See how charcoal is made, how local coffee is roasted and how ducks are bred — just by going on a drive from KL to Penang.
THIS is it!” my father announces, switching off the engine of our family car. it wasn’t hard to find the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory (Mr chuah) with help from google Maps.
The decades-old charcoal-making factory is located on the southside of Jalan Taiping - Kuala Sepetang. To get there, we drive through a narrow two-way trunk road on which quite a number of big lorries are carrying just harvested oil palm kernel from a plantation that flanks part of the road.
That trunk road journey only adds to the excitement of our long drive from Kuala Lumpur. We’re heading to Penang for a weekend getaway but since Taiping is along the way, we decide to make a few short stops to cover some of its attractions, such as the charcoal factory.
As it is still early in the morning, the factory is peaceful and quiet. the smell of something burning permeates the air. It’s actually a combination of damp wood smell and old clothes that have been chucked deep inside the wardrobe for some time.
There are just a couple of workers on their early shift. Working in pairs, they help each other move freshly sawn mangrove from the nearby river, Sungai Kapal Changkok, into the factory.
It is then cut into smaller logs. Moving the logs require brute strength. everything is done manually and through physical labour. as a worker holds on to one end of the heavy log, each weighing about 50 tonnes, another heaves it onto his shoulder.
The workers work fast and beads of sweat gather on their brows. Pausing every now and then to straighten their sweaty backs, I watch in wonder as they repeat the process for another 30 minutes or so, before disappearing for their break.
The factory, which is surrounded by one of the largest tracts of mangrove forest in the country, is divided into two sections, with the river in the middle. Everywhere I go in the factory, it is covered in soot. Even the ground is littered with smaller pieces of charcoal. Visitors are encouraged to walk around and are allowed to touch the logs.
Visitors can check out the few kilns that are not in use. Inside the huge kilns, shaped like a ger (the portable, round tent used by the Mongolians), workers place 1,500 logs vertically, each almost as high asa9-yearold, on a stone.
The entire process takes 32 days with eight days of “cooling period”. Throughout the process, which runs in three stages — major firing, minor firing and cooling period — the fresh logs are fired for up to seven days in the mud-sealed kilns. Later, workers will reduce the fire and the logs are burnt for another 10 days. The exact duration is determined by the amount of moisture left in the logs.
An experienced worker can determine the “readiness” of the charcoal by its smell and the colour of the fumes emitting from the kiln. The finished product or charcoal will now weigh around 10 tonnes.
The Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory is run by the happy-go-lucky Mr Chuah, who inherited the business from his grandfather. Turning it into a popular tourist attraction, Chuah conducts guided tours himself, if you need one, in either English, Mandarin or Cantonese. And the best part? It is FREE!
SMELL THE COFFEE
The smell of freshly-roasted coffee beans welcomes me at the An Tong Coffee Mill, about 16km or a 25-minute drive from thecharcoal factory.
Tucked behind a row of shophouses on the outskirts of Taiping, the An Tong Coffee Mill (also known as Aun Tong Coffee Mill) at Assam Kumbang has been in operation since the early 1920s but it wasn’t until 1933 that the coffee mill began its full operation, supplying coffee to nearby coffee shops and out-of-town customers.
Being a weekday, finding a parking spot is easy. We park right in front of the squat little building, where workers are toiling behind a large pan, slowly roasting the coffee beans over a wood fire.
Smoke billows from the chimney and before long, the unmistakable smell of strong coffee wafts through the air. Inhaling the scent, I walk towards one of the workers, who is feeding an open oven with fresh wood.
As I observe him, another worker pours out the fresh coffee beans — a combination of Arabica and Robusta beans — from the gunny sack before slowly roasting them in a large wok over a slow fire.
As I try to get nearer, the same worker warns me against it as I could accidentally burn myself. Taking a step back, I watch in Charcoal, coffee and camaraderie wonder as more workers pour in the roasted coffee beans into a vat of boiling, thick syrup before spreading it out to dry with a steel spade.
Once the sticky concoction dries up, workers break them into smaller pieces before pouring into a grinder to break into even smaller pieces. Later, it is ground into coarse coffee powder and packed into tins before delivery to local coffee shops.
Unlike the coffee from hipster cafes, An Tong Coffee Mill does its coffee the traditional way: roasting, mixing coffee beans with thick syrup from melted sugar and grinding them. And the result is that familiar taste and aroma of kopi-o (black coffee).
Adjacent to the coffee mill is a single storey bungalow, where the founding father of modern China, Dr Sun Yat-sen and his partner, Chen Cuifen, once stayed during the Chinese Revolutionary Movement in Malaya (1900-1911).
Its wooden facade looks like any other bungalow built during the same period. On its main door, hangs a screen with the words “Chang Chun Pu” written across it, which translated, reads Evergreen Mansion.
Inside, it is as if time has stood forever. There are relics of yesteryear on display. Even the high wooden chair that Sun used is on display.
The front section of the bungalow has been turned into an office for the coffee mill. Towards the end of the mill, there is a small shop selling the factory’s main product, coffee powder!
Last on our list before we continue our journey further north is Trong Leisure Farm, famed for its 28-hectare duck farm, about 20km away from the coffee mill. To get into the farm where the ducks are kept, we hop on to a tractor.
The rather bumpy ride takes less than five minutes. Completely separated from the adult ducks, the adorable ducklings with their yellow fur make loud squeaking sounds whenever they see someone approach with food packs. Before feeding the ducklings, we sit for a 10-minute briefing session to learn more about the farm, the ducks and their breeds. We learn that some ducks are bred for their meat and others, for their feathers, which will be made into pillow stuffing.
We also learn that the farm breeds Peking Duck the same species used to make the Beijing’s delicacies, Beijing Roasted Duck. To encourage the ducks to “exercise”, the owner intentionally sets the feeding area away from the pond where the ducks usually rest under the palm trees.
We are taught how to differentiate between male and female ducks. While the male ducks make low, gutteral quacking voice, the female tends to have a louder and more distinct “quack”. Right after the briefing, we buy some feed for the ducklings. Hundreds of ducklings rush through the coop as soon as I open the food package.
Just as I squat near the fence that separates the ducklings from the bigger ones, some of the hungry ones jump on my hand and start pecking away.
So what it’s like to have so many ducklings pecking at my hand? It feels just like a “fish spa”, only with ducks.
Next, I head out to where the full grown ducks are kept. Just like the ducklings, these roam free in a larger enclosure. It is mid-afternoon and most of the ducks are resting under the palm trees, while some are swimming in the large pond nearby.
While walking around, don’t be surprised if you see duck eggs lying around near the bushes. The workers usually collect the eggs in the morning, which are later sold in the market or made into salted eggs.
Feeling hungry after playing with the ducks, we head over to the farm’s only restaurant for some delicious Chinese food. The dishes are made to order and the must-try item is none other than their signature roasted pipa duck with its crispy skin.