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Boutique-ful Ipoh: Small hotels with real character

Plenty of local hardwood such as Chengal is used at Happy 8, as evidenced by their doors and chandeliers. – Pictures by CK LimKUALA LUMPUR, Jan 17 -- Ipoh is not just about Old Town white coffee or sar hor fun. More and more visitors are heading to this former mining town for a relaxing weekend given the recent rejuvenation of the town centre.

There are heritage walks and colourful cafés to discover. And if you are staying the night, instead of the usual boring hotels, why not give one of these intriguing boutique hotels a try?

In pursuit of happy-ness

Some boutique hotels can be run-of-the-mill, no different from a scaled down version of a  conventional hotel. The auspiciously-named Happy 8, located in the town centre along Jalan Pasar, is definitely an original, displaying plenty of kitschy charm as well as an environment-conscious philosophy to reuse materials that are otherwise cast off.

The owner KL Tan explains, “My main business is to manufacture wooden furniture that has won awards at exhibitions. Some are made out of cast-offs from the factory or unusual pieces of old wood. We eventually ran out of storage space for them at the factory. I then got the idea to create a showroom in a bungalow to display them.”

Due to requests from visitors who were awed by the design, the showroom became the first Happy 8 homestay in Pasir Puteh. However, Tan envisioned a place that would better suit the theme of reworking old materials, a building with more history, hence the creation of the Happy 8 boutique hotel in Jalan Pasar.

Plenty of local hardwood such as Chengal is used at Happy 8, as evidenced by their doors and chandeliers. – Pictures by CK Lim At the auspiciously-named Happy 8, wake up with the view of the sky, courtesy of a skylight (left). The whimsical wall paintings of the Happy 8 hotel are original contributions by workers of different nationalities (right)Tan admits that the hotel décor was not planned. He says, “There was no specific design, only layouts for the guest rooms and the café to serve guests. The beautiful paintings on the walls in the hallways and rooms are thanks to my workers. Being of different nationalities -– Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Indonesian -– they had different ideas and contributions.”

Plenty of local hardwood such as Chengal as well as bamboo are used as furnishings in Happy 8. The hotel’s front doors are made by hand, not machine, using what is known locally as pokok Ipoh or Ipoh tree that Tan had kept for many years in his factory in Bukit Merah.

“I feel Perak has a lot to offer and this is our way of showcasing it: by giving new life to these abandoned pieces of wood instead of throwing it away,” he says.

Indulgence Restaurant and Living is housed in a majestic colonial-style bungalow in Ipoh (left). At Indulgence, Julie Song’s tiramisu is an authentic treat (right)

Indulging in simply the best

For those seeking to pamper themselves with the best life has to offer, perhaps a getaway to a majestic colonial-style boutique hotel is the answer. Indulgence Restaurant and Living is the brainchild of award-winning entrepreneur and chef Julie Song, who first burst into
Ipoh’s gastronomic scene with a small half-shoplot café serving cakes and coffee in 1996.

Song recalls, “Back then there was no real modern European cuisine on offer in Ipoh. So I decided to import fresh produce and introduce this style of dining here. People warn that our community can be price-sensitive, yet once their palate was triggered, they learned to enjoy these sort of dishes too.”

In 2005, Indulgence the restaurant outgrew its original shoplot and moved to its current location. Two years later, Song decided to renovate the rest of the rooms and open a boutique hotel.

“I like the colonial-style architecture. Also, I am quite daring. When I started, others told me this wouldn’t work. However, I believe that you have to create the market yourself; you have to create the demand,” she says.

The colourful bathrooms at Indulgence are decorated with items are collected by Julie Song from flea markets during her travelsIndulgence now houses seven guest rooms in addition to the restaurant. Each room is decorated with a different colour palette and a whimsical décor as Song enjoys interior design. She shares, “Most decorative items are collected from flea markets during my travels abroad. Many guests are expatriates or high net worth executives from multinational corporations who appreciate a more  upmarket ambience and their privacy.”

For Song, freshness and quality of the ingredients she uses in her kitchen are of paramount importance. She says, “I bring in blood oranges, Wagyu  beef of grade 10 or 11 –-  no less than grade 9 for me, and other produce you don’t normally find here in Ipoh.”

Her regulars come for treats they know they wouldn’t get elsewhere in town, such as her oven-fresh scones, available only on Sundays, tiramisu and beverages such as Rozz Latte, a frothy concoction of soy milk and hibiscus sauce.

When asked about her next project, Song hopes to open a service apartment with the quirky addition of hammocks and trees. Sounds like another place to indulge in the good life!

Relax on hammocks and bean bags at Sekeping Kong Heng

A slice of history

Built in the 1920s, the Kong Heng complex has seen a revival over the last couple of years. While the original kopitiam has been retained and still serves hawker fare and Ipoh’s legendary white coffee to visitors and long-time patrons alike, the rest of the iconic establishment has been converted into a “back-to-nature” boutique hotel, Sekeping Kong Heng.

The hotel’s minimalist appeal stems from it keeping much of the original character of the building while incorporating owner and award-wininng landscape architect Ng Sek San’s trademark touches such as exposed brickwork and concrete, and the use of recycled and rescued materials.

Ng recalls, “I grew up with it, along with many others. I remember having regular meals here. The property itself used to be a hostel for dramatists and Chinese opera performers. We bought the property to avoid it being torn down by the developer seller to build a highrise. We are just reinstating its former use.”

At Sekeping Kong Heng, explore the building’s history and its layers of stories through every doorway and around every corner (left). A “back-to-nature” boutique hotel, Sekeping Kong Heng has been restored from the former Dramatist’s Hostel (right)In redesigning the run-down property into Sekeping Kong Heng, Ng was careful to achieve this   without obliterating the building’s history and its colourful layers of stories. He explains, “Our aim was to treat the old building with some respect and touch it as lightly as possible.”

Ng insists that there are no typical hotel guests at Sekeping Kong Heng as they “do not want it to be exclusive or elitist. The Sekeping brand is about being inclusive and giving our diverse guests the opportunity to experience the “Third World aesthetics’ that we are championing and promoting.”

Sekeping Kong Heng is a fine example of how renovating old buildings be done so it fits in and contributes to the neighbourhood’s original character. As Ng puts it, “We have a responsibility so that our development will contribute to the neighborhood and community. It is about bringing people back into the old city which has been abandoned in preference for the suburbs.”

The Happy 8 Old Town Ipoh
No. 46, Jalan Pasar, 30000 Ipoh, Perak
Tel: 05-2438388

Indulgence Restaurant and Living
14 Jalan Raja Dihilir, 30350 Ipoh, Perak
Tel: 05-2557051
Restaurant open Wed-Sun 9am-11.30pm

Sekeping Kong Heng
75 Jalan Panglima, 30000 Ipoh, Perak
Tel: 012-2272745 and 05-2418977

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on January 16, 2014