Past, Present and Future
from the New Strait Times (David Bowden)
"Ipoh grew from a sleepy tin village in the valley of the Kinta River to a hot town of cabarets, night life and conspicuous consumption, a city fueled by the fortunes of the Chinese-mining towkays (bosses)."
IPOH is one of Malaysia’s great hidden tourist assets. Despite its glorious past as the tin mining capital of the country, its proximity to Kuala Lumpur works against it as most tourists bypass it on their way north to Penang and beyond.
The exploitation of tin around Ipoh and the Kinta Valley is well documented as is the fact that many people made their fortune here. Interestingly, there is very little evidence of tin mining apart from a pot-holed landscape and lakes surrounding the city but there is no tin museum or other reference in the city.
Several grand 19th Century buildings in the city’s historic heart are testament to the wealth that was generated here but on my prior visits to Ipoh, I’ve always had the impression that it’s a city living in the past.
While I can think of nothing more rewarding than wandering along streets lined with heritage buildings, I always fear that if these buildings have no value apart from being old, they face the prospect of being demolished by over-zealous developers.
Having heard that there was renewed vigour in preserving Ipoh’s past, I head north, to be pleasantly surprised with a couple of restoration projects that are adding that very sense of value that I assumed was lacking.
On a previous visit, I’d obtained and used a heritage trail brochure produced by the hardworking Kinta Heritage Group.
It’s well worth obtaining a copy and using it to stroll around and discover more about the heritage buildings and some of the old trades still practised in Ipoh. The best place to obtain a brochure is from the Ipoh Tourist Information Centre, Ground Floor, Ipoh City Council Office, Jalan Bandar (Tel: 05-208 3155).
Arguably Ipoh’s grandest structure is the train station which was built in the mid 1800s. Its exterior featuring Moghul architecture is superb and similar to its counterpart in Kuala Lumpur. Sadly, the interior has been modernised to accommodate the necessities of a contemporary rail network.
Close by are two other impressive heritage buildings in the Royal Ipoh Club and the High Court building. The club overlooks the extensive playing fields of the padang and the Tudor-styled clubhouse is built in a similar fashion to the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur.
Opposite the Royal Ipoh Club, on Jalan S. P. Seenivasagam, the imposing three-storey St. Michael’s School is another heritage building of national significance. It features decorated gables and wide arched veranda's along the front of the building.
After a refreshing walk, it’s time to head off to relax in the place that I have principally come to see. I’d heard that the recent opening of Burps and Giggles at 93 and 95 Jalan Sultan Yussuf in Ipoh’s historic heart was a sign that there were those prepared to invest in and give Ipoh’s old buildings greater value.
This change started in Malaysia in Penang’s historic George Town and stepping into Burps and Giggles, I realise that the spirit has been igniting here too.
This delightfully quirky café is part of a heritage complex that also includes a gallery, library, small hotel and an old Chinese restaurant.
Burps and Giggles dishes up richly roasted coffees, tapas and substantive dishes creatively presented in two adjoining and rejuvenated shoplots.
What were once shops selling magazines and one for cutting hair now offer enticing dishes such as chicken and pea pies, Wagyu beef burgers and banana crépes.
This neighbourhood lifestyle hub is owned by five Ipoh residents who banded together to not only preserve the adjoining Sekeping Kong Heng coffeeshop from being torn down and developed but to rejuvenate the hub into a cafe, library, art gallery, boutique hotel and courtyards for admiring the old architecture.
Upon closer inspection, I realise that elements of the past have been preserved while new additions incorporated where necessary.
In Burps and Giggles, for example, the walls have been scraped here and there to reveal multiple layers of paint, the roots of ancient strangler figs radiate across walls like the tentacles of an octopus and age-darkened timber beams remain exposed in the art gallery. However, amongst all this are flashes of modernity—brightly-coloured lounges, a striking wall mural of Marilyn Monroe and funky pieces of recycled art work.
Remnants of the old properties have been reused and recycled with colourful light shades, doors being reused as tables and tables being recycled into sculptural statements. Signs and quirky quotes painted onto the wall suggest an element of irreverence; graffiti for the thinking patron.
At the rear of Burps and Giggles, visitors squeeze through a narrow opening in the fence to visit the other elements of the complex.
The art gallery is home to the intricate works of local painters while the boutique hotel and library are part of the Sekeping Kong Heng wing of the complex.
Like its history, Ipoh has been somewhat of a hospitality backwater for far too long. Things are changing though with Indulgence Restaurant and Living having taken ownership on the good things in life. This means innovative food, some interesting wines and intimate accommodation.
After a day’s sightseeing and snacking in Burps and Giggles, it was time to check into Indulgence for a restful night and a meal that was to tantalise the taste buds.
It’s hard not to be impressed with both the kitchen’s culinary creativity and the chic and luxurious surroundings of the boutique rooms located above the restaurant.
Julie Song is the driving force behind Indulgence as well as Burps and Giggles. Her menu at Indulgence is full of imported produce that she has flown in from Australia each week so the dishes on offer are seasonal and fresh, with regulars often leaving it to Julie and her team to cook up a storm based upon what has just arrived.
I wonder how best to describe the rooms above the restaurant. Seven rooms are not what you would call a hotel and a B & B doesn’t do justice to the luxurious fittings and eye to detail.
Its seven themed rooms are opulent in their décor, styling and comfort. No two rooms are the same so it’s important to check the Internet before booking to match the room to your requirements. My choice was Qatrynka which is Chinoise in its styling and full of little details to continually entertain and distract me.
Contemporary styling is important these days and each room includes essentials such as rainforest showerhead, mini-bar, flat-screen television and wi-fi.
After a relaxing and adventurous weekend in Ipoh, I’m keen to return if only for more coffee at Burps and Giggles. For those seeking a “new” destination for a weekend escape of food and indulgent living, head to Ipoh — you won’t regret it.