Ipoh’s Limestone Mountains Turning to Dust

Ipoh Postcard 1970Ipoh is one of Malaysia’s most attractive towns. It has expanded enormously since this postcard photo was taken 45 years ago but it still has a pleasant feel to it with wide tree-lined avenues, grand historic buildings and friendly people.

Limestone hills south of IpohBest of all, Ipoh is ringed with scenic hills and studded with distinctive limestone karst towers, many of which contain caves and cave temples. The limestone filters and purifies the city’s water supply which in turn waters the fruit and vegetable farms and is said to enhance the flavour of the area’s famed cuisine.

Ipoh's limestone hills seen from afar.

Ipoh is sometimes called Little Guilin, referring to the Chinese region famed for its spectacular hills, pictured below (source:Wikipedia).

20090503_6305_GuilinGiven the tourism value of this scenery you would think that Ipoh’s local government would do all in its power to preserve and protect these 400 million year old hills, especially since Perak Tourism has just launched a campaign to promote the state as an eco-tourism destination. So it is rather surprising and disturbing that a number of the area’s mountains are being quarried and turned into cement and marble like this one:

Quarrying activity near Ipoh

And this one:

Quarrying activity near Ipoh

These are not isolated cases as this Google satellite image of  Simpang Pulai shows:

Google image showing quarrying activity at Simpang Pulai

The French cement giant Lafarge (which has a local Malaysian subsidiary) attracts a lot of negative media coverage for its quarrying of Ipoh’s eco-sensitive areas but it is far from the only company involved. Of course the world needs cement but there must be other, less conspicuous sources. Lafarge’s website says its goal is to create a better world by providing cement to build hospitals, schools and so on, but is it essential to demolish Ipoh’s most distinctive geographical features in the process?  How would the French public react if an Asian company were to start digging up the French Alps?

Ipoh Revisited

I was in Ipoh last week to explore a few sights which I had missed on previous trips.

Han Chin Pet Soo

The first stop was Han Chin Pet Soo, an interesting exhibition in the beautifully restored Hakka Miner’s Club building at No.3 Jalan Bijeh Timah. All sorts of mischievous comings and goings took place in this club during the heydays of Ipoh’s tin boom. Miners spent their spare cash and free time on the ‘Four Evils’; gambling, opium, prostitutes and secret societies (triads), all of which are described in some detail at Han Chin Pet Soo. I have posted a full write-up on my Malaysia Traveller website.

Big Johns Music Shack, Ipoh
Big Johns Music Shack, Second Concubine Lane, Ipoh

The narrow alley opposite Han Chin Pet Soo is Panglima Lane, or Second Concubine Lane which I have written about before on this blog. Since my first visit in 2011, some of the crumbling shophouses have collapsed completely but I was pleased to see that there has been some effort to regenerate the street, including a new retro-style bar called Big John’s Music Shack which I gather has been opened by a Brit – good for him!

Plan B, Ipoh

Talking of regeneration, around the corner at No.75 Jalan Panglima, is an architectural innovation where the designers have incorporated remnants of ruined and overgrown shophouses into a stylish modern development housing a restaurant, some arty and other shops (one even sells made-in-Ipoh handicrafts) and a cosy barbers. The restaurant (if not the whole development)  is called Plan B and describes itself as ‘edgy Aussie meets NY deli’.

FMS Bar & Restaurant, Ipoh
FMS Bar & Restaurant – Still Closed After All These Years

Next, I strolled past the FMS Bar & Restaurant  to see if there has been any progress in reopening this famous old watering hole since my last visit. Unfortunately there hasn’t. Looks like I’m never going to be able to enjoy a stengah in this place.

The former Majestic Station Hotel above Ipoh Station is reflected in the Great War Memorial.

In a similar vein, I walked along to Ipoh’s beautiful railway station to see what, if anything, is happening with the former Majestic Station Hotel premises which closed down just after my first visit in 2011. Again there doesn’t seem to have been any progress in finding a new role for the upper floor of this iconic building.

Gunung Lang Recreational Park

Five minutes drive away, but still within city limits, is the attractive Gunung Lang Recreational Park. The main attraction here is a boat ride to see the landscaped gardens across the lake. Since there was a big queue for the boat (very unusual to see crowds in a Malaysian park in the heat of the day) I decided to save that pleasure for another time and I watched people feeding the huge freshwater turtles instead.

Loong Thow Ngau Temple, Ipoh
Loong Thow Ngau Temple, Gunung Lang, Ipoh

Next door to the park, builders were adding the finishing touches to the newly refurbished Loong Thow Ngau Temple which looks as though it might back onto a cave under Gunung Lang.

Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh
Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh
Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh
Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh

While looking for another cave at Gunung Lang, I came across this Hindu temple called Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar at Jalan Lang.

Japanese Garden, Ipoh
Japanese Garden, Ipoh (now looking forlorn).

I had been meaning for some time to visit Ipoh’s Japanese Garden on Jalan Raja Dihilir. It seems I left it too late because it is now padlocked and neglected with its lawns overgrown and koi ponds drained of water. It belongs to the Perak Turf Club who were quoted in the press last year as saying they have not decided what to do with it. Given its prime location, it would not be surprising if it is earmarked for redevelopment.

Gua Tambun Cave Paintings
Gua Tambun Cave Paintings

Next, after some effort, I managed to locate the Gua Tambun Cave Paintings. This Neolithic rock art site is not well publicised but is quite impressive if you like that sort of thing. You can read details and find directions on my Malaysia Traveller website.

Go Chin Pomelo Nature Park

Ipoh is famous for its pomelos and in the suburb of Tambun I popped into the Go Chin Pomelo Nature Park where I was invited to look around their orchard and to sample a few varieties in the shop. The local pomelos are prized for their sweetness but I purchased the sourer Thai-style pomelo which is more to my taste. I also bought star fruit and chikoos (sapodilla).

Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh
Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

My final stop was the Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, an extraordinary Buddhist Temple with a giant statue of Buddha gazing out from an opening on the eighth floor of a giant pagoda hidden away in a secluded valley.

Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh
The Interior of the Pagoda at Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

Since this was quite an interesting place I might write about this in more detail in a later blog.

The climb up and down the pagoda concluded a busy and tiring day, which also included a 500km round trip drive. There’s a lot to see in Ipoh. I’ll have to go again soon.

New On Malaysia Traveller

I have been doing some more travelling around Malaysia during the summer holidays. Here are some recent new additions to my website Malaysia Traveller which you might have missed:

Pine Tree Hill Trail – A Physically Challenging Hike at Fraser’s Hill

Pine Tree Hill Trail is the longest and most demanding of the trails in Fraser’s Hill. Information on what to expect is here.

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Sekinchan – A Nice Place for a Day Trip From Kuala Lumpur

Lala (clams) at SekinchanSekinchan is an interesting little town 100km north of KL with rice paddy fields, a fishing village, a small beach and good seafood. Worth a visit.

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Kuala Pilah Attractions

This Negri Sembilan town is seldom visited by tourists but it has its charms. Here is my suggested list of Kuala Pilah Attractions.

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Farm In The City, Taman Equine, Seri Kembangan

At Farm In The City on the outskirts of KL, children can pet cuddly animals and see exotic species in a Malaysian village themed setting.

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Chiling Waterfall – Selangor’s Most Impressive Waterfall

Chiling Waterfall is a great spot for an adventurous picnic if you don’t mind getting wet. Read tips on how to get there and stay safe.

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Top 10 Day Trips Outside of KL for Kids

Looking for somewhere outside of Kuala Lumpur to take the kids for the day? Here are my Top 10 Day Trips.

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Gunung Kledang, Menglembu, Ipoh, Perak

Gunung Kledang is a good place to hike. See photos, map and details here.

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National Palace Royal Museum Kuala Lumpur – Muzium Diraja Istana Negara

The National Palace Royal Museum is the former official residence of the King and Queen of Malaysia. It is now a museum and a popular tourist spot.

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FMS Bar & Restaurant, Ipoh

When I visited Ipoh back in 2011, I had been hoping to have a drink and lunch in the famous F.M.S. Bar & Restaurant, a popular watering hole where miners and planters used to go for their stengahs in the days of the Federated Malay States.

The author Noel Barber mentioned the FMS Bar in his book, The War of the Running Dogs:

“The FMS Bar in Ipoh, which had been run by the same family for three generations, was unlike any other in Malaya. Not far from the station, a firm favourite with the planters and miners, it had the swing doors of a Western movie, an L-shaped bar with a big fridge behind it, a Victorian pendulum clock on the wall, and an abacus rattling at one end of the bar. At the far end of the room, three curtained cubicles awaited those who wanted dinner.”

ipoh 8 jan 11 056ipoh 8 jan 11 062

Unfortunately it was closed and I later learned that it had shut its doors in March 2008 for renovations which seemed to be taking some time.

Recently I returned to Ipoh. Surely the renovations must be finished now, I thought. It has been 5 years since they started.

FMS Bar Ipoh, April 2013

There has been some progress – a new coat of paint, a new colour scheme and a new roof.

FMS Bar, Ipoh as at April 2013

But the doors remain firmly closed and padlocked and there is no sign of life inside. Either the owners have employed the world’s slowest contractors or they are hesitating about whether to reopen or not.

Update – September 2017

I have been back to Ipoh a few times since I wrote the above article in 2013 and each time I check on the FMS Bar, still hoping to quaff a chilled Tiger at this historic site.

This is how the place looked in February 2015:


Almost no change since 2013. And this is how it looked last month, August 2017:


It is starting to fall into disrepair again. Why did the owners spend all that money on renovation and then do nothing with it? Perhaps someone is waiting until the neighbouring shops become vacant and then the whole area will be redeveloped.

The Malaysian government should introduce a “Use it or Lose it” policy for heritage properties like these, i.e. the owner be given a fixed period, say 3 years, to renovate and use the property or else it would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to the owner, and the new owner then given another 3 years to ‘use it or lose it’.

Malaysia’s Limestone Hills Threatened by Quarrying

Peninsular Malaysia is blessed with dozens of amazingly shaped limestone pinnacles, rising steeply hundreds of meters above the surrounding landscape. These hills often contain caves and are usually coated with dense vegetation with rich bio-diversity and are home to rare flora and fauna.

Under threat - limestone hills near Arau, Perlis

These national treasures should be preserved and protected as part of Malaysia’s unique natural heritage and valued for their outstanding beauty and recreational potential.  To be fair, some of them are protected but quite a number are being hacked to pieces by uncaring quarry owners who are converting the limestone into cement or crushed stone. Here is an example I saw recently near Arau, the royal capital of Perlis.

Going, going, gone.

In my opinion, demolishing these hills is a crime on a par with bulldozing virgin rainforest or poaching rhinos.  At least rainforest could, in theory, eventually grow back given enough time, whereas these pinnacles are irreplaceable.

There are plenty of other examples, particularly near Ipoh where whole mountains are disappearing. The powers that be in Perak should realise that without their limestone hills, Ipoh would have all the charm of an industrial estate and they can kiss goodbye to the city’s tourism potential.

Some of the hills contain marble or dolomite of other valuable minerals. Such limestone rocks are often being exported in their raw unprocessed state to countries like China where they are being converted into building materials such as kitchen work tops which are then sold back to Malaysia and elsewhere.

To prevent other countries from benefitting from Malaysia’s natural resources in this way, state governments are offering incentives to foreign companies to set up limestone processing plants in a bid to create jobs. But jobs for who?  Malaysia is chronically short of workers and it is estimated that there are over 3 million foreign workers in Malaysia, legally and illegally. Dirty and dangerous jobs like quarrying are more likely to be filled by imported labourers from Myanmar, Vietnam, Nepal or Bangladesh rather than by Malaysians.

Turning mountains into dust.

There are plenty of limestone deposits underground in Malaysia. If the construction industry must have access to limestone then quarry the underground deposits instead and leave the hills alone. Of course it will be more costly but the cheapest option is not always the best one.

Ipoh – 7 Caves in One Day

Last week I visited a whole bunch of caves around Ipoh to research articles for the caving section on my website. Click on the link below (Ipoh-7 caves in one day slideshow) to see a few photos of these caves. Hope the technology works.  You can read more details on my website:




Ipoh – 7 Caves in One Day Slideshow: Www.malaysia-traveller.com’s trip to Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia was created by TripAdvisor. See another Ipoh slideshow. Create your own stunning slideshow with our free photo slideshow maker.

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.

Ipoh – Heritage Walk. Part 1.

When you step off the train in Ipoh you are already standing in the city’s number one landmark, the magnificent neo-classical Ipoh Railway Station, completed in 1917. This building, which also contains the Majestic Hotel, was designed by that industrious and talented government architect,  A B Hubback who planned many of Malaysia’s other famous old buildings from that era.

Ipoh's Railway Station 

Taking advantage of KTM’s smart new Korean-built electric train service, I completed the 200 km trip from Kuala Lumpur in 2 hours and 17 minutes for a fare of RM30 each way. The train was punctual, the air-conditioning was set at a comfortable temperature, the movie (Cinderella Story) had the volume down low so I had no complaints at all.  And the guy who cleaned the toilets kept them in gleaming condition so he deserves a pat on the back.

The New KL/Ipoh Train

Ipoh is a compact city and I was able to see many of its attractions within walking distance of the station.

I began by taking the ancient caged lift outside the station entrance up to the lobby of the Majestic Hotel which sits above the station. This hotel has seen better days. Once grand, it now offers rooms at just RM75 per night including breakfast. Its colour brochure boasts of a bar with a snooker table but I was told by the receptionist that they do not serve beer any more.  Still, I was able to take in the view from the hotel’s massive verandah and pick up a couple of excellent maps of Ipoh’s Heritage Trail published by Kinta Heritage.

The Majestic's rooms open out onto this enormous verandah.

Just in front of the station is a small park containing an example of the Ipoh tree after which the city was named. The tree, which looks harmless enough, apparently contains a poisonous sap used for making deadly blowpipe arrows.

The Ipoh Tree

Somewhat surprisingly, the 132 year old book mentioned on the plaque, ‘Perak and the Malays’, is still in stock on Amazon’s website in case you want to get hold of a copy.

Right across the street from the station are two other splendid colonial piles, The Town Hall and Old Post Office building and the High Court. The Town Hall was designed by, yes, our old friend A B Hubback. I believe this still serves as the City Hall although there is some renovation going on at present.

Town Hall and Old Post Office

The High Court appears to be one the larger employers in town as every other office seems to belong to a lawyer.

Ipoh's High Court

Just behind the Town hall is a clock tower memorial to J W W Birch, the first British Resident of Perak. By all accounts he was rather lacking in inter-personal skills and his bull-in-a-china-shop approach did not win admirers among his Malay hosts. Eventually he was stabbed to death in a riverside bath-house in 1875.

Birch Memorial and detail from one of the side panels.

A number of the suspected instigators of this assassination were hanged including one of the chiefs, Maharajah Lela. However, the Malaysians have since got their own back by naming a street after him, just down the road from the Birch Memorial.

He went that way.

By this time I was really thirsty from traipsing round in the midday Malaysian heat. There must be somewhere around here to get a drink! Ah, this place looks promising.

Wrong sort of bar!

But no, it’s not that kind of bar. This one is the legal kind.

Pressing on, I passed a slightly unusual tourist attraction – a multi-storey car park. It was the first one to be built in Malaysia, in 1960. It looks rather quaint and I could imagine the little Austin A40s and Morris Oxfords that used to struggle up its narrow ramp. Parking is free.

Malaysia's first multi-storey car park.

Next I passed another of those bastions of colonial life for the British in Asia, the Club. This mock Tudor building occupies a prime spot overlooking the padang. No doubt the Royal Ipoh Club still includes many of the city’s elite among its members but it is open to non-members too and reasonably priced accommodation is available for those looking for an alternative to a hotel.

Ipoh Club

Continuing up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (formerly Club Road) you reach St. John’s Church which dates back to 1912. A fairly plain looking exterior and simple whitewashed interior, you could think you were in England. Only the ceiling fans give a clue that this is the tropics. The church apparently served as a noodle factory for the Japanese occupiers during WWII.

Church of St. John The Divine

Another sweaty five minute walk brought me to the small Darul Ridzuan Museum. Nothing much to right home about. A mixed bag of exhibits covering history, local industries, flora and fauna and so on. Downstairs the showcase explanations were written in Bahasa only so not very informative for foreign visitors. At least entrance was free and the place was air-conditioned and a welcome respite from the blazing heat outside.

Darul Ridzuan Museum

Now I was hungry and thirsty.  I was looking forward to reaching the F.M.S. Bar & Restaurant, said to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia, housed in a building which makes even KL’s famous old Coliseum Restaurant look modern. Passing the impressive St. Michael’s School on the way, I cut across the grass of the padang only to find that the F.M.S. was undergoing some serious renovation and clearly would not be serving lunch for some time.

St. Michael's Institution & FMS Restaurant

Finding myself in the financial heart of Ipoh, I was pleased to see some grand old bank buildings in fine condition. Top of the pile of course is the imposing Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, built in 1931.


The original banking hall has been substantially altered (vandalized?) to make way for automated banking terminals and such like but I suppose we should be grateful that the exterior has remained intact. The Bank is not known for putting sentimentality about its buildings ahead of shareholders’ returns.

The former HSBC subsidiary, Mercantile Bank’s Ipoh branch building is also in pristine condition although it is now occupied by a beauty products retailer. This building is the same age as HSBC’s but was built in more of an Art Deco style.

Former Mercantile Bank's Ipoh Office

Across the street,  Chartered Bank’s old office building, which was completed in 1924, is still in use by Standard Chartered and looking good.

StanChart's Prestigious Ipoh Building

Facing Stan Chart is the headquarters of the former Straits Trading, built in 1907. This company used to buy up locally mined tin ore and sell it internationally. It was the boom in tin mining that powered Ipoh’s rapid growth and prosperity around the beginning of the 20th century. The Straits Trading Building is now occupied by OCBC Bank.

Straits Trading Building (OCBC)

With all these banks around you would think that the National Union of Bank Employees would be more busy.

No 'uge Bonuses 'ere!

By now I was dying of thirst and hunger. See how I got on in Part 2 of the Heritage Walk.