By Tan Mei Kuan
By trading the city lights for the celestial flickering of fireflies and modern comforts for a sojourn with Mother Nature, the sights and sounds of Kuala Sepetang left me with many intangible souvenirs during my first visit in March: new friendships, fresh perspectives and wonderful memories.
The name “Sepetang” is derived from the time it takes to reach here from Taiping by bicycle: one evening in Malay. “Sepetang” also means 18 miles in the Cantonese dialect. Today, it is an hour’s drive away from Ipoh via the highway.
Where Nature Brings Out the Best in People
Kuala Sepetang was formerly known as Port Weld where the history of the railway system in Malaya began on June 1, 1885 when the first 8¼ mile railway track connecting it and Taiping was laid.
Perched on the mouth of the Sepetang River, this small fishing village is surrounded by sights and sounds that captivate and enchant as we embarked on our evening cruise right beside the delightfully quaint Happy Eight Hotel.
Sepetang River and Beyond
Our well-mannered teen guide brimming with enthusiasm, ensured that we kicked off our evening cruise along the Sepetang River in the best mood.
At our first stop, we sighted a flock of eagles swooping down during a feeding session. “Eagles remain faithful to one mate their entire lives, no mistresses!” the little boy explained, drawing laughter.
Kids as young as our guide were spotted bundling up fishnets at floating fish farms signalling the end of the day’s work with countless pure-white egrets taking off in the background. What an Instagram-worthy shot!
Equally eye-catching is the 8-room Kuala Sepetang Floating Chalet. At a rate of RM128 (for Monday to Thursday) and RM148 (for Friday to Sunday) per person per night, it is inclusive of three meals daily. Accommodating up to 40 guests, nature’s breezes eliminate the need for air-conditioning. Interested readers can contact Beh Hou May at 016 521 3396.
At the river mouth stood our ultimate destination of the cruise: A remote fishermen’s village named Kuala Sangga, a gateway to more than 150 years of history.
Originally from Teochew, China, the less-than-200 villagers here are the perfect example of “be more with less”. They survive wonderfully on rainwater and solar panels without Wi-Fi connection, an unimaginable life for us city-dwellers.
Accessible only by boat via a 20-minute ride, a school, a church, three temples and simple homes on stilts are connected with a single bridge made of concrete slabs along the shore. The rest of the bridge is made of wooden planks. All the construction materials were transported all the way from Kuala Sepetang.
“I have stayed here for five generations. The bridge was made of wood then. In earlier times, electricity would be cut off after midnight, now we enjoy 24 hours of electricity. Before we had engines, my grandfather would row his small boat manually to and from Kuala Sepetang,” a 51-year-old fisherman, Xiang shared during his evening barefoot stroll.
From the beginning, education is of utmost importance for the people here. SRJK (C) Poay Chee is the only school here, currently with 18 students, eight teachers and a headmaster. Students here would attend tuition classes until 9pm and cycle home along the bridges built without railing, sometimes without streetlight illumination too. Any scholar would be humbled by their unabated quest for knowledge.
Also found here is St Anne’s Chapel, the second Catholic Church to be established in Malaysia. It is well-preserved even though none of them are Christians now, a standing testament to religious tolerance and respect.
Before I left, I spotted a father-son pair laying down plates of simple dishes on the wooden bridge for their own version of al fresco dinner as they watch the setting sun reflecting off the breaking waves. What a simpler yet equally gratifying way to end a day of hard labour!
Our teen guide then directed the boat to Kampung Dew, our final stop. “The best time to catch the fireflies is every new moon. The male flashes three times per second while the female flashes once every three seconds. Hence, it is easier to spot the male fireflies,” he added.
There was a half-moon that night, thus there were less lightning bugs. However, they were still able to blink their way to my heart with their dazzling display of light symphony in the quiet darkness which easily put any fairy lights to shame. I could only imagine how much more magical it would have been had there been a new moon.
Observing Everyday Life: Kuala Sepetang
Take a morning walk along neighbouring streets, Jalan Trump and Jalan Tepi Sungai and you would be greeted with fields of golden shrimps basking in the sun. In another unassuming corner, rows and rows of salted fish in wooden racks would be seen having its fair share of the warm sunshine. With the umami aroma permeating through the air, these sun-dried goodies is a major temptation for visitors to buy home by the sack loads.
At the street lined with a marketplace, fishery wholesale godowns, old barber shops, a mosque (Masjid Kuala Sepetang) and the one-and-only bank, I had the privilege to meet 71-year-old Song Lian Kow, a former fisherman turned self-taught fishnet weaver. The exclusive one-on-one with the last of the fishnet weavers will be published in the upcoming issue of Ipoh Echo, look forward to it!
Seberang – The Other Side of Happiness
It is car-free day every day at Seberang, an islet of less than 5000 residents across the river from Kuala Sepetang. The narrow concrete road running throughout the fishing village is only wide enough for motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional motorcycle sidecars, which then require pedestrians to step aside momentarily for the sidecars to pass.
Before the existence of a concrete footbridge built in 2013, boats and sampans used to be the sole mode of transport connecting the century-old islet and the Kuala Sepetang mainland. Hence, the more readily-available cockle shells are used as land cover at Seberang due to the pricey cost of transporting sand.
The locals are notably cheerful, smiling and oh-so-friendly, that it has an immediate knock-on effect on you. As the homes are huddled so close together, it produces a close-knit community which renders fencing and padlocks obsolete on the islet. Coming from a gated and guarded community, this was such an eye-opener for me.
The Happy 8 Retreat @ Kuala Sepetang
Every design in the retreat has a story. For instance, its chairs and railings are made of wide-mesh fishnet, symbolising the livelihood of the people here. Fifty-year-old Tan Kai Lek, the founder of The Happy 8, knows Kuala Sepetang like the back of his hand.
During my 2-day-1-night stay, I was lulled to sleep by the lapping waves and pleasantly awakened to the gentle chugging of fishing boats heading out. Plus, my balcony view of the coast lined with fishing vessels was breathtaking!
Located right next to the jetty, The Happy 8 at Kuala Sepetang would be glad to arrange guided boat tours for its guests upon request. While waiting, you could chill out with a bowl of natural fruit snow ice. Did I mention that seafood restaurants such as Xin Kuala Sepetang Seafood and Kang Kao Seafood are just within walking distance? Before you leave, remember to browse through the selection of dried marine products by Hoon Teong Fish Dealers also conveniently located at the hotel’s doorstep.
The Happy 8 at Kuala Sepetang offers six types of rooms with the following rates:
- Mangrove Room (double bedroom without balcony) – RM127.20.
- Dolphin Room (double bedroom with village view) – RM169.60.
- Eagle Room (double bedroom with sea view) – RM190.80.
- Charcoal Family Room (double decker without balcony, max 4 pax) – RM254.40.
- Dolphin Family Room (double decker with village view, max 4 pax) – RM339.20.
- Eagle Family Room (double decker with sea view, max 4 pax) – RM381.60.
Do take note that the price changes according to low, shoulder, peak and super-peak seasons.Contact: +605 243 8388 / 241 8288 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook: facebook.com/thehappy8
It is time to fulfil your long overdue New Year’s resolution to travel more and Kuala Sepetang would not disappoint. I’d do it again! It’s the irresistible twinkling jewel only an hour’s drive north of Ipoh.