Going with a group up Fraser's Hill can be fun. All photos by Christopher Chen
While Bintan, Batam and Desaru present themselves as great cycling day-trip destinations, travelling a little bit further afield into Malaysia offers a veritable cycling paradise perfect for a weekend getaway. I’m talking about the hill station town of Fraser’s Hill, some 60km north of Kuala Lumpur.
A six-hour drive from central Singapore if you avoid the worst of the traffic (leave early and use the Second Link if possible), the reward for the long journey is a lush green and cool environment that will leave you cursing the fact that nothing like it exists in Singapore.
History and mystery
Fraser’s Hill, or Bukit Fraser, sits majestically among the clouds at 1,200m and was “discovered” in the 1890s by a Scottish prospector, James Fraser, searching for minerals. Years later, Fraser went missing from the tin ore mine he established on the hill, and it wasn’t until a search party was dispatched in 1917 that the British colonial authorities saw the full potential of the area. Fraser was never found but they realized they’d come across the perfect location to escape from the tropical heat of lowland Malaya.
Little did the Brits know when they painstakingly cut the road through the jungle and forest to the hill top that they’d created a route that would one day be regarded as a pilgrimage for cyclists.
Tough but fair
Before going any further, I should add that cycling at Fraser’s Hill isn’t really for absolute beginners. Whether tackling the full distances or even just sections of the routes I’m about to describe, there’s nothing flat, meaning you either go up or down. But that’s the point of travelling all the way here. Singapore actually has a good number of hills, some even quite steep, but they are all short. Fraser’s Hill can be tackled from two directions and each route up is a just under 40km long.
Also see: Cycle Singapore
Now that sounds scarily long, but luckily the gradients aren’t steep at all. For those familiar with cycling in Singapore, the trip up to Fraser’s Hill could best be compared to South Buona Vista Road. Yes, I know SBV is only 2km long but you get the picture, gentle slopes with wide corners instead of steep pitches with scary hairpin bends. For the data-inclined, the average gradient is just a shade over 3 percent from either direction.
The endless corners are wide and easily negotiable
Up or down?
There are three options for taking on Fraser’s Hill. You can start from the bottom from the towns of Kuala Kubu Bahru to the south or Raub to the north, or you can begin from the top of the hill itself. The first two obviously mean climbing straight out of the door and then having the pleasure of descending to follow. On my visits to Fraser’s, however, I’ve always chosen option three.
There are few better experiences to be had on a bike than pointing it downhill and letting gravity take over. This can be an extreme sport, but at Fraser’s, with its gentle slopes and endless corners regulating your speed, the long journey down to the lowlands is more akin to a sight-seeing excursion through a nature reserve than a high-speed thrill down a mountain. If you really do feel the need for speed, then it’s possible to do the descent in race mode, but stick to left lane to be safe.
The views are truly spectacular, especially on the initial 11km of the descent, which features a road narrower and slightly more twisty than the longer section that follows. But it’s a one-way road to compensate, so there’s no danger of a vehicle coming the other way. Exiting some of the corners deliver you into a dark canopied tubes of trees, while others open out to glorious landscapes of seemingly endless forest-covered valleys, soaring skyward and diving deep into the earth. A concrete bridge spans one chasm; stop here, take in the world or look over the edge for an added jolt of adrenalin.
The one-way section (which actually has a few short ups and false flats) ends at The Gap, a tiny settlement consisting of a guardhouse, a refreshments shack and an odd assortment of other dwellings. This is where the choice of down to KKB or Raub is made. Both options are similar, about 28km in length and on well-surfaced roads, and cut through what seems at times to be a tunnel of vegetation. This helps keep the sun away, not that you’ll feel the heat at Fraser’s. Most mornings are greeted with some mist or clouds, which is understandable when you consider the altitude. Packing a lightweight windbreaker or even a jacket is advisable to ward off the chill.
Also read: Riding free and easy in Bintan
The big difference in the two routes is that after some 20km the road to KKB opens out to a huge reservoir. While the views before the dam was erected would no doubt have been stunning, riding around the man-made lake is still pleasing to the eye. The road widens noticeably and flattens a bit, no doubt to accommodate the cars heading to the Visitor’s Centre on the dam. But there’s also a few vehicles parked by the roadside, their occupants taking the opportunity to fill all sorts of receptacles with the cool, clean water emptying out of the hillsides from streams and cracks in the walls.
Fraser’s Hill is also world famous for bird-watching
Onwards and upwards
The towns of KKB and Raub are pleasant enough and offer plenty of places to grab a drink or a bite to eat before taking on the main course of the day. Make sure you’re fully stocked with fuel before the climb, because even if the slopes are relatively gentle, it’s still a hill and at 40km long, it can take anything from 90 minutes to three hours or longer to get to Fraser’s.
But conquering Fraser’s is a feat achievable by anybody with a decent level of fitness. The best way to tackle the climbs is to find a steady rhythm and stick to it. There’s no point in going too hard too early or you’ll just burn yourself out. It will seem like the corners are endless as you inch higher up the hill, but use the time to take in the nature around you. Notice the trees and shrubs change subtly in appearance as the elevation rises. Huge, ancient giants with vines draping around them soar skywards as monkeys, lizards and other strange creatures run up and down the thick trunks and branches. Waterfalls, large and small, emerge from the hillsides. Stop at one of those for a break or press on to the top, the choice is yours.
The KKB road tends to be the busier of the two routes, for the simple reason that it’s closer to KL, but neither are what you’d exactly call busy thoroughfares. Indeed, if you go to Fraser’s midweek, the chances are you’ll be cycling on mostly empty roads. The weekends and holidays are different, but not in a bad way. Sure there are a few more tour buses and cars, but you’ll also encounter many more cyclists. It’s truly an unbelievable sight at Fraser’s on a Sunday morning to see the endless stream of riders going up and down the hill. They come in all shapes and sizes, from lean racing cyclists pushing hard, to slow-moving groups on mountain bikes taking in the sights and smelling the roses, or whatever the local flora on offer is. You’ll even see pre-teen kids, evoking scenes of the Alps and Pyrenees.
The Gap presents a chance for a pit stop and a drink if required, but then it’s onto the finale. Like the descent described earlier, this 8km section is one way, but it’s also noticeably steeper in places than the long, gentle grind from KKB or Raub. That’s not to say that it’s too difficult. If you’ve got this far, nothing will stop you from attaining your goal.
Ye Olde Smokehouse is used to cyclists
What greets you at the top is quite surreal. Entering Fraser’s Hill is like time travelling back to a quaint English country village. Neat hedges line the roads and many of the buildings are distinctly colonial in their appearance. Sitting in the “town centre” is the famous clocktower, a granite-like block of stone draped in a clock of green vines. Adjacent to this is a golf course, just to complete the colonial scene.
The town of Fraser’s Hill is actually spread around a number of small peaks, connected by a series of roads and paths. There are some hotels and restaurants right at the clocktower but there are many other accommodation options, for all budgets, dotted among the hills.
As well as being a Nirvana for cyclists, Fraser’s has an extensive network of walking trails and the hills are home to many species of birds, some endemic to the area, thanks to the microclimate that exists there in the clouds.
One hotel that is used to catering to the quirks of touring cyclists is Ye Olde Smokehouse, a famously rustic establishment that seems to have walked straight out of the pages of a Graham Greene novel. Finishing the climb of Fraser’s Hill here beings the reward of an endless horizon of hills and clouds, not to mention cold beers or the quintessentially British treat of afternoon tea with scones, whipped cream and home-made strawberry jam.
Why not rest up and do it all again the next day. Some people tackle both climbs in one day, but whether you do that or spread them over two days, one thing’s for sure; once you’ve been to Fraser’s Hill, you’re bound to come back.
Alan Grant is a freelance editor/writer based in Singapore and his biggest passions in life are eating and cycling. His longest ride to date was this June's Trans Malaysia Express where he and 14 friends covered 800km from the Thai-Malaysia border to Singapore in just 43 hours. He has placed his journalistic hat down at such legendary Singaporean spots such as The Straits Times and I-S Magazine as well as TimeOut Singapore, Discovery Channel Magazine and Spin Magazine.