In 2016, Lonely Planet ranked the Malaysian city of Ipoh as one of Asia’s top 10 destinations. There are countless breathless descriptions of Ipoh as a ‘foodie heaven’ and ‘foodie town’, so not unreasonably, we thought that Ipoh might be a nice place to break our train trip from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. After a short 2-hour train ride from KL, we arrived in Ipoh excited to eat!
Now, I don’t mean to say that Ipoh sucks – in fact we had quite enjoyed it – but when one’s entire reason to visit a place is based on food, one expects to, you know, find some food. We could not find food!!!! I don’t mean ‘good food’; I just mean ‘food’. Full stop. Ipoh seemed abandoned, and there were like no restaurants open. Two of the acclaimed hawker centers we attempted to visit were completely closed. True, we were in town mid-week, but it was indescribably odd. I’m honestly perplexed as to why our experience of Ipoh was so contrary to general consensus.
But if the food was the low light, the highlight was our accommodation. We did a homestay in a lovingly restored guesthouse on Concubine Lane, and our host was a Brit from Wigan named John. John was a real character, and peppered conversations with gems like ‘chinaman’ and ‘jap’. He had three cats named Ginger, Tiffy, and Smokey who made our stay a real treat. I think that Tiffy was my fave, partially because ‘Tiffy’ is just so fun to say and partially because she had a less obvious flea infestation.
Ipoh was tin mining boom-town during the 19th century, and there are some surprisingly good and interesting museums dedicated to the tin industry. We got a great guided-tour from Auntie Christie at the Han Chin Pet Soo museum, which was an old club house for the Hakka mining community. Look how cute we are in our Hakka hats!!! I felt racist doing this…
Our host John arranged for us to visit some extra-city tourist sites with Mr. Low, a delightful gentleman who owns a small shop next-door to John’s house. Until 3 months ago Mr. Low’s shop was a mahjongg den, but his clientele base had some infighting issues so the mahjongg had to stop. Now he sells candy and water to tourists like us. Despite being 72 years old, Mr. Low is a devotee of a FarmVille knockoff called ‘Hay Day’, and he frankly seemed quite good at it. Taking a break from his virtual harvests, Mr. Low was a great tour guide for us and we definitely got a taste of the area with him as a guide. We visited the Guharu tea plantation, the supposedly haunted Kellie’s Castle (scary!!!), and a few cave temples.
Later on, we got to enjoy an evening at the neighborhood bar with John and Mr. Low. Run by a Sinhalese family, the bar is simply called ‘The Sinhalese Bar’ and the moment you step through the saloon doors you’re transported to pre-WWII Malaya. Established in 1931, it’s run by Albert, a 70+ Ipoh native who is the original founder’s son. (side-bar: this place had the refrigerator of my dreams. It was a half-sized ~1940’s kelly green Singer refrigerator that I would kill a man for. I’ll never forget that refrigerator.) We spent the evening watching Tamil music videos, and enjoying a concoction John calls the ‘black and white’, which is a Guinness mixed with a Tiger beer. What an evening.
After a memorable visit to Ipoh, we took the train north to Penang. We were delighted to get to meet up with Andrea and Michael again, and enjoyed relaxing and eating (properly!) in Penang’s historic Georgetown. Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was a major economic hub during Malaysia’s colonial days. It’s just adorable, and filled with historic Chinese shop houses, Indian mosques, and lots of interesting European buildings. We explored the charming alleyways of the old town, and visited the newly restored ‘La Maison Blue’, a fabulous mansion build by the Chinese tycoon Cheong Fatt Tze. Andrea and Michael took way better pictures than us so you should look at their photos.
Overall we had a lovely and very uneventful visit, with the exception of some genuinely frightening encounters with monkeys at the botanical gardens. Travel pro-tip: monkeys really like Nutty Buddys, so be careful.
And thus concludes our 2 part Malaysian epic. Off to Indonesia!