Exploring Pengkalan Hulu

20 June 2018

Far in the north corner of Perak lies Pengkalan Hulu, a place where older Chinese, Malay and Indian folk may still turn around and speak to their neighbour in fluent Siamese.

The late poet Jamaludin D was once stationed in Kroh, a district bordering Thailand, as an immigration officer. Hearing the calls of a tree sparrow, he wrote a verse imagining how the bird’s song could bring peace to a place hit by the Malayan Emergency; a time of displacement, rations and curfews imposed by the British to weaken the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) hiding out in the surrounding jungles.

Duhai, burung ciak gunung
ke marilah semusim mendatang
hiburkan kepiluan daerah ini
dengan siulan kedamaian.

- Dewan Sastera, August 1971

In 1984, Kroh (from the word keruh meaning murky), named after a muddy stream running through the town, was rechristened by Sultan Idris Shah II as Pengkalan Hulu; pengkalan meaning pit stop in Malay. The Sultan used the place as a base during his travels before heading into Hulu Perak.

The renaming is rather significant as Kroh was labelled a kawasan hitam way past the official end of the Malayan Emergency in 1960. Only in the ’80s did Kampung Tasek, a new village in the district, see curfews lifted and freedom restored. 

It was 1948 when villagers living in scattered clusters in the hills were forced to evacuate their homes and live in the newly fenced-up Kampung Tasek New Village during the Emergency. Many of these were Siamese families.

Foo Kok Min, former village chief of Kampung Tasek tells us that today, the residential area holds roughly 300 Siamese families, 20 Chinese families and a minority of less than ten Indian families. He is a second generation Malaysian Hainanese but speaks Siamese because of his upbringing in the new village.

He points out some of the original wooden houses from the Emergency era. Some are solid structures that are similar to the raised Malay kampung houses and some are rickety ones that have amazingly stood the test of time. The common thread is that they were all hastily built by the villagers, using whatever resources they had to build shelter for their families following their evacuation.

Some families still keep the wooden structures although they live in the main concrete building next to it. “It is cooler here in the afternoons,” one elderly Siamese lady reveals in Malay while her Indonesian daughter-in-law smiles from the porch. “Some Siamese children here speak fluent Mandarin as they attend Chinese schools,” says Foo, revealing the mix of ethnicities and languages here in Kampung Tasek.

Foo describes how watchtowers were built surrounding the village, as soldiers patrolled, enforcing a strict curfew on its residents. Working men were allowed out of the village at 6am and had to return by 8pm. They were not allowed to have any food with them when they headed out. Identification papers (an early version of the Malaysian Identification Card) were given to every adult, allowing them access to rice rations. Families were raised on handout rice, homegrown vegetables and if lucky, a home-reared pig.

The majority of Siamese residents gathered from the surrounding hillside had to leave behind their main place of worship – Wat Phikunbunyaram during this time. Faced with curfews preventing them access to Wat Phikunbunyaram, they built a smaller wat within the new village as a substitute known as Wat Intrawas.

Theravada Buddhist monks were tasked as caretakers of this new wat. The old gateway is still kept but the main hall, like most buildings here, has already undergone major renovation. Significant statues and architectural elements were imported, in recent years, from Cambodia, another neighbouring country that practices the same branch of Buddhism. Building material was imported from Cambodia as opposed to bordering Thailand because of lower prices.

Further to the north of Kampung Tasek is the border between Malaysia and Thailand. There are half completed, monolithic buildings being constructed at this site, waiting to be filled with Thai products to be sold to Malaysians who don’t cross the border. Their scale and emptiness are a contrast to the small group of lively vendors doing business on the opposite side of the road.

Bottles of tom yam paste, snake fruit, and Koh Kae brand snacks sit on shelves stocked full of other Thai products, not entirely native but nonetheless familiar enough to Malaysians who hardly think they are consuming foreign cuisine when ordering a bowl of tom yam from restaurants or street stalls all over Malaysia.

Text and photos by Adeline Chua


Chinese Calligraphy in Malaysia

MON, 02 JUL 2018

Nai Chuang Hak has devoted over 50 years in pursuing his passion for calligraphy, a technically demanding practice of handwriting tha...


Wats in Tumpat

MON, 26 FEB 2018

We take a look at the Buddhist temples that dot the town of Tumpat, Kelantan on the Thailand-Malaysia border. Situated on the nor...