Let’s go Ipoh 2: Beauty queens and limestone caves

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Nothing prepares you for the view inside Jeff’s Cellar, the Banjaran resort’s spectacular 10,000 sq ft cave.

This is a tale of two hotels. But first let me say something about a beauty queen named Josephine Lena Wong who became famous the year I was in fifth form in Kuala Lumpur.

You cannot miss Ipoh’s limestone hills when you’re driving along the North-South Expressway and there are numerous cave attractions to visit.

Ipoh’s rainforest-covered limestone hills are said to be the reason why its water tastes better than anywhere else in the country, and why its beansprouts are plumper and crunchier and tastier than any you get anywhere else. Oh and the limestone water is also why girls from Ipoh are reputed to have the best complexions.

Miss Malaysia 1970 was a teenager named Josephine Lena Wong and at the Miss Universe contest in Miami Beach Florida that year, she became the first Malaysian to make the top 15 semi-finalists, though Miss Puerto Rico eventually won. But the beauties also visited the Japan Expo held in Osaka and, guess what, Miss Malaysia beat everyone else to be the Expo Queen!

Josephine Lena Wong was on the front page of all the papers because Malaysian beauty queens (like their Singapore counterparts, sadly) never win in international pageants. There was such a buzz in Kuala Lumpur and everybody said: “Oh, she’s from Ipoh, no wonder she’s so pretty!” Clearly those Ipoh genes are hereditary because Josephine Lena Wong’s daughter Andrea Fonseka became Miss Malaysia 2004.

So anyway.

I think of Josephine Lena Wong when I think of Ipoh, limestone hills and beansprouts. What can I do. I’m really trying to tell you about The Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat, a 20-minute taxi ride from Ipoh’s Old Town.

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The Banjaran is a Big Splurge getaway from the crowds in Old Town and a day feels like two. The reception area feels like Bali and you get your own pool in your villa.
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It was very hot in Ipoh and I’m a Malayalee man who travels with my moustache and an umbrella. But don’t look at me, look at the lovely backdrop.

Long ago when I started travelling and could afford to go only on a shoestring and it was way before the Internet, I always invested in a good travel guide for tips on where to visit, stay and eat.

I think it was the Frommer’s guidebooks that taught me about the Big Splurge. So even on a budget holiday that meant living in cheap digs and making sandwich meals from supermarket-bought bread, cheese and ham, I learnt to always treat myself to a Big Splurge – one night in a special hotel, a good ticket to a show, one memorable meal. Or two.

In Ipoh, our Big Splurge was staying at the Banjaran resort, which is part of the Sunway group.

One night and two days felt like four days of relaxation in beautifully landscaped surroundings, with limestone hills rising above us and geothermal hot springs filling the resort’s many water features. There are several caves to explore and take in nature’s wonders, but none as fabulous as Jeff’s Cellar. You get such a surprise stepping through its narrow entrance to discover a 10,000 sq ft cave which has a bar, dining area, wine cellar and stunning limestone cave formations to admire.

The pictures tell the story.

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Who would imagine that going up those stairs and through that door would lead you into a 10,000 sq ft cave…

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There are wines in here that cost Ringgit 40,000 (SGD13,300 or threreabouts) which is slightly more than I like to pay for a drink or three.
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This would be quite a venue for a once-in-a-lifetime party.
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Jeff’s Cellar has five tables each night for dinner and they take bookings from people not staying at the resort. Hedwig, Siva and I ended our Ipoh weekend on a high note.

No hipster in Old Town: Embracing the truth at Sekeping Kong Heng 

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Welcome to Sekeping Kong Heng. Travel light if you’re going up these stairs to your hipster room.

We moved to the Banjaran from Sekeping Kong Heng in Ipoh’s Old Town.

I’d first read about this hotel in The Straits Times when its former Malaysia bureau chief Carolyn Hong described the Sekeping group’s efforts to transform old shophouses into edgy new hotels with bare cement floors, trees growing through the walls and floors, and minimalist décor. I was intrigued. And then I kept seeing pictures turning up here and there.

But looking at the reviews online before I booked our rooms, I was concerned to read comments about a narrow staircase that made it difficult to get your bag to your room if you had more than a backpack. And complaints about plenty of noise from the coffeeshops downstairs.

I made a phonecall and someone from the hotel said no problem, we could stay in The Old Block next door, which had a lift and less noise. I’m glad our rooms were in this other building which is mysteriously shared with the Container Hotel.

Still, there comes a point in your life when you have to admit you’re not cool or hipster, and my moment came when I arrived at Sekeping Kong Heng.

First of all, it is just so hard to find this hotel. We had an address but our cabby from the airport had no idea where it was, stopped to ask, and finally dropped us off at a narrow alley between two coffeeshops and said: “Inside there.”

Then we couldn’t find an entrance, nameboard or reception, because, well there is no reception. After walking around in a just-arrived-from-Singapore daze, a friendly shopgirl from a nearby convenience store led me to a hole in the wall and said: “Here, you wait lah.”

I had to make a phonecall before Sonny the hotel’s friendly Everyman arrived to hand us the keys, and his sidekick Zuzu showed us our rooms ever so happily.

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Sekeping Kong Heng doesn’t have a lobby or reception area. First you find this hipster hole in the hipster wall, and if nobody is there, you call a number and Sonny the hotel’s friendly Everyman will turn up and give you your key. And off you go, you hipster, you.
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We had the 5 o’Clock Room on the fourth floor of The Old Block. It bothered me that the door on the right, to the lift, was left unlocked several times and anyone could have wandered in. Hipsters don’t think about such things.
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There’s an open community space for Sekeping guests to lounge and chill, have a drink or read.
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Why do I look down these hipster features and think: “What if this metal grating gives way when I step on it?”
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Perched on a hipster stool in my hipster room I come to terms with the fact that I’m no hipster. I like a hotel with a lobby, a reception area and a room with fresh toiletries.

 

Several times the hotel made me worry about safety and security because doors wouldn’t close fast enough, or another guest would leave a door open and anyone would be able to wander in from the street or the other hotel next door.

When we went to look at the Sekeping hotel proper, the narrow metal staircase was no joke. It was frightening to see a locked gate on the staircase to keep out intruders – because it could also trap guests trying to get out in a hurry.

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The Old Block lift lets you out onto this alley between two coffeeshops. Loads of visitors come to take pictures by the murals and various art installations so the place is always buzzing. This bride and groom came for their wedding shots and then countless visitors took pictures of them and with them too.
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There are art installations and murals everywhere around the Sekeping area, so there’s always something to stop and linger at, like these love locks.
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Next to The Old Block, a set of multicoloured mailboxes in a recess becomes the perfect backdrop for a photo and attracts an endless stream of visitors.
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A very stylo photo shoot was happening right outside the Milkcow ice cream cafe which was always packed in the evenings. Old Town is colourful, buzzing.
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I thought this tiny museum needed no more than  15 minutes and then I spent an hour watching Yasmin Ahmad’s wonderful short films that celebrate racial harmony and a time when people cared less about what made us different than what made us the same. She left us too soon.

The best thing about Sekeping Kong Heng is its wonderful location, smack in the heart of all the makan places, new cafes and interesting new shops in Old Town. If eating’s what you want to do in Ipoh, staying here will let you get to almost everything you want to sample in no time at all.

The Yasmin Ahmad museum is also right within the buzzing Kong Heng Square area I never quite figured out. The museum is a tiny space devoted to Malaysian movie maker Yasmin Ahmad who died too soon, leaving a clutch of wonderful films and advertisements that celebrate racial diversity, nostalgia and remembering the important things in life.

So I’m not cool or hipster. Instead of soaking up the ambience and chilling in minimalism, I kept imagining unwelcome visitors, firetraps and nasty stuff. I also wish the hotel could be just a little less minimal and provide fresh toiletries in the bathrooms and make the beds in the morning.

Location. Location. Location. I kept telling myself Location is everything.

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