Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia
The word Ipoh might conjure puzzled looks or recognition of a certain coffee brand. But Ipoh is actually one of Malaysia’s largest cities, the former center of the nation’s tin mining industry, and a gateway to the Cameron Highlands. It is also a rising travel destination in its own right, and rightfully so.

Lying between Kuala Lumpur and Penang (roughly speaking) as well as between KL and the Cameron Highlands, Ipoh used to be overlooked. But Ipoh has a very decent old town with impressive colonial-era buildings, a thriving cafe culture, and is surrounded by limestone hills, some of which harbor well-known Buddhist cave temples. Ipoh also is home to white coffee and the Old Town brand, which is popular across parts of Asia such as Hong Kong.

When I plan my travel trips, I try to visit lesser-known cities that have decent attractions. Examples include Hiroshima, Milan, and Hue in Central Vietnam. Ipoh is another example. Having traveled by train from KL, when you arrive in Ipoh, you have already visited one of the city’s most attractive landmarks, Ipoh train station. While not very big, the 101-year-old station is regal in its all-white form incorporating Edwardian Baroque and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles.

Across the street from the train station is the city’s Old Town, which features more stately colonial-era buildings, shophouses, and a large mosque. There are also several large murals dispersed across the Old Town, painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who also painted the well-known murals in Georgetown, Penang’s capital. Also in the Old Town are several modern cafes and old Chinese restaurants. One particularly impressive building I came upon was an art boutique center in which the building’s old, worn-down exterior was left intact while the interior was renovated. The building in the top photo in this post follows a similar concept – don’t be fooled by the hanging plants, the shops at the bottom are new, modern cafes.

Ipoh lies in the Kinta River Valley, surrounded by limestone hills and tin deposits. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was home to a booming tin mining industry hence its stately colonial-era buildings and large Chinese community, many of whom worked in the tin mines. However, the tin deposits were depleted in the 1970s and the city suffered a decline. Recently, Ipoh has seen a resurgence thanks to tourism, with the city having made an effort to renovate and conserve its heritage buildings. Ipoh did not have an air of decline at all, and seemed fairly well-off by Southeast Asian and Malaysia standards.

Ipoh’s large Malaysian-Chinese community is mainly Cantonese-speaking, being made up of Cantonese (people whose ancestors were from China’s Guangdong Province) and Hakkas (also from Guangdong but with a more complex origin. Half of my family is also Hakka). Penang, in contrast, has a Chinese community that is mainly Hokkien-speaking (a language from China’s Fujian Province, which many Taiwanese speak as week). Michelle Yeoh, Malaysia’s most famous actress, is from Ipoh.
The city’s Hakka heritage is preserved in Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club, a former clubhouse for Hakkas which is now a museum.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Across the street from the museum are Chinese eateries serving specialties like bean-sprout chicken and Hakka mee (noodles). There are a few lanes which historically served as the homes of prostitutes or mistresses, hence two of them are called Concubine Lane. These lanes have been renovated for tourists and instead of ladies, are filled with stores, cafes and hostels. Ipoh white coffee originally was made from beans roasted with margarine and served with condensed milk, though nowadays white coffee doesn’t need to be roasted with margarine. Apparently the white coffee has a caramel flavour when roasted with margarine, which I found a little off-putting.

What was surprisingly pleasant to realize was that Ipoh’s Cantonese are probably the most polite Cantonese-speakers I’ve encountered in Asia. People who have been to Hong Kong or Guangdong might know what I mean. Whenever I spoke to local Chinese, whether service staff or museum guide or even an entrepreneur at the center I mentioned above, they were all polite in responding to my queries, with none of the surliness or brusqueness you’d get in Hong Kong.

Ipoh is also famous for its limestone hills just outside the city. While not as beautiful as the ones in Guangxi, China or Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, Ipoh’s limestone hills are pleasant enough. In fact, so pleasant that several temples were built inside of these hills. I visited three of these cave temples, but a fourth turned out to be closed even though it was only 2.30 pm.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh Train Station
Ipoh, Malaysia

From the way I’ve written about Ipoh, you might think everything was fantastic. But the truth is I had a few small issues. First is my hotel was actually next to a mosque, which you know broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer several times a day. For some reason, the morning call was particularly long and would go on for at least 20 minutes. I have nothing against mosques (I actually visited one in Ipoh, after I was invited in by two friendly local volunteer guides, but not the one next to my hotel) but I wouldn’t want to stay next to one in the future.

Second is Ipoh’s buses are very scarce and not reliable. While I knew in advance they only come about once an hour, I twice experienced seeing buses drive past me while I was waiting at bus stops outside the cave temples to return to Ipoh (I’d taken the bus from the Ipoh station to get to those places). Given I was the only one at the stop and that these buses don’t get many passengers, perhaps the drivers just didn’t see me. I ended up getting a taxi back to Ipoh both times.
Third is the Old Town is rather quiet at night and most of the streets are dark as there aren’t many restaurants or bars open, besides the street next to the Hakka Miners’ Club.

But weirdly enough, I actually enjoyed visiting Ipoh and all these issues couldn’t make up for the good experiences. I heartily recommend visiting Ipoh if you go to Malaysia.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh, Malaysia
Two of Ipoh’s giant murals done by Ernest Zacharevic (above and below)
Ipoh, Malaysia
Continue reading “Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh”

Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur round 2

Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s political, business and commerce center as well as the nation’s air transportation hub. While I don’t rate it as highly as Bangkok, Singapore or Hanoi, it is still a decent major city. I actually visited it twice though both times I didn’t spend too long.

The city’s most iconic symbol is the Petronas Towers, which I visited during the day and in the evening. Besides admiring it from outside, make sure to go inside to check out the mall at the base or go up to the observation level. At the back is a park which is also quite pleasant. The center of Kuala Lumpur has a giant park, Lake Gardens, which has a lake, a botanical garden, a deer park, a butterfly park, and a bird park, which I visited. It is a large aviary divided into several zones, but not all birds are flying around freely as some are caged. There are some peacocks that walk around on the paths and it is always beautiful to see one spread his tail feathers.

Along the boundaries of the park are the National Mosque, where friendly volunteers approach you to talk about Islam, and several museums including the Islamic Arts Museum, which I found very fascinating, and the National Museum, which was underwhelming and did not have a very large collection. Merdeka Square was where the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the first time at midnight on August 31, 1957. It’s a pleasant open space surrounded by several colonial buildings including the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (top photo), former British colonial office and now a Malaysian ministerial building, and Royal Selangor Club.


Visited the Petronas Towers at night and during the day. Both times, the towers were impressive. 


Mosque Jamek, KL’s oldest mosque

National Mosque


National Museum of Malaysia, with a plane on display near the entrance
Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur round 2”

Singapore travel- Exploring the (Mer)Lion City

While the city-state is basking in the spotlight as the location of the Crazy Rich Asians movie, I thought it was timely to showcase Singapore here as well. Modern, attractive, orderly, the city is without doubt Southeast Asia’s most prosperous metropolis and one of Asia’s as well. The only drawback is that it possesses those attributes in such great quantities that it overshadows any gritty or distinctive character and lacks a certain kind of charm that say, Hanoi or Bangkok have.

Nevertheless, Singapore has several interesting places of attractions and attractive landmarks. The Gardens by the Bay was very interesting, with a massive domed plant conservatory and an indoor waterfall, as well as its “Supertrees.” As the entry fees were not exactly cheap (foreigners are charged much more than locals, which is surprising since Singapore is one of the world’s richest countries), I chose to forego walking on top of the Supertrees. Nearby are the unique Marina Bay Sands hotel which features a long upper deck that lies atop three towers, and the iconic Merlion, Singapore’s lion-headed fish statue that is also the city’s symbol. Its downtown boasts some decent skyscrapers, lots of open space, museums like the Asian Civilizations Museum, as well as colonial architecture like St Andrew’s Cathedral and the National Gallery Singapore, housed in a magnificent gray colonial building that overlooks the Padang, a large playing field which also houses the Singapore Cricket Club. The Asian Civilizations Museum features artifacts from India, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Pakistan, which is a great idea but the collection was not that big.

As befitting its multiethnic society, Singapore has neighborhoods like Little India, Kampong Glam (sometimes called Muslim Quarter), and Chinatown. Little India, where I stayed in, was very busy on the weekend with lots of Indians, both local Singaporeans and migrant workers, as well as tourists. The main attribute is that there are tons of Indian restaurants and just thinking about it now makes me want to go back. Kampong Glam is a former Arab and Malay neighborhood that has been extensively restored and fixed up for tourists with cafes, shops and some nice murals. The neighborhood still has a lot of Muslims and is home to Singapore’s largest mosque, Masjid Sultan, a handsome building built in 1928. One can walk inside the compound and peer at the main hall as well as walk around. Chinatown did not seem that interesting to me (there is the Buddha Tooth Relic temple but I didn’t bother to go inside), but there are some older shophouses and decent open-air shopping streets.


Supertrees, Gardens by the Bay

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s most famous landmark


Masjid Sultan, Singapore’s largest mosque Continue reading “Singapore travel- Exploring the (Mer)Lion City”

Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur


Malaysia is one of Asia’s most visited countries but I only made my first visit there last year. While the port city of Malacca was my first stop, Kuala Lumpur was my main destination on that visit. I then visited the city again at the beginning of this year on a second visit to Malaysia. The Malaysian capital is probably most famous for its Petronas Towers, twin titans that are unmistakable for their appearance and which used to be the world’s tallest buildings.

Malaysia might be an Islamic country, but it is also a multi-ethnic one with a Malay majority and two sizable minorities, Chinese- and Indian-Malaysians, as well as indigenous peoples. Kuala Lumpur reflected this diversity as I stayed in a predominantly Indian neighborhood for my first visit, then in Chinatown this year. The city is relatively prosperous and orderly, though it is also a little grubby in some parts. Strangely for an Asian city, KL has a reputation for street crime at night but I was still able to take a few night walks around my hotel without any real concern. However in Chinatown, which was not that impressive, I did pass by a troubled person throwing things onto the road and on another evening, I had another troubled lady shout at me near my hotel.

To be honest, Kuala Lumpur didn’t seem as interesting to me as Bangkok nor as attractive as Singapore. That said, KL has a few decent colonial heritage buildings, a lot of open space and city parks, as well as the aforementioned mighty Petronas towers. Just outside KL is the Batu Caves, a cave inside a hill which is used by Hindus to worship, which is actually more well-known for the giant golden statue of the Hindu god of war Murugan at the foot of the stairs leading up to the caves. The Batu Caves’ main cave is very tall but not that long as it is basically two connected giant, open chambers. There are smaller, but longer caves at the side of the hill which you need to join scheduled tours to enter. For me, KL’s most interesting attraction is the Islamic Arts Museum which has a huge collection of artifacts from across the Islamic world as well as China and India.

KL actually is a youngish city, having only become a town in the mid-19th century before growing steadily and then being made capital of the Federal Malay States (what the four Malay states around KL were then called during British colonial rule). Its name sounds exotic, but it actually means muddy confluence in Malay as the city lies at the point where two rivers come together. KL is a little like Bangkok in that there are fancy malls and towers, as well as some dirty streets and visible poverty. While it was nice to have visited another major Asian city, I feel that two visits are enough.


The Hindu god of war Murugan stands guard at the foot of the stairs leading to the Batu Caves

This monkey was also standing guard too. There were lots of monkeys on the stairs leading to the cave.

Masjid Jamek, the city’s oldest mosque (1909) Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur”

Tribute to train travel

The first time I ever took a train was in my 20s when I visited East Asia before my final year of university. Since then, I’ve taken trains across China, Japan, Taiwan, and several other countries in Asia, as well as Western Europe. Taking the train, whether high-speed or regular or sleeper, is to me an essential part of travel. While taking a plane might be faster, it’s also too easy and too convenient. Riding a train lets you see more of the land, people, and scenery, and it can also be comfortable and pleasant. Of course, it can also be noisy and jarring if your train is one of those antique ones that shake with every turn of the train wheels and give off a loud racket incessantly. Whatever the case, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy this form of transport that was alien to me during my childhood and adolescence.
Here, I’ve listed trains I took in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
I took trains along the West coast (Wellagama to Colombo), then into the central highlands from Colombo to Kandy and Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The trains were either very old or relatively new but modest in speed and appearance. Finally, I took an overnight train from Eliya Nuya back to Colombo, but on a seat, not a bunk. That last ride was quite rough because the train was several decades old and provided a turbulent and noisy ride that prevented me from getting any sleep. Thankfully, it was the only bad train trip I had in Sri Lanka. All the other train rides gave me the best views I’ve ever had from a train, and the one from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was amazing as it went up mountains and along a ridge overlooking deep valleys and tea plantations.


Malaysia
I took the train from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, then from that city to Penang (actually to Butterworth station then ferry). The trains were modern and clean, and the rides were smooth. They weren’t particularly fast but as the duration of both of my trips were only a couple of hours, that was ok. While Kuala Lumpur’s train station was quite large and busy, most train stations in the rural areas between KL and Ipoh were small structures that were basically platforms and covered roofs. Ipoh’s stately colonial station, built in 1917, is the most attractive train station I’ve seen. Continue reading “Tribute to train travel”

Singapore- first impressions


Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories. Tiny and lacking natural resources, the city state managed to raise itself from an impoverished reject (it was briefly part of Malaysia before being kicked out) in 1965 to become one of the world’s richest nations and major financial hubs. Singapore manages to punch well above its weight in business, trade, tech, tourism, and regional politics. Singapore is also unique in that it was ruled by a legendary strongman who was very respected, feared and admired – the late Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in 2015. Much of Singapore’s economic success and development has been credited to his leadership. But Lee also contributed to Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state due to severe laws that limit freedom of expression, dissent, and other more banal things (like chewing gum for instance). While supposedly a democracy, Singapore has been ruled by only one party, Lee’s PAP, which always wins elections in an overwhelming manner (PAP currently hold 83 out of 89 seats).

I visited Singapore last year for the first time, and I was prepared to be bored, but instead I was quite impressed by the buildings and attractions, and how modern the country was in general. There was a lot of open space and greenery, and places did not feel crowded, despite being a small country with over 5 million. While the population is about 75% ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays and expats make up the other 25%, and this was apparent everywhere in terms of the people and the food.

My birthplace Hong Kong seems to regard Singapore as its main competitor, due to both being tiny city states that are thriving financial hubs and former British colonies. But from what I saw, Hong Kong is so far behind that there is almost no contest. As mentioned, Singapore felt so spacious and uncongested, in comparison to Hong Kong and its cramped buildings and sidewalks and very crowded spaces.

Also, Hong Kong has nothing like the Gardens by the Bay or the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which even though they often appear in countless photos , are impressive to see in person. I saw a lot of towers with rooftop gardens or plants strewn across the building itself, which besides supposedly being good for the environment also looks kind of cool. I’m sure Hong Kong might have similar buildings, but I haven’t seen any yet.

However, there were a few issues.
As spacious and clean as the streets and buildings in Singapore were, it often felt a bit too orderly. While not boring, I did feel like everything was a bit too perfect and artificial. In fact, parts of the city were a bit sparse like the riverside where the Asian Civilizations Museum was.

I also found the subway system to be kind of slow. For instance, I took the subway from my hotel in Little India to the airport, thinking it would take 1 hour, but in reality it took almost 1 hour and a half, which resulted in me having to rush to check in and scramble to my gate (I made my flight). Apparently, when going to Changi airport by subway, you need to get off at Tanah Merah station and wait for another train to go the final two stops, which took about 15 minutes to come. I hadn’t realized it would take so long because I thought that as a train going to the airport, it would be more frequent.
I also took the subway to visit a friend who worked there as an expat. Foolishly, I thought 45 minutes would be enough since I only had go less than 10 stations, albeit transferring twice, but instead it took over an hour.

A very surprising issue is the dual pricing at attractions like the Gardens at the Bay, which means Singaporeans pay much less than tourists. While this exists across Southeast Asia, I was surprised at seeing this in Singapore since it is a very wealthy country (if anything tourists should be paying less than locals, but I know locals have contributed to these attractions through tax). Still, dual pricing doesn’t exist across Europe, Japan or North America.

It may not be a place to stay for too long or go wild and let loose (go to Thailand for that) but Singapore is a very interesting small country that is an oasis of calm and order in Southeast Asia.