Ipoh Revisited

I was in Ipoh last week to explore a few sights which I had missed on previous trips.

Han Chin Pet Soo

The first stop was Han Chin Pet Soo, an interesting exhibition in the beautifully restored Hakka Miner’s Club building at No.3 Jalan Bijeh Timah. All sorts of mischievous comings and goings took place in this club during the heydays of Ipoh’s tin boom. Miners spent their spare cash and free time on the ‘Four Evils’; gambling, opium, prostitutes and secret societies (triads), all of which are described in some detail at Han Chin Pet Soo. I have posted a full write-up on my Malaysia Traveller website.

Big Johns Music Shack, Ipoh
Big Johns Music Shack, Second Concubine Lane, Ipoh

The narrow alley opposite Han Chin Pet Soo is Panglima Lane, or Second Concubine Lane which I have written about before on this blog. Since my first visit in 2011, some of the crumbling shophouses have collapsed completely but I was pleased to see that there has been some effort to regenerate the street, including a new retro-style bar called Big John’s Music Shack which I gather has been opened by a Brit – good for him!

Plan B, Ipoh

Talking of regeneration, around the corner at No.75 Jalan Panglima, is an architectural innovation where the designers have incorporated remnants of ruined and overgrown shophouses into a stylish modern development housing a restaurant, some arty and other shops (one even sells made-in-Ipoh handicrafts) and a cosy barbers. The restaurant (if not the whole development)  is called Plan B and describes itself as ‘edgy Aussie meets NY deli’.

FMS Bar & Restaurant, Ipoh
FMS Bar & Restaurant – Still Closed After All These Years

Next, I strolled past the FMS Bar & Restaurant  to see if there has been any progress in reopening this famous old watering hole since my last visit. Unfortunately there hasn’t. Looks like I’m never going to be able to enjoy a stengah in this place.

IpohRailwayStation
The former Majestic Station Hotel above Ipoh Station is reflected in the Great War Memorial.

In a similar vein, I walked along to Ipoh’s beautiful railway station to see what, if anything, is happening with the former Majestic Station Hotel premises which closed down just after my first visit in 2011. Again there doesn’t seem to have been any progress in finding a new role for the upper floor of this iconic building.

Gunung Lang Recreational Park

Five minutes drive away, but still within city limits, is the attractive Gunung Lang Recreational Park. The main attraction here is a boat ride to see the landscaped gardens across the lake. Since there was a big queue for the boat (very unusual to see crowds in a Malaysian park in the heat of the day) I decided to save that pleasure for another time and I watched people feeding the huge freshwater turtles instead.

Loong Thow Ngau Temple, Ipoh
Loong Thow Ngau Temple, Gunung Lang, Ipoh

Next door to the park, builders were adding the finishing touches to the newly refurbished Loong Thow Ngau Temple which looks as though it might back onto a cave under Gunung Lang.

Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh
Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh
Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh
Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh

While looking for another cave at Gunung Lang, I came across this Hindu temple called Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar at Jalan Lang.

Japanese Garden, Ipoh
Japanese Garden, Ipoh (now looking forlorn).

I had been meaning for some time to visit Ipoh’s Japanese Garden on Jalan Raja Dihilir. It seems I left it too late because it is now padlocked and neglected with its lawns overgrown and koi ponds drained of water. It belongs to the Perak Turf Club who were quoted in the press last year as saying they have not decided what to do with it. Given its prime location, it would not be surprising if it is earmarked for redevelopment.

Gua Tambun Cave Paintings
Gua Tambun Cave Paintings

Next, after some effort, I managed to locate the Gua Tambun Cave Paintings. This Neolithic rock art site is not well publicised but is quite impressive if you like that sort of thing. You can read details and find directions on my Malaysia Traveller website.

Go Chin Pomelo Nature Park

Ipoh is famous for its pomelos and in the suburb of Tambun I popped into the Go Chin Pomelo Nature Park where I was invited to look around their orchard and to sample a few varieties in the shop. The local pomelos are prized for their sweetness but I purchased the sourer Thai-style pomelo which is more to my taste. I also bought star fruit and chikoos (sapodilla).

Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh
Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

My final stop was the Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, an extraordinary Buddhist Temple with a giant statue of Buddha gazing out from an opening on the eighth floor of a giant pagoda hidden away in a secluded valley.

Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh
The Interior of the Pagoda at Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

Since this was quite an interesting place I might write about this in more detail in a later blog.

The climb up and down the pagoda concluded a busy and tiring day, which also included a 500km round trip drive. There’s a lot to see in Ipoh. I’ll have to go again soon.

FMS Bar & Restaurant, Ipoh

When I visited Ipoh back in 2011, I had been hoping to have a drink and lunch in the famous F.M.S. Bar & Restaurant, a popular watering hole where miners and planters used to go for their stengahs in the days of the Federated Malay States.

The author Noel Barber mentioned the FMS Bar in his book, The War of the Running Dogs:

“The FMS Bar in Ipoh, which had been run by the same family for three generations, was unlike any other in Malaya. Not far from the station, a firm favourite with the planters and miners, it had the swing doors of a Western movie, an L-shaped bar with a big fridge behind it, a Victorian pendulum clock on the wall, and an abacus rattling at one end of the bar. At the far end of the room, three curtained cubicles awaited those who wanted dinner.”

ipoh 8 jan 11 056ipoh 8 jan 11 062

Unfortunately it was closed and I later learned that it had shut its doors in March 2008 for renovations which seemed to be taking some time.

Recently I returned to Ipoh. Surely the renovations must be finished now, I thought. It has been 5 years since they started.

FMS Bar Ipoh, April 2013

There has been some progress – a new coat of paint, a new colour scheme and a new roof.

FMS Bar, Ipoh as at April 2013

But the doors remain firmly closed and padlocked and there is no sign of life inside. Either the owners have employed the world’s slowest contractors or they are hesitating about whether to reopen or not.

Update – September 2017

I have been back to Ipoh a few times since I wrote the above article in 2013 and each time I check on the FMS Bar, still hoping to quaff a chilled Tiger at this historic site.

This is how the place looked in February 2015:

Feb2015

Almost no change since 2013. And this is how it looked last month, August 2017:

Aug2017

It is starting to fall into disrepair again. Why did the owners spend all that money on renovation and then do nothing with it? Perhaps someone is waiting until the neighbouring shops become vacant and then the whole area will be redeveloped.

The Malaysian government should introduce a “Use it or Lose it” policy for heritage properties like these, i.e. the owner be given a fixed period, say 3 years, to renovate and use the property or else it would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to the owner, and the new owner then given another 3 years to ‘use it or lose it’.

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.