Ipoh - by John Brunton
This article appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald, Travel section last week.
Written by John Brunton. He has lived in Malaysia before, and as he has said, he regards Malaysia as his second home.
…….the road north is surrounded on both sides by rolling hills, marked by geometric lines of palm oil and rubber plantations. The scene resembles an Escher drawing, and there is little trace of the dense rainforest that once covered most of the country. After about an hour of driving, the landscape changes dramatically, with massive limestone outcrops leaping hundreds of craggy feet out of the flat plains. A giant but tatty billboard announces that we have arrived at Ipoh – City of Millionaires.
Soon we’re sitting in the legendary Sinhalese Bar, considered the sole Sri Lankan bar in Malaysia, whose décor is unchanged since it opened in 1931, and talking to our guide for the next few days, Hong Law Siak, who runs the local heritage association.
“People tend to forget that the modern, developed Malaysia owes its existence to the riches generated by tin and rubber,” Hong says. “and in those days Ipoh was as important as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.”
But when the bottom dropped out of the tin market in the 1980’s, Ipoh missed out on the development that so radically altered the face of KL.
We leave the bar and wander along the street. Hong points out ornate Chinese clan houses, an abandoned photographer’s studio with 1960s black-and –white prints in the window and a Madras textile shop, where the aged assistants still wear dhotis, scribble sales into a dusty, giant ledger and an ancient poster on the wall proclaims that their checked sarongs were once “Made in British India”.
We disappear down Panglima Lane - known as Concubine Lane when it was lined with gambling and opium dens, brothels and the discreet residences of the concubines kept by rich Chinese tin tycoons. I’m not surprised when Hong tells me that Ipoh was used as a backdrop for the French film Indochine, starring Catherine Deneuve, about the final days of French colonial rule.
The next day, Hong drives us around the surrounding Kinta Valley, where there used to be 1000 tin mines. These are now deep, man-made lakes. The century-old mining town of Papan is certainly no Klondike boom town: most of the shop-houses that line the main street are abandoned or dilapidated. Hong’s next surprise is an amazing ruined castle, straight out of a Somerset Maugham story. I had heard about Kellie’s Castle, but it used to be inaccessible, hidden in the jungle. Now this grandiose folly has become something of a tourist attraction. William Kellie Smith arrived in Malaya in 1890, aged 20, and after making a fortune as a planter, he decided to build a romantic castle for his wife, Agnes. Kellie designed it in ornate Moorish revival style, and planned a rooftop terrace for parties, basement wine cellar, even a lift to get to the top of the tower. But he died before it was completed.
Next day we follow winding back roads through shady rubber plantations to Kuala Kangsar, which looks at first like a quiet provincial town in a bend on the Perak River. In fact, this is a royal capital, home to the Sultan of Perak, some of the grandest palaces and mosques in Malaysia, and the prestigious Malay College.
The Sultan, whose predecessors have ruled Perak since the 15r00’s, lives in grand pastel art deco palace, the Istana Iskandariah, but visitors can only get a peek from afar. Nothing compares, however, to the first view of the Ubudiah Mosque, a swirling vision of marble turrets and golden cupolas. It was designed in 1917 by the Arthur Benison Hubback, an unsung British government architect whose idiosyncratic Indo-Saracen buildings still stand out in most of Malaysia’s major towns.
Back to the road and after a couple hours we’re rolling over the Penang Bridge…….