Published: Thursday, 01 April 2021 16:20
David Bowden goes on a journey of discovery to Pekan to admire some historical landmarks and sample some delicious local cuisine
PAHANG has had three capitals over the past decades, namely Pekan, Kuala Lipis and Kuantan. I have traveled to Pahang many times but rarely have I headed south from Kuantan — and that's about to change. Along the drive south to Pekan on the coastal road, I make several discoveries.
These include the secluded Pantai Sepat (okay, it's mid-week but still...) and a silk-weaving museum just south of the capital. Pekan is 275km from Kuala Lumpur. Road conditions are good so it's a comfortable 3.5 hours by car from the nation's capital, making it within the bounds of a weekend escape. My understanding of Pekan is minimal but that is somewhat intentional as I want the town to reveal itself rather than me delving too deeply before setting off.
A ROYAL TOWN
While driving into the town from the north, I pass Auto City including the campus of DRB-Hicom University of Automotive Malaysia to appreciate that Pekan is where many vehicles on Malaysia's roads are assembled. The compact township of Pekan is just beyond the impressive and expansive bridge over Sungai Pahang.
As I cross the bridge and enter the town for an afternoon's exploration, I pass the AnCasa Royale Pekan where I have made a booking earlier for a night's stay.
Situated close to the river mouth, the royal town is home to the Pahang Sultanate with its majestic palaces, mosques and Royal Mausoleum.
It was also the principal town in the state prior to Kuala Lipis attaining capital status in 1898. Parking beneath tall shady trees along the southern riverbank, I see a locomotive and an old Air Force jet within the grounds of a stately building.
They look out of place and must be part of a museum collection. Before me is a crowd beneath the tree-lined riverbank with all the hallmarks of food. Faced with important decisions, a bowl of delicious iced cendol with durian (two, actually, as it is so delicious) won out before I visit the Sultan Abu Bakar Museum.
The colonial-style building that houses the museum was built in the 1920s as the abode of the British Resident during the era of colonial Malaya. Japanese officers occupied it during World War II and it was then the Sultan's Palace for a while. It was converted into a museum in 1976. Major renovations were completed just a few years back. The museum's exterior has been made more impressive by a shallow infinity pool (where there was once a carpark) and through the installation of driftwood sculptures among the landscaping.
While you should inspect the award-winning museum, do admire the creative sculptures first. There is a small entry fee for the museum. Exhibitions include galleries dedicated to the royal family and the district's history, fashion, textiles, the Orang Asli, natural history, mining and ceramics. Here, I learn that Sungai Pahang and its numerous tributaries meander from the interior for almost 500km before flowing into the South China Sea at Pekan. By the time the river reaches Pahang's original capital, it is wide and full of sand islands where considerable extractive activity is being undertaken. Traders from the region and North Asia first visited the district over 1,000 years ago and exchanged goods brought down from Ulu Pahang. Tin was also sent by boat from nearby Raub all the way to Pekan before being transferred to larger vessels for shipment around the region. The main street along the riverbank fronting the museum is lined with old two-storey shoplots and shaded five-foot walkways.
While these shoplots only date back to the 1950s, they are an important element of the town's historical fabric. Pekan's colourful past has been documented with street murals along side streets such as Jalan Teng Quee and its back lanes. Its heritage precinct along the Pekan riverfront and esplanade once bustled with riverine and maritime trade as the river was the main means of transportation to many parts of the hinterland. I also admire the Sultan Ahmad Shah Mosque and the Royal Mausoleum from the museum grounds.
A VILLAGE LIFE
Not far from the river, the town morphs into village life with traditional houses, gardens and a serene ambience.
There are some fine examples of traditional Malay housing. Istana Mangga Tunggal, a modest wooden structure, is situated immediately opposite the Chief's Rest House. Accommodation is available in the rest house which was built in 1929. While the rooms have modern conveniences, it will especially appeal to those who fully appreciate its heritage. One assumes that it was, when built, the finest in the town and where visitors to the former palace once stayed.
The current royal residence of Istana Abu Bakar is further away from the town centre and situated adjacent to the expansive fields of the Royal Pahang Polo Club.
The 18-hole Royal Pekan Golf Club provides a vast green space beyond the current palace.
SMOOTH AS SILK
I drive just beyond the town centre to have a look at some old village houses. One of these is the Pulau Keladi Cultural Complex where young silk weavers learn the intricate skills involved in making Tenun Pahang Diraja at the Royal Weaving Skills Institute. The name of the cultural complex is a little misleading as it is not obviously located on an island. If it ever was, it has become integrated into the riverbank of Sungai Pahang. An employee of the seven-storey AnCasa Hotel, which I realise is the highest building in town, pointed the complex out to me earlier from one of the hotel's elevated floors so I have an idea where I will be heading.
Weavers tell me that the style of silk weaving was introduced from either Riau or Sulawesi by the Makassar people in the 16th century.
Some villagers relocated from what is now part of Indonesia to Pekan and settled here in Kampung Mengkasar Pekan.
This confirms to me just how important Pekan was over the centuries as a trading port.
The finely crafted silk has soft colours and a distinctive small floral dotted ornamentation usually crafted from metallic thread in the weave.
It is tedious to make but this does not put off the enthusiastic weavers engaged at the complex. The old wooden home in which Malaysia's second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was born is also located within the grounds. Just beyond the complex and down a new stretch of road is Meow Island, located just off the banks of Sungai Pahang. This cat sanctuary is funded by the generosity of donors and provides a refuge for abandoned animals such as cats, goats, geese and ducks.
Seafood and river fish are especially fresh and delicious in Pekan. I take the recommendation of hotel staff and dine out on a whole ocean of seafood in the atmospheric Restoran Sumpit-sumpit. Murtabak Mengkasar Haji Din near the town is highly regarded as is the Nasi Dagang Ubai from a shoplot at Ubai Perdana to the north of the town. Do seek out too the puding raja (royal pudding), comprising bananas, jala mas, dried fruits, nuts and custard.
ANCASA ROYALE PEKAN
2670, Jalan Pekan-Kuantan, Kampung Peramu,
26600 Pekan, Pahang.
STAY The rooms in this four-star hotel admirably satisfy the needs of discerning guests with views overlooking the river and the pool or the town, bridge and river.
EAT Dine in comfort at Saffron Restaurant in the AnCasa and enjoy favourites such as royal pudding and opor daging.
DO Request a room on an upper floor to admire the view of Sungai Pahang.
GO Cat lovers may want to visit Meow Island Cat Sanctuary.
HIGHS The hotel exceeds expectations with spacious and well-equipped modern rooms, helpful staff and an excellent restaurant.
LOWS Very few, except the rooms on the lower floors which do not have as commanding views as those on the upper floors.
Source : NST