>Malaysia – hotel reviews II

>Ipoh and Pangkor

Ritz Garden Hotel

Can’t afford the ‘Carlton’ in the Ritz so we settled for next best – the ‘Garden’. Located in the heart of the newer section of Ipoh town at Jalan Yang Kalsom, the Ritz Garden has been our favourite base in Ipoh for some time.

Our first visit to Ipoh saw us staying at the Seri Malaysia chain’s Ipoh branch. The condition of the hotel was really bad – damp carpets, bathroom doors suffering from rot, smell of stale durian in the fridge and it had a really spooky air about it. The other places in Ipoh either looked sleazy, were over-priced or inconveniently located. We thought we would actually skip Ipoh as a night-stop until we found the Ritz Garden. Since then, its been our preferred base in Ipoh.

This is a small 2-star hotel with smart and newly refurbished rooms that are clean and comfortable. At RM145 (low floors) or RM165 (higher floor – actually not much of a difference since the hotel only has about 7 floors with the 8th and 9th taken up by penthouse suites) for a Super Deluxe, this was really value for money.

The rooms are compact and come with either king or twin beds. We usually take inter-connecting rooms for our brood. Views from the upper floors show a scene of rooftops from old shophouses, school fields, schools, churches and in the distance, a bluish hazy outline of the limestone outcrops that surround Ipoh.

On our recent visit though, the room we had a pungent smell of hair oil. We asked if something could be done and the housekeeping section sent a guy with a deodoriser which he enthusiastically sprayed and it was only then that we realised that THAT was the smell – help! We had to air out both rooms in the end by opening up the windows. I would like to think this was isolated though, because we’ve never experienced that during our previous stays. Other than that, the rooms are sparkling clean.

Breakfast spread in the morning was modest and nothing fancy, usually nasi lemak and condiments as a main course, but the staff were helpful and did not bat an eyelid for our requests for 10 half boiled eggs, 7 empty bowls, soya sauce etc. It might not seem like much but we do get disbelieving looks at other places we’ve stayed at.

Because the hotel is located in the heart of the new town, it provides easy access to good food. Two traffic lights away north on Jalan Yang Kalsom, past the big central police station, turn left and you’ll come to the intersection where three famous names for Ipoh hor fun vie for your attention.

Ipoh also has an interesting old town where many pre-war buildings are left pretty much intact, so much so that Lee Ang chose to film Lust Caution here in the old town as old Hong Kong. Here in the heart of the old town, there’s an iconic coffee shop that sells slurpily yummy Ipoh hor fun in the day. Cross the Kinta river and you’ll come to what I think is the grandest building in Ipoh, the lovely St Michael’s Institution with its soaring gables, graceful verandas and large fields. How I wish we had schools like this in Singapore – so much character, history and charm. Across from that is the old padang and with it, the quintessential club that comes with every ‘padang’ from KL to Singapore. In Ipoh’s case, it is the Royal Ipoh Club. Round the corner, the FMS bar still stands. In the old days, planters would congregate here for their stengahs and some camaraderie on weekends. Today, it still functions as a bar and restaurant, albeit a bit faded around the edges and it is believed to be Malaysia’s oldest functioning bar!

We also visited the old railway station, now converted to a hotel. While the facade looked like it was recently whitewashed, the interior looks disappointing. The ground floor has been partitioned off into sleazy small ‘massage parlours’. Upstairs, a generous veranda fronts the building. The flooring and fixtures still look original, but the rooms are a real gloomy letdown – low ceilings, musty, cramped, dark with only one tiny window opening up to a grim view of half-abandoned corridors in the other wing. The bathroom retains much of the original fixtures, from the porcelain tubs right down to the flooring. I think the place is actually quite charming and its just a real pity that it is not better restored and maintained. Given the history, the architecture and the location, this place could really work as a lovely boutique hotel.

Overall rating: 7 out of 10. Excellent value!

Swiss Garden Golf Resort and Spa, Damai Laut

The last time we went to Pangkor, we could not get any rooms on the island, so we settled for a rundown place in Lumut which gave me a spooky night experience. This time, we thought we’d be better prepared and book a stay at the Swiss Garden. Lumut accomodation, by the way, is generally limited to very run-down places that are not really worth the money or the time. So we thought we’d pay a bit more and stay at a better place.

From the map given by the resort, Lumut looked deceptively near, so we thought it would be no problem commuting to Lumut if we had to. We thought wrong of course. From the turn-off on Route 5, the main road from Ipoh to Lumut, we followed signs to the Swiss Garden. It took us well over half an hour from Route 5 to the resort. So much so that we wondered if we were actually lost, muttering to ourselves, that the resort can’t be that far! It took us past industrial plants, river mouths spanned by three bridges, and seemingly, further and further away from Lumut. Finally we drove down a narrow plantation road, flanked by mangroves and a pineapple and dragon fruit plantation before finally seeing the resort gateway. From the gate, it was another five minutes drive to the resort proper – passing the condo, the golf course, assorted bungalows etc. Geez the place is really really remote!

Because its so remote, most guests are really held captive there because it takes too long to go anywhere else. Under these circumstances, it was no surprise that everything cost a bomb in the hotel. The ferry ride to Pangkor was a whopping RM35 per adult, RM23 per kid. In contrast, the ride from Lumut was just RM10 per adult! Initially, our plan was to arrive early, park the bags at the hotel and take the hotel ferry across. Instead, because it was just so exorbitant, we decided to shelve our Pangkor plan for the next day instead and just spend the day at the resort.

So what to do at a resort? The hotel had a ‘recreation centre’ which claimed to organise treks etc. But when we checked with them, they said “no treks today because this is rainy season and there are leeches” then in the same breath, they added, “but tomorrow morning you can check with us and see, we may still do a small trek if you really want!” Huh? Got leech or no leech? Er, you mean the leeches disappear overnight? Hmm…

The resort had a beach, but the ‘sand’ was really loads of coral skeletons. The coarse sand was ‘white’ but dig deeper and you reach darker soil which made me wonder if this was really a natural beach or an artificial one. The water was not family-friendly because about 5 to 10m out, there is a steep drop-off so you’d really have to watch the smaller kids if they get into the water.

What fascinated me was the ikan bilis! Loads of ikan bilis swimming by me (unnerving at first!), and then beaching and killing themselves. The kids had a good time picking up and counting the dead ikan bilis – there were thousands. There were also free kayaks so KH and the older kids went kayaking.

The pool was nice with an infinity element. We had a lovely moment as a family, all 7 of us, swimming to the infinity wall, perching there to admire the pretty sunset over Pangkor island which we could see over the bay.

The hotel seemed quite full. Because we were basically quite stuck there, we had little choice when it came to food. The kids were happy to have pizza and TV in the room. So KH and I went looking for food in the various restaurants. The Chinese steamboat/noodle place was packed to the gills, so we headed for the main coffeehouse. KH wanted just an ala carte dish but they were not serving ala carte. No choice but to take the buffet which was RM40 per person!! The main dishes on the buffet were all hot and chilli-spicy, which posed a problem for Trin.

The room itself was comfortable but worn about the edges but this is a bit more forgiveable than the Zon because this is a resort and there is a more laidback atmosphere. Note though, that it is not as slick as the website or brochures would have you believe. However, the ick factor for me was a pungent stench of urine in the bathroom. The kids denied having any accidents in the bathroom. When I looked closer at the toilet bowl, I realised that there was a layer of yellow pee on the floor behind the toilet bowl – yeech!! I tried hosing down the place with water but no use, the smell remained.

The next day at breakfast, we were given a table in a corner that was seemingly infested with flies. You couldn’t eat without waving or flapping something at those annoying bugs. There was also that strong antiseptic smell of Dettol! What is it with me and with smells this trip?? I keep sniffing out these really strong, awful smells and it really bothers me. The ‘Dettol’ smell was there in the hotel’s public loos, and we checked – we were not sitting near a toilet – but the smell was still there. So I don’t know, little things like this matter to me. Just gives me the icky feeling and made me doubt that the hotel’s cleanliness standards are up to par.

Again, its the little things that count – coffee and tea in the breakfast buffet is neither served by the wait-staff nor are they prepared in glass pots and left on the heater on the counter. Rather, they have a hot-water dispenser and sachets where you DIY. I guess I am being nit-picky about this, but its about presentation I suppose and as with the Zon hotel in KL, the little details that are lacking really show how much heart the management puts into running a resort/hotel – are they genuinely out to provide good service and a memorable stay or do they see it as just a job, out to make a fast buck and then run the place with boredom and indifference? With the Swiss Garden and with the Zon in KL, looks like its the latter.

Overall rating: 4 out of 10. We would not come here again, nor would we recommend our family and friends to this place either. It is too remote, and the remoteness means we are held hostage at the resort to ridiculous prices. The cleanliness is suspect and the food quite blah. At RM230++ per night per room, er, this is not money well spent. If we ever do go to Pangkor again, we will just make it a day trip from Ipoh itself. Our stay at the tiny 2-star Ritz Garden was a lot more comfortable than at this overpriced 5-star resort!

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