The Old Route

Sometimes, when life seemed to want nothing better than to bite my head off, I would escape to a time when there wasn’t yet a North-South Expressway. In those days, if you wanted to travel from KL to Ipoh, there was only one viable route: through the sleepy old towns of Rawang, Serendah and Kuala Kubu; past the pau capital of the world, Tanjung Malim; through a fifty-sen toll plaza (no longer in existence) near Slim River; past the quaint, rustic towns of Bidor, Tapah and Gopeng, and then on to Ipoh. I call this route, one that does not require a PLUS highway transit ticket, the Old Route.

Tanjung Malim railway station

Tanjung Malim railway station

Although as a child I used to hate having to make the trip to visit my mother in Ipoh – which 5-year-old child didn’t balk at the prospect of being cooped-up in a car for over four-hours? – I eventually learnt to accept the inevitable. Pretty soon I even began enjoying these trips; especially the stopovers at Yik Mun in Tanjung Malim where we’d order mouth-watering Hainanese dishes by the dozen, and gobble down an equal number of sickly-sweet pau kayas. This was in the days when Yik Mun was still located on the main street of Tanjung Malim (adjacent to the railway station); and the food, as I remember it, had been much, much better than what it is now.



Then, in my late teens, I discovered that I preferred making the trip to Ipoh by train: usually using a service called the Express Rakyat. You could still smoke in trains then: something you weren’t allowed to do on express buses. Naturally, whenever I needed to take the trip up north, I would take the train. Nevertheless, I never forgot what a joy it was to travel by road through all those beautiful little towns along the way between KL and Ipoh. The Old Route was like a good friend: someone who would always be there for me no matter what I did, or how long I stayed away.

My love affair with the Old Route was rekindled when, in my late 20s, my business required me to make frequent business trips to Ipoh. My partner and I would make these trips in his immaculately maintained Ford Cortina Ghia. During these trips, we’d have Carole King and James Taylor (and the occasional Fauziah Latiff) playing in an almost endless loop on the car stereo. We played the same songs over and over again – singing along with wild abandon – until we became blissfully oblivious to the woes that life had unleashed upon us. During those few hours, secure in a cocoon of the most beautiful music we had ever known, the wrath of our creditors shrank into an insignificant distant memory – for awhile, at least.

Kuala Kubu

Kuala Kubu

After all the business trips ended – and irate creditors were dealt with in the appropriate manner – I still found myself plying the Old Route. But this time it was for pleasure – not business. Whenever the madness of KL got to us, a friend and I would drop everything we had on our plates and take to driving along the Old Route. Instead of Carole King and James Taylor, we’d play Barry Manilow until we literally wore out the cassette (remember those?). We’d stop at Rawang to check-out the quaint little shops selling Indian earthenware, at Tanjung Malim to enjoy the meehonn hailam, at Bidor to buy some guava, and even at Tapah to buy – of all things – bed-sheets! On the way back we’d sometimes even stop at the Bukit Kancing recreational park to just chill-out and maybe even take a few photographs. On occasion, we’d by-pass Bukit Kancing altogether and take the more scenic route: from Batang Kali to Batu Caves via Ulu Yam Bharu.

But all that happened over 19 years ago.

Today, on a lark, I decided to re-acquaint myself with my old friend, the Old Route. In my trusty but beat-up Iswara, I set-off on a slow drive though the familiar old roads and towns. I even put on a James Taylor CD to set the right mood for the trip. However, even early on into the trip, I knew that something was frightfully wrong. First of all, despite the now wider roads, I found that sleepy old Rawang was beset with traffic jams. When I got to Serendah, I was horrified by the sense of disconnection I felt with the town – despite it being the place where my dear grandmother had been born. The final blow came when the paus in Tanjung Malim turned out to be sad, soggy excuses for what they once used to be.

Of course there would be changes. What did I expect? It was not the physical changes that nagged at me: change, especially the physical kind, is to be expected – and inevitable, even. But what gnawed at me – what eventually broke my heart – was that my friend, the Old Route, had changed in spirit. There was no longer that familiar welcoming warmth, the loving embrace of a faithful old friend. Instead, it was like we were strangers; I was nothing more than a faceless and nameless traveler passing through, on his way to some place else.

What had happened to my old friend?

My answer eventually came as I passed the intersection to Rasa: it had nothing to do with my old friend. She hadn’t changed at all; she is still what she has always been. Instead, it is I who had changed.

I had stayed away for far too long: and during that time, a small but important part of me had somehow died.


27 thoughts on “The Old Route

  1. Somehow that reminds me of King’s short story ‘Stand by me’ .

    There’s a little playground in every single one of us that longed to be revisited.


    Yeah! Sometimes we outgrow that playground; and sometimes the playground outgrows us!

  2. Dear Mat,

    Nicely written! You brought me down the memory lane. Now I am missing Malaysia more especially my ‘kampung'(granny’s place). I have a quiet similar experience with the old route.

    When I was small, before the PLUS highway ever existed and no sign of short cut Selayang-Ulu Yam route, my parents used the old route to make our frequent trip back to my maternal grandparents’ place in Ulu Yam. At that time, the route was extremely busy mostly with buses and trucks. Travelling from Kepong(where I lived) to Ulu Yam seems like forever. On normal days, I, and my sister were usually too excited to mind the hassle of being ‘locked up’ in the car for 1.5-2 hours for balik kampung journey . But we too became restless when the trip made during festive seasons. Apart from the traffic congestion created by JPJ (or at that time known as RMV) made road block, we had to witness quite a number of gruesome post-accidents scene before reaching our destinations. The accident prone area if I could still remember were the slope down Bukit Kancing, somewhere along Templer Park, before Serendah town and Batang Kali intersection. The route from Btg Kali to Kuala Kubu even more dangerous, I heard many locals had died along the route. Some said the route was ‘keras’ (haunted). Upon reaching Batang Kali, we had to make a right turn to reach Ulu Yam. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile journey as the tiredness was soon forgotten in the embrace of my grandparents, aunties, uncles and other relatives. We usually spend a night or 2 there, where my parents will bring us to Tanjung Malim to savour the chicken chop ( it’s darn good then ),mee hailam and pau. And if we feels like having steak for dinner(this was in early 80’s when I was still very small and steak is rare except in Coliseum and Padang Club Selangor), my parents will drive to Frasers Hill and had our steak at The GAP( my mom claimed its one of the best she ever tasted). Occasionally, I followed my granny’s to visit my uncle in Ipoh using train taken in Rawang or Rasa Station.

    Yes, Mat. Now, the route used to be familiar to me looks strange. I miss the smell of the trees and the cool refreshing air. I miss the serenity of the lazy small towns. I feel alienated in my playground. Sigh.

    Uppss….(Why am I rambling in someone else’s blog?) . I am sorry but you are so good, can’t help it. It touches me deep this time..



    I am so glad that this posting was able to bring back some fond memories. And I don’t mind that you ave taken the time to share your experience with the rest of us. This is a wonderful thing to do.

    And guess what! My maternal grandparents hail from the area, too: grandma was from Serendah and grandpa from Ulu Yam (‘Liam’ as the locals call it, right?).

  3. mat b,

    ford cortina ghia? i had one of those before the fiat 124st (twin carb). that cortina was a pleasure to drive all the way from kl to rantau panjang and back with stops at temerloh and teluk chempedak rest houses. i brought only 3 cassette albums for the trip, simon & garfunkel’s “bridge over troubled waters”, carol kings “tapestry” and walter carlos’ “switched on bach”. those audit visits were fun.

    you see? you opened the flood gates again.


    kassim ahmad

    I would have to agree with you on the Cortina Ghia. Though at the time I didn’t know how to drive yet (too chicken to learn), I could tell the Cortina was a pleasure to drive based on the expression on my partner’s face every time he took the steering wheel.

    And you know what! Tapestry (Carole King) was the album we took along on our trips, too! How’s that for being like-minded!

    And this thing about opening of the floodgates: I hope what I’ve done is a good thing.

    Keep well, sir!

  4. Mat-san,

    No, that small but important part of you hasn`t died.Memories linger on…it`a sensations and perceptions which wither over time.

    As I read your beautiful and nostalgic piece , somehow, Barbara Streisand`s “Memories” appear unexpectedly , from nowhere,and play hauntingly in my mind.

    We`re getting old, Mat-san, slowly but surely…..they call it, aptly, completing the Circle of Life.

    Cheers, my friend, for whatever it`s worth!


    Hmmm… perhaps you are right. Just like the way we feel for our children for example: it doesn’t stay constant and stagnant; it morphs into other things (no less wonderful) as time passes and they grow to become the people they are meant to be.

    Stay well, my friend

  5. Hey, I had the Ford Cortina and Fiat 124ST too but they were real rust baskets – but then which car from the 70s isnt eh?

    Travelling south to Johor from KL, before the advent of the N-S highway (previously called the Seremban highway because it ended at Seremban) used to take more than 6hrs if we use the main ‘trunk’ road. You had to pass thru Negri Sembilan and Melaka and all the small towns in-between. Now we simply by-pass places like Yong Peng and Segamat if headed for JB.

    You know, I dont think its just you who have changed. The towns changed too, mostly negatively if viewed nostalgically. The small costal town of Pontian in Johor is typical case in point. The Rest House and old wet market are gone, the jetty rotted off years ago, the tall casuarina trees at the padang loped off, the United cinema is now dont-know-what and the old hailam kopitiam no longer exist. Hai sedih man!

    By the way if you listen to Carole King, chances are you are also into James Taylor, Carpenters and Bread. I know I did, until I heard the music of a certain gent whose first name is Jimi. Nothing’s ever the same after that hahaha.


    How right you are! Yes, I am also into James Taylor (very much so), the Carpenters and Bread. I am also a big fan of that giant named Jimi. While I’m at at, I might as well mention John Denver, Bob Dylan and the Eagles. Yes, sir! That pretty much sums up the musical preference of an entire generation: our generation 🙂

    That trip on the trunk road to the south is quite ethereal. I especially like the sections between Mantin and Seremban; from Bongek to Alor Gajah, from Umbai (Melaka) right on up to Batu Pahat and (for some reason I can’t explain) that section just after Yong Peng.

  6. Dear Mr MB,

    A few months ago I and my husband got lost in what I suspect to be parts of the areas you mentioned. We were travelling from Kuantan (my hometown) to Penang (my husband’s and our home now) and trying to bypass KL. I was driving and somehow by instinct made a turn to what I hope would be a shortcut to Rawang N-S highway exit but got into an area reminiscent of roads to Lipis, Pahang in the 80’s (perhaps still now). As we go further the roads and scenery became a bit scary for non-adventurous me (and especially my hubby) so we decided at the next petrol station we must stop and ask for direction. The next station was a small one but filled with men sitting around (not filling up) talking to each other. My cowardly hubby voted me to get out of the car and make inquiries. The scruffy-looking “Mat Indons” (non-derogatory, this) turned out to be very nice and told us we are not too far away from the exit. Of course, I had read all Quranic surah my mother taught me as ‘pelindung’ before I got out of the car. My husband also had his tongkat bought from Orang Asli peddlers of Sungai Perak at the ready (though I don’t know how he would have been any help hiding in the car!).

    Memorable experience, nevertheless.



    Isn’t it amazing how people usually turn out to be nicer than we expect them to be? Yes, it can be scary when we have to initiate the encounter. But it usually turns out OK, right?

    As for you husband, I think he was just being wise: who would beat up on a woman? Hence it was you who had to go and ask for directions (while he held back, ready to pounce with the tongkat if need be)

  7. Mat

    … wild abandon … blissfully oblivious …

    You have the knack for writing, mon ami. A potential Ernst Hemingway.

    The man visited Kenya for the safari, Spain for the bull fights. He wrote The Sun Also Rises.

    You might want to visit Japan where the sun (imperial ancestry connection) always rises, Zimbabwe where the sun never rises, or the coming UMNO Youth Assembly where the dynastic son or the in-law son or the farmer’s son also rises.

    Me? Mine often rises in the early mornings. Out of respect for the corrupt leaders.

    Sorry for breaking the flow of the conversation and ending a bit political, old chap. It’s the Monday morning blues.


    Hemingway was a man’s man, wasn’t he? He went out, did all of that macho crap, and then wrote about it. Wonderful stuff.

    Yours rises early in the morning out of respect for corrupt leaders? How lucky! At this age I doubt if my sun will rise for any reason – except maybe Angelina Jolie 🙂

  8. barry manilow? hahaha corny…love the Ford Cortina Ghia though. That one is a real beauty even today.

    when i last drove back to penang to see my old house, everything was so different and lost its magic. the quiet roads, the quaint character of the island…even going back to my old playground near the shops where we used to buy sweets from Eng Keow the trusty kedai runcit man who delivered even one kelapa parut for my mum turned ugly…because when I asked where Auntie (his wife) was, he said dia sudah bunuh diri, gantung diri…over a small fight…

    talk about lost innocence….

    rimau malaya

    I suppose you could say Barry Manilow is corny; but when you are in a car with a beautiful girl, Iron Maiden is hardly appropriate 😉 And at that time Michael Buble hadn’t been born yet: he was probably busy being conceived.

    Its tragic what happened to the Auntie at Eng Keow. I had a similar experience. I used to live in Penang once (in the Govt quarters at Jln Han Chiang – opposite Han Chiang school). A few years ago I revisited the place and looked up the auntie at the local kedai runcit. When I asked after her, I was chased out of the shop with sticks and other weapons: they thought I was some kind of collector working for an ‘ah long’.

    How’s that for another instance of lost innocence!

  9. Hi Matt,

    This Joni Mitchell’s hit always comes to my mind when anyone reminisces about the good old days……hmmm yes, Those were the days my friend (Another good one, Mary Hopkins?). Yes, better look back before Alzheimer’s catch up with you…hehehe…

    The Circle Game:

    Yesterday, a child came out to wander
    Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
    Fearful, when the sky was full of thunder
    and tearful at the falling of a star

    and the season’s they go round and round
    and the painted ponies go up and down
    we’re captive on the carousel of time
    we can’t return, we can only look
    behind from where we came
    and go round and round and round in the circle game

    then the child moved ten times round the seasons
    skated over ten clear frozen streams
    words like “when you’re older” must appease him
    and promises of “someday” make up his dreams

    sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
    cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
    and they tell him, “take your time, it won’t be long now
    ’til you drag your feet to slow the circles down”

    so the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
    though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
    there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams, and plenty
    before the last revolving year is through

    and the seasons, they go round and round
    and the painted ponies go up and down
    we’re captive on the carousel of time
    we can’t return we can only look
    behind from where we came
    and go round and round and round in the circle game

    and go round and round and round in the circle game.

    Now where was I?????


    Circle Game pretty much defined 1973(4?) for me. And what about the other Joni Mitchell song? The one called Clouds?

    They just don’t write songs like that anymore.

    Say, yu’re pretty handy with lyrics, aren’t you?

  10. Sigh. The Circle Game reminds me of Agnes Chan, I had a horrible crush with her at 16 years old. Man, I better stay away from this site for a while, the old memories are not always welcomed…hahaha.


    I mean, can you point me to one straight guy who didn’t have a crush on Ms Chan (Agnes, not Rose)?

    I thought so!

  11. Ain’t it strange.. I too feel the same bro!

    Like everyone, I recently went gallivanting down the Old Route from Somonyih to Mantin passing by Bongek, Monggong then through Somabok and Umbai before ending up at Tongkang Pecah near Batu Pahat.

    I discovered that many pre-war shophouses that scatter along the Old Route have now been taken over by Jawa, Batak, Boyan, Madura.. well you know our kins of Indon origins.

    I heard they have made some money since they came 20 years ago in a flock and have replaced the earlier Chinese families whose sons & daughters have found it more fashionable to move out & up to live in Puchong & Kulai where things are happening the way they want them to be.

    I would say that though these 1930-40 shophouses were very much the same ones being left behind, it kind of have a different feel now ain’t it — much like comparing Cheras with Melawati; same terrace but different ambiance and smell.

    Come to think of it — Kg Melayu Ampang no longer contain Melayus. Just like Kg Pandan & Sg Cincin in Gombak.

    Yes, lots of things are happening in Malaya bro under our very noses.

    Am sure our Great Leaders on both sides of the divide know it too if they care…

    dak ah bau

    Change has overtaken us, my friend. Whether we have been the cause of the change, whether we are the ones responsible, or not, I don’t know.

    The question remains: what do we do now?

  12. Hehe Bro Halim, u remembered Agnes too. Come on how can one have a ‘horrible’ crush?? All crushes r supposed to be beautiful mah. U can have horrible accident, horrible blind dates, horrible nightmares but crushes, no lah brudder… I must have got u ‘tossing’ all over bed now! Need any kleenex?


  13. What do we do?

    Well bro, as I see it, we are still taking the same ‘Old Route’ so long as we still haven’t learnt Lessons on Cause & Effect.

    dak ah bau

    As they say: Those who do not learn from their mistakes are condemned to repeat it

  14. We told ourselves before we get out of Malaysia, we must go through as many old routes in as many states as possible. We did take half of this old route you were describing in one of our off the beaten track travels around Malaysia and I must say I felt so retro especially when we see some kampungs still existing.

    Now the only state we have yet to explore is Sabah…


    It’s amazing how much there is to see in ths country. But being a local, I tend to take it all for granted sometimes.

    I, too, have never been to Sabah.

  15. Horrible as in tak boleh makan, tak boleh tidok, asik mau pi hongkong tak tau apasal, tengok itu Shaw Bros movie Friends lebih 10 kali. Horrible la!

  16. dear sir,
    I ,too, remember this route from the travels we used to endure on our annual balik kampung to sitiawan perak. What is fresh in my mind is not so much the long cramped journey but the food that mom used to prepare (remember, this were during the days that there were no RnR). Simple food like currypuffs or bihun goreng. We would stop at the roadsides and have our picnics. And the best part, is when nature calls, welll.. all of us will troop down into the bushes.. mom always remind us, before doing our bisnes, to ask for permission.. tok nenek anak cucu tumpang lalu..mmmmmm.


    Good memories, eh? There’s something about these childhood memories: I cant quite put my finger on it; but somehow they help keep us sane.

  17. Uhmm.. interesting post, I must say.

    Definitely food for thought as to how we are going to spend our next long holiday i.e take the old route to criss-cross the peninsular – is this possible?

    Thanks for the heads-up, dude

    Andrea whatever

    Yes, ma’am: criss-crossing the peninsula using the trunk road is possible. But you may have to traverse the breadth via Grik to Tasik Banding and on to Kelantan. After that it’ll be the coastal roads south to Johor via K Terengganu, Pekan, Rompin, Desaru and so on.

    I did that twice on my trusty mountain bike. Took me two weeks. But it was two weeks well spent!

  18. Mat B

    The old route was in my ‘other’ life; a young wife with three pre-schoolers, long drives back to Kedah to visit their dad’s side of the family.

    The journeys were, almost always, long and tiring, with the kids asking 1001 questions, someone wanting to pee and another wanting to throw up .. There were no R&Rs then..

    Having said that, there were many pitstops too; Ipoh was a must, to say hello to Tok Megat Khas and Pah Puteri Hawa (and to let them indulge their 3 great grandkids for an hour or two), before moving again to reach Alor Janggus, Kedah, before nightfall.

    The old route meant Templer’s Park, Batang Kali picnic spot, pau Tajung Malim, masak tempoyak ikan patin at one of the stalls by the riverside in Kuala Kangsar, Kota Lama Kiri in Kuala Kangsar to view crumbling Istana Talang and indulge in a bit of family history so the kids didn’t lose touch with their Perak heritage….

    I have not taken the trunk road for years. Maybe it’s time to ‘drive’ down memory lane…

    Puteri Kamaliah

    Looks like you’ll have to make that trip soon, ma’am. Many changes: not all of them good. But still, it’s going to be a god trip. Filter-out the bad memories if you have to; but make that trip!

  19. halim and tommy,

    bring out the kleenex and have a memory fest!

    a sweet and young agnes chan

    a somewhat matured agnes

    i was lucky, i caught a ‘local’ agnes chan and married her at 21!

  20. Wah, Kassim (Another Chanatics), thanks for the memories, I saw 2 kungfu exponents in David Chiang & Ti Lung there too on the 1st clip…haha…but my hero was ‘the one armed swordsman’ lah..what’s his name, Wang Yu ya ka??

    Anyway Matt & I are probably r more fascinated with Rose Chan’s amazing feats lah, ahhh that one I need more kleenex.


  21. Wow! two weeks on a mountain bike… my hat off to you, dude. Am thinking some 4WD like a trusty Land Rover ‘coz my other half would definitely not last the distance on a mountain bike *laughs* … and we don’t want that to happen, do we? Hee hee.

    Anyway, one more question if you don’t mind: Do you know where I can get a good map showing the old said route around the peninsular? Thanks in advance.


    No, ma’am. We should certainly look forward to your other half lasting the entire distance.

    Sorry. I don’t know how to get these maps commercially. The only reason I got such good maps was because at the time I was the national mountain bike coach; the authorities had no objections releasing such deliciously detailed contour maps to me.

  22. Salam Mat,
    Your posting this time is simply classic! It sure made me recall some good old memories traversing through the Old Route, though its only from KL to Slim River – my other half’s kampong is at Sg. Bil… you might want to consider rejuvenating your old spirit back to life by dipping in the ice cool pristine water of Sg. Bil… my mom-in-law’s house is next to the stream… just let me know when you want to visit… bisa di atur!

    Dhahran Sea

    Really? Sungai Bil near Sungai Selisek (or Sungai Seli-SEX as we mountain bikers call it)?

    I tried to go to Sg Bil that day but I got lost: the new roads leading to Proton City made me go aground in circles!

  23. Mat,
    After Proton City, straight ahead til you get to traffic light at Ulu Behrang, turn right to the old Tg. Malim-Slim River Rd… about 8 km or so you get to exit for Kg. Sg. Bil on the right… won’t miss it. Now about this Sg. Selisex… well have not come across it yet… but then maybe they’ve created a new stream for a new segment of mountain bikers?!

  24. Rawang – sleepy old town? Not anymore, as you’ve found out. But of course, much less ‘complicated’ than Damansara & PJ. Hehehh…

    Oh well, a hypermarket is coming to town by year end. That’ll be another chapter for this once sleepy old town.

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