Crossing the new 13km bridge across the straits from Pulau Penang to the Malaysian mainland, we headed south to Ipoh. Unlike Kuala Lumpur and Batu Ferringhi and many other towns in Malaysia, Ipoh has quietly slipped under the radar of high rise development, becoming a millionaire’s paradise while keeping its own character. We forget that with the rise and rise of the Asian economy, tin mining brought riches to Malaya long before the Brits or any other colonials wafted through.
These days Ipoh cares not a jot for the Westerner. Our one day in the city before heading to our jungle retreat was spent sheltering from the rain and observing a typical Saturday in mid Malaysia. The culture we found was Starbucks and cinema in the kind of mall where most of the world lives on a Saturday afternoon these days. As we sat among the latte drinking iPadders before watching ‘The Host’ and monsoon season settled in outside, no one shouted ‘where you from?’ in that sing-song question that’s more about finding a way of making a few dollars from the white man than any real interest in the difference between Brighton or Berlin. Even as we wandered through the little lanes in search of my old home (and found a new office development on the site of 156 Gopeng Rd), the middle class neighbours showed no interest. We may have blagged our way into the Ipoh swimming club, once the domain of Australian and British Army wives and kids, but the mothers here today were far more interested in little Li Mei’s 25 yards front crawl than the giant white family sipping their Tiger beers and Lilts on the terrace.
I heard the whispers of my parents suggesting a pink gin at to The Ipoh Club, scene of many a glamorous expat party. Donning our least crumpled clothes, we headed into town. The receptionist and waiter looked as though they may have been there since 1965, and our drinks took almost as long to arrive but again the welcome was underwhelming. An Indian wedding took central stage while we gazed out across the Padang, sipping bad vodka and tonics, and imagined a time gone by. It was time to look for the Malaysia that wasn’t about the colonial past but about a new Asia, one that had cut its apron strings from the Empire and grown up with a more confident philosophy carved from ancient traditions and futuristic vision.
We left my parents wandering through the corridors of The Ipoh Club and the next morning headed to new Malaysia. They wouldn’t have been interested in The Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat, one of the new Eco-chic resorts selling the country’s ancient treasures to a moneyed, younger generation from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bejing. There’s no nod to colonialism here, just minerals from its underground springs and old fashioned Asian smiles that are more calming than any temporary rejuvenation session in the spa. This resort has been carved out of caves which had only been used by Japanese soldiers in WWII until three years ago when Malaysia’s own Richard Branson, Jeffrey Cheah developed it into an eco-retreat. Their etchings are still in the caves, now used for meditation, steam and a fabulous bar and cellar for Jeff’s wine habit. Sumptuous villas with their own pools and jacuzzis dot the cleared jungle landscape and mists rise from lakes of hot springs. The dipping pots of 40 degree mineral-rich springs vie with the garra rufa fish to heal the hard skinned, stressed-out guests. The fish win as a steady stream come to offer their feet for a free nibble.
Jed begins to fret at the offer of nothing but time for the next two days and looks for a way out, while the kids can’t believe that they have their own pool in their own villa. I interview the rather gorgeous French chef and ideas are buzzing for articles for Gourmet Traveller and a book on spa cuisine. Back in the villa, an email arrives from Monash university in KL inviting me to deliver a seminar next week on my academic research on TV chefs and the construction of taste. This is my world; food, chefs, journalism and academia – preferably global – and suddenly that little girl looking for her parents has gone. I can feel my apron strings coming loose and my hand finding a new one to hold as I turn 50 at Banjaran.
It’s been a big couple of years with the loss of both my parents. It’s been a big trip home to Malaysia, and as we leave Ipoh on the ‘ Ekspress bas’ to the east coast, and the terminal turns out to be opposite the site of our old home on Gopeng Rd, I hear those giggles again. I’ll leave my lovely old mum and dad to look around their old haunts and take my own family on an eight hour trip, traveller style, across the Genting Highlands to the crystal waters of Kuantan. Yes, it was where we went on holiday in the ’60s but as my own kids’ gap years come into focus and Jed and I talk about how to combine work with more travel, I’m going east with an eye on the future and less in the past. A bit like Malaysia, perhaps.