A book, a castle and a driving trip through Perak

Hit the road to savour the tales and tastes of small-town Malaysia

It was The Sum Of Our Follies, by Malaysian author Shih-Li Kow, that got me interested in Perak.

The 2014 novel is set in the fictional town of Lubok Sayong, but the Perak river runs through it, and the vivid landscape stretches to actual places such as Kuala Kangsar and Lumut.

It is a place where a boy ghost casually pops up in the garden of a quaint old house, and a giant fish with a familiar ugly face drags an American tourist to his doom in a lake linked to a local legend.

Perak is a land of myth and legend, beginning with its name, which means silver in Malay.

It may refer to tin, on which fortunes were made and lost. Or to an abundance of flashing fish.

Or, like our own Sang Nila Utama glimpsing his mythical beast, to the supposed sight of a water creature suckling its young and turning the river a silvery white.

To many Singaporeans, this large Malaysian state, which stretches from the Malacca Strait north of Kuala Lumpur to the Thai border where it is sandwiched between Kedah and Kelantan, would mean Ipoh.

And the city, which CNN recently called "Malaysia's rising tourism star", is great for its laid-back charm and fabulous food.

Then there are sleepy little towns with homey eateries, ideal for the meandering road trip I recently took with a foodie friend.

Near Batu Gajah, we stopped at Kellie's Castle, curious about its eclectic architecture, secret passages and romantic history.

It was built about a century ago as a lavish home for Scottish settler William Kellie Smith. He had arrived as a young civil engineer, then married and brought over his sweetheart Agnes. The castle, set on a vast estate, has been described as his unfinished Taj Mahal.

Smith was keen on Indian culture and brought in materials and workmen from the sub-continent, struggling to overcome difficulties.

The structure, more than a decade in the making, had taken shape when the family left on a trip to Europe. There he fell ill and died suddenly, at the age of 56, in 1926. Agnes and their two children did not return.

As the castle lay neglected, and then became a tourist attraction, legends grew around it, including tales of ghostly sightings.

Interestingly, there is a European figure, said to represent Smith, among the statues at a Hindu temple nearby.


I wondered whether the place had anything to do with Kow's tale, about a woman with an Indian Muslim name, a Chinese factory manager and a girl whose adoptive parents die in a car crash as they are taking her home from an orphanage.

No, it didn't, she said, when I met her for a chat in Kuala Lumpur.

Her inspiration comes mostly from life in small Malaysian towns, including some in other states, such as Kulim in Kedah and Kluang in Johor.

But much of the novel's action is centred on the Big House, built by a Malay businessman for his wives, of whom the fourth and last, Violet from Singapore, ends up with a difficult love life.

At Kellie's Castle, this bit from the book, about the arrival of an unorthodox nun from the orphanage, came to mind.

When Sister Tan saw the Big House, she laughed aloud and said: "Jesus, what on earth is that?"

On a sweltering July morning, I could imagine such a reaction at the quirky, quixotic castle, which is also called Kellie's Folly.

The place is rich in history, legend, and fiction too.

Malaysian writer Tash Aw's Harmony Silk Factory is set in the area. And Lubok Sayong could be just around a bend in the road or river.

If on a summer's day the reader-traveller arrives in Perak, he may or may not find the invisible town.

But I would recommend a visit to the castle of star-crossed colonials, a tale of difficult love told in brick and mortar.