Discovering Ipoh's Relaxed Charms
Malaysia’s third-largest city, Ipoh – a former tin mining town set among jungle-coated limestone hills – is growing in popularity as a holiday destination. It has much that will interest senior travellers, with its colonial heritage, mining history, relaxed atmosphere and the natural beauty of the hills that surround it.
Ipoh is conveniently located on the main road between the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the island of Penang to the northwest. It’s around 200 km north of Kuala Lumpur and is easy to reach by road, rail or air. Its population of more than 750 thousand is mainly of Chinese descent, a fact reflected in its Buddhist temples, its rows of old Chinese-style shophouses and its cuisine.
Ipoh has a warm-hearted approach towards older visitors, a fact reflected in its growing reputation as a city to retire to, for people from both Asia and further afield.
The Kinta River divides central Ipoh into two: the old town to the west and the new town to the east. Once a small village in the state of Perak, Ipoh saw its fortunes soar during British rule in the 1880s when huge deposits of tin were discovered in the area. The tin boom lasted for decades, sparking a colonial building flurry and attracting large numbers of migrant workers from China.
Ipoh old town
Many colonial buildings in Ipoh old town from the 19th and early 20th centuries have been preserved and are still used today. Visitors with an interest in history will find them absorbing.
Ipoh's grand, white railway station was completed in 1917. It’s an excellent example of British colonial architecture, with its central dome, arches and colonnades. It still serves as the city’s main railway station today and its waiting rooms are invariably crowded with people waiting for trains to Kuala Lumpur or Penang. Some of the station’s grandeur has faded over the years but it remains a fine old building.
Across the way from the station is the Town Hall, an impressive building completed in 1916. Visitors from India may be interested to know that the Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore gave a speech to Perak’s school teachers here in the 1930s.
The distinctive Birch Memorial Clock Tower was built in 1909 in memory of James Birch, the first British Resident in Perak state. He was murdered in 1875 by supporters of a local chief, Maharajalela. It includes four panels illustrating the growth of civilisation as the British saw it, and four figures representing the virtues of British rule: justice, loyalty, patience and fortitude.
Probably the largest colonial building in Ipoh still in use today is a school, St Michael’s Institution. Built in 1912, this Roman Catholic boys’ school has a superb façade of arches, colonnades and decorated gables that runs its entire length. It’s open to the public.
A church with an unusual history is the red brick Anglican Church of St John the Divine, built in 1912. During the Japanese occupation of Ipoh from 1942 to 1945, it was converted into a noodle factory.
The Town Padang Mosque, built by Indian workers in 1908 in Moghul style, reflects another aspect of Ipoh’s early history.
Other impressive colonial buildings are the Ipoh High Court, near the railway station, and the Tudor-style Royal Ipoh Club, a bastion of colonial rule until independence in 1957.
Perhaps the best way to explore Ipoh old town is to print a heritage trail map and set out on foot, taking whichever direction you like. The map should also be available at the Ipoh Tourist Information Centre.
In addition to the many colonial buildings, the trail takes you past narrow lanes and old shops. The walk can take a couple of hours; because of Malaysia’s tropical heat, it’s best to tackle it in the early morning or late afternoon. Part of the fun is stopping at a restaurant or coffee shop for a drink and snack along the way. Watch out too for the entertaining murals painted on the walls of some buildings.
Two museums housed in restored buildings are worth a visit. Han Chin Pet Soo museum chronicles the lives of Chinese tin miners in Ipoh’s early days. Ho Yan Hor museum is devoted to a history of a brand of Chinese herbal tea that comes from Ipoh.
Among the liveliest places in the old town is Concubine Lane (so named because powerful men are said to have kept their mistresses here during the tin boom days).
The area has been extensively renovated with visitors in mind and is now a popular place to shop and eat. Many old buildings have been restored, and some now serve as shops.
Ipoh’s limestone caves
The limestone hills that surround Ipoh contain many caves that make for interesting visits. Sadly, some of the hills are being quarried for cement and marble, leaving ugly scars on the landscape. But many remain, some with large caves in which temples have been built.
The best of these caves can be explored easily on foot, with no serious climbing involved.
The Kek Lok Tong complex has an altar and an array of Buddhist figures, as well as areas of stalactites, but the main attraction is the garden beyond the far end of the cave. It has steep limestone cliffs on two sides, large-leaved tropical plants, two lakes and a peaceful feel.
Sam Poh Tong is a cave temple about 5 km south of Ipoh. It’s believed to be Malaysia’s largest cave temple. Buddhist statues stand among the stalactites and stalagmites.
Perak Tong cave temple features a 13 m tall statue of a seated Buddha, flanked by various deities. Stairs lead from the cave to the top of the hill, which affords views of the surrounding countryside.
Gua Tempurung is a cave about 24 km south of Ipoh. It’s one of the longest in West Malaysia, stretching for around 3 km long, with a river running through part of it. Its stalactites and stalagmites, rock formations and large domes make it a popular drawcard.
Ipoh is famous among Malaysians for its cuisine. Much of it reflects the city’s Chinese roots, with a tasty range of noodle and rice dishes on offer. If the city has a signature dish, it’s probably bean sprout chicken. Excellent Indian and Malay food is also widely available, as one would expect in this multi-cultural country.
Ipoh is also known for its desserts, including caramel custard and egg tarts, and its traditional Chinese biscuits. Its white coffee is popular too, although you’ll need a sweet tooth; the coffee beans are roasted with palm oil margarine and served with condensed milk.
Ipoh has a wide range of hotels, from budget to top-end. Visitors who want to pamper themselves can stay at the luxury Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, a spa resort set among steep, rocky outcrops that is considered one of Malaysia’s best hotels.
Ipoh is the gateway to the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s largest hill resort, about 90 km away by road. The two can easily be combined in a single trip.
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