace for the king’s visits but isn’t his primary residence. The Malay term depicts it as a ‘perch’, like how a bird delicately alights onto a branch. Nearby is the Lipis District Mosque. You can see its yellow domes across the train tracks in the old town.

Steps leading up to the Kuala Lipis Heritage Museum, once the house of the State Secretary.
Muzium Warisan Kuala Lipis

Exploring the area around Kuala Lipis

I only spent a couple of nights in Kuala Lipis, since it was just a stop on a longer road trip. However, while there, I discovered other things you could do around Kuala Lipis.

1. Nature parks around Kuala Lipis

While its claim to fame is historical, the heritage sites are all in the town, not very numerous, and could use some uplift. Instead, the clue to what could be Kuala Lipis’ real draws is the jungle that you see surrounding it from any vantage point. This jungle is definitely Pahang’s crown jewel. There were no less than three nature parks in the general area listed in the tourism signboards in the mini park next to the post office.

From the map, it looks like the Terenggun Forest Eco Park (Hutan Lipur Terenggun is the old name on the signboard) is the closest. This is an inland forest, about 8km from Kuala Lipis.

There’s also Kenong Forest Eco Park (Taman Rimba Kenong), about 30km away. This seems to be an upriver nature park, requiring some level of riverboat transport.

The third nature park is Sungai Relau National Park (Taman Negara Sungai Relau). This forest is not actually near Kuala Lipis, but about 80km away and almost to the border with Kelantan. It’s actually nearer to Gua Musang in Kelantan, but I guess Kuala Lipis is the closest Pahang town. This forest is contiguous to Taman Negara, so maybe it’s basically the same but less touristy.

The tea-coloured Jelai River (upper reaches of Pahang River) near Kuala Lipis, its banks thick with green forest.
The Jelai river (Pahang upper reaches)

2. Bama Cave

Not far from Kuala Lipis, Gua Bama is a limestone outcrop split into two peaks. You can drive almost to the foot of it along a very narrow village road. To get to the foot of the outcrop, you have to cross a small stream on a rope bridge. I’m not sure how to get to the cave, and didn’t try. From the Lipis community Facebook group, it seems like a trail exists. But everything seemed overgrown.

According to local folklore, the two limestone outcrops had once been the houses of a bride and groom. The smaller outcrop is called the ‘Male Cave’ (Gua Jantan), and the larger one the ‘Female Cave’ (Gua Betina). Within the larger of the two hills, there is a cave called Gua Bama (Bama Cave).

On their wedding day, a mythical giantess called Sang Kelembai, who roams the hinterland jungles of Pahang, happened to pass by. She greeted the wedding, instantly turning the entire reception to stone (the curse of Sang Kelembai is that anyone she speaks to becomes instantly petrified). The petrified houses then grew to the size of the hills today. Inside the cave, you can see stones supposedly in the shapes of a seated couple presiding over the reception, a gong, and the marital bed. 

Gua Bama limestone cave
Gua Bama
Sluice in a stream near Bama cave.
Sluice near the rope bridge

3. Riverside recreational spots

When you’re road tripping in Malaysia, you’d start to randomly discover the many, many local recreational spots at waterfalls or streams. The Pahang hinterland seemed to have quite a few of them. Look for signs with ‘jeram’, ‘lata’, or ‘air terjun’ in the name (referring to rapids and waterfalls). I made a detour somewhere near Dong to Jeram Bangkin. It was quite well organised and had a little bit of parking, gazebos, BBQ pits, and tyre swings over the river.

Jeram Bangkin near Dong, Pahang.
Jeram Bangkin recreational area

Getting to Kuala Lipis

Since the construction of the Karak Highway, Kuala Lipis isn’t that long a drive from Kuala Lumpur anymore. It’s just about 3 hours, give or take. Take the Bentong exit to drive through Raub to Kuala Lipis. If you were to take the scenic route through Bukit Fraser as I did, however, the journey time would double (because of course, you’d stop there; what would be the point of taking that route without checking out Bukit Fraser at least a little?).

You could also take the bus from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Lipis. This takes the same highway route as above, and is just a little bit longer in terms of journey time. But you’ll then have no easy transport to go around. I’m not sure how easy it is to get a taxi in Kuala Lipis; I don’t remember seeing them.

Of course, you can also take the train, but this is a longer route from Kuala Lumpur because you first have to go down to Gemas and then back up to Kuala Lipis. The website isn’t great for booking multi-station journeys; you have to manually book the two legs of the journey and time the transfer window yourself. If you were travelling from Johor Bahru or Singapore, however, this option would be more straightforward.

Where to stay in Kuala Lipis

Even though Kuala Lipis is pretty small, the town is not very walkable aside from the old town centre. There are sidewalks even by the side of the bigger roads (astonishingly for a Malaysian town), but not many places where you can cross them. So it could be less annoying to choose accommodations close to at least one part of the town that you want to explore, so that you won’t need a car for all of them.

I didn’t do this. Instead, I stayed across the river in the new part of town. I can’t remember why I didn’t choose to stay in the older part of town. It was a nice shophouse hotel, but I probably would stay on the other side if I were to do the trip again.

The central location of Lipis Plaza Hotel. The Resident's House looms on a hill beyond.
Lipis Plaza Hotel

Road trip suggestions for Kuala Lipis

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

Add a stop in Raub

To add to a colonial era or mining themed itinerary, consider adding Raub to your road trip. While there isn’t much to see to reflect its gold mining history, there are a few colonial era buildings on its heritage trail. Today, it is famous for durian, particularly the famous Musang King. You can easily get durian in Raub at a good price.

Visit Taman Negara rainforest

Kuala Lipis is just a couple of hours’ drive from Kuala Tahan, the gateway to Taman Negara. Taman Negara is Malaysia’s oldest national park, and is the second oldest rainforest in the world at 130 million years old. Add this to your itinerary if you’re doing more of a nature themed road trip. Take whatever tours you fancy, as long as it includes Lata Berkoh.

Rail trip ideas for Kuala Lipis

While you can do a rail journey just to Kuala Lipis, you could also extend it for the Jungle Railway journey. This a famous train journey of Malaysia, and the name refers to a portion of the tracks that passes through a jungle landscape. This portion is almost entirely north of Kuala Lipis, through to Kota Bharu in Kelantan. It is a train journey that’s on my longlist, but I’ve not gotten around to it yet.

If you want to do this, make sure to check the train times so that you’re not passing through the scenic part at night.

Mural of a KTM train in Kuala Lipis old town.
Mural tribute to Malayan Railways (Keretapi Tanah Melayu)

Notes:

* The Malay peninsula was known since the 2nd century as far as Egypt with the moniker ‘Golden Peninsula‘. Gold trade with Alexandria came from the mines of Pahang. This suggests that Pahang’s mines produced gold steadily for hundreds of years until the arrival of the British. And then they somehow became depleted (to pre-industrial methods) in a matter of decades. Someone should study why ancient trade seems to have a more sustainable demand, but modern trade depletes resources within a lifetime.


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10 Responses

  1. Anja says:

    Love the post and the pictures! Bookmarked for the next Asia trip

  2. Kim says:

    There is so much history and nature to explore here. I’ll have to remember to visit the next time I explore Malaysia. Thanks for the recommendations.

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! Bear in mind though, the rural parts aren’t super easy to explore; I’d rate it medium difficulty for the fact that you have to kinda put in effort and need a degree of independent travel skills, if you know what I mean. They’re not geared for tourism, or if they are, it’s more for domestic tourists. But if you’re the kind of traveller who specifically are drawn to this, it’s kind of better somehow.

  3. Sinjana says:

    I think the term hill station is used only in South and south east asia. What a lovely terrain and such an interesting history.

    • Teja says:

      Now you’ve made me interested to find out if the British made hill stations elsewhere, or just our regions. I wonder if they have any in Africa.
      That said, though Kuala Lipis is in the Pahang hinterland, it’s not a hill station. It’s a river town, and the temperature is not cool at all!

  4. Terri says:

    I love traveling by train. You see more things through the train window. I would love to take the Jungle Railway journey if it is such a famous train journey of Malaysia!

    • Teja says:

      Yes, the Jungle Railway comes highly recommended, but I haven’t done it myself. I really should get around to it. But make sure that it’s daytime when you pass through the actual jungle part!

  5. Sonia says:

    I love the idea of exploring the history of Kuala Lipis. Thanks for the travel inspiration!

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! It’s an odd sort of history – there’s not that much of it, but at the same time it was sort of important to Pahang?

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