The Creepy Men of Ipoh, Malaysia

Ipoh Malaysia Mural

Faces were changed to protect the innocent

Where did all the women go?

Seriously. Walking around the “New Town” section of Ipoh, Malaysia, away from the small tourist hub that consists of a few gentrifying streets of quaint coffee shops, was a bit like walking through some Twilight Zone episode where most of the women had been erased from the city.

The first day in town we were a little unnerved by the degree of machismo on display, with groups of men occupying most street corners. Even as a dude it felt a little creepy being surrounded by so much undiluted maleness.

On the second day we decided to start counting. One, two, three, four men we passed without encountering a single woman. By the time we saw the first female on the streets of Ipoh who wasn’t named Shannon we had counted to forty four.

Nothing but heads

Forty four men and one woman. In biological terms that’s unnatural. If we were flipping coins it would be like tossing four dozen straight heads. Only on the streets of Ipoh, they were all turning up penis heads.

We didn’t stay in town long enough to get a feel for whether this absence of estrogen was normal. Our visit coincided with Chinese New Year, and that may have impacted the street life we observed.

Some days we did notice more women than on others, but never did we encounter a mix even close to the 51.5% proportion that the World Bank says is the female share of Ipoh’s population. But on those few days we saw enough, anyway, to observe a somewhat jarring difference between how the city’s Muslim and Chinese cultures expressed themselves.

We weren’t surprised to encounter a certain old-world conservatism on the streets of a Malaysian city that lies somewhat outside the normal tourist track. What we didn’t expect was the degree to which some of the resident Chinese population deliberately flaunted that conservatism.

Some restaurants on the “Chinese side” of town, for example, would advertise their ice cold beer selection and pork dishes in a way that seemed to mock religious abstinence from such things.

Ipoh’s residents had struck a live-and-let-live bargain of sorts. A bargain that apparently didn’t apply to us.

More brazenly, though, were the stark differences in women’s fashion with high heels on some, head scarves on others, a micro skirt here and a niqab there. Some women wore clothing revealing enough to draw attention in Santa Monica while others covered even their faces.

And yet for all the provocation, we saw no indications of trouble between the two communities. From the outside looking in, it appeared that Ipoh’s residents had struck a live-and-let-live bargain of sorts. A bargain that apparently didn’t apply to us.

We were walking just a few blocks away from our hotel when I left Shannon briefly on the sidewalk to drop some trash in a dumpster, because I’m good like that. The rubbish bin couldn’t have been more than ten meters away, but the path took me off the sidewalk and out of sight.

When I turned around to walk back to where Shannon waited, dressed un-provocatively in her Old Navy T-shirt and ankle-length skirt, I saw two young men walking in her direction looking intently, and obviously, at her . . . up and down, up and down.

This was different

Now plenty of men have stared at my wife, and I’ve never blamed them. She’s nice to look at. But this was different. These men were not gazing admiringly. They were not ogling or even leering lasciviously. These stares were not designed so much to see as to be seen. They were flagrant and obvious and, we both felt, intentionally menacing. 

The message we both understood from these men was that Shannon should not have been out by herself, or maybe even out at all.

Seeing this I angled in their direction and looked back at the lookers, making sure I was seen. I wanted them to understand that Shannon wasn’t alone. I looked at them as intently as they looked at my wife. Not up and down, but right in the eye.

Eventually they looked away, returned to a normal walking speed, and went on their way without doing any real harm.

I won’t say it was a traumatic experience because it wasn’t. But I dare say it was a cultural one.

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11 Comments on “The Creepy Men of Ipoh, Malaysia”

  1. mytimetotravel May 28, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    Have you been to the Middle East yet?

    Malaysia is much more Muslim in the north, especially the northwest, where there have been votes to institute Shariah law. This is what I wrote after I visited Kota Bharu on the NW coast (on the way to the Perhentians – recommend the islands as a getaway):

    “Arriving in K.B. by bus, I thought that I had strayed into a nunnery — every car seemed to be full of women in wimples. Headscarves were worn at least elbow, and often wrist, length. Only a few Chinese women, and the foreigners, went bareheaded. On the other hand, I saw a number of young women in McDonald’s wearing headscarves with jeans. The wait staff there wore uniform blue scarves with yellow edging.”

    That was 2002. I learned at the time that the children of the different ethnic groups went to different schools, I don’t expect the situation has improved since.


    • Brian May 28, 2015 at 11:04 am #

      We have not yet been to the Middle East, although Jordan is high on our to-do list.


  2. Tales of a Traveler May 28, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    Love the quaint town vibes and laid back locals … I was there in march 🙂


  3. lovetotrav May 28, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    Unfortunate. I haven’t travelled much there but have been in Morocco (nothing similar in my experiences) but am concerned when we move to Cairo that this will be a regular occurrence for my teen daughter and I. The one part I am NOT looking forward to.


  4. maristravels May 28, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    Been there, been stared at and felt under threat. I did go out without my husband – but only once. My braver feminist friends tell me to ignore this type of macho attitude but it’s easier said than done. It’s a great pleasure to read a male p.o.v. about the staring, thank you for that. Oh, enjoy the rest of your trip. Love your posts.


  5. wheresphil May 28, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    Did you get out to the cave temples near Ipoh ? They are very much worth the visit.
    I too found Ipoh a bit of a strange place, especially after visiting the tourist hot spot of Penang.


    • Brian May 28, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

      We did visit the cave temples and we agree they’re well worth the visit.


  6. Marilyn Albright May 29, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

    Quite fascinating. I have seen some travel shows that supposedly depict daily life in the subject country, and noticed the glaring absence of women. It seemed everything deemed important for the viewer revolved around the men. I felt sad because this was probably the reality of the women’s lives.


  7. nigemate June 1, 2015 at 1:59 am #

    I travelled in SE Asia a great deal in 1990/91. In all cases my (female) partner was dressed respectfully. Most people were perfectly respectful back but there were a proportion of men that were not menacing but certainly responding to my partner in ways they would bot have responded to an accompanied female from their own town. On the one hand, it is certainly a case of different cultures creating a reaction. On the other hand, you could say that all cultures are united by one consistent trend – meet enough new people and you’ll meet a douche.

    However, I’ve experienced those male centric places in a number of places – not places I prefer to be, let alone places where my partner prefers to be either. Oh, and sometimes that might include a local pub on a sports night!


    • Brian June 1, 2015 at 2:21 am #

      Ha-ha. . . “meet enough new people and you’ll meet a douche.” True enough.

      It seems to me, though, that it is possible to nurture and cultivate douches. Imagine a place, for example, that was like a particularly obnoxious pub on sports night all the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Mallee Stanley June 2, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

    Smaller towns in many places usually are more conservative unlike KL. I travelled alone with my daughter and found where ever I was on the peninsula no problem though I didn’t go too far off the beaten track. In Sarawak, I went completely alone and never once felt uncomfortable. Sounds like you picked a town to avoid.


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