I went to Malaysia in search of elevation.
Two weeks in Cambodia had offered a fulfilling blend of temple-hopping in Siem Reap, traffic-dodging in Phnom Penh and crab-cracking in Kep, but it’s all flat and hot and muggy there, all the time. I’m an Oregonian, and I wanted to scramble to the top of a mountain and look around.
So I did some research, and a friend recommended the Cameron Highlands in nearby Malaysia. There are hikes, tea plantations, strawberry fields and — most important — hills.
I booked a $200 plane ticket, hotels, the requisite buses and trains and . . . never made it to the Cameron Highlands. Instead, I got marooned in a place called Ipoh, Malaysia. And it turned out to be one of the smartest travel decisions I’ve ever accidentally made.
Ipoh is an Old Asia gem: uncluttered by tourists and touts, with delicious dim sum and curry and ayam taugeh (bean-sprout chicken) on every corner; unvarnished British colonial architecture on display at every turn of the head; and authentic, friendly locals eager to practice their English on the rare species I became the moment the train pulled into the town’s 98-year-old station — a white guy. I may have had no intention of spending the better part of three days there, but I’ll always be glad that I did.
I’d ruled out going to Vietnam because I was short on time and miffed that a single-entry visa would set me back $65. Day-before plane tickets to Laos were $500 and up, nearly triple what it cost me to jet into Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia was an easy choice.
With only a day to go before my flight, though, I scrambled to make travel arrangements. I headed to Agoda.com, punched in Kuala Lumpur, booked a hotel for the one night I was spending there and then entered “Cameron Highlands” in the search bar. Cameron Highlands, the size of Singapore, describes the hill stations of the Titiwangsa Mountains in Northern Malaysia, so I knew that my search would turn up accommodations throughout the small towns that dot the region. When a hotel in Ipoh popped up, I thought, “Surely that’s close enough.” Why bother consulting a map?
Why bother, indeed.
Another element of my half-formed plan was to rent a motorcycle for the Cameron Highlands exploration. I had a friend in Phnom Penh who’d just returned from this very excursion. He described it as “meh,” but that’s because it had rained nonstop, and the tea plantations had bored him, and he doesn’t hike.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Ipoh that I learned two important things: 1) Ipoh is nearly two hours from any part of the Cameron Highlands, and 2) the road there is far too dangerous to traverse on two wheels. Even the bus ride is a white-knuckler, I learned after finally doing the research that I should have conducted days earlier.
So I was stuck, in a city to which my Lonely Planet guide devoted all of four pages. Something about architecture and great food and coffee. I’d have to make the most of it in Ipoh.
The midsize city was once one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest, thanks to riches pulled out of the nearby Kinta Valley tin mine. It’s named for the poisonous ipoh tree that once grew throughout the region. And its hospitality hit me about an hour before I arrived, still on the train hurtling its way from Kuala Lumpur, when a bespectacled Chinese woman in her 20s sitting beside me offered a piece of gum. We spent the rest of the ride getting to know each other (in English), and by the end, she’d called and asked her father whether he could drop me at my hotel after picking her up. Of course, Dad said.
He was late getting to the train station that locals call the “Taj Mahal,” which is a beautiful piece of Moorish and Victorian architecture built in the “Raj” style found throughout India, according to my guidebook. The delay gave me time to snap a few photos, and for my new friend to tell me all about the best places to find Ipoh’s famous white coffee, a restaurant on the riverfront and some murals hidden in an alley that might make good photographs. She offered to take me to dim sum on Saturday morning. And as her father and his friend shuttled me to the hotel, I learned how to say “hello” in Mandarin and Malaysian.
That night I wandered from my room at Le Metrotel and its comfortable king-size bed to a night market a block away, in search of a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant that serves the best ayam taugeh in town. It’s a simple dish: boiled chicken on a bed of crisp bean sprouts. To the extent that chicken can melt in your mouth, this did. Ipoh was already growing on me.
The next morning, I woke up and took a cab for $2 to the place my friend from the train had recommended for Ipoh white coffee: Sin Yoon Loong, in Old Town. I walked into a bustling restaurant and, with permission, pulled up a chair at a nearly full table and ordered a cup from the waitress. Instead of writing anything down, she simply shouted out, “Coffeeeeeee!” Five minutes later, I had a piping hot cup in front of me and a polite request for 50 cents.
Ipoh white coffee puts any Starbucks latte to shame, and not because it’s a carefully crafted espresso drink but because Starbucks lattes might as well be dumped out of one of those gas station cappuccino machines, in my humble opinion. Ipoh’s latte is about half as sweet as a Starbucks caramel latte and you can actually taste the coffee in it and it’s delicious. Sort of like a coffee-flavored hot chocolate. I ordered another cup, to go. The hot liquid came in a plastic bag, with a plastic straw sticking out the top. Not exactly the “to go” cup I’d had in mind, but I couldn’t taste the melting polyethylene.
Next, I headed to the “Dim sum triangle” in New Town Ipoh in search of a worthy spot. Even after several weeks in Southeast Asia, I hadn’t really gotten used to eating food like dim sum for breakfast, but that’s the only time it’s served, and it’s famous here. I picked the place that looked the least confusing, grabbed a table and headed for the buffet-style offerings.
I immediately had a dim sum mentor; a woman who looked as if she managed the place made sure that I knew where everything was and made unsolicited but welcome suggestions in halting English. It wasn’t the best dim sum I’ve ever had, but it did the trick, sustaining me for what turned out to be a pleasantly exhausting tour of the city.
Ipoh is no small town, with about 700,000 residents, but the city’s core is compact enough to make it feasible to walk all over it. With only a vague idea of a few places I wanted to see, I grabbed my camera and wandered aimlessly, for hours.
Both the city’s New Town and the Old Town are lined with buildings of beautiful British colonial architecture, just unkempt enough to be authentic. The shotgun-style storefronts at the street level of most buildings were nearly always completely open, with only old-fashioned garage doors to pull down at closing time. They provide window after window into every element of every shop, and all I had to do was walk past.
On the edge of New Town, for example, I photographed a man hand-painting license plates for a customer, while he waited, at 7 at night. In Old Town, I snapped a guy oiling a chainsaw on the sidewalk. In New Town, I shot a man slicing carefully through a long strip of laminate for a floor covering, on his hands and knees. The customer smiled at me and said, “You are fortunate to get a good picture.” He was right.
All over Ipoh I scoured, getting lost and found again. At one point, as I crossed the river that splits the town in half, I decided to walk along it for a while, just to see where I’d end up. As I ventured away from the city, my surroundings grew increasingly rural and isolated. A teenager cruised up behind me on a motorcycle, and the cynic in me questioned his intentions. He just wanted to talk, in pretty good English. We traded names, shook hands, and he puttered off.
That night, I decided to check out a dance club near my hotel, recommended by the skinny kid working the front desk in a Santa hat, a month before Christmas. Upon entry, I learned that I had to choose what to drink before walking inside. The cheapest option was a three-liter tower of Tiger beer, for about $18. I signed up and headed to the bar, where they brought out the biggest single drink I have ever ordered. It had a cylindrical ice cube running from the top to the bottom, and a tap, used to serve individual glasses. Not once did I have to signal a bartender for another round. Waiters came by every few minutes to refill my Tiger for me.
The club slowly filled to capacity, and no one was intermingling, which left me convinced that I’d be drinking three liters of beer by myself that night — until I noticed a local girl in a dress designed like an American flag and realized that this was my in. Thirty minutes later, I was doing tequila shots and Jaeger bombs with the DJ, who had just finished his set. As if I needed any more booze.
I didn’t get up early enough the next morning for dim sum, but I did make sure to hit the coffee shop before ambling over to the train station and departing. Mr. Wong, the owner, recognized me from the day before and said that he was surprised I was still there. Then I took his picture, and he yelled out, “Coooffeeeee!”
Ross, a former national correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Ore.