Ipoh, Malaysia – Of Crumbling Colonial Architecture, Heritage Trails & Limestone Caves

Exploring Ipoh while on an impromptu heritage walk, I had my doubts on how such a sleepy town could actually be the 3rd largest city in Malaysia. Seeing Ipoh for the first time, I felt like I had stepped into a bygone era when people still traveled by rickshaws and opium dens were the order of the day inside the many Peranakan-style shophouses. The quietness of the old town’s streets coupled with the charming but crumbling colonial architecture only seemed to add to the allure.

the ipoh railway station… affectionately known as the taj mahal of ipoh

Regardless, there’s nary a doubt on Ipoh’s historical significance. The colonial buildings here are some of the most impressive in Malaysia. With the historic Ipoh Railway Station as a natural starting point, I began my walking tour down the compact old town where an architecture buff such as I was in for a treat. From here, the whitewashed Ipoh City Hall was practically staring at me in the face, with its Edwardian Baroque features that I swore bore a strong resemblance to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel. A walked a few more steps down the road and was greeted by more fancy-looking buildings. OCBC, Standard Chartered Bank, HSBC… Ipoh in its heyday during the tin mining boom, was second only to Kuala Lumpur in importance and had many major banks erecting their own buildings when they set up shop. The original occupants are still there to this day, this time embellishing their ultra-modern logos against the classical structures.

ipoh city hall which reminded me of raffles hotel

the birch memorial clock tower

One of the city’s major landmarks, the Birch Memorial Clock Tower, lies only a few steps from these handsome looking buildings. Erected in 1909, the square tower is an unabashed propaganda to colonial rule with its terracotta figures representing the “four virtues of British administration” mounted on the corners. Like the most of the old town, it was completely deserted the time I went.

I continued exploring the old town, where it became clear to me after some time how Ipoh is such a treasure trove of heritage buildings. I am no architect but I pretty much saw many architectural styles represented in this city. Certain parts of Ipoh harkened images of Singapore’s ethnic quarters sans the squeaky-clean finishing. Ipoh’s shophouses, looking more rough on the outside, give off a rather romantic vibe. It’s also a plus that there were hardly any tourists.

crumbling chinese shophouses in the old town of ipoh

Aside from the colonial architecture, Ipoh is of course also known for its street food. For that, we ventured to the New Town which was similarly filled with old shophouses but it’s considered new as it was developed only later on in the 20th century during the tin mining boom. But that’s where the similarities end. The new town is a lot more vibrant and busier with greater foot and car traffic. At night, the block from Jalan Theatre and Jalan Yau Tet Shin is pedestrianized for street dining and some night markets. People from as far as Kuala Lumpur seem to flock here as well to taste local delicacies such as chicken with bean sprouts, the classic Ipoh hor fun (flat noodles), hong piah (fragrant biscuits) and pomelo.

Cave City

limestone hills surrounding the city of ipoh

The landscape around Ipoh is quite unlike the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. Driving the stretch between Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the vegetation is mostly filled with palm plantations. However, things begin to change approaching Perak state. Scenic limestone hills suddenly jut out from beside the highway, and a greater concentration of these begin to emerge on the countryside surrounding Ipoh. For a while, it looked just like the ones I would expect to see in Palawan, or in Southern Thailand. Or for a more similar version, probably to the limestone hills of Guilin.

entrance to perak cave

large seated buddha at the entrance

at the peak of perak cave

There are many caves inside these limestone hills and some of them have been turned into temples. We visited two. The first is Perak Cave which I must say is probably the most impressive of the lot. There are several Buddha statues inside – including a large one gracing the entrance – as well as religious murals painted on the rock face itself. For a small donation, one could also climb the steep steps to the peak for a fantastic view of Ipoh. The other cave we ventured to, the Kek Lok Tong or Cave of Utmost Happiness, looked more modest though geologically, it had more stalactite and stalagmite formations. It’s definitely a must-see in Ipoh.

Overall, Ipoh exceeded my expectations. It’s got a nice colonial district, fantastic street food and natural attractions at its doorstep. As a bite-sized version of Peninsular Malaysia, there’s definitely a lot to offer those seeking a bit of nostalgia. It’s both good and bad that the place is often overshadowed by its UNESCO World Heritage neighbors of Penang and Malacca but there’s talk of redevelopment especially around the old town. Food and lodging are still quite cheap here and there’s no peak season to be worried about. Well, at least not yet.

 How to get to Ipoh:

From Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh is a mere 2 to 3 hours drive. It’s about the same if you come from Penang. From Singapore, it’s a 7 to 8 hours drive. I chose to fly instead via Firefly, the only airline that flies to Ipoh from Singapore.

Sample 1-Day Itinerary for Ipoh:

Morning – Walking Tour of Old Town
Afternoon – Temple Cave Exploration & Gunung Lang Recreational Park
Evening – Street food and night market at the New Town

Old Town Walking Tour Map:


View Perak Walking Tour in a larger map

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Bino

Bino

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  1. says

    You can’t find opium dens and rickshaws here in Ipoh anymore but it is true that my hometown is surprisingly a city status. We definitely have our caves and colonial buildings to be proud of.

    • Bino says

      Hi Gaye! Yep, most people just use Ipoh as a pitstop to/from Penang or Cameron Highlands. Would highly encourage a visit since you’re in Malaysia quite often naman.

      Lemme know what you think when you get there!

  2. says

    I recently went there on a day trip from KL using the train service with friends (incl. Jeff (above) as my guide). Ipoh took me by surprise but it’s probably because we just walked around the old town area. There’s something charming about the old part of the city but what frustrated me was that the shops closed early in the day making it look like a deserted city by early evening. And you’re right, we hardly saw any tourists there that day.

    I would certainly go back there again someday soon.

    • Bino says

      Yeah, my sentiments exactly. I was taken aback when the hotel staff told me that stores in Ipoh’s old town closed in the afternoon. And many of the famous food stalls also ran out just after noon! Guess one has to be a morning person to get the most of Ipoh :)

    • Bino says

      We were also deciding between Onn Kee (where we eventually ended up) and Lou Wong which was beside it. Toughest decision of the day! Haha!

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