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.
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Ipoh Heritage Trail
One of the strongly recommended activities while in Ipoh, especially for architecture lovers, is to go for the Ipoh heritage trail. This is a collection of around 27 sites around the old town of Ipoh. You can do this walking tour on your own, or you can also go on a private tour which is better to escape the punishing heat.
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. The railway station here is known as one of three greats in old Malaya, the other 2 being the Moorish-colonial Kuala Lumpur station and the now defunct Singapore station in Tanjong Pagar.
Just opposite the railway station, the whitewashed Ipoh Town 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. The building dates back from 1916 and was designed by British architect, Arthur Benison Hubback.
Just across the padang or the grass field is the St. Michael’s Institution. Still functioning as one of the top centers of learning in Ipoh, the said institution dates back from the 1920s. You’ll need to go through a gate in order to enter but as I was in the area on a school day, I was allowed to casually walk in to appreciate the Gothic architecture from a nearer point. Beside the school, the Masjid India is another heritage building that one can check out.
I 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.
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. The clock also didn’t seem to work.
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. I have personally visited Ipoh twice, first time in 2013 and again 6 years later. In my second visit, I saw a much different Ipoh. The colonial buildings were still there but I saw quite a number with a new look, reused as shops, museums or cafes. One example is the Han Chin Pet Soo. It was not used for commercial purposes back in 2013 but has since been converted into a museum about Ipoh’s heritage.
The most buzzing part of Ipoh these days is Concubine Lane. The little pedestrian walkway was where old tin mining bosses of yore kept their mistresses back in Ipoh’s golden age. It was turned into a tourist attraction around 5 years ago when the shophouses here were redeveloped. These days, the lane is filled with souvenir stalls and small roadside eateries. Thean Chun is located towards the end of the lane facing Jalan Bandar Timah, and is known for its chicken kuay teow soup and egg custard.
White Coffee – Where to Try
Ipoh’s most well-known export – aside from tin – is undoubtedly white coffee. Essentially, these are coffee beans that are roasted in margarine and served with condensed milk. You can find white coffee practically everywhere in Ipoh, including at the Old Town White Coffee outlets which have sprouted even outside Malaysia. One of the original outlets for white coffee is said to be Sin Yoon Loong (15A Jalan Bandar Timah, open daily from 6AM to 5:30PM except Sundays when it closes 1PM) at the southern part of the old town. It’s an old style coffee shop that will undoubtedly bring a sense of nostalgia to visitors hailing from Southeast Asia with its old style cups and marble table tops. The white coffee here is smooth and creamy, with a distinct smoky aroma. It was just enough to keep me awake for a whole day of exploring. If you’re in Ipoh for a few days and would like to try different places for your white coffee place, the Nam Heong (2 Jalan Bandar Timah, open 7AM to 5:30PM daily except Monday) cafe next door also serves an excellent cup along with their famous egg tarts.
While traveling around Malaysia, you will notice some cities filled with street art. The old town of Ipoh is also a great place to check out some of city’s famed street art. Many of the pieces here were created by artist, Ernest Zacharevic, and are distributed across many areas but other artists have also contributed to the art works in recent years. If you have time to see only one, I suggest heading to Market Lane, with its colorful umbrellas hanging outside and the street art by the walls. You’ll find around 2 or 3 pieces just walking the short stretch.
While at the opposite side of town (i.e. the new town), check out the Mural Art’s Lane – a back street dedicated to showcasing more of Ipoh’s street art. In contrast to the ones you find in the old town, the ones here are located in just one place so you don’t have to go for some kind of hunt to find them. Mural Art’s Lane is practically sandwiched between Jalan Sultan Iskandar and Jalan Masjid, and is parallel to these streets.
Ipoh “New Town”
The Kinta river separates the old and new towns of Ipoh. But don’t be misled by the name. The “new town” of Ipoh which lies in the west is still very much filled with old and quaint shophouses and does not look new at all. It is considered the new town because it was developed sometime in the 1930’s while the old town originated in the late 1800’s. To travel between the old and new towns, you’ll have to cross the Kinta Bridge.
The new town is less touristy and you’ll find more locals going about their daily business. 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. I ate the city’s famous bean sprout chicken at Lou Wong ( Dato Tahil Azar Road, daily 10:30AM to 10PM).
You will also find some of Ipoh’s most well known dimsum joints here in the new town. I personally tried Restaurant Foh San and Ming Court. Of the two, I would say Ming Court serves better dimsum and the prices are a tad cheaper as well.
Perhaps the most striking change I’ve witnessed in Ipoh during my second visit is the proliferation of hipster cafes. In all the cities I’ve visited, I have not seen so many hipster coffee joints side by side in the way that it exists in Ipoh. Sometimes, I even wonder if the demand can keep up with the supply. As mentioned previously, many of the crumbling shophouses I saw back then have been refurbished. I suppose a cafe is the most obvious tenant for something so vintage. I went through probably a dozen hipster cafes in Ipoh but I thought these two were notable. First is Jalan Theatre Coffee (76, Jalan Theatre, Taman Jubilee; open daily 11AM to 6PM) with its minimalist white interiors and coffee beans sourced from all over the world. Prices here are on the high side for Ipoh but you do get what you pay for. Unlike other hipster cafes in town where the focus is mostly on the aesthetic, this cafe really serves up some good coffee. The other nice cafe to spend a sweltering afternoon is Plan B (75 Jalan Panglima, 10AM to 11PM daily except for Sat and Sun until midnight) located right in the heart of the old town. This is one of the earliest hipster cafes to open in town. The menu is somewhat comprehensive with a nice range of western favorites and drinks.
Perak Cave & Kek Lok Tong
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.
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 it is now gaining its own footing as a rightful destination. 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. You can choose to fly instead via Scoot or AirAsia from Singapore, or AirAsia from Johor Bahru.
Where to stay – M Roof Hotel
I stayed at M Roof Ipoh which is around 10 minutes drive from the old town. I chose this hotel specifically because of its nice rooftop view from where one can survey the limestone hills in the distance. Rooms are modern and chic, with a slight hipster vibe. There are a lot of photo opportunities here especially for instagrammers. Additionally, this property provides 2 Grab promo codes with 5 Ringgit discount on rides . A typical ride between the hotel and the old town costs about MYR 8 before the promo code. A ride to the airport costs around MYR 10 before the promo code.
For more tours around Malaysia, you can check out Bookmundi.
You can also compare for prices on hotels in Ipoh HERE.
Sample 1-Day Itinerary
Morning – Walking Tour of Old Town
Afternoon – Temple Cave Exploration & Gunung Lang Recreational Park
Evening – Street food and night market at the New Town