A Castle in the Jungle


By Harold Stephens

Editors note: The following story about Kelley’s Castle is taken from the chapter “The Search for Lost Cities” in Harold Stephens’ book “Return to Adventure Southeast Asia.” It is interesting to note that one of the location scenes for the recent movie “Anna and the King of Siam” was Kelley’s Castle. The castle today is on travel brochures and government tourist maps. The castle, however, is not like it was when our author discovered it thirty years ago.

In time, the jungle destroys but it can also protect. Lost in its midst, a city may become devastated, but if it goes untouched by man, its ruins also becomes preserved. Some years ago while researching a book I was writing on Malaysia, I read in some obscure volume about a Scotsman named Kellie-Smith who had started building a European-style castle on his estate south of Ipoh. He was a rubber planter, and very wealthy. What sort of mad idea was this—a European castle in the Malay jungle? I decided to try to locate the castle, if there was one. I had a rough idea where to look, but the area was no longer a rubber plantation. It had returned to jungle.

On the afternoon of the second day I saw the topmost parts of ramparts on the opposite bank of a muddy river. I crossed the river by a swinging bridge I found upstream and followed an old trail through the jungle to the ruins. The first sight was disappointing. A gate or guardhouse of sorts had collapsed into a heap of rubble. I had to push aside vines and cobwebs to pass. It was eerie, like stepping on an unknown grave. Beyond the gateway the castle unfolded before me, an unbelievable sight. A spacious courtyard was flanked by arches with parts of the wall and gateways lifted up from their foundations. Trees with trailing vines and creepers grew wildly in the garden. I had to look hard to see the walls of the castle before me, stretching skyward.

Photographer Joe Shaffer walks through the ruin

I worked my way to the building. Within the massive stone structure there were passageways, dining halls and salons. One stairway led down into darkened cellars, another to more chambers above. Through windows, some twelve meters above ground, the arms and fingers of the jungle were reaching out, grabbing, taking root with fan-like tentacles, and spreading over the thin fabric of the brick and plaster walls. The castle stood like a minor Angkor Wat, and, like at Angkor Wat, gone too were the people. Who was this Kellie-Smith? What happened to him?

Stephens checks the tangled vegetation

I pieced together the story of Kellie-Smith with the help of an old Tamil rubber tapper who had once worked for the Scotsman. It seems that Kellie-Smith began building his brainchild at the turn of the century. His rubber plantation was vast and spread along both banks of the Kinta River.

For the construction of his castle, he brought in craftsmen from India and stonemasons from as far as Italy. His castle was destined to be one of the finest buildings in all the land, but then came World War One. Kellie-Smith returned to Britain, to fight for his country. He never returned to Malaya. The castle, like all his estate, fell into ruin and was soon forgotten. The jungle reclaimed its right.

Kellie-Smith was a very wealthy man, but also a generous and kind man. He treated his workers well. A Hindu shrine stands nearby, erected in his memory by the plantation workers. Amongst the figures of animals and gods, stands William Kellie-Smith in a white suit and topee, their former plantation master. 

When the castle was first discovered even the hallways were overgrown and impassable.

Over the years I returned many times to the castle, and each time I saw the changes, more damaging than what forests can do. A few years after I discovered the castle, a tin mine moved into the area, cut down the forest and scarred the earth with deep pits and chasms. Tin miners and tourists discovered the ruin, and now there appeared on the walls in big letters KILLROY WAS HERE and MARY LOVES JOHNNY in half a dozen languages. Graffiti had come to Kellie’s.

Trees and vines had grown 40 feet high and poked into all the windows when the author first discovered the castle.

Finally, the tin was gone, the mine closed, and someone discovered that Kellie’s Castle would make a fine tourist attraction. A permanent bridge was built to span the river. Trees were cut down, lawns and flower gardens planted, and Kellie’s Castle was put on the tourist map. The once great castle, having nearly been devoured by the jungle, now looked like an unfinished red brick warehouse. At stands in front of the bridge hucksters sell Pepsi, postcards and brass statues of Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. A park ranger behind a booth collects fees to cross over the bridge.

Do you need a guide?” he asked.

I declined, thanked him, and said, “I wish someone had asked me that 30 years ago.”

Thirty years ago. No can,” he said. “No bridge 30 years ago.”

I smiled and didn’t reply. There was no use trying to explain.

Little of the original castle remains today.