Ipoh is a small town a few hours north of KL surrounded by beautiful karsts (smallish, sheer mountains jutting out of the ground) similar to those found in southern Thailand. We’ve passed through the city on a previous trip to Malaysia but didn’t make time to stop until this visit.
Hitch hiking from Penang was pretty straightforward, our second lift was actually an empty coach which, after dropping a load of Japanese tourists off in Langkawai, was heading back to KL. The driver was great, we chatted and joked all the way. He gave us water, sweets and even beer (it’s not good to drink and drive apparently…).
Our couchsurfing host for Ipoh lived about 12 km from the city meaning we had to travel in each day although this wasn’t a problem at all as she lived by a main road so we were able to easily hitch and because of this we had some great experiences…
I’d found a self guided walking tour of the city so that was our plan for the day. However, our second lift into town decided he’d become our tour guide for the morning instead…
Initially we’d only asked for a lift to town but when he found that we hadn’t yet visited the famous Chinese cave temples he insisted on taking us there, dropping us off for a look around and picking us up later. Why not?
The temples were beautiful; each formed the entrance to a cave within which were shrines.
A sign within one of the temples directed us to the turtle shrine which we were keen to see. Unfortunately we were slightly disappointed by what we saw. The signs directed us through a tunnel in the rock, 50 meters or so up the tunnel opened out to a courtyard, surrounded by towering cliffs. Inside was another spectacular temple, a monastery I think.
In front of this building was a caged off area which, on closer inspection, was the home to dozens of turtles. One thing we have noticed in Asia is that animal welfare is not a priority and this was another horrendous example. Firstly, there were far far too many animal in the space; an area of maybe 20m square, half of which was taken up by a pool. This may not have been too bad if the animals used all of this space but because of the Malay heat the majority of the turtles were in the pool, shoulder to shoulder as such.
The pool itself was brown, speckled with rubbish and what looked like a section of wire fence poked out of the middle. I hate seeing animals in this way – especially when it would be so easy to clean up – so after a minute I couldn’t look any longer and we left.
Each of the temples in this area were pretty similar; inside one however we found a staircase. No idea where it went but we followed it up and up and up until we arrived at another cave high up in the katst which had been turned into a viewing platform. It looked out away from the city, over small houses and fields.
We’d been told Ipoh was also known as San Seng which, in Cantonese, means ‘city surrounded by mountains’. From this perspective it was easy to see where this name had come from.
Within the temples themselves the walls were often painted and concreted smooth. Not the most attractive but this did form a natural canvas for artists to work upon. Some of the paintings were really spectacular. None of them seemed planned, it felt like an artist had simply came in and chosen his spot and painted. The result was a bit of a mismatch of styles and no real theme. Buddha stood next to images of flowers or fish; while scenes from Chinese mythology were depicted next to prayer or sacred word.
We expected to just be dropped off in the centre but as we were chatting his asked us about Ipoh Old Town coffee and whether we had tried it. When we said we hadn’t he insisted on taking us to the original Old Town shop. In Malaysia ‘Old Town’ is a premium coffee brand, similar to Starbucks and a coffee here costs 5 times what it would in a normal restaurant or cafe so we didn’t really know what to expect.
As it turns out the original shop is nothing like the branded coffee shops we’d seen in other towns; here the coffee was the same 30p it is in other restaurants but much better (according to Jake!). Our lift treated us to coffee (tea for me) 3 hot custard tarts fresh out of the oven, dim sum and noodles. We hadn’t long had breakfast and this was a lot of food and of course there was no question of turning it down! Jake did well here to save face but even he couldn’t finish it all.
The town itself is the capital of the Perak state and the old capital of Malaysia (before independence in 1956) meaning a lot of the centre of the town dates from the colonial period. Unfortunately though, the buildings here are not as well preserved as those in Penang or Melacca as the city has never been granted its world heritage status by UNESCO.
After coffee and lunch we thought we were going to say goodbye but no. He insisted on taking us around the town to see some of the heritage sites. We passed through Little India and stopped at the square in the centre of town to admire the street art. This image is the Old Town coffee man on the side of one of his branded shops (£1.50 for a coffee in here).
After a final stop at the station and a few photos we finally said goodbye and continued with our walking tour!
The tour took us through the old colonial part of the city, past some beautiful buildings and more street art.
One point on our map stopped us at the end of Concubine Lane, a place where Chinese merchants used to keep their women. On this corner also was a British style pub. After catching the eye of the barman we decided to stop in for a drink. Over the past few months we have met people who think the UK is just London and it’s places like this that give that impression – surrounding the beautifully varnished wooden bar were images of Big Ben and the London Eye, red phone boxes and flags. We soon got chatting – with a strong Northern accent (from Wigan) – the owner more than happy to meet some fellow Brits as his called us and talk about Ipoh, Malaysia and of course home.
As we were chatting a bride and groom passed and we couldn’t resit taking a picture and they were more than happy to chat to us for a bit.
Walking tour finally completed we hitched home past the Hollywoodesque Ipoh sign and just in time to catch another spectacular sunset over the hills.
Our next trip into the town was to visit the Perak cave temples. Although we’d seen the other cave temples in the city our host insisted that this one was the best and a must see in Ipoh.
Inside we met a huge sitting Buddah, the most impressive we’ve seen in Ipoh so far. Flanking him in alcoves of their own were the four warrior statues, each squashing an ugly, green daemon under its foot.
Surrounding Buddha were more wall paintings, again a mismatch of images and styles.
For the rest of the day we followed the walking tour #2. It was great to follow these tours as the took us around a large part of the city.