Seeking out the Taj Mahal in the city built on tin

18 01 2011

Fresh from an excursion to Kuala Lumpur (KL), I found myself some two hundred kilometres north of KL in a rather quiet city that features some wonderful pieces of architecture from a time when it was thrived on the harvest it made from the ground. The city, Ipoh, the administrative capital of the northern Malaysian State of Perak, lies in a beautiful setting surrounded by limestone hills in the Kinta Valley of Perak, an area rich in tin, and it was from the tin mines around the area that provided much of the wealth that city was built on. In KL, motivated by a desire to learn more about the development of the Malayan Railway fed by nostalgia fueled by the knowledge that the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands by the time the second half of 2011 arrives (which would be that after more than a century of running through Singapore, the Malayan Railway would cease to operate across the island), I sought out two of Arthur Benison Hubback’s railway inspired masterpieces, the Railway Administration Building, and the grand old Railway Station, both built during the turn of the 20th Century and feature the Moorish inspired designs that give old KL a distinct flavour. I found myself doing the same in Ipoh, where another two of Hubback’s great architectural works, the Railway Station and the Town Hall proudly stood.

Arriving early at the Ipoh tree in the main square, two of Hubback's masterpieces that Ipoh is blessed with in the area around the Square were shrouded in morning's mist.

But, the mist soon lifted to reveal the magnificent dome dominated structure of Ipoh's grand railway station.

Although plans for a grand station in Ipoh were put forward in the first decade of the 20th Century and work was supposed to commence in the early part of the next decade and completed by 1914, it was only in 1914 that construction on a station “worthy of the town” started (in 1914). That coincided with the Great War of 1914 to 1918 and due to a shortage of funds and material due to the War, it was only fully completed in 1917 with the completion of the Station Hotel which opened on 1 May 1917. The station building which is fondly referred to as the “Taj Mahal of Ipoh” by Ipoh residents for its magnificent dome dominated structure. Plans for it were described by the Straits Times in 1915 as “the palatial station and hotel, somewhat after the plan of the one in Kuala Lumpur”, and by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser in 1914 as “in many ways an improvement on the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station structure, which had so far remained supreme as one of the finest railway stations in the East”. Built in concrete and steel, due to what was described as a “lack of any good building stone in the Federated Malay States” on the site of a hospital, the Neo-Classical styled station was to provide a “front door worthy of Ipoh’s status as the second city in the F.M.S.” and form part of a “fine entry” into the town along with the Town Hall and Town Square facing the station.

The Neo-Classical styled A. B. Hubback designed station building features a main dome as well as minor domes and was said to be a station building that were among the most magnificent buildings East of the Suez. The building is also referred to as the

The station building stands across the main square from another of A. B. Hubback's works, the Town Hall. Both buildings together with the square were meant as buildings that would be fitting of Ipoh's status of the FMS' second city and to provide a "fine entry" into the city.

A corridor at the front of the magnificent building.

Wondering around the imposing façade of the whitewashed station in the shadows of the towering cloud shrouded tops of the limestones hills in the background that early New Year’s eve morning, I couldn’t help but be held in awe of the 183 metre arched loggia that dominates the front of the station’s ground level as I stood below it, giving me a sense of how grand the station would have been in the setting of the early 20th Century Ipoh. Although resembling its sister station in KL in many ways, the station in Ipoh is much more refreshing in many ways with a lighter and a happier feel to it, being smaller than the one in KL. It certainly is worth a visit to and is one where (for the time being at least), you will discover the quaint old Station Hotel that now occupies most of the upper floors of the building that once had also held accommodation (a total of seventeen bedrooms) for the station’s own officials, a throw back to the days of old when it would have been thought fashionable for the well heeled traveller to put up at a station’s hotel. Ipoh had in fact been one of three FMSR stations that had been afforded this luxury, with the one at KL and at Tanjong Pagar being the other two, and is the only station currently in Malaysia (and Singapore) that still has a hotel functioning at the station.

The platform side of the station building.

The station and the main platform ... a modern styled awning has been erected over what is now the electrified tracks of the KL to Ipoh line.

An alternative view of the awning over the platforms.

A peek at the ticket counter through a window on the platform.

Part of the 183 metre long loggia at the front of the station.

The part of the station leading up to the hotel entrance.

The entrance to what is currently the last of the three station hotels to remain in operation in Malaysia and Singapore.

Stepping into an old world elevator, the shaft of which staircase wound around, reminiscent of the old world (and somewhat dingy) hotels (and sometimes youth hostels) that I usually found myself putting up in travelling on a budget in Europe during my days as a student, was a sign of what was to come. In it, I was transported up to the lobby at the top and into a world that somehow seemed frozen from a time when perhaps railway travel would have been thought to be not just fashionable, but romantic. The ceramic tiled floor that I stepped out on certainly exuded that old world feel, as did the wooden counter of the hotel’s reception and the armchairs that sat opposite the counter. The lobby led to a wide and expansive balcony to which some of the rooms opened to that offered a splendid view of the city’s main square, the front of the station building itself and the magnificent Town Hall. In one corner of the long balcony, guests were having breakfast in a wonderful old style setting and at the other end, more old style armchairs and coffee tables were arranged as if to convince the visitor of the old world charm of the hotel.

The old world elevator that transports you into a world that time has left behind.

The ceramic floor tiles, the reception counter and the old armchairs that greeted me at the elevator landing certainly belonged to a forgotten time when perhaps the romance of train travel was very much alive.

The balcony on the top level of the station hotel ... also serves as a wonderful place to have breakfast at.

More views of the top level.

The hotel did seem a little run down, seeing much grander days when its clientele would have boasted of the who’s who of the British administration, when it could perhaps have rivaled the likes of Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the E&O Hotel in Georgetown, but nonetheless still has the charm to pull a few romantics (like me) in – and on another day, I might have been tempted to check in there and then but I had a date with the new year in KL. Stepping down into the mezzanine level, it was apparent that the world that I had visited had yet another dimension to it, and for a while, it looked as if I had stepped into a correctional facility with the cell like rooms arranged around a large corridor or lobby. But taking time to adjust to my surroundings and the soft light that streamed into the area from the skylights above, the level certainly had a charm of its own, with painted cemented floors reminding me of some of the old seaside hotels by the sea that I had stayed in previously. It certainly was a world apart, and I suspect that the rooms which were facing the two sides of the station building would be well furnished as well as open up to some nice views, particularly those that are on the reverse side of the station which face the pretty limestone hills beyond Ipoh. Looking at the layout of the rooms and the relatively low ceiling on the mezzanine, I believe that the area which I had walked down into might have formerly been the units which has served as the rooms which accommodated the servants or “boys” for whom, as described by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, in an article dated 16 May 1914, the provision of “would be a great advantage”.

The stairway back in time.

The different world on the mezzanine level ...

A fan seen against the awning which must have been added later.

Ventilation louvres ...

Rooms that look like cells ....

An old window that opens to an air well ....

Wooden panelling ...

After a short, but satisfying visit to the station and the hotel, it was now time to discover more, and to indulge in the wonderful mouthwatering offerings that Ipoh has in store … about that I had previously posted, but before that, I had another date with a delightful old lady that had not been in the pink of health, but has obtained a new lease of life just up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road) on which I should be writing another post on.





The Gemencheh Bridge

6 12 2010

One of the main attractions around the railway junction of Gemas would be the site of the Gemencheh River Bridge, a wooden bridge that was blown up by Australian Forces as they desperately attempted to stem the tide of the Japanese invasion through Malaya in the final days of the Battle of Malaya. Those were dark days as the relentless Japanese advance arrived close to Singapore’s doorstep. Gemas was perhaps where any final resistance could be offered being the entry point into what must have been the psychological final buffer to Singapore, after which only the state of Johore stood in the way. It would probably not have come as a surprise that it was at Gemas where an ambush was planned, one that could and perhaps might have had influenced a very different outcome if events had worked in the favour of the defending forces. That it did not, brought the Japanese invasion forces closer to their goal both physically and psychologically, and within two weeks of the battle, the Japanese had arrived at Singapore’s doorstep at Johor Baharu.

The Gemencheh River, near Gemas, was the site of an ambush in January 1942 that saw a heavy loss of life amongst the Japanese troops.

The ambush was mounted at 4 pm on 14 January 1942, launched by “B” Company of the 2/30th Battalion. Ignoring the advance party of Japanese scouts on bicycle, the Australian unit blew the bridge up as the main party crossed resulting in a heavy loss of life by the Japanese. Estimates range from 600 to 1000 fatalities on the Japanese side and a handful suffered by the Australians. While the initial ambush was a huge success, reports suggest that fighting continued south of the bridge for two days, in part due to a lack of artillery support due to communication lines being cut by the Japanese advance party, with the Australian forces withdrawing south through Gemas.

Possibly the bridge that was rebuilt by the Japanese as seen in 1945 - Caption on Photograph at the Austrlian War Memorial (http://awm.gov.au) site: Gemencheh, Negri Sembilan, Malaya. 1945-09-25. The bridge (middle distance) over the Gemencheh River where, on the 1942-01-14 members of the 2/30th Australian Infantry Battalion supported by No. 30 battery, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment and the 4th Australian Anti-Tank Regiment ambushed and killed some 600 Japanese soldiers (57 mile peg.) (source: Austrlian War Memorial http://awm.gov.au).

Today, a memorial can be found at the site of the ambush. Referred to as the Tugu Sungai Kelamah or Kelamah River Memorial, the memorial appears to be named after a tributary of the Gemencheh River. The site of the memorial is on the southern bank of the part of the river where the Gemencheh River Bridge had stood (coordinates 2° 35′ 43.66″ N, 102° 31′ 8.22″ E), with wooden stumps – remnants of the bridge’s columns still very much in evidence in the river itself. The site lies some 11 kilometres north-west-west from the Gemas Railway Station and within sight of a road bridge to the east along Federal Route 1 – probably the one built to replace the destroyed bridge, and can be reached by taxi from Gemas (about a 15 minute ride).

The remnants of the original wooden bridge that was blown up by the Australian Forces - wooden stumps of the supporting columns, is very much in evidence at the site.

The new bridge just east of the site - part of Federal Route 1.

Sign at the entrance of the Sungai Kelamah Memorial along Federal Route 1.

Sign at the Memorial Site - unfortunately the date is wrong and the ambush occurred on 14 January 1942 rather than in 1941 as the sign suggests.

The same sign in Bahasa Melayu.

At the site, there is a Memorial that has been erected to remember the Australian troops that fought in the battle – this fortunately has the correct dates on it as indicated on a tablet at the foot of the memorial. Pausing to take in what was around us, surrounded by the air of silence that permeated the air, it is hard to imagine the ferocious battle that was fought close to sixty years ago … it possibly makes us think of the futility of war and the unnecessary pain and suffering it inflicts. I am certainly most grateful to those who fought for our freedom in battle, some losing their limbs, some a lot more psychologically and the many that paid the ultimate sacrifice – with their lives.

A memorial probably erected by the Australians with a tablet at the bottom indicating the correct dates of the ambush and subsequent battle.

The tablet at the bottom of the Memorial.

Another view of the new bridge.

Resources on the ambush at the Gemencheh River Bridge / Battle of Malaya:

Sungei Gemencheh Ambush, Gemas Area – Malaya, 14 January 1942,`B’ COY 2/30 BN AIF, Report by Captain D.J. Duffy OC `B’ Coy (Later Lt. Col. D.J. Duffy MC, ED)

On ABC: Sequence of events in the Japanese campaign leading to the fall of Singapore

Wikipedia stub on the Gemencheh Bridge during the Battle of Malaya

Australian War Memorial WWII Site (Australian Government Site)





A stroll around the Makkasan area

15 11 2010

The Makkasan area of Bangkok is well known as being where the main depot of the State Railways of Thailand (SRT) is as well as an area that is known for its slums. The area also contains the delightful little (old) Makkasan Station, a station that would probably trace its origins back to the opening of the depot as far back as 1910, a century ago.

Makkasan Station is along the Eastern Commuter Line which connects Central Bangkok with Chachoengsao.

Slums are very much in evidence around the Makkasan area of Bangkok.

A view of the Makkasan area of Bangkok which has long been associated with the railway.

A rail truss bridge in the Makkasan area.

Much of the old Makkasan Staton building that we see today would have been erected post war, but delightful nonetheless with a charm of a old rural station. It serves as a focal point for the area: an open air market operating in its shadow every morning, and operates as a station along the Eastern Commuter Line that runs from Bangkok’s Central Station, Hua Lamphong, to Chachoengsao some 60 kilometres away, serving primarily as an alighting point for workers at the train depot. There is in fact now, a newer Makkasan Station – developed to serve the Airport Line that links central Bangkok with Suvarnabhumi Airport, which overshadows the old Makkasan (along with the elevated train line that runs parallel to the commuter line in the Makkasan area), and that would probably be the one that most would now think of as Makkasan Station, lying maybe a kilometre to the east of the old station.

The old commuter line, running parallel to the elevated new line - the Airport Link which provides a quick route from Central Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The market around Makkasan Station.

The market around Makkasan Station.

What can be seen at the old Makkasan Station and the area around it is possibly a cross section of life in the Bangkok that hasn’t yet been overrun by the skyscrapers and traffic – giving almost a glimpse into a world that perhaps is hidden to most tourists. It is a world that I would have very much liked to have had the time to explore – as I did the klongs off the Chao Phraya River close to the Klong Toei area a quarter of a century ago … something I guess I should prepare a post on, but given the limited time at my disposal, I was only able to catch a glimpse of the area and of life in the area.

The view from the main road of Makkasan Station.

The entrance to the station.

A tuk-tuk outside Makkasan Station.

On the spot repairs on a tuk-tuk outside Makkasan Station.

A proud resident of Makkasan.

Navigating through the labyrinth that is the market and the vehicles parked in front of the station, I found my way to the entrance of the station, and I immediately got a sense of the old world feel. The little station is in fact a gem waiting to be explored, its main lobby serving as a waiting area with wooden and stone benches providing the weary traveller with a place to rest before his next journey, as well as housing the ticket counter and a convenience shop. In the lobby, I was able to catch a glimpse at life at a standstill, something which escapes you on the busy streets beyond the station. Besides travellers waiting for the next train to arrive – something that I missed out on seeing, there were also children at play, bringing life from the streets to the lobby.

From the main lobby looking out to the platform ... A column supporting the new Airport Link partially obscures the Makkasan Train Depot in the background.

A view of the waiting area.

The waiting area and the ticket counter.

The convenience shop at Makkasan Station.

The platform at Makkasan Station.

Another view of the platform at Makkasan Station.

 

A child from the streets, playing at the station lobby.

A close-up of the ticket counter.

Across the platform (as on the platform itself) where I had again felt that I was in another world, one far removed from the hustle and bustle on the main streets on other side of the station, I was able to peek across at the yard of the train depot, where a wealth of old locomotives – including some steam locomotives … I managed to get a photograph of one through the gate before a security guard prevented me from taking any more (I am not sure why as there seems to be a wealth of photographs of some of the old locomotives in the yard on railfan sites). After a quick glance and a last look around, it was time for me to go, and not having the hour that it took me to walk to the area from where I was based, it was a quick ten minute rush back to the madness that is Central Bangkok, helter-skelter, seated on the backseat of a tuk-tuk.

Stepping into another world on the platform of Makkasan Station.

The elevated Airport Link next to the old line at Makkasan Station.

An old diesel locomotive in the yard of the train depot at Makkasan as seen from the station platform.

An old steam locomotive in the yard as seen through a gate.

A view of the station from across the tracks.

The station office.

Passengers waiting at the platform.

More scenes around the Makkasan area:

A slum area in Makkasan.

Buildings built over a high pressure pipeline!

A piece of old machinery at the Thai Labour Museum in the vicinity.

A religious procession taking place ... I think it's for the ordination of a monk.

A drummer at the procession.