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.

14 thoughts on “Ipoh – Heritage Walk. Part 2.”

  1. Excellent stuff. Makes me want to visit even though I had always thought, misguidedly, it was a rather non-descript place

    I’m struggling with my blog “South East Asia’s Highest Mountain. Top 10 keeps changing the more I research!

  2. Enjoyed reading your travelogue. Thank you.
    I noted you have communicated with Ruth Iversen-Rollitt in the Perak Heritage Society blog. So you would know about the numerous ‘modern’ buildings her father had built in Ipoh. Quite astounding and worthy of exploration, if you are into Art Deco and International styles.
    If you go into the ARCHIVE of the PHS blog you would know something about the historical small towns in Perak towns with surprising heritage and rural natural beauty worthy of your time.

  3. Beautiful posts on Ipoh. I’m heading there during the end of April for a weekend trip, very excited about it.

  4. Wow, this put Ipoh on our prio list of historical meandering. I didn’t know aside from Malacca and Penang, that Ipoh has hidden colonial buildings. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I was born and raised in Ipoh. Funny how one doesn’t appreciate what one has until she’s no longer living there. These photos bring back fond, fond memories of my hometown. I’ve always thought that Ipoh is overlooked. When you visit Ipoh, you must try these dishes in these locations: chu cheong fun (flat noodles) in Jaycee Park; chap lui (fish cake) in Buntong; and char kuey teow (fried noodles) in Old Town.

  6. Good on you, mate! for having made it to the New Town. Surprisingly few travelers do, except those (like me) who like to go exploring further afield for good local food or smaller (= better) hotels to stay in.

    Also, there are at least two of us ‘Insane Creatures’ who like to photograph old buildings. If anything, I must be the crazier one, I shoot them in back-and-white and on film and have been doing this since 1974.

    During my latest visit (in March), quite by accident I found the Tourist Information Office, which operates out of a small office next to the Padang on Jl Tun Sambanthan, next to Ipoh Old Town White Coffee. They keep rather unusual (perhaps this is a local thing) hours and close for a long period from midday on Fridays. The staff are friendly and very helpful. They have a passable range of interesting tourist brochures as well as the usual flood of commercial handout folders and an A4 size (foldable) color map, one side shows the city center and the other side a larger, more regional view of Ipoh. Ask at the main desk for a copy.

    Your consultant’s report on Ipoh is well written and also very well thought out. What is lacking in Ipoh’s tourist promotion plan, I suspect, is not so much the will, but the money. At least the city fathers seem to be leaving things “as they were” rather than indulging in a mass orgy or wanton destruction by bulldozing. Ipoh already has an oversupply of modern shopping malls and new hotels and the last thing is needs is for more of its lovely old buildings to be torn down for more new buildings. Plenty of room out in the suburbs for these to be built without destroying the city’s heritage.

    The PHS as (one poster wrote) appears to be inactive now. An interesting site with lots of good info about the city’s history is IpohWorld (see their web site) which has a small office in an old Chinese club house on Jl Bijeh Timah (Old Town), close to Concubines Lane. I wandered in one afternoon looking for local books and spent two enjoyable hours in conversation with the founders, Ian and Jessica, who between them are absolute founts of knowledge on the city’s history and old buildings. Well worth visiting although I found the stock of local books was very small.

    One of your posters mentioned the architect B Iversen who it woud seem, designed about half the modern buildings in Ipoh inhis time! Sadly he is now largely forgotten but there is an excellent book by his daughter on his life’s work (available from IpohWorld), which is a fine ‘guide’ to exploring the 20th century architecture of the city and other places in Malaysia.

    Far more interesting to me as a dedicated walker-B&@ Film shooter, was the amazing range and variety of Chinese shophouses in the Old Town and New Town. Street after street of (mostly 20th century) amazing architecture. Some enterprising local author should do a comprehensive book on these, they are so unique.

    I was four days in Ipoh in March and I wanted to look for lesser known places in Ipoh, so I spent a lot of time on the streets, exploring or just taking in the day to day life. The walking distances are not great and one or two mornings spent out and about will let you see all the sights you would want to see in one visit.

    I especially recommend the walk along the Kinta River from the Hugh Low Bridge (from Jl Sultan Iskandar), a 20 or 30 minute trek which will let you see and enjoy much of what Ipoh has to offer on the New Town side. The Masjid Panglima Kinta is a charming old turn of the 20th century mosque with wedding-cake trim. Further on are several very old Malay houses dating to the late 1800s. At Jl Leong Boon Swee (turn left at the bridge) are yet another old mosque of historical significance and a row of decaying shophouses which some locals told me are among the oldest in the city.

    Another Kinta River walk on the north side of Jl Sultan Idris Shah (turn left after the bridge) will take you past an old Chinese temple and, some distance beyond, the DRSeenivasagam Park, which has a small and very charming (and quite forgotten) Japanese garden in its center.

    Writing about the many pleasant things for visitors to do in Ipoh would quickly fill up a hefty tourist booklet if not a book. The important point to remember about Ipoh is that it offers almost all the pleasures of Penang in a more limited range and without the hustle or the high prices found on that island – or the crowds of tourists.

    For the weekday visitor, Ipoh is still a quiet, pleasant, laid back place to stay and explore with much to see and do and especially good food.


  7. Meant to say at the start of my ‘essay’, but forgot…

    Your two articles (or essays) on Ipoh were great guides for me in my exploration of the two towns. You captured the pulse of the place in your visit there. Not very much has changed and it is still well worth a few days’ stay (many good hotels to choose from) to get its unique ‘feel’.

    Thank you for what you wrote, I found it very useful.

  8. Hi Dann
    That’s the longest comment anyone has ever written on this blog! Thanks very much and I’m glad the guide was useful to you. I’ve been back to Ipoh a number of times since I wrote this article. I know there have been a few changes but the town still retains the same feel. By the way I’ve written quite a bit more about Ipoh on my Malaysia Traveller website, including a piece on DR Seenivasagam Park:

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