Ipoh, Malaysia – An Unexpected Gem


Heather Markel, Best Selling Author, TEDx Speaker, Traveler, Full Time Travel and Business Coach

As I mentioned in my last post, I chose to go to Ipoh to get off what I felt was the tourist circuit up to Langkawi and Koh Lipe. A short bus ride and a quick taxi later, I end up in Ipoh and almost immediately regret my decision.

My hotel seems fine, but it’s outside the city center and feels in the middle of…nothing. I’m starving, my room isn’t ready, so I grab a bite at the Japanese restaurant next door. When my room is ready, I grab a quick shower and head out to explore the town of Ipoh.

First Impressions

It’s daytime, and I feel uncomfortable. The streets to town are fairly empty. The buildings are dilapidated. I have to cross a river. It seems dirty and nobody is around. Am I stupid to walk here alone? When I make it into town, it seems like there are souvenirs, and a couple of museums, and I quickly find Concubine Lane. I snap some photos, and by 4pm, most of the shops are closed. I’m bored, I feel like I’ve seen everything, and I still have four nights here. It seems like a big mistake.

Durres port

The area near my hotel

Durres port

I return to my hotel and encounter a wild dog. It seems to be following me. I’m not sure if she wants to eat me, or hopes I will have food. I don’t have any on me, so I try to avoid her and run back to the hotel. When I arrive, I ask them what I should be seeing in Ipoh. I get a list of sites that I plan to Google. I ask them how I can get to Orangutan Island. For the umpteenth time, they don’t seem familiar with it. Since Penang, everyone I ask about Orangutan Island has no idea what I’m talking about. Pro Tip: Try asking for Bukit Merah instead, and you’ll get less vacant stares after your question.

From the research I’ve done so far, it looks like a tour will cost me about $300 which is way over my budget. The bus schedule would require me to take a taxi part of the way, and then stay over at Bukit Merah to catch the morning boat. Enormously less expensive than the tour, but still a pain, and I do’nt like double-paying for accomodation. Miraculously, they find me a taxi driver who can take me for about $60 which is even less expensive than the bus+taxi+hotel option. I make the booking for two days later and can’t wait!

Exploring More Of Ipoh

The next day, I have breakfast at the cafe adjacent to the hotel. It seems to be the only place open. I order an egg dish and it’s basically like egg yolk soup. The yolks are so rare I can’t eat them. The waitress is exceptionally lovely and asks if she’d like me to cook them more. I eagerly nod, and she cooks them to perfection. When I thank her, she insists she’s only doing her job.

After breakfast, I have no interest in returning to downtown Ipoh, so I call a Grab. I’ve decided to check out Qin Xing Lin Cultural Center and Village. I have no idea what to expect.

bari port

As soon as I arrive I feel…happy! There are houses placed around a lake, and groups of people riding on shared bikes and laughing, and there are so many colors. I get sucked in to the fun of the moment. With every step there’s either a burst of color, or some art on a building that makes me laugh, like the restrooms below.

What really captures my attention is the wishing tree. It’s covered in red ribbons. I soon discover I can buy one, write my wishes on the back, and put it on the tree. I choose one of the lower branches because they’re the only ones I can reach. I wonder how people have gotten ribbons on such high branches with no ladder in sight.

I soon learn from some lovely passerby that I’ve done it all wrong. I remove my ribbon, then do a wind up with it, like a softball pitch, and release! My ribbon lands on the ground nearby. The family who helped me is now cheering me on, again again! Once again, I hit the ground. I try again, and again, and, on the fifth try, my ribbon goes up and up and disappears at the top of the tree! (Watch the video below to get an idea what this was like.)

Kek Look Tong Temple is another unexpected  delight. The entrance is a limestone cave in which a temple has been created. The cave itself offers a nice respite from the humidity, as well as some beautiful buddhas and deities to smile at or pray to. After I have my fill of the inside of the cave, I find an exit and when I stand at the top of the staircase, I feel  like I’m gazing at paradise.

I walk around the beautiful garden and notice a stray dog. (I’ve started carrying food around after the last stray, realizing it could both protect me and nourish the dogs.) I get his attention and pour out some of the food. He looks at me, sniffs, then walks away. I walk to a nearby pagoda and sit down to enjoy the peaceful feeling. The dog comes back and eats all the food I left him.

Before leaving, I take a look at the lovely group of buddhas and the qualities they represent. I feel calm and serene and happy.

Perak Cave Temple is both a challenge, and a beauty. I find another limestone cave to walk through, with more buddhas and deities. I find a staircase up, and find myself outside in the heat. There’s a view of the city of Ipoh from the top that I want to see. I come to a pagoda and a lovely cluster of trees. But this isn’t the view. Walking up a bit more, I find an arrow pointing to the next staircase. It’s small and it’s steep. I take a deep breath. It’s hot, I have to give myself a pep talk to continue.

As I walk further up, I learn the staircase isn’t just steep and narrow, it’s two ways. I have to cling to the sides as other people make their way down. Happily, there aren’t too many of them. I finally make it to the top and I want to celebrate, but I’m too hot. Unfortunately, the top isn’t much. There’s a path to the right and to the left. I choose the left, and that’s when I find the view I’ve been looking for.

Bari castle
meeting Jessica

Orangutan Island, however, is the definite highlight of my trip. I’m so excited to go! My driver arrives propmptly, and gets me to the jetty in time for my 9:30am departure. Some helpful information. If you ask anyone where Orangutan Island is, you’ll be met with a blank stare. It seems like nobody knows about it in Malaysia. You may have better luck if you ask how to get to Bukit Merah. I hunted down their Facebook page (which wasn’t easy) and contacted them on WhatsApp to reserve a spot. I highly recommend that you use the WhatsApp if you want to be sure to find and reserve it.

What I didn’t expect, is to be the only tourist on the boat! I’m stunned. Maybe it’s because it’s Ramadan, or maybe I’m just lucky. Either way, I am thrilled! We arrive at the island, and a tour guide greets me and walks me to a play area, and we see five orangutan playing, including the surrogate mom and dad. The guide explains the work done by the sancturary, how they rescue the orangutan, and that the intention is, for the young ones, to rehabilitate them so they can return to Borneo. (See the video below for more!)

meeting Jessica
meeting Jessica

Heading back to Ipoh, we stop in Taiping for lunch and I find it’s a lovely city. When we get back to Ipoh, I’m in for a real treat. I finally get to see the Pet Soo museum and learn more about the tin mining industry, as well as the Hakka people. Our guide tells me to have dinner at Greenfield Hakka restaurant, and a coffee at a local cafe I’d never have gone on my own. I eat an egg custard fresh out of the oven, and it’s delicious. The hakka restaurant proves to be one of my best meals in Malaysia. It’s not only delicious, but the owners are kind and give me a tour and explanation of the restaurant, and their daughter sat with me and told me more about its history – you can see our interview in the video below.

Malaysia has continued to surprise me. Each time I arrive in a new city, I’m initially worried I will be disappointed, but then go on to discover an amazing richness and depth of landscapes and foods I didn’t expect. Ipoh is no different. By the time I have to leave, I regret not staying longer.

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