Ipoh’s historical Old Town is becominng another remarkable stop on Malaysia’s heritage and food trail
When it comes to colonial heritage, Penang gets all the praise. However, few are keen to admit that it’s also getting overcrowded with camera-toting tourists, foodies on a rampage, and astute locals exploiting the hype to cash in. And even fewer seem to know that when Penang’s hustle becomes too much to bear, there’s an equally captivating, but still quite undiscovered, elsewhere to go.
I’m talking about Ipoh, the former tin-mining centre of 1930s colonial Malaysia and capital of Perak. Compared to Georgetown’s boutique and sterile beautification, the quaint streets of Ipoh’s Old Town—a quick stroll from the exquisite white marble 1935 train station aptly nicknamed the “Mini Taj Mahal”—are still a raw heritage gem, one that’s yet to be polished by mass tourism. What’s more, Ipoh is just a two-hour drive or a cosy train ride south from Penang.
A field that was the Japanese Army’s operational base during its occupation of Malaya between 1941 and 1945 divides the train station and the Old Town, a cluster of streets sheltered by a bend in the Kinta River. Here, multi-coloured Chinese shophouses lean against each other, seemingly soaking up the ebb and flow of slow tropical days. Nothing much seems to have changed since the early 20th century, judging from the ways local shopkeepers still tend to their century-old crafts. Until recently, however, their laissez-faire attitude translated to a similar work ethic and outlook towards tourism—a dearth of appealing accommodation options made Ipoh a mere pit-stop between Penang and Kuala Lumpur rather than a destination in its own right. The wake-up call arrived when two airlines, Tiger and Malindo, launched direct international flights from Singapore and Bangkok, resulting in a surge in tourist arrivals and forcing sleepy Ipoh to rub its eyes and finally rise out of bed.
In particular, two historical buildings were renovated into brand-new boutique hotels, and now international travellers have no more excuses to skip Ipoh’s quiet but infectious beat. Sekeping Kong Heng has an attractive bohemian setting. The eight rooms, including two hanging glass boxes, are a luxe way to experience true shophouse living in the beating heart of the Old Town. Modern fittings have been beautifully added to a building finished in 1923. Way back when, it functioned as the living quarters of a Cantonese opera troupe that performed in the 1500-seat theatre next door. Today, it has transformed into trendy bistro Plan B. This self-proclaimed culture café revamped the building’s original structure using spacious glass and wood fittings, and it’s a great stop for brews and mouth-watering cakes.
Not far away, another old Chinese shophouse is ready to host the heritage-nostalgic. Sarang Paloh welcomes guests in a throwback lobby furnished with vintage Chinese décor and inspiring batik paintings. A spiral staircase leads upstairs to rooms refurbished from the quarters of a 1920s bank.
Set in the centre of Ipoh’s colonial Old Town and close to the Kinta River, these two boutique hotels are great options to wake up and start the day like a local over a steaming cup of the region’s signature white coffee. Sipped rubbing elbows with other customers amidst the crackling sounds of hawker ladles and sizzling woks, white coffee is the quintessential Old Town brew. Kedai Makanan Nam Heng is great for breakfast: besides thick, aromatic white coffee, it offers fresh-baked egg tarts filled with silky custard. The delicious noodles, including white curry mee, are also must-tries.
If recommending a cup wasn’t enough, check the walls in Jalan Dato Maharajalela, where Ernest Zacharevic, the Lithuanian artist who made Penang a street art star, glorified Ipoh’s signature drink. From here starts a treasure hunt to the other six murals that Ernest painted on the Old Town’s walls. Along the way, one might stumble upon the aroma of bean sprout chicken, or tauge ayam, another local delicacy. Try to find a seat among the locals at mom and pop Restoran Ong Kee, which dishes up some of the best in town. Served with noodle soup or rice, tauge ayam here is boiled to perfection and sprinkled with fresh bean sprouts and soy sauce.
To take a break from all the food, the city’s newest heritage museum, Han Chin Pet Soo, offers a peek into the old world charm of a Hakka Chinese clan house. The first floor of this double story “gentlemen’s club” for tin-miners and tycoons recounts the history of Ipoh’s industrial past. Upstairs, the quirky reproduction of a Chinese gambling and opium den, complete with life-sized statues of Fu Manchu look-alike punters and their molls, is not to be missed.
One of the most important—albeit sadly forgotten—historical sites in Ipoh is hidden at its outskirts, in the village of Tambun. Discovered in 1959 by a British soldier, Gua Tambun is a limestone hill with rupestrian art that dates back 3000 years. The rock face here features reddish drawings of human figures, a tortoise, a deer, what seems to be a dugong—Southeast Asia’s peculiar dolphin-like mammal—and sketches that resemble arrows, fish, and even an octopus. Fragments of seashells and a peculiar sedimentation of the rock face suggest that in the past this area may have been covered by water. Regardless of the archaeological importance of the site, it’s puzzling to note that it has not at all been well-preserved: it’s not easily accessible, as its entrance is on private land, and the rock face has been vandalized by graffiti. A group from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang is doing what they can to preserve the site and get help from the government for restoration work, but development is slow. If you decide to visit, pay attention to where you tread as anything on the soil is potentially an unprotected archaeological remain that way too many careless or unknowing visitors have already irreparably damaged.
Back in Ipoh, an evening stroll in the square facing Ipoh’s Taj Mahal train station gives the chance to see a colourful fountain light show before grabbing dinner at Wheel Noodles. With a back entrance covered by rows of vibrant hanging umbrellas, this artsy bistro has vintage bicycles parked next to wooden tables and lofty interiors. Noodles come in old-style, crowing rooster-decorated bowls. The one-hour noodle free flow at RM18 is a steal.
At last, a walk along the Kinta River Front under trees aglow with LED lights is an interesting way to experience Ipoh’s nightlife along the river. Two rows of restaurants and cafés offer all sorts of Malay, Chinese, and fusion dishes in a relaxed environment, where it’s easy to mingle with chatty locals. When I bunk down I’m still giddy from all the day’s action. Before drifting off to sleep, I think that Queen Penang, the jewel in Malaysia’s crown, should be more careful holding her heritage-sceptre, as these days Ipoh’s got all the energy required to snatch it from her hands.
Pictures by Kit Yeng Chan