History and heritage abound in the former mining town of Ipoh, Perak. David Bowden discovers its colonial and culinary charms.
In the late 19th century, Ipoh garnered the attention of the outside world with the discovery of tin. Tin was important then for plating iron cans to preserve food. In 1884, tin was discovered in Ipoh and the Kinta Valley and soon miners were sluicing the precious metal from alluvial deposits located in the Kinta River and it was tin that created astounding personal wealth for many residents.
Now Perak’s capital, Ipoh is dissected by the Kinta Valley and surrounded by rounded, limestone hills that are covered in unusual and unique plants. Some of the caves at the base of these hills are used as places of worship and their colourful adornments are tourist attractions too.
For many, Ipoh is just a place to pass through while heading north, but it’s well worth a deviation into or making a dedicated weekend trip. Central Ipoh reveals several fascinating aspects of the city’s past and of the wealth that was generated here. With 2012 being Visit Perak Year, there should be many events on the tourism calendar to entice visitors to the state and its capital city.
Sapping into History
While named after the local Ipoh tree whose sap is used by the native Orang Asli to make their poisonous hunting darts, it was a metal that ensured the city gained an entry in Malaysian history books (an Ipoh tree is located in front of the train station). The world’s richest alluvial tin deposits were discovered and mined in and around Ipoh and much of the land, especially around Batu Gajah to the south of the city, is pitted with lakes that remain after the tin was extracted.
The Lost World of Tambun theme park on the outskirts of Ipoh has a display on tin mining. Visitors to the water park can see and participate in alluvial tin mining activities just as the original miners would have done. Tin Valley, within the park, has a dulang washing activity (panning) where visitors can use an old pan to separate water and mud from the heavier tin ore. Limestone caves in the surrounding hills now house Buddhists and Hindu shrines. Sam Poh Tong, just south of Ipoh, is the biggest cave temple in the district and an essential tourist stop is to explore the colourful temples and buy some pomelos from one of the many stalls that line the old main road into the city.
Station to Station
The railway station is the best place to start to explore historic Ipoh. Ipoh Train Station is a grand building that is mentioned in the history books as the “Taj Mahal” of northern Malaysia although I have never actually heard anyone refer to it as this. Built in 1917, this grand structure combines Moghul architecture with reasonably sympathetic embellishments that have been progressively added.
Things are changing with hoarding now around the former gardens as well as the upper floors of the station. The current closure to parts of the building gives no indication as to what is going to happen to this landmark which must surely have heritage protection.
Having stood on the expansive yellow and blood-red tiles of the hotel verandah, it was possible to imagine in the old days smart travellers lazing on deep rattan planters’ lounges, beneath slowly rotating ceiling fans, sipping gin and tonics while contemplating the days when the British Empire covered more of a global atlas than it does today.
The scene here in the 1930’s when train travel was the main mode of transportation across the peninsula must have been memorable. No doubt, the station was a hive of activity as the major hub of the region and would have been brimming with travellers.
Double tracking of the rail line to Ipoh and now further northward has resulted in the modernisation of the station’s interior but the façade has been preserved and remains intact – awaiting that makeover.
Ipoh's Heritage Trail
With some luck, you may be able to pick up from the front desk of your hotel a brochure published by the Perak Heritage Society on the 24 historic sights of Ipoh. This will guide you on a walking trail around the inner heart of Ipoh. In front of the train station are the gardens of Medan Stesen and on the other side of the road is the stately all-white Town Hall with its colonial architecture.
The Royal Ipoh Club is located just past the High Court on Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab. Facing the padang, the sport fields and the black-and-white Tudor-style clubhouse resemble Kuala Lumpur’s Royal Selangor Club on the padang in the capital.
Opposite the Royal Ipoh Club, on Jalan S. P. Seenivasagam is the imposing three-storey St Michaels Institution; an historical building of national significance. The school, established by the Lasallean Brothers in 1912, features Neo-Gothic architecture of decorated gables and arched verandahs along the front of the building.
Next door is Masjid India Ipoh painted in forest green and stark white trim. Nearby is the old FMS Bar painted in a vivid but slowly fading purple colour. Its future also looks uncertain and remains empty at the present moment.
Continue along the eastern perimeter of the padang towards the stately, all-white HSBC building with its imposing Grecian columns.
It almost goes without saying that one of the other great reasons to travel to Ipoh is to enjoy some delicious local food. The best known local delicacies are Ipoh ngah choy kai (chicken and bean sprouts) and sar hor fun (noodles).
The successful Malaysian kopitiam concept, Old Town Coffee has its origins in Ipoh and for those who like their coffee rich and creamy and accompanied by kaya toast; this is the place. Old Town was first roasted in Ipoh’s White Café and comprises Robusta, Arabica and Liberica beans that are blended with 10% caramel and the name is derived from white – signifying purity.
There are a handful of three-star hotels in Ipoh with facilities that will serve the purpose of providing comfortable and affordable accommodation. Book into Tower Regency Hotel or the Excelsior Hotel.
For something more memorable, Indulgence Restaurant and Living is the place to visit for those looking for unique boutique accommodation, innovative cuisine and some smart wines.
For another indulgent experience, check into The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat – a 5-star sanctuary consisting of 25 luxury villas offering holistic wellness and spa experiences, unequalled hospitality and distinctive Asian grace. Located only 15 minutes from Ipoh, The Banjaran is situated on a 16.59 acre valley fringing a cluster of towering limestone hills and features natural caves, pristine jungle, waterfalls and geothermal hot springs. The Banjaran is a sanctuary for the weary and those who seek tranquility. Designed for short term stays, the primary focus is on health, relaxation and renewal.
Getting There: Most visitors will drive to Ipoh via the North South Highway with the Simpang Pulai being the first of two exits into Ipoh. Ipoh is 200km or two hour’s drive north of Kuala Lumpur. For those who want to use public transport, new express trains (ETS) do the same journey and take about the same time. They do this by hitting speeds of up to 150km/ hour on some sections of the journey. A pleasant day’s outing is to catch an early morning train to Ipoh, walk the historic centre and return to Kuala Lumpur in the early evening (or better still stay and dine in Ipoh). Contacts: Perak Tourism (www.peraktourism.com.my), Tower Regency Hotel (05.208 6888, www.towerregency.com.my), Indulgence Restaurant and Living (05.225 7051, www.indulgencerestaurant.com), Perak Heritage Society www.perakheritage. wordpress.com), The Banjaran www.thebanjaran.com, 05.210 7777) and the Lost World of Tambun (T: 05.542-8888, www.sunwaylostworldoftambun).
Source: The Expat March 2012
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This article has been edited for ExpatGomalaysia.com