Ipoh - Perak Malaysia

Early Beginnings

Legend goes, a long time ago when men were chivalrous and jungles were lush, an Admiral and his trusted men sailed from Sumatera traversing the Straits of Malacca into the Golden Kersonese. They scaled up the broad blue waters of the Kinta River, following their instincts and the liquid path the river offered. There was plenty of fish from the river to feed upon, and the jungle dwellers entertained these seafaring men with their forest calls, their melodious twitterings and barblings. Alas, the expedition had to end for the sailors had then reached a point where their vessel could no longer venture and the river would no longer allow them to navigate.

It was also a magical time where genies spoke, the orang kayangans (fairy-like beings) roamed and foresightedness of sorcerers revered. And so it was told a genie commanded that the district be named Kulop Kinta. And long after the expedition, where villages opened and communities flourished, the Admiral decided to make this his home, and he then assumed the royal post of Dato' Panglima Kinta.

"The Town that Tin Built"

Tin was transported in these to the smelting plant

It may very well be so, but curious enough Ipoh was never in the true sense a mining town.

It was marked in an English map, in 1880 as "Epu". And later in 1884, a French tin prospector described Ipoh as a Malay kampung. And not far from the truth it was. Ipoh was pioneered by the Malays who were attracted to the mining activities surrounding it. Back then, tin mining were very much in the hands of a Malay Chief, Dato' Panglima Kinta.

It was just its good fortune that Ipoh is located in the center of the tin mining area, the Kinta Valley. The lure of prosperity promised by prospecting tin was irresistible, tempting, almost seductive. And it was because of this that Ipoh saw a steady emigration of the Chinese. At first they came in small numbers, and by 1888 the Chinese population had swelled up to 38,000! From a mere frontier town, Ipoh became the center for tin collection and smelting.

All About Ipoh

The Orang Asli call it Upas, and use its sap to coat the tips of the darts of their blowpipes. Others call the tree Ipoh. And this was the name that the people had chosen to call the town. In those days, Ipoh trees were found everywhere, in abundance. And for this reason we should be alarmed if not ashamed, that there are only two of these trees left!! One is standing in front of the Ipoh Train Station, and the other can be found in Taman D.R. Seenivasagam.

The Kinta River basically runs through the middle of the town. In 1892, a great fire gutted the East part of Ipoh. The town had to be rebuild, looking all new and grand, and rightfully so, it became to be known as "New Town". The reconstruction of the New Town also made way to deliberate town planning. And this explains why buildings file along roads that are set into systematic grids.

Another curious fact about Ipoh is that, although it was a rich town, it was not the original administrative centre of Perak. Even more curious, it was not the British, but the Japanese that provided the turning point for Ipoh. During their occupation of Malaya in 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army transferred all administrative concerns from Batu Gajah and Taiping to Ipoh. Funny enough, the British actually endorsed this arrangement when they returned to power, and continued to retain Ipoh as Perak's administrative centre.

Ipoh's Heritage

The happy thing about Ipoh is that it has retained much of the charm that enveloped it during its heyday. The buildings built from the money derived from tin (and amassed by the colonists) did everything to expose the identity of the nationality of the men who designed them. Big trees with wide canopy that line the suburban Ipoh roads provide glimpses of the British want for greenery and shade from the grueling tropical sun.

The Perak Museum

Let's begin our journey at a place which will reveal all you want to know about the history of (mostly) Ipoh. The Perak Museum was erected in 1926 by a rich and successful tin miner called Foo Choong Kit. Back then, he built it for his own private domain, and it was told that once forty people were counted to be living in this house. The house did not stay long with the family. In 1950 it was sold to the Perak Government which utilised these premises to house the administrative centre of its Department of Works. It was not until 1992 that this building finally graduated to become a museum.

Have a browse through the museum. You can begin your tour by learning about the early history of Perak. Here you will be introduced to the many characters that moulded the state. Get to know all the important who's who. Find out who Hugh Low was, and what Swettenham achieved, or whether Clarke made any difference in his policies. There are plenty of pictures of British administrators and rulers who played enormously significant role in the building of Perak and Malaya..

If you are interested in architecture and would like to tour the town later, there is a room which enlightens you with a pictorial guide of most of the important and beautiful colonial buildings in Perak. This may help you later to identify the various buildings in town.

The museum also displays other historical facets, and in particular tin mining and various other industrial and commercial activities that are of importance to Perak

The museum opens all week from 9.30am-5pm.

St Michael's School

Perhaps the grandest and biggest of all the old colonial buildings in Ipoh is the St Michael's School. The St Michael's school was opened by a group of La Salle Brothers in 1912. Fitting to its name and the mission of its founders, St. Michael's was one of the more prestigious Christian missionary schools in Perak. And because appearance tells a lot about an institution, St Michael's architecture and façade are reminiscence of a true Christian masterpiece. The architecture is absolutely brilliant. You can't get enough from appreciating the carefully decorated gables and the lovely wide arched verandahs that run the entire length of the school. Right in front of it stretches the school green. If you're lucky, you may spot the school band marching up and down the field playing some musical score in their full regalia.

Even the Japanese army could not stay away from St Michael's. During the Japanese occupation, this army converted the school for its centre of administration for the state of Perak.

Town Hall

This is one of Ipoh's architectural wonders that boasts of neo-classical architecture, a design so popular in the early 1900s. The Town Hall exhibits a great marriage between renaissance and roman architectural features. Construction began in 1913, and was finally completed in 1917. Throughout the century, the Town Hall have seen many people from various backgrounds and expertise utilising, and walking up and down, its hallways. This building has also served as a Post Office, and was once the District Police headquarters in 1948.

The Padang

Padang is the Malay word for 'field', and this is exactly what it is - which is also exactly where pale British males marched into the field with their starched white cricket ensemble to hit a wicket or two, running every now and then out of the field to catch several gulps of the most refreshingly cool beer. At other times, the same men could also be seen kicking around this Padang attempting to score a few goals in a game of soccer.

Once plentiful , now found only scattered in old gardens and botanical gardens - remember these found as fillers for 'five stones' ?

Ipoh has left the Padang unscathed, together with the beautiful casuarina trees that has been encircling the field for almost a century now. Much time has passed, people had come and gone, and old generations have made way for the new. But, Ipoh realises that this does not necessarily mean that traditions need be forgotten. Today, we still see people running about the grounds; whitemen they are not, but happy locals spending quality time with their family members.

Royal Ipoh Club

And what's the use of a Padang without a Club? Planters, tin miners and administrators patronised this black and white Tudor style clubhouse. While the athletic ones trampled about under the scorching hot sun, the more stationary ones worked their lazy muscles trying hard to keep their cigars in between their fingers while downing their whisky.

FMS Bar and Restaurant

FMS stands for "Federated Malay States", which was basically created to lump all the Malay states which fall under British administration under one union. And Perak happened to be one of them. Although the building was built at the turn of the century, it was only in 1906 that they proclaimed it to be bar and restaurant. Both bar and restaurant (together with its antique décor) have managed to survive the ravages of time, and is believed to be Malaysia's oldest functioning Bar!!

Planters and merchants used to frequent the Bar. Located just opposite the Padang, our jovial sportsmen would quite happily mosey along to the FMS Bar after their match, or maybe for some, after their first round of drinks at the Royal Ipoh Club.

The FMS Bar and Restaurant remains to be quite popular; however, time has altered the culinary preferences here. This would certainly be quite an experience, and not at all out of character; even if you take into account that you're inhaling the savoury aroma of your Szechuan Prawns while slurping in your Belacan Kangkong, right under the shelter of this exceptionaly British institution.

Birch Memorial, The Clock Tower

Secluded and hidden it is. And for good reason of course. JWW Birch was an unpopular character who was appointed as Perak's First British Resident. He was arrogant and showed no sensitivity towards local customs, religion and nuances. He did not think much of the Malays. Likewise the feeling, too, was mutual amongst the Malays, especially the royalty. It wasn't surprising at all that he was eventually assassinated by the Malays, headed by a chieftain called Dato' Sago. Call it mere coincidence or downright contemptuous, Birch's memorial is strategically located directly opposite a mosque and cramped behind Jalan Dato' Sagor. Even after his death, he is still surrounded by scorn and derision from the Malays.

For whatever Birch was to the Malays, the British made him a hero. On all four sides of the monument, colourful murals depicting various 18th Century professions of men decorate it. There, they also erected a bronze bust of their Mr. Birch. And so, the Clock Tower is quite a fine monument; even now, despite the absence of the presence of the bronze sculpture of Birch (which someone had so nicely removed). Isn't this just telling! Nobody wanted him and they still don't want him here. Oh, poor Mr. Birch.

Ipoh Railway Station

Some call it the Taj Mahal of Ipoh! No doubt that it has nothing to do with employing South Indian labourers in its construction, but truly because of its majestical neo-classical architecture. Its magnificent domes and almost perfect arches are reminiscent of those found in a Moorish palace, a design much favoured by AB Hubback, the same man who designed the Train Station in Kuala Lumpur.

Built in the height of the tin mining industry, the station was an important feature for the colonials in transporting Kinta Valley's valuable mineral. Regrettably today, the station appears to be suffering a grim and humbling existence. The ground floor is now segmented, giving space to house massage parlours. Wires crisscross the section and signs bearing the word "URUT" spread wide above the crude crass cubicles. Every night a market sprouts within the compounds of the Train Station. Loud blaring music and the inconsiderate throttling sounds of motorbikes choke the now long gone serenity. And the landscaping….? "What about the landscape?", these people would probably indignantly throw back the question at you.

AB Hubback would weep to witness this inconsiderate demeanour. It is hard to imagine that this was once a place so important, a mark of architectural accomplishment and commercial supremacy. But then again, these are hardly people who would care to appreciate its architecture with awe and admiration, nor respect its historical significance to shaping Ipoh to what it is today. It makes no sense to them to have anything more than just a commercial attachment to the station. Trapped in their single self-seeking objective to make money, conserving this historical building bears no relevance at all to their prosperity or survival. For what is pride for one's own history if there is so much more to be gained now today for the material wealth of tomorrow?

Above the train station, on the second and third floors resides the Station Hotel, also known as The Majestic Hotel. Take the ancient lift up to the main lobby, and it will take you back in time. In the early 1900s, the hotel boasted off 'first class accommodation' and 'excellent cuisine'. A 200m long verandah runs the length of the building. During those days, planters planted themselves in rattan chairs, the smoke from their pipes whiffed away in clumps of tiny clouds trying to ascend all the way up to the high ceilings. Ceiling fans swirled rhythmically all day long to cool the consistently sweating masters. A cosy bar satisfied the liquid needs of its thirsty patrons..

But today the hotel is not looking quite all that chirpy and healthy. It bears a tired face and a physique that is rather run down. The walls suffer a degrading presence, stained by markings in the colour of soot. Its white paint is peeling off in flakes. Unlike the verandahs, the rooms are not crowned with the same high ceilings. Much of their ceiling space is seized to accommodate ventilation ducts and air-conditioning piping, sloppily hidden by cheap gypsum ceiling. And it is because of this too that when you enter the rooms, you are greeted by the smell of damp and must. Dream not of diving into a huge plush comfortable Victorian style bed, but instead pretend to be contented with the three beds that consume most of the space of the shoebox shaped room. Perfect for families who want to save on hotel rates. Disappointing for those dreaming of reliving the luxury of the "first class accommodation" of the early 1900s. ( The Hotel has since closed for business)

But this is the 21st century, cast away your dreamy imaginations of colonial splendour. Today the Hotel serves a better purpose (?) by providing clean rooms at attractively competitive rates. You can start your day with a hearty breakfast consisting of toast, fried eggs and sausages (the cost of which is already covered in the room rates). One huge plus point which plants a smile on your face is the contagious smiles of the hotel staff who are also ever so helpful.

So, it is not all that bad and it is quite a relief to see much of the façade still remains and fittings still in tact. The banisters and wooden stairs stand firm and proud in their original places, and the slow iron elevator makes the journey up to the third floor charmingly pleasant. So, when you storm along the verandah, stomping on those cool and carefully laid tiles, try and show a little more care and look down. For these are the same tiles on which, a long time ago, haughty Victorian ladies carefully and gracefully walked upon. Look up, and you will see that the fans are there still, together with the ornate iron engravings proudly wrapping their bases. Look beyond the verandah and out into the far horizons, you will see Ipoh and its rolling hills staring back at you with the same beseeching scrutiny they gave the colonials a hundred years ago.

But, there is a resurgence in interest . Just like how foreigners especially Singaporeans have snapped up big chunks of UNESCO George Town's prime heritage properties and have converted or are still defiantly gentrifying the city just as they have done to their own squeaky clean, clinically mind numbing country. They are now worming their way into the cracks of Ipoh's historical foundations. How long will it last the test of idle money and idle minds... that remains the question. Here is an external article on what Lonely Planet thinks of Ipoh. http://says.com/my/news/ipoh-listed-in-lonely-plan...

getting there

By car

Take the North-South Highway and turn off at the Ipoh Selatan or Ipoh Utara exit.

By air

Regular flights available. For more information on flights availability, click on to: malaysia airlines

By rail

From Kuala Lumpur, take the ETS train from KL Sentral. For a time schedule and fares to Ipoh, click to: www.ktmb.com.my

By coach

Please check our ipoh coach page for details .

A cheaper way is to wait for the Ipoh Omnibus Co. bus that shuttles between Medan Kidd and Medan Gopeng. Bus departs every 30 mins or so during daytime.

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