Ipoh (Jan 20-22): Thaipusam Celebrations in a Charming City with Friendly Locals

My transport to Ipoh (pronounced EE-poe) didn’t go as smoothly as I was hoping. In Koh Lipe, I checked into my 11am ferry at 9:45am, had to give them my passport again, and was given a card with a number. Almost immediately after that, they started transferring us into the longtail boats to take us the transport area. There were way more of us this time (about 150 people) and there were only two longtail boats, so they had to keep doing trips back and forth from the beach. Luckily, I got on the second boat so I had to wait at the transport area for the next 45 minutes until the ferry arrived. Once the ferry came, we had to wait for everyone to get off of the ferry and then they called out numbers one by one for people to board the boat – it was so efficient! My number was in the 120’s so I still had to wait a bit to get on. Just after 11, we started the 90-minute journey back to Malaysia. I lost an hour this time, so by the time we all got off the boat in Langkawi, it was about 2pm. I went to the ticket office across the street to find out how I could get to Ipoh, but the next ferry leaving from Langkawi wasn’t until 4pm and they said I would miss the last bus to Ipoh (I think what happens with these ticket counters is they only tell you how to get there from THEIR company, so even if there are buses available with other companies, they don’t tell you about them). I decided to still catch the 4pm ferry anyway, so I bought a ticket to Kuala Kedah for 23 ringgit ($7.51AUD). I went to KFC for lunch since it was next door, and then went back to the ferry terminal at 3:30pm. I couldn’t understand any of the announcements on the intercom so every time people started rushing to a ferry, I’d go up to a security guard and ask if it was my turn. Finally, it was my turn to board so I found my seat for the 1 hour-45 minute ride to Kuala Kedah. I arrived just before 6pm and I knew that there’d be a train leaving for Ipoh at 6:45 so I requested a Grab to take me to the train station in Alor Setar, which cost 14 ringgit ($4.57) and took nearly a half hour. The Grab driver seemed very curious and kept asking me so many questions, to the point where it felt weird. When we got to the train station, the traffic was pretty backed up so I said I’d just get out and walk the rest of the way because I only had about 20 minutes left. I got to the ticket counter, asked for a ticket to Ipoh, and he said that the train was full and I’d have to take a bus. I looked on my map and saw that the bus station was less than a ten-minute walk away so I decided to walk, but as I left the station, I heard someone yell out, “Miss!” and my Grab driver was still there. I told him that I needed to get to the bus station so he told me to get into the car but then drove past the station on my map. “Are you going to the bus station?” “Yes, it’s about five minutes away.” Turns out there was another bus station so I was lucky that I didn’t end up walking all the way to the other one. When we got there, I asked how much I owed him and he said it was fine and then asked if I wanted him to assist me inside, and I said I was okay. Someone was at the entrance of the bus station and asked where I was going, and then he directed me to a counter that he was running. He said that the next bus wasn’t until 8pm and it would take four hours, meaning I wouldn’t arrive in Ipoh until after midnight. There were only four seats left! I asked him to wait and I contacted my hostel to see if it would be okay and they said that they’d give me a code to enter the hostel and then I could pay/check-in the next morning, which was amazing of them! So I went ahead with buying the bus ticket for 28 ringgit ($9.14). Since I had over an hour to kill, I decided to get dinner but there wasn’t much in the station. The bus station actually just had a sketchy/creepy vibe to it, especially as it approached night time. There were a couple of restaurants across the street so I walked over and heard, “Miss!” again. I looked over and the Grab driver was sitting at a table with two other guys. They were all drivers (that day), waiting for their next ride request. I sat with them, but the other two guys didn’t seem to speak English and the whole dinner felt somewhat uncomfortable. They didn’t have a menu so I ended up ordering an iced tea and some fried rice with the help of the Grab driver. He said that him and his friends all work different jobs normally but since it was a public holiday, they decided to be Grab drivers to get extra money. However, he had only gotten five drive requests during the entire day and it was already 7pm (he said he’d wait until 10pm). I think he had said he made less than 60 ringgit that day ($20), which was pretty crazy to me. Anyway, I left at 7:30, paid 6 ringgit for my meal ($1.96), and sat in the bus station to wait for my bus. I waited until 8pm, then 8:30, and then 9pm before the bus finally came. I got to my seat at the very back of the bus and relaxed for the next four hours, as I was exhausted. However at about midnight, the bus started making funny noises so the bus driver pulled over for about 10-15 minutes to fix it. Finally just before 1am, we arrived at the Ipoh bus station. I then had to take a Grab to my hostel, which took about 20 minutes and cost 16 ringgit ($5.22). I was staying in Vloft Backpackers and as soon as you entered, you were already in my bedroom – a 12-bed dorm. However, it only cost 24 ringgit ($8) per night so it was pretty cheap! I used the code to get into the hostel, got ready for bed, found my bed in the dark, and passed out.

On Monday, it was Thaipusam – a Hindu-celebrated holiday to honour Lord Murgan (the god of war) for prayers that had been answered during the past year. The celebration starts early in the morning (sometimes at 5am), when devotees prepare for their long walk to an important temple. There are many people who go through face piercings or hooks pierced into their skin, and some people drag kavadis (burdens) attached to the hooks behind them for the duration of the walk. Apparently, it’s quite a spectacle and it’s not too easy on the stomach for people who aren’t used to seeing it. I decided to forego this part of the day, as I’m not too great with that kind of stuff and I didn’t want to get up at 5 after going to bed past 1:30. I got up at about 9:30, got ready for the day, and started my food tour. I read that Ipoh (along with Penang) has some of the best food in Malaysia and since I wasn’t too wowed by the food in Penang, I did some research to find good food in Ipoh. I was planning to go to a coffee shop for breakfast and then catch the last of the Thaipusam walk before it finished at noon so I started walking towards Nam Heong White Coffee to try their coffee. On my walk, it was too easy to be distracted by all of the buildings around me. Some were extremely colourful, some were so run down, but each one had its own charm and beauty that was easy to appreciate. I walked down a street with gorgeous street art and then I came across a beautiful mosque that had the exact same white and blue colours that you’d see on the buildings in Santorini.

I walked to the gate to get some photos and then the caretaker asked if I’d like to come in. He led me into the office, where there was a man who voluntarily gave tours of the mosque. First, he gave me some clothes to wear because I had to be fully covered (head included) and then he walked me around the mosque. After the quick tour, we went back into the office and he explained more about Islam and the Muslim faith. He even got me to read some scriptures and take some brochures, so I got the sense that I was in some type of conversion situation. He told me why women have to have their heads covered and showed me the scripture (in the bible as well) that says that if a woman shows her hair, it should be shaved off and if it won’t be shaved then it should be covered. It was interesting and I didn’t realise how many similarities there were between the Muslim and Christian faith. Anyway, after about an hour, I said I should get going and he offered me some roti that his daughter had made.

I continued my walk to the coffee shop and it was completely packed! I had to join a table and then go to order what I wanted. I got a sesame ball, an egg tart, some prawn dumplings, and then asked the salesman what his favourite thing was, which was a deep-fried prawn wonton so I got one of those as well. All that with a delicious iced coffee cost me 10.80 ringgit ($3.53)!

I stayed for awhile and was joined by an older couple from Malaysia who were in Ipoh for the weekend. They were shocked that I was travelling alone (as was everyone I talked to there). I walked around for the rest of the afternoon and checked out some of the buildings and walked down Little India. There were tons of stalls set up for Thaipusam, giving food to everyone who had finished their long walk. I was offered juice a few times, which I accepted, and felt somewhat honoured that they included me in their festivities, even if it was in a small way.

Ipoh is filled with such friendly people! I’ve honestly never talked to so many locals in one place than I have in Ipoh. Everyone was so curious about where I was from, why I was there, and whether I liked it. With that being said, there were also some sketchier areas, where it felt uncomfortable walking down a street because I could feel like I was constantly being stared at. However, it was still very easy for me to fall in love with Ipoh’s charm and friendly locals, and I wanted to stay longer. I 100% preferred it over Penang! That afternoon, I needed to exchange money since I still mostly had Thai Baht and needed money to pay for my hostel. It was quite difficult finding anything because since it was a public holiday, pretty much everything was closed. I eventually found a currency exchange place to buy some ringgit and then went back to the hostel so I could officially check in. During mid-afternoon, I decided to get a snack so I went to Funny Mountain Soya Bean, where I tried Tau Foo Fah, which is soft tofu covered in a sugary sauce. The tofu is so smooth, it just glides down your throat. I also got their soy drink – I’m not sure what was in it but it seemed to be similar to tapioca, and it was also quite good.

For those two items, it cost me 5.50 ringgit ($1.80). I then found an electronics store and went to buy a phone cable since mine would only work if I bent it a certain way, so that set me back 8 ringgit ($2.61). I stopped at Sin Eng Heong, which is a bakery, and I tried a Kaya Kok (Kaya puff), which is a pastry with a coconut flavour inside.

It only cost me 1 ringgit (33 cents)! I then decided to walk towards Kallumalai Temple, which was about 40 minutes away but had stalls along most of the street for Thaipusam.

Once I got to the temple, I went into the main area but I didn’t go into the actual temple, as there was a huge lineup of people waiting to pray and I didn’t want to do anything disrespectful. However, I did get lots of smiles from people and nods, which for me translated into a “Thank you for taking part.” A few people came up to me and asked where I was from and if this was my first Indian festival. One man gave me his phone number just in case I needed anything, and then asked if I would take a picture with his daughters, who had some pretty dresses on. Everyone looked so colourful and some of the dresses were absolutely gorgeous!

Many people were carrying plates of coconuts and oranges with incense to offer in the temple. There was also an area that had peacocks and another area that offered head-shaving. One of the guys noticed me watching and asked if I’d like to get my head shaved and I declined while we both laughed.

I made my way back to the hostel because it seemed like it was going to rain, but a proper rainfall never came. That evening, I went to Restoran Tuck Kee, which was on my list of places to go but I was confused when I saw Sun Tuck Kee two doors down from the original. I found a table and ordered what they’re most known for: Wat Tan Hor Fun, which is fried flat noodles served in a thick egg gravy with vegetables, prawns and meat.

It looks very different, but it’s probably one of the best meals that I’ve had in Malaysia! The combination of all the flavours work so well together, and the egg gravy is so smooth and tasty. The meal with a coke cost me 9 ringgit ($2.94). I walked down to the nearby night market, which wasn’t that great, spent some time at a Chinese New Year celebration, and then went back to the hostel.

On Tuesday morning, I got up and packed up my stuff (which I left at the hostel), and I had until 3pm to enjoy my last few hours in Ipoh. I walked to the Old Town and stopped at Thean Chun restaurant to order Kai See Hor Fun, which is kind of like a chicken noodle soup with prawns and vegetables added to it. The lady also said to get bean sprouts, and then I asked for a cold coffee. “Cold coffee not good.” Okay then, hot coffee it was! I also ordered a Caramel Egg Custard, all for 11.10 ringgit ($3.62).

Everything was really tasty, although I don’t think the lady liked my way of eating each thing separately because she came up to my table and told me to eat the beansprouts while I was eating the Kai See Hor Fun. After my breakfast, I walked about ten minutes to the bus station because I wanted to check out one of the temples outside of the city called Sam Poh Tong Temple. I sat and waited for bus #66 and then paid 1.50 ringgit ($0.49) for the bus ride. I got off and walked down a street with two other temples leading to the Sam Poh Tong Temple. The temple was extremely quiet and there were “Do Not Enter” signs on both entrances, along with some beggars sitting in the entrance. I walked through anyway, and the zen garden in front of the temple was absolutely gorgeous!

I had trouble figuring out how the temple worked though, as hardly anyone was there. The temple was poorly maintained and I didn’t really see why it was one of the top attractions in Ipoh. There was a tortoise pond behind the temple with a fountain that was no longer running.

I had read that you could climb up to see a nice view of Ipoh, but I couldn’t figure out where it would be because there weren’t any signs around and the only place that might have led to the viewpoint was surrounded by monkeys who had already stolen some peoples’ food. Obviously, there was no way that I’d be going that way, even though I didn’t have any food with me. My new-found fear of monkeys might now deter me from doing many things in Asia, unfortunately. After my short time there, I decided to not go to the other temple, which was further away (Kek Look Tong Temple) and instead requested a Grab to go back into the city, which only cost 8 ringgit ($2.61). I walked around for a bit, decided to buy some more phone cords since they were so cheap and my new one was bound to stop working at some point in the next three months. They had a special “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” deal, so I got three more cords for 16 ringgit ($5.22). I then went to buy some Claritin since I had been using it to lessen the itchiness from my nail polish reaction (see last blog post) and was so impressed to find out that they were 1 ringgit 30 per pill. I bought ten pills for 13 ringgit ($4.24), which is cheaper than anywhere I would find in Canada or Australia. I went to the hostel to get my stuff, took a Grab to the bus station for 13 ringgit ($4.24), and arrived at about 2:20. Then I bought a ticket to Cameron Highlands for 20 ringgit ($6.53), picked up some roti with curry and an iced tea for 7 ringgit ($2.29), and got on my bus for 3pm.

I really loved Ipoh and I don’t understand why it’s usually skipped over by travellers. I only saw about three tourists while I was walking around, but maybe that’s why I felt so welcomed by the friendly locals. The buildings and street art are beautiful, and the food is some of the best that I’ve had in Malaysia! Love always

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