Ipoh – Heritage Walk. Part 1.

When you step off the train in Ipoh you are already standing in the city’s number one landmark, the magnificent neo-classical Ipoh Railway Station, completed in 1917. This building, which also contains the Majestic Hotel, was designed by that industrious and talented government architect,  A B Hubback who planned many of Malaysia’s other famous old buildings from that era.

Ipoh's Railway Station 

Taking advantage of KTM’s smart new Korean-built electric train service, I completed the 200 km trip from Kuala Lumpur in 2 hours and 17 minutes for a fare of RM30 each way. The train was punctual, the air-conditioning was set at a comfortable temperature, the movie (Cinderella Story) had the volume down low so I had no complaints at all.  And the guy who cleaned the toilets kept them in gleaming condition so he deserves a pat on the back.

The New KL/Ipoh Train

Ipoh is a compact city and I was able to see many of its attractions within walking distance of the station.

I began by taking the ancient caged lift outside the station entrance up to the lobby of the Majestic Hotel which sits above the station. This hotel has seen better days. Once grand, it now offers rooms at just RM75 per night including breakfast. Its colour brochure boasts of a bar with a snooker table but I was told by the receptionist that they do not serve beer any more.  Still, I was able to take in the view from the hotel’s massive verandah and pick up a couple of excellent maps of Ipoh’s Heritage Trail published by Kinta Heritage.

The Majestic's rooms open out onto this enormous verandah.

Just in front of the station is a small park containing an example of the Ipoh tree after which the city was named. The tree, which looks harmless enough, apparently contains a poisonous sap used for making deadly blowpipe arrows.

The Ipoh Tree

Somewhat surprisingly, the 132 year old book mentioned on the plaque, ‘Perak and the Malays’, is still in stock on Amazon’s website in case you want to get hold of a copy.

Right across the street from the station are two other splendid colonial piles, The Town Hall and Old Post Office building and the High Court. The Town Hall was designed by, yes, our old friend A B Hubback. I believe this still serves as the City Hall although there is some renovation going on at present.

Town Hall and Old Post Office

The High Court appears to be one the larger employers in town as every other office seems to belong to a lawyer.

Ipoh's High Court

Just behind the Town hall is a clock tower memorial to J W W Birch, the first British Resident of Perak. By all accounts he was rather lacking in inter-personal skills and his bull-in-a-china-shop approach did not win admirers among his Malay hosts. Eventually he was stabbed to death in a riverside bath-house in 1875.

Birch Memorial and detail from one of the side panels.

A number of the suspected instigators of this assassination were hanged including one of the chiefs, Maharajah Lela. However, the Malaysians have since got their own back by naming a street after him, just down the road from the Birch Memorial.

He went that way.

By this time I was really thirsty from traipsing round in the midday Malaysian heat. There must be somewhere around here to get a drink! Ah, this place looks promising.

Wrong sort of bar!

But no, it’s not that kind of bar. This one is the legal kind.

Pressing on, I passed a slightly unusual tourist attraction – a multi-storey car park. It was the first one to be built in Malaysia, in 1960. It looks rather quaint and I could imagine the little Austin A40s and Morris Oxfords that used to struggle up its narrow ramp. Parking is free.

Malaysia's first multi-storey car park.

Next I passed another of those bastions of colonial life for the British in Asia, the Club. This mock Tudor building occupies a prime spot overlooking the padang. No doubt the Royal Ipoh Club still includes many of the city’s elite among its members but it is open to non-members too and reasonably priced accommodation is available for those looking for an alternative to a hotel.

Ipoh Club

Continuing up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (formerly Club Road) you reach St. John’s Church which dates back to 1912. A fairly plain looking exterior and simple whitewashed interior, you could think you were in England. Only the ceiling fans give a clue that this is the tropics. The church apparently served as a noodle factory for the Japanese occupiers during WWII.

Church of St. John The Divine

Another sweaty five minute walk brought me to the small Darul Ridzuan Museum. Nothing much to right home about. A mixed bag of exhibits covering history, local industries, flora and fauna and so on. Downstairs the showcase explanations were written in Bahasa only so not very informative for foreign visitors. At least entrance was free and the place was air-conditioned and a welcome respite from the blazing heat outside.

Darul Ridzuan Museum

Now I was hungry and thirsty.  I was looking forward to reaching the F.M.S. Bar & Restaurant, said to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia, housed in a building which makes even KL’s famous old Coliseum Restaurant look modern. Passing the impressive St. Michael’s School on the way, I cut across the grass of the padang only to find that the F.M.S. was undergoing some serious renovation and clearly would not be serving lunch for some time.

St. Michael's Institution & FMS Restaurant

Finding myself in the financial heart of Ipoh, I was pleased to see some grand old bank buildings in fine condition. Top of the pile of course is the imposing Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, built in 1931.

HSBC Ipoh

The original banking hall has been substantially altered (vandalized?) to make way for automated banking terminals and such like but I suppose we should be grateful that the exterior has remained intact. The Bank is not known for putting sentimentality about its buildings ahead of shareholders’ returns.

The former HSBC subsidiary, Mercantile Bank’s Ipoh branch building is also in pristine condition although it is now occupied by a beauty products retailer. This building is the same age as HSBC’s but was built in more of an Art Deco style.

Former Mercantile Bank's Ipoh Office

Across the street,  Chartered Bank’s old office building, which was completed in 1924, is still in use by Standard Chartered and looking good.

StanChart's Prestigious Ipoh Building

Facing Stan Chart is the headquarters of the former Straits Trading, built in 1907. This company used to buy up locally mined tin ore and sell it internationally. It was the boom in tin mining that powered Ipoh’s rapid growth and prosperity around the beginning of the 20th century. The Straits Trading Building is now occupied by OCBC Bank.

Straits Trading Building (OCBC)

With all these banks around you would think that the National Union of Bank Employees would be more busy.

No 'uge Bonuses 'ere!

By now I was dying of thirst and hunger. See how I got on in Part 2 of the Heritage Walk.

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5 Responses to Ipoh – Heritage Walk. Part 1.

  1. I heard that the Majestic Hotel has closed. Not clear if there are any plans to reopen the place.

  2. paulpoh says:

    This is one of Ipoh iconic building, It will be a pity if the Owner just let it remain closed.

  3. Pingback: Ipoh Revisited | The Thrifty Traveller

  4. Dann Walker in Sydney, Australia says:

    Thank you for an entertaining, interesting and above all an intelligent review of the attractions of Ipoh’s Old Town.

    A common misconception about Ipoh today (with some justification) is that it wants to be another Penang but doesn’t know how to go about it. Rather, I believe it has taken note of some of the best things ABOUT Penang, and tried to incorporate them into its city planning, with mixed success, in a low key way.

    For this reason Ipoh is far more a place for the older, discerning, history- and culture-oriented tourist and not the mainstream mobs, who will be happier in Penang or Kuala Lumpur.

    I first saw Ipoh in 1974 and finally returned (the first of my several visits) in 2015. Much you saw and wrote about is still there, but there have been some changes, most overall to the good but a few not exactly for the better.

    The Majestic Hotel at the Ipoh Railway Station and that sad old icon of colonial times, the FMS Bar & Restaurant, are still closed. I stayed at the Majestic 44 years ago and even then found is less than impressive, although beer and a limited range of stronger juices were then available. Ditto the FMS where I had a memorable lunch way back then, now alas! perhaps never to be repeated as the building today is in exactly the same state as your 2011 photo.

    The city’s odl banks are all still there in the same buildings and all doing great business, but being banks they would be, woudn’t they?

    When you visited the nearby Concubine Lane (Google Maps inexplicably list this as Lorong Panglima which may mislead some) was not particularly active but then underwent a facelift and hit its stride in 2015-2016. All has gone downhill a bit since then. An excellent bar (run by a genial English gentleman) at the eastern end and a delightful European bakery at the western end have closed. Many shops in the lane now offer $2 range souvenirs and tourist tat. Best avoided on weekends as mobs of domestic visitors and mainland Chinese tourists, all extremely pushy but otherwise genial and friendly, infest the place. Good food abounds in the many small eating-places on the nearby streets, also the Sinhalese (“Sin”) Bar, a venerable institution dating to 1931 and usually full of pleasant Indian patrons. Very little Western food to be found in the ‘OT’ – one or two cafes near the Padang offer passable food but their kitchens are disasters and service is so poor, in the end I’ve just walked out of both with my stomach empty. For European food, the best is usually found in the lunch and dinner buffets at the big hotels. If you like the local (predominantly Chinese but many good choices in Indian and Malay) cuisines, it’s your place.

    The best times to do the heritage walk you have written about so well, are early in the day on weekdays, before the heat gets to brain-grilling levels (about noon) and when both the Old Town and New Town are not really crowded. Also during the week – few tour buses are around then.

    I will now go on to your second article and continue my tour with you…

    A common misconception about Ipoh today (with some justification) is that it wants to be another Penang but doesn’t know how to go about it. Rather, I believe it has taken note of some of the best things ABOUT Penang, and tried to incorporate them into its city planning, with mixed success, in a low key way.

    For this reason Ipoh is far more a place for the older, discerning, history- and culture-oriented tourist and not the mainstream mobs, who will be happier in Penang or Kuala Lumpur.

    I first saw Ipoh in 1974 and finally returned (the first of my several visits) in 2015. Much you saw and wrote about is still there, but there have been some changes, most overall to the good but a few not exactly for the better.

    The Majestic Hotel at the Ipoh Railway Station and that sad old icon of colonial times, the FMS Bar & Restaurant, are still closed. I stayed at the Majestic 44 years ago and even then found is less than impressive, although beer and a limited range of stronger juices were then available. Ditto the FMS where I had a memorable lunch way back then, now alas! perhaps never to be repeated as the building today is in exactly the same state as your 2011 photo.

    The city’s odl banks are all still there in the same buildings and all doing great business, but being banks they would be, woudn’t they?

    When you visited the nearby Concubine Lane (Google Maps inexplicably list this as Lorong Panglima which may mislead some) was not particularly active but then underwent a facelift and hit its stride in 2015-2016. All has gone downhill a bit since then. An excellent bar (run by a genial English gentleman) at the eastern end and a delightful European bakery at the western end have closed. Many shops in the lane now offer $2 range souvenirs and tourist tat. Best avoided on weekends as mobs of domestic visitors and mainland Chinese tourists, all extremely pushy but otherwise genial and friendly, infest the place. Good food abounds in the many small eating-places on the nearby streets, also the Sinhalese (“Sin”) Bar, a venerable institution dating to 1931 and usually full of pleasant Indian patrons. Very little Western food to be found in the ‘OT’ – one or two cafes near the Padang offer passable food but their kitchens are disasters and service is so poor, in the end I’ve just walked out of both with my stomach empty. For European food, the best is usually found in the lunch and dinner buffets at the big hotels. If you like the local (predominantly Chinese but many good choices in Indian and Malay) cuisines, it’s your place.

    The best times to do the heritage walk you have written about so well, are early in the day on weekdays, before the heat gets to brain-grilling levels (about noon) and when both the Old Town and New Town are not really crowded. Also during the week – few tour buses are around then.

    I will now go on to your second article and continue my tour with you…

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