“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway


8 February 2015

Couchsurfing in Ipoh

11th - 16th January 2015

    Our exit route from Penang should be nicknamed "The Overkill Line". Never has a four hour journey required a minibus and three regular busses but despite the slight inconvenience we made it to Ipoh.

Time to take out the trash
     Our initial plan was to spend two nights in at The Abbey Hotel which lies on the edge of the old town before attempting to couchsurf. If your expecting a lively atmosphere the Abby probably wouldn't be the right accommodation for you. The hotel is one of the newest additions to town and parts are still in construction. The common area is limited to one sofa by the front desk. If your just looking for a comfy bed then you'll feel fine here although it must be noted some of the rooms do not have a window but for a few quid a night and a central location we couldn't complain.

If we weren't trying to avoid flights this would be a great way to get to Oz
     Despite not featuring on the most travellers to visit list Ipoh and the surrounding region has a rich history and offers plenty of sights. The city was Malaysia's second administrative centre after Kuala Lumpur during British rule and became a lucrative earner for the empire due to the abundance of tin in the region.
    Today the old town features old colonial buildings and some great street art similar to what we saw in Penang. In front of the towns impressive railway station sits the plant that gives the town its name. The Antiaris or Ipoh Tree in Malay across Asia for being the plant which produces the poison jungle dwelling tribes used to soak their arrows and darts. Apparently some of these jungle peoples still live in remote regions of the Malay Peninsula and Borneo but in Ipoh the tree purely remains as an emblem of local pride.

no caption needed

"Are you sure you only sell durian here in Gopeng?"
     On our first full day we ventured outside Ipoh and caught a local bus to Kellies Castle. Sadly this unfinished, ruined mansion was closed on the day we visited but we were still able to get a few photos from the entrance. The journey wasn't a complete waste though as the nearby town of Gopeng contained a nice selection of street art.

Although there are limited sights in Ipoh old town there are plenty of places to grab a bite to eat. Great independent Chinese tea houses operate on the same roads as the street art and offer a range of great noodle based grub. These tea shops are famous for the dessert caramel cake which is very reminiscent of the crème caramel dishes you can find in Europe. A sugar rush is always welcome when your on the move.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth
 By the time we returned from our magical mystery tour it was time to grab some dinner. Jono arranged for us to meet a local couchsurfer who lived on the outskirts of the city and had some rooms available for the following night.
Amazingly this was the first time we had managed to find a vacant host through the site. We attempted to use couchsurfer to find cheap accommodation in Europe but spaces are competitive and the nature of our travels meant we were never in one place very long, so our plan never worked out. We have found that the site offers a great platform for arranging meet ups with local hosts. This function has proved incredibly useful in large, unfamiliar cities and we met some great local guides in Warsaw, Riga and Saint Petersburg.

Bruvs with Bella
No need for washing dishes in the Indian restaurant

First impressions were great as Bella arranged to pick us up with her friend John and food court style restaurant. The corrugated roof courtyard looked at little rough and dilapidated at first sight but out here that's a good sign of a culinary diamond in the rough. The food court offered a range of culinary delights from the region and beyond. Laksa, Pad Thai, Satay, Singapore Mehun, Penang Curry, they had the lot.
As we have been in Asia for a while now I though I'd be a smart ass and try a Penang curry. I had eaten this dish a few times before in Thailand and Malaysia and though I could handle the chili. Unfortunately I soon found out that the dishes in Penang and Thailand are adapted to tourists taste buds and spent most of the time sweating and crying. Later I was told Penang Curry is mild to medium dish on the spicy spectrum (mental note: stick to butter chicken).
Bella and John were great guides and we shared stories of travel, job, countries and family for a good few hours before moving on. Before dropping us off at the Abby Hotel they were kind enough to show us a local temple but it was a bit of a wash out on account of the tropical weather front hitting the region. I guess we should be glad it was the end of the wet season.

     The next day we were picked up and led to "Casa D'Bella" where we would be staying for a few nights. Bella's place is ideal for couchsurfing and she had enough room for four or five surfers. The place was on a quiet estate and guarded 24/7 by six or so cats (if food was out). Bella's efforts go far and beyond the minimal requirements of a host and she took great joy in  offering us advice regarding sights and offering to drive us around.

A great view of the karst mountains from the cave temple
Our first sight on the cards was a nearby cave temple dedicated to Chinese Buddhism. There are many cave temples around Ipoh most of which charge an entrance fee but Bella assured us this one would be free and offer great views of the karst landscape. The natural weathered limestone structure was filled with statues and murals depicting gods and idols. The most magnificent of these was a 7 meter high Buddha. A 300 step stone staircase ascended from the rear of the temple and hugged the limestone cliff and led to a stone elephant idol at the summit. The view from the top wasn't as stunning as other karst landscapes we'd seen in China and Vietnam but considering this area isn't a popular tourist it sure as hell left us wondering why the coaches aren't flocking to the region.

Cave Buddha
One of many cave temples in the region

Turtle power!
    After the temple we ventured to the aptly named "Jurassic Park". This small landscaped space was a great place to chill out and have lunch. The entrance of park is blocked off by a small lake nestled between two karst limestone hills. A small ferry was required to cross this water body where your serenaded by the lyrics of "Islands in the stream" by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Pretty strange!?

Dinosaurs do exist here
Back home were used to seeing families walking their dog and letting their kids feed the ducks. In Ipoh the ducks have been replaced by a large colony of turtles and koi carp and monkeys (on the shore) all begging for your lunch. Granted it's an artificial environment designed to draw in visitors but in Jurassic Park it works well. If your really lucky you may even see a few "Dinosaurs" (monitor lizards) which roam the more isolated areas of the park. 

It's true when they say "only mad dogs and Englishmen walk out in the midday sun" and after our brief exploration of the area we settled into the Malaysian way of life a kicked back and chilled during the heat of the day. Malaysia's climate is very consistent all year round with an average high of 32°C so out here working hours tend start much earlier than back home to avoid the peak heat.
Bella's home had the feel of a guesthouse with the atmosphere of a top hostel and it was great to spend time with like minded backpackers all with an interesting story to tell. It's not everyday that you meet a French national who has been living in the Amazon Rainforest with indigenous tribes for the last year. Most evenings we would have a nice group meal at Bella's favourite eateries. One in particular we visited a lot over the week. It was a banana leaf restaurant offering great curry dishes. Proper curries not like the adaptations we get in the UK. All the meat is cooked off the bone, served with naan's and roti's and best of all served on a banana leaf. No cutlery, no plate, no washing up that's how they roll here

Jurassic Park lake

Ipoh is the gateway to the Cameron Highlands famous for the cool climate and jungle trekking. Most tourists skip Ipoh in favour of the Cameron's but unbeknown to us Ipoh has trekking routes to match. If you manage to avoid the corruption that is.
Bella was kind enough to take us to a national park where we could trek to a waterfall. This would have been great if it wasn't for the local "Forestry Bureau". No sooner had we parked up and got out of the car a group of Malay locals came out of nowhere and  "welcomed" us to Malaysia. Now its fair to say as much as we like friendly welcomes during our travels we have noticed a definite correlation between friendly welcomes and people looking to con tourists and sure enough we were right. The main guy said that if we wanted to enter the reserve (which Bella informed us was free to visit to all) we would have to pay for a "permit". Frustrated by this cock and bull story Bella advised us that its best if we don't see the waterfall and that she would report the story to the local newspaper to warn others. This sort of thing is frustrating but all part of the package of South East Asia travel unfortunately. Corruption amongst government officials and bureaus is rife and a real issue. The short sighted gains of the minority unfortunately cause a knock on impact for local tourism. If a few cases get reported then an area gets a bad reputation and tourists go elsewhere. Its as simple as that.

This sort of thing can happen almost anywhere and if your backpacking you should remember that if someone seems overly friendly chances are they are a friendly person but there is always a 5% chance they want something from you. Its therefore perfectly healthy for you to be a little paranoid.

Not quite the waterfall but it will do
Jess "The 30l backpacker girl"

 In summary our first experience couchsurfing was a great one and if your fed up of boutique hostels that are full of travellers fixated on their phones and laptops then it definitely ticks all the boxes. You meet interesting local people, share knowledge, make friends with like minded travellers, get extremely cheap accommodation and all you have to do is pay the kindness back if your paths cross again. We both hope to meet Bella again some day.

 Even though neither of us had ever heard of Ipoh before our visit we were extremely glad we stopped by. It's an overlooked part of Malaysia with awesome countryside, history, culture and an array of sights. A little like our home town Northampton and the surrounding county which was the English capital for a few years, has a long history of shoemaking, famous battles, royal estates and stunning rolling fields but few people know about it. If your looking for a break from the tourist hoards and want to experience genuine Malaysia add Ipoh to your bucket list.

Useful Links

Ipoh Tourism Board
Hotel Abby
Antiaris (Ipoh) Tree
Kellie's Castle
30 litre backpacker girl

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