Despite my nightmare visions before leaving Singapore’s reassuring confines, Malaysia (at least the peninsular bit) is of course one of Asia’s most developed countries, and KL is where all the cool kids hang out.
Thankfully we had a guide to show us how the locals do it, in the form of Rob, a half-Malaysian friend from London who had recently relocated to this fine city. It was with him that I got to try the traditional chicken rice we’d missed in Singapore (“ours is better anyway”, I was confidently informed – with no frame of reference I wasn’t about to deny it), breakfast at a banana leaf restaurant – where curry is literally served on a banana leaf instead of a plate (environmental!), and even traditional nasi lemak at his aunt’s house in the suburbs. Not only were we fed, watered and shown a much-missed dose of family familiarity, we were also taught how to eat mangosteens and identify the ripest dragon fruit. (I was convinced I would remember this sage advice forever until I went to buy one in Thailand and realised it was something to do with the scaly bits but for the life of me I now can’t remember whether they’re supposed to be big or small, and stick out or lie flat. Absolute fail).
We also headed over to Everyday Sundae to sample KL’s latest thing: soft-serve ice-cream, which is essentially an exercise in how to turn childhood favourites into $$$. Put a Mr Whippy machine in a sit-down café, offer hipster flavours like “salted egg”, serve it on a waffle, crank up the price, call it “soft gelato”, name yourself something punny and bingo: food craze (cf. London’s Cereal Killer Café). I can happily attest as to its deliciousness (hello, it was ice cream), but what I particularly enjoyed was seeing a trend which had emerged locally, rather than belatedly imported from the west.
We only visited three cities in Malaysia but it was intriguing to experience the variety of restaurants open for business, from hawker stalls and banana leaf places, through incredibly hip coffee shops and bijoux little teashops, up to expensive, upmarket eateries. There’s no question that Malaysians love their food, but they seem to have found more ways to provide it than anybody else.
Perhaps foolishly, we chose not to buy a guidebook for Malaysia and had done little (read=no) research on how to spend our time on the peninsular. All we knew was that Borneo was in the midst of a deeply inhospitable rainy season, and all the locals we spoke to categorically advised against going. Ever-optimistic, I was all for winging it and seeing what happened, but once again the ever-sensible Peter put his foot down; like it or not, we’d be sticking to the mainland.
So when Rob’s aunt and mum enthusiastically encouraged us to visit the well-preserved historical town of Malacca, it was inevitable that we’d managed to already pass it, en route from Singapore. And despite it being one of the country’s most popular destinations, we decided, on careful reflection, that we couldn’t really be bothered to double back on ourselves, and went straight to Ipoh.
Ipoh, which had been described by our two friends of Malaysian heritage who had previously visited, as “boring”.
But tell me an unexplored town in an unvisited country is “boring” and you might as well say “don’t be daft Robyn, you can’t climb that tree” or “no sane 30-year-old jacks in a promising career to travel the world”. Oh really? We’ll just see about that.
Things looked positive when we bundled out of the train station and struck a very reasonable deal with the first taxi driver we saw. And even better when we found our pre-booked Regalodge Hotel which was a quaint family-owned place with bay windows and a security guard of about 80 who bounded out to wave us off each time we walked out the gate. (Although is it pronounced reggalodge? Or regal lodge? We’ll never know).
Ipoh is dominated by the Hainanese, Chinese people originally from Hainan Dao (an island province off the southern Chinese mainland), and this is evidenced throughout the city. Names of shops and restaurants are Chinese, but written in Roman characters, sometimes with Malay underneath. Because I am slow on the uptake, it took me a while to realise the fundamental difference between Chinese Chinese and Malaysian Chinese, and the difference is that in Malaysia, I could read it. English is hugely prevalent, and so for the first time in my life I was able to order really genuinely authentic Chinese food and actually know what I was about to eat. No more accidental chicken’s feet for me!
And eat we did, including passable dimsum (the good bits long gone since we arrived at the belated hour of 1pm because Peter is not a morning person, although admittedly getting up at 6am for the best bao in town is too much even for me). There was char kway teow, glutinous rice packets, iced coffee, and the fattest bean sprouts I’ve ever eaten. There was street ice cream (hawker-style, not a Magnum picked off the road). There was even a fantastic bibimbap from the easily-missable, completely empty, inexplicably Korean little café near our hotel.
Then there were fantastic dumplings at a hawker centre. I don’t have a photo because we ate them too fast. I’ve been trying to persuade Peter forever about the joys of Chinese food, but he’s never quite been taken in: after all this time, those dumplings were the gateway drug. I said “this is the sort of dimsum we should have got at morning tea the other day”. He ordered another plate and said “Really? Well then, we should definitely try it again in Penang. What time do you have to get up? I’ll do it”.
Thank you, Ipoh dumplings, for doing what my concentrated efforts could not.
Since Ipoh is historical and easily-accessible, and we were staying a stone’s throw from the old town, we’d expected to encounter a great many foreigners – they were everywhere in KL – but perhaps because the city isn’t seen as particularly enthralling, they seemed to have given it a wide berth. Well, apart from the family we passed by in the night market who strategically avoided our gazes and pretended they hadn’t seen us. Classic.
Perhaps it’s more of a city to live in than visit but it was a very pleasant place to spend a few nights. The architecture was something of a revelation, from well-kept colonial shopfronts in the old town, to sympathetic new builds, and even some sort of bonkers inflatable modern-art installation around the local nightclub.
The old town was remarkably quiet whenever we wandered through (perhaps because it was invariably midday, and mad dogs and Englishmen . . . ), so we felt like the only people stumbling across its artistic spots and unexpected finds.
This included, on a run-down street, empty of pedestrians and full of frou-frou wedding dress shops, Lifeshop Atelier: an incredibly stylish little store filled with classy interior decor and such elegant clothes I’m surprised they didn’t eject me for rubbing my face on the silk shirts (which I absolutely did not do).
We ducked in to escape the intense heat and ask for a café recommendation: wouldn’t you know it but they had one of their very own, a sister place just down the road, called Everyday Lifeshop . . . And unlike other such pointed recommendations, this place was lovely. But best of all it introduced us to the charcoal version of honey toast, a dish which basically involves taking a small loaf of unsliced sandwich bread, toasting it, drizzling a whole load of honey over the top, adding ice cream, adding more honey, and then a squirt of whipped cream. All the major food groups. And also fruit. This particular version was caramelised and so good that on our last day I made Peter walk for 30 minutes in the blazing sunshine to get more.
Other more unexpected stumblings led to a bar and restaurant in a run-down building with so much character it was practically a Shakespearean lead, complete with a section dedicated solely to local arts and crafts . . .
. . . tiny library . . .
. . . vintage clothes shop . . .
. . . and picturesque undersized doors.
There’s even a tiny backpacker district. By which I mean there was a single road with a couple of empty-looking hostels and some unpleasantly European bars, including Bricks & Barrels which was terrifyingly reminiscent of a student pub circa 2008. Or Wetherspoons on a Saturday night in a town where that’s the only place serving alcohol.
We only went in out of curiosity, then Peter discovered they had a local wheat beer he’d been gamely chasing all over the country. So I thought “might as well get a cocktail then” (you can take the girl out of London . . .) and ended up accepting the 2-for-1 option on frozen margaritas. At 3pm on a Tuesday, off a silent street, in a town apparently bereft of human beings.
In fact we spent the whole time wondering where everybody was; albeit thoroughly enjoying being the only tourists in the village. It wasn’t until the last day that we took a taxi to a hawker centre on the eastern side of the city and discovered that Ipoh – mainly “new Ipoh” – is actually rather larger than we had anticipated. Shopping malls, cinemas, busy roundabouts, at least three gigantic stadiums, even a Nando’s (who had erected a giant billboard nearby with the slogan “Is your char kway teow so-so?”. Cheeky buggers).
And indeed, if this bit is where you’re dragged to visit your extended family on an annual basis then I can see why Ipoh might be classed as boring. But for a foreigner, sticking to the old part (westside fo’ life) Ipoh offers the chance to experience the everyday life of Chinese-Malaysians, and walk unhassled down charming, historical streets, out of the tourism glare that’s inescapable in Penang, KL, and (I’m told) Malacca. If such tranquillity floats your boat, and you’re keen to sample a range of cuisines from authentic Hainanese to the latest Malaysian sweet treats, you could do a lot worse than bolster a trip to Malaysia with a stop-off in Ipoh.
It’s safe to say that Ipoh isn’t exactly a happening town. But it felt more real than either KL or Penang, and for that reason alone I’m glad we stopped off. Well, that and the dumplings.
God I miss those dumplings.