Have you heard of Ipoh? I had not until I stumbled across a few family travel bloggers who wrote that it was worth a stop. Working it into our itinerary made sense because it is half-way between Kuala Lumpur and Penang. With its mountainous backdrop, sizeable adventure park, food mecca status and lovely colonial and Chinese architecture, it was a done deal for us.
Our journey to Ipoh gave us a chance to try out the rail system in Malaysia. We have done trains in Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, and I can say that this was the fastest, most modern ride yet. It was wonderful to have a couple hours to just relax and observe the Malaysian countryside. Another great reward was to arrive at Ipoh’s elegant white-washed station, built by the British and affectionately called the “Taj Mahal” by the locals.
Ipoh is known for its several Chinese Buddhist cave temples nestled in the karst limestone mountains which surround the city. For kids, seeing a temple in a huge cave makes the cultural experience especially interesting. I have seen similar karst formations with caves all over Southeast Asia, proving how expansive this geological feature is. From Halong Bay, Vietnam to Railay, Thailand to central Malaysia, these areas have spiritual significance while also lending an opportunity for adventure. The cave temples in Ipoh are particularly ornate, complete with vast wall paintings, bright red lanterns, sparkly lights, multiple shiny gold shrines, and the requisite overpopulated turtle and fish ponds. The Chinese believe the more decorative features the better, since it’s all about merit making. Often whimsical, almost baroque in its over-the-top fantasy-like imagery, the Ipoh cave temples were not only intriguing but fun for all of us.
Months ago in Burma, I showed the kids how to pray in a Buddhist temple. Ever since then, upon entrance, they usually just kneel and pray on their own accord. I am not sure what they are actually praying for, maybe for world peace or more iPad time, who knows. Either way, we think it’s great. Mathilda is particularly consistent and fervent in her moments of devotion.
Ipoh is also known for its food, which seems to be a theme for all of Malaysia.
Throughout our trip, with regards to everything from dining to accomodation, we occupy a fluctuating spectrum of low to high. Alongside Chinese locals in Ipoh, we enjoyed Hainan style boiled chicken on the street with sweet potatoes sold off a bicycle cart. Another night, we indulged in Japanese inspired salads, steak and chocolate cake at hipster restaurant of a standard one would expect to find in New York or San Francisco. Without meals prepared for us at home (as in Bali), sometimes it becomes daunting day after to day find a place for dinner. Overall, though, Malaysia has offered such a plethora and range of culinary delights, it has made our journey here even more interesting. Had to pass on the shark fin soup, however.
Hey! It looks as though Mathilda’s prayers were answered!
Luckily, we had our dental check-ups here, because, with the number of bakeries and candy stores (mostly Chinese owned), it becomes a challenge to say no.
Here is Mathilda in an old fashioned candy store, Yummy Tits Bits (yes, it’s true), happily overwhelmed with all the choices. Just in case you need a frozen chicken or duck, they have that too.
As in Malacca, Ipoh has building after building of architectural significance in various states of refurbishment and decay. Stately British villas and colonial government buildings as well as old Chinese shophouses are on full display everywhere. Yet, what makes Ipoh particularly interesting is that it is hardly touristed. Therefore, we came across a fascinating, “living” city with friendly people and lots of potential.
At the foot of some of the tallest mountains in Malaysia, Ipoh was a great base from which to explore the Cameron Highlands and try out a well-known adventure park. Stay tuned!