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Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 13 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'


The Sungai Batu Archeological site, despite the hopes of the Kedah Tourist and Heritage Honchos, is probably not exactly on the top of most tourists' list of attractions, but it is worth your effort, if only to make you contemplate Ozymandias's fate.

When people talk of lost cities, and wonder how a whole city can be lost, they conjure up some great conspiracy to belittle the efforts of the early inhabitants, so it is worth popping into a place like this to get a bit of perspective if nothing else.

If this area was covered by dense forest inhabited by tigers and elephants, you would probably not care to wander about just on the off chance of finding an old city, especially if there were no writings pin pointing its existence. And if you did not care to explore because, well there were ghosts and bad spirits, not to mention it being hot and too much bother, then of course it would get lost and forgotten.

Luckily the old colonial Brits on the look out for mineral wealth and other possible money making opportunities, managed to stumble over a few piles of bricks. Even then they probably thought twice about trying to find the funds to bring in a team of archeologists. After all, who would expect it to be the remnants of a massive town full of temples, workshops, houses, docks and market places and even the remains of 4,000 year old cargo boats? Especially when all the natives seemed to live in wood huts and know nothing of anything that happened before the local sultan took over.

What you would do, as Sir Hugh Low, the British Resident of Perak, and several random British servicemen did, regarding the southernmost rocky remnant of this culture is carve one's own name on it. And of course jot down a bit of an article for the National Geographical Society of Great Britain, alerting the world to the presence of an interesting inscription on a rock in the jungle.

Hugh Low was a keen dabbler in archeological researches but frankly the archeological arts of his period were little more than treasure hunting and wild speculations based upon scant evidence. Hugh Low and Frank Swettenham raised funds for the Natural History museum, now the state museum in Taiping, but they were more interested in natural history, or at least shooting and stuffing stuff, and Geology, more specifically, Mining Geology, even more specifically, tin.

Hugh Low actually banned the cutting down of the forest trees for Gutta Percha and hard wood because he could see the damage to indigenous flora and fauna, and how it was causing erosion and the destruction of agricultural lands in Perak and Kedah. His concern for sustainability was perhaps rather advanced for his time, especially given the money to be made from the Gutta Percha trade. Though what was Perak's loss, was other state's gains. Johor's Sultan made a fortune from the trade and the increase in price resulting from the restriction of supplies, just added to the joy of it all.

One can always be cynical about the old colonials, but the bottom line is, what they saw when they turned up was a sweaty malaria infested land, randomly ruled, if at all, by various feuding families claiming hereditary rights to tax at will and beat, rape and kill their slaves as necessary, seeing little reason to alter the habits of generations. Handing such entitled people modern weaponry, wealth, and places for their children at Eton, as the old colonials did, could only be justified by the incorporation of a few stiff upper lipped Brits in the body politic of the region. And some of these colonial chappies were jolly good sorts, Hugh Low being one of them. His Malay mistress and her children would probably have told you as much.

I have long suspected the world has not really moved on much from the iron age, let alone the time of the British Empire, for one really does find the same political fault lines driving the actions of today's people of power. A simple mix of financial opportunity, instinctual desires, and geography drives our societies. An entire city will disappear into the mists of time when one or other of those elements no longer find anything interesting going on. Which does make one wonder how long anything will carry on with us all isolated from the increasing numbers of infectious, along with declining economic opportunity and some dodgy climatic changes altering our geographical spheres of action.

I digress though. The collapse of civilisation and the total annihilation of the human race is nothing that I can do anything about. I am merely writing a blog about a big empty hole in our knowledge of past lives, peoples, and the places they once thought would endure forever. So instead of carving my name in a rock in the hope that some day a suitably evolved species would reconstitute my mind and stuff it into a nice computer simulation where I am Lord of My Domain in a less fighty more huggy sort of World of Warcraft, I write a blog. See what a soft and cuddly person I really am?

Anyway, I would say the advent of the modern highway gave a boost to archeological possibilities and some hope that the Lost City of Sungai Batu would be a tourist attraction. Thus it would have become obvious that there was something big in the jungle, or at least, the palm oil plantation, to investigate. However for the casual visitor, it is only the size of the site that impresses. What you see is hard to interpret. It aint Angkor Wat! But it is older than Angkor Wat. The current excitement about the place has been the discovery of iron smelting workshops and jetties. Which might indicate that this was a functional place, a provincial settlement supplying iron goods and trading facilities that possible fed into the interior and might have been part of the cross peninsular trade with the Chinese on the eastern side.

It is thought to date back to the 8th Century BCE , that is, it is part of a flourishing civilisation about the time that the City of Rome was only just being founded. Think about that.

The people were part of that Bay of Bengal trading community ranging from East India, round Burma and Thailand, and down the West coast of the Malaysian peninsular. Others connected with this culture can be found in Sumatra, Java and Bali. There were many tribal groupings with differing language groups around these area but what inscriptions that are found around here are in Sanskrit and Pali indicating a dominant Indian culture, though not necessarily Indian inhabitants. As they say in the archeological field, "evidence of pots is not evidence of people". Technology and trade spread the products of various cultures.

But go there and think. There was a city built with wood and stone, with statues and writing, here in Malaysia before the Roman Empire.

What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Now that you are in a sufficiently poetic frame of mind, if you haven't already, now watch the video and like, share, subscribe and hit the notification bell so that you can know when more videos are available. You might also like to subscribe to my twitter feed at: @LawrenceWGray