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.

Ipoh – Heritage Walk. Part 2.

Ipoh is famous for its food. Indeed the main attraction for any Malaysian to visit Ipoh would probably be to sample their specialty dishes. Only crazy people like me would go to Ipoh to stroll around taking photos of decaying buildings.

Ipoh’s famous such dishes include Sar Hor Fun (noodles in soup with chicken and prawns), Hor Hee (noodles with fish cakes and fish balls) and Popiah (pancake stuffed with minced prawns, bean sprouts and turnip).

Since my plan to have lunch at the F.M.S. Bar & Restaurant had been thwarted I had to find alternatives.

Ipoh White Coffee

The Soon Fatt Restaurant seemed like a good place to add a few kilos.  In the afternoon, after a brief downpour, I felt I had to sample the famous Ipoh White Coffee. The beans are roasted by a special method and the brew is sieved, mixed with both condensed and evaporated milk and served slightly frothy. It’s delicious although a little too sweet for my taste.

Suitably refreshed I continued on my walking tour of old Ipoh.

When Ipoh was experiencing its ‘Tin Rush’ it became a bit of a Wild East town, full of opium dens, illegal gambling joints, brothels and so on. Wealthy Chinese tycoons would acquire mistresses (concubines) and install them in streets such as this one, known as Second Concubine Lane. Presumably it was not as run down as it is today.

Panglima Lane (Second Concubine Lane).

Ethnic Chinese make up about 70% of Ipoh’s population and their influence is strongly felt.

Chinese New Year, Chinese Dhoby, Pork Floss

Where else in the world would a laundry advertise its services in Malay, English and Chinese and use the Indian word ‘dhoby’?

There are some historic mosques in Ipoh too, notably the Padang Mosque built in 1908, financed by Shaik Adam, a wealthy Tamil businessman, and the Dato’ Panglima Kinta Mosque built in 1898.

Town Padang Mosque & Dato' Panglima Kinta Mosque

The Little India District has a colourful selection of curry houses, jewellers, textile shops and so on.

Little India District

The ‘shophouse’ is very characteristic of Malaysia. The earlier examples have decorative architectural features and for the foreign tourist they are just as much an attraction on the Heritage Walk as the grander, British colonial buildings. Singapore was rapidly bulldozing their old shophouses when they realized that they were a valuable tourism asset and Singapore has since done an excellent job in preserving and restoring what they have left. Penang and Malacca, now UNESCO world heritage sites, have also been busy renovating their old streets. Kuala Lumpur has a number of old shophouses but they tend to be scattered around. Ipoh’s are found in a more compact area but many are in a woeful state and much needs to be done if this heritage is going to be preserved.

Shophouses in need of repair. Art Deco building.

It looks like efforts have been made to preserve the facade of this shophouse below but the advertising hoarding on the money changer next door rather spoils the appearance of the block.

Don't cover your beautiful face!

Another example of where tighter planning controls might be in order is this block in Jalan Sultan Iskandar (formerly Hugh Low Street). The left hand shop has retained its original wooden shutters whereas  the right hand shop has replaced their shutters with aluminium windows which spoil the overall effect. As for the middle shop – what a monstrosity!

What were they thinking?

Incidentally, I had come across the name Hugh Low before in my travels in Malaysia when climbing Mount Kinabalu. Sir Hugh Low was a colonial administrator and the first recorded climber of Mt. Kinabalu in 1851. The highest point on the summit is called Low’s Peak.

It seems the key to ensuring the survival of heritage shophouses is ensuring that they remain occupied and that the owners make sufficient profits to pay for the upkeep of the building or, if not, to receive some government support or subsidies. Preserving traditional crafts and occupations, such as this manufacturer of chicks, is also important in attracting tourists. Chicks, in case you are not familiar with the term, are those rolling bamboo blinds that are an essential accessory to the classic shophouse. Extremely practical, they keep out the rain, provide shade during the heat of the day, and serve as advertising billboards.

There are a lot of chicks in Ipoh!

Arriving in Ipoh with low expectations, I was quite impressed with the place and feel its heritage tourism potential is underrated. Possibly what Ipoh lacks is an anchor attraction to draw in the visitors. If I were a highly paid consultant to Ipoh’s city planners what would I recommend?

  • Give the Majestic Hotel and Railway Station the Raffles treatment, i.e. upgrade the hotel to top-notch 5 star status. This might be tricky with a busy railway station downstairs but I am sure it could be achieved (if necessary by building a modern railway station a few hundred meters down the track and leaving the old one to become part of the hotel).
  • Vacate the neighbouring Town Hall and High Court buildings and make them part of the same hotel complex. The Town Hall would make excellent ballroom/conference rooms for the hotel or an up market retail/dining mall. The High Court could be converted to a casino, luxury spa or extra hotel rooms.
  • Hold annual events to put Ipoh on the international map. For example, since Ipoh is already famous for its food, it could hold a month long Malaysian street food festival. Ipoh White Coffee and Cameron Highlands teas could form part of the marketing mix.
  • Ipoh is said to produce some of the best pomelos. Promote these and other Malaysian fruits in an annual fruit festival. Thailand has done a great job in promoting its tropical fruits as a tourist attraction. Malaysia could surely do as well.
  • Apply for UNESCO world heritage status for Ipoh Old Town. It might not be successful but the the application process itself would help identify what needs doing.

No charge for the consultancy!

Reflections of Ipoh.