After the jungle of Taman Negara, I jumped on a 12 hour bus ride to Ipoh, the capital of the State of Perak, in the western centre of Peninsular Malaysia. I stayed here for a few days with my godmother, Yoke Mooi Chan (who I hadn‟t seen for more than a decade, since a visit to the UK. She used to live with me and my family when I was a baby before moving back to Malaysia some 25 years ago), and her family (including her sister, Yoke Yin Chan, and their two nieces, Szn Yi Chan and Kit Yi Chan), who all very kindly let me stay in their house and took the time to take me all around Ipoh (a huge thanks to my godmother and her family).
Ipoh is known as the Bougainsvillea town, after its abundance of the flower of the same name. In contrast to Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh was a glimpse into the real Malaysia. It‟s more rural, more agricultural, more sprawling, more low-rise, and more laidback. Ipoh has a large Chinese community, immigrants of varying degrees of generation, primarily from Hong Kong and the Guangdong province in southern China. The Chinese community has retained many of its long held traditions such as the reverence paid towards dead ancestors, with incense being burned and Taoist and Buddhist imagery throughout the house and garden. The culture here is very much family-orientated, with perhaps four generations of a family under the same roof or living very close by.
Ipoh is also rich in that feature so prevalent in this part of the world – huge limestone karsts. These are often massive mountains jutting out of the landscape (not unlike Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio) mostly covered in lush vegetation with some bare limestone showing, like magnificent cliffs. I loved just looking at these out of a car or bus window. Within these limestone karsts are some truly enormous caves – even bigger than the Batu Caves I saw in Kuala Lumpur. The Gua Temperung Caves, just outside of Ipoh are tens of millions of years old. I was lucky enough to be the only person in the cave system when I visited; unfortunately, as the caves are only lit by a few lamps, it was too dark for my photos to come out properly. The height of the largest cavern must have been close to 100m tall over a space big enough for four football pitches; whilst the smallest was a damp, smothering and suffocating 6m by 6m; with the silence and ever-present touch of damp in the air, it was more than eerie, and more than a tad alarming, giving off a persistent low-level fear. It was like walking through the mines of Moria in The Lord of the Rings. At one time, millions of years ago, the entire cave system was filled with water, still present today in the form of a small river at the bottom of the system.
The city is also justifiably famous for its food; fantastic news to me! My godmother and her family ensured that I got to taste as much of it as possible such as classic Ipoh-style chicken ho-fun noodles, braised chicken feet, egg-gravy ho-fun, steamed bean sprout chicken, fat aubergines stuffed with fish and pork, silky congee with the chewy “top-layer‟ of beancurd, crab with “sohoon‟ style vermicelli noodles in a claypot (delicious!), “la-la‟ clams steamed with spring onion, ginger, and red chillies, huge (biggest prawns I’ve ever seen) deep-fried salted egg-yolk prawns, sensational yams stewed with spare-ribs and cuttlefish in a claypot, delicious popiah (like a wrap or uncooked spring roll with chicken, crispy pork and vegetables), more-ish ice kachung (a refreshing dessert of crushed ice with evaporated milk, sweetcorn, kidney beans and jelly), classic satays at a proper satay house, fried oyster cake (deliciously sweet and ozone-y fried oysters fried in a batter omelette), small “mouse‟ noodles and larger egg noodles fried with crispy croutons of finely diced pork-fat (yum!). Also, the selection of fruits available in Ipoh was awesome and eye-opening. In particular, I loved rambutan, a generally red small fruit with very soft spines on its skin; to eat it, you have to break it open by twisting it hard to reveal a white centre, not unlike a lychee; a dozen or so are great for breakfast. Another delicious fruit I‟ve never seen before are mangosteens, a generally purply apple-sized fruit with a white interior segmented like a clementine or a mandarin and has a slightly sharp yet sweet taste. However, my favourite fruit of all time is still my newly discovered and beloved durian. Malaysians are completely obsessed with durian (the King of Fruits) and are fiercely proud of the Malaysian variant as opposed to the Thai type normally found in supermarkets and stalls across Asia. Malaysian durian (and there are several different sorts) are generally smaller than their Thai counterparts and have smaller thorns. However, the Malaysian varieties are known to have a sweeter taste and a firmer texture. The durian I tasted in Ipoh was delicious; I think slightly spicy (though some would disagree), very creamy, sticky and sweet – it’s a messy thing to eat but completely delicious and satisfying. You can even eat it for breakfast on its own just with some rice. Unfortunately, apparently I was about a month too early for the durian season to fully kick in during which time the whole of Malaysia becomes even more durian obsessed, with countless stalls and masses of people lining the streets for their share. Oh well; next time, eh! It was at one of these roadside stalls that I was asked a question in Malay; my failure to respond (I didn‟t even think he was talking to me) led to questions of rudeness on my part. I realised that I definitely looked Malaysian, explained by the fact that my mum is from the Philippines (where the indigenous people are part of the wider Malay peoples). I remembered this perception for the future and planned to use it in the next few countries that I’d be visiting; claiming, for example, that you’re Malaysian when in you’re in Thailand helps to explain to people why you can’t speak their language (when they fully expect you be able to) and the fact that you‟re from the same region(ish) reduces any possibility that you’ll be dismissed as just another tourist.
I enjoyed my time in Ipoh immensely; so much fantastic food, some truly spectacular caves and it was great to spend some time with my godmother and her family, getting to know them better. After a few days in Ipoh and about two weeks in Malaysia, it was time to leave for Thailand.