Tuesday, 11 March 2014

City and Colour - Ipoh

On Thursday we left the island of Penang for the relatively small town of Ipoh. To do this, we got to use the brand new bridge, one of two connecting Penang to the mainland, which had only opened the day before our arrival. At a total length of 24km, this was by all measures an ambitious project. Construction began all the way back in 2008, so accidentally managing to time our arrival for it to be in use was fortuitous indeed. Although the weather was hazy the bridge still offered impressive views. As an extra bonus, tolls are also being waived for the first month of operation.

However, the free toll doesn't mean you get to avoid the toll plaza for the highway. Motorcycles are exempt from the fee, but there is usually a small lane which allows you to circumvent the booths. Sadly for us these definitely seem to have been designed with little motorbikes in mind, which seems rather an oversight as Malaysia certainly has its fair share of big bikes. The result is that they are just a little too narrow for our comfort, so up until here we had been avoiding them, and just riding along the road itself.

Unfortunately the jobsworth guard here though was having none of it, refusing our pleas and insisting that we rode 1km back (the wrong way) up the highway, presumably for our own 'safety'. Unusually, this motorbike lane continued for a few kilometres past the toll plaza, before spitting us out right by our junction, meaning that we then had to dive across three lanes of traffic to get to where we wanted. Thankfully we were the only people using the bike lane at the time, as unsurprisingly our 750cc bike is slightly faster than a 100cc scooter, and the narrow space offered absolutely no possibility of an overtake.  The lumping together of big and small bikes is definitely an annoyance in Asia, and to us seems devoid of all reason. Never mind.

The rest of the journey passed without issue, and we arrived into Ipoh around lunch time. Our hotel turned out to be surprisingly nice, with a lovely river front location. We took a brief lunch break, finding a nasi kandar restaurant just around the corner. We have been really enjoying these establishments since being in Malaysia, as essentially they give you an enormous plate of rice, and then you can pick whatever you want from a large selection of curries, vegetables, meat etc. Even the greediest servings always seem to come in very cheap (max £2 – £3 for two people), and so far we've always found the quality to be decent. Oli is especially loving the Malay food, and is already starting to worry that it's giving him a little belly. 


Sufficiently nourished, we then got straight back on the bike, heading out of town to do  a little sightseeing. Our destination was Kellie's Castle, just a short drive away. The place itself and the story behind it are an ode to eccentricity. Construction of the castle began in 1915, with Scottish land owner William Kellie deciding to build it next to the existing family home, perched on a hilltop in the midst of his rubber plantation. With typical colonial extravagance he brought in numerous workers and artisans from abroad, mainly from Southern India. Construction was a slow and labourious business, and the project hit a considerable snag in 1918, when Spanish Influenza razed through the world, including Malaysia. It tragically took with it over 70 of the Indian workers, including all of William's expert plasterers, masons and tilers.


Construction lumbered on. Evidently this was not a speedy process, as in 1926 William returned to England to collect a new lift. Sadly, he developed pneumonia whilst away and died. His wife and children never returned to Malaysia, selling the plantation to a Liverpool based company trading in tea and coffee. The new owners, perhaps fairly, viewed the castle as a waste of money, and decided not to bother completing it. It was left to nature, becoming rapidly consumed by jungle. Eventually cleared, these days it is possible to walk around and explore.

Aptly demonstrating the willingness of people to believe anything, rumours of hauntings abound. Interestingly I have not read of any 'sightings' of the many Indian workers who died, as everyone seems to believe that it is haunted by the ghosts of William and his daughter Helen. As mentioned above William actually died in Britain of pneumonia, so why his ghost would be pacing the upper corridor is anyone's guess. Maybe he got confused. Likewise, the ghost of Helen was reported to be a small child in her old bedroom. Helen herself left Malaysia in 1926 and never returned, so again, the emergence of such a story seems rather odd. People also have reported smelling incense and hearing noises in the old stables. I am no believer in ghosts, but was not surprised that such an atmospheric place would encourage so many people's imaginations and superstitions to run wild.


Our visit to the castle coincided with the activities of a film crew. We have no idea what they were recording, but it seemed to involve a lot of people in goth attire running up and down the stairs. It was quite interesting nevertheless, even if we did on occasion have to hide out of sight between takes. The eerie atmosphere was further compromised by a large group of shrieking and giggling teenagers, noisily roving around the rooms of the house in no particular order. Still, I suppose it is unfair to moan, as we were all that age once!


Fortunately, above distractions aside, the castle is sufficiently large to get away from everyone and take in the feel of the place. We wandered through the abandoned corridors, intrigued to find what was once a secret staircase. Apparently William seemed very concerned about the safety of his family and guests, as there were reportedly several secret passages, stairways and escape tunnels running under the house. The huge rooms were eerily empty, the walls adorned with unfinished plaster decorations. In places water damage drew colourful patterns on the wall, swirling in greys, greens and blues. The grand ambition of the place was apparent at every turn - even the rooftop was originally destined to play host to a tennis court. It surely would be a very different building had it enjoyed a happier history and eventually been completed.


We took the arrival of a tour bus in the car park as our cue to leave. Even though it was late afternoon the heat was still intense, and although we are used to warmer climates we felt like we were melting. This was happily rectified with a much appreciated ice cream, and we then felt happy to get back on the bike and head back towards town.

Whilst on our way to Kellie's, I had spotted some temples on the edge of the huge rock wall set just back from the main road. As it didn't constitute a detour we turned off down the side road to take a closer look. It turned out that the temple we had glimpsed formed part of a huge complex of what appeared to be Chinese Buddhist monasteries and religious buildings. Most of these seemed unmistakably closed to the public, and at one a huge guard dog barked hysterically at us from behind the locked gate. However, once it gave up and went away the ambiance was beautifully peaceful, with many prayer flags fluttering in a much appreciated breeze.

From there, we rode back down towards the main road, stopping to look at the two main temples. One was set dramatically into the sheer cliff wall, a lone monkey slowly making its way along a railing. The archway for this temple was beautiful and ornate in rich dark colours, which set off the imposing view wonderfully. The second of the temples could not have been more in contrast to this. It was a riot of colour, lined with pink flowering trees and filled with a huge variety of statues. We were very glad we had noticed this place from the road. The intense heat of the afternoon had tempted us to retreat straight back to the air-con haven of our room, but in the end we were very glad that we had made the effort.


By the time we got home and had our very necessary showers it was getting on for evening and almost dark. Ipoh is famed for its food, so we were really looking forward to checking out what was on offer. However, much of it seemed to focus on the lunch time scene, and our initial unresearched forays into the streets were rather fruitless. Giving up on the first direction we headed back towards our hotel and set off in the opposite one. This was far more successful, and we soon found ourselves in the midst several restaurants. Most served only the local speciality of chicken and beansprouts (a lot more flavoursome and interesting than it sounds), and all were doing a roaring trade, which is always a good sign. Oli went for the chicken with rice, and I had a veggie version with noodles, which was surprisingly tasty. We finished our meal off by popping into a Chinese dessert shop, and letting the kindly owner recommend us something. It turned out to be delicious, and rounded off our evening meal nicely.

Originally we had planned to visit some caves the next day, but instead decided to take it easy and spend our time getting to know Ipoh a little. Our initial post-breakfast wander took us as far as the market (not very far at all), before we declared it just too hot and went home for a little rest. Strengthened by eating our fruit and cooling off with the air-con we eventually decided to brave it, and once again hit the streets.

Despite the intense heat we absolutely fell in love with Ipoh. The extensive old town is the very definition of shabby chic. Beautiful, ramshackle shop rows abound street after street, painted in an impressive variety of pretty colours. Peeling paint lent some parts a wonderful texture, and endless archways provided much needed respite in the form of shade. The place is a photographer's dream, with seemingly infinite details to draw focus. What we really liked is that it definitely has the feel of a living, working town rather than trying to draw tourists in. From our observations it attracts a trickle rather than a flood of foreign visitors, most of them apparently using it as a transit point for the nearby Cameron Highlands. However, whilst it is not expressly set up for tourists, we found it a very welcoming and accessible town to explore.


As well as the food, Ipoh is also well known for its coffee. Oli, being somewhat of a geek in this department, had done his research on this. Apparently instead of a traditional roast the beans are roasted with margarine, giving it a unique flavour. The end result is termed 'Ipoh White Coffee', and seems to be very popular in these parts. We tried it over ice at a hole-in-the-wall type restaurant, and were instant fans. We liked it so much that we had two each then and there, getting a bit more of a caffeine hit than we anticipated! The best part was that four excellent coffees came in at around £1.30, a bargain indeed.

Although this is going to make it sound like all we do these days is eat and drink, we were also keen to check out the Ipoh cafe scene. This has exploded over recent years, with a proliferation of cool cafes springing up, looking as though they wouldn't be out of place in Didsbury, Brighton, or any fashionable and quirky U.K. town. To the uninitiated they were a little hard to find, but we did eventually locate one of the places we had read about. It was a little expensive by Malaysian standards, but the atmosphere was good so made it worth the treat. Feeling rather full of coffee I instead went for a more sedate iced lemon tea, whilst Oli soldiered on with a cappuccino. I think he has a coffee problem...


After happily whiling away more hours walking around and exploring the streets of Ipoh we were in need of dinner. The Indian place we had researched turned out to be rather more up-market than we had anticipated, although thankfully was still affordable. The food was nice, but nothing to write home about as to be honest we have enjoyed better curries at less than half the price at more basic establishments. Nevertheless, it was decent food and we left feeling full and satisfied. We walked back to our hotel in the fading, soft evening light, resolving to try and fit a return visit to Ipoh in towards the end of our Malaysia trip.


We had a slow start on our last morning. Forced to try a new nasi kandar restaurant as the one near our hotel was closed, we had an amazing but enormous breakfast. We had the bike packed up and ready to go just as the heat of the day had set in, and were on our way. Ipoh had not originally been somewhere we planned to visit in Malaysia, but it was utterly worth the diversion. As long as we can fit it in we will most definitely be returning in a few weeks, as those iced coffees are not going to drink themselves.


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