Ipoh’s historical Old Town is rising as another remarkable stop on Malaysia’s heritage and food trail.
by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan
Compared to George Town’s boutique beautification and tourist hordes, the quaint streets of Ipoh’s Old Town—the former tin-mining center of 1930s colonial Malaysia and the capital of Perak state—are rising as a much more rewarding destination.
Walking from the 1935 white marble train station across the field that was the Japanese Army’s operation base during their occupation of Malaya between 1941 and 1945, one finds himself in Ipoh old town proper, a cluster of streets sheltered by a bend of the Kinta River. Here, multi-colored Chinese shophouses lean against each other like sleepy fellows soaking the slow ebb and flow of the tropics. Nothing much seems to have changed in the ways local shopkeepers have tended to their crafts for centuries.
Until now, however, this laissez-faire translated in a dearth of appealing accommodation options, keeping Ipoh a mere pit stop between Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
The morning call arrived when Tiger and Malindo airlines launched direct international flights from Singapore and Bangkok, forcing sleepy Ipoh to rub its eyes and finally get out of bed. In particular, two historical buildings were upholstered to brand new boutique hotels catered to international travelers. Sekeping Hong Keng (75 Jalan Panglima; doubles from RM220) has an attractive bohemian setting. The eight rooms, including two hanging glass boxes, are a luxe way to experience true shop-house living straight in the Old Town’s pumping heart. Modern fittings are graciously adapted to a 1923 building that way back when functioned as the living quarters of a Cantonese opera troupe. They performed in the 1500-seat theater next door, which today has transformed into trendy bistro Plan B (drinks for two from RM 25). This café revamped the building’s original structure using spacious glass and wood fittings, and it’s a great stop for brews and mouthwatering cakes.
Not far away, another old Chinese shop house is ready to host the heritage-nostalgic. Sarang Paloh (16 Jalan Sultan Iskandar; doubles from RM238) welcomes guests in a throwback lobby furnished with Chinese vintage house ware and inspiring batik paintings. A spiral staircase leads upstairs to rooms refurbished from the quarters of a 1920s bank.
Set in the center 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 with a steamy cup of local signature brew white coffee. Sipped rubbing elbows with the next customer amidst the crackling sounds of hawkers’ ladles and sizzling woks, white coffee is the quintessential Old Town brew. Kedai Makanan Nam Heng (2 Jalan Bandar Timah; 60-16/553-8119) is great for breakfast: besides thick, aromatic white coffee, it bakes fresh egg tarts filled with silky custard. The collection of delicious noodles on offer, including white curry mee, are also must-try.
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, one can walk to the other six murals that Zacharevic painted on the Old Town’s walls. Along the way, one might stumble upon the aroma of bean sprout chicken, another local delicacy. Try to find a seat among the locals at mom and pop Restoran Ong Kee (48 Jalan Yau Tet Shin; 60-5/253-1562; meal for two from RM20), which dishes up some of the best in town.
To take a break from all the food, the city’s newest heritage museum Han Chin Pet Soo (3 Jalan Bijeh Timah; free tour booking here) offers a peek into the old world charm of a Hakka Chinese clan house. The first floor of this double story “gentlemen 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 completed with life-sized statues of Fu Manchu-alike punters and their molls is unmissable.
An evening stroll in the square facing Ipoh’s Taj Mahal train station gives the chance to see a colorful fountain light show before grabbing dinner at Wheel Noodles (26 Jalan Market, under 1981 Guesthouse shop sign; meal for two from RM15). With a back entrance covered by rows of colorful hanging umbrellas, this artsy bistro has vintage bicycles parked next to wooden tables and lofty interiors. The one-hour noodle free flow at RM18 is a steal.
At last, a walk along the Kinta River Front under LED-glowing trees 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—and food—and cannot understand why such a gem of a place still stays under most people’s radar.