The word Ipoh might conjure puzzled looks or recognition of a certain coffee brand. But Ipoh is actually one of Malaysia’s largest cities, the former center of the nation’s tin mining industry, and a gateway to the Cameron Highlands. It is also a rising travel destination in its own right, and rightfully so.
Lying between Kuala Lumpur and Penang (roughly speaking) as well as between KL and the Cameron Highlands, Ipoh used to be overlooked. But Ipoh has a very decent old town with impressive colonial-era buildings, a thriving cafe culture, and is surrounded by limestone hills, some of which harbor well-known Buddhist cave temples. Ipoh also is home to white coffee and the Old Town brand, which is popular across parts of Asia such as Hong Kong.
When I plan my travel trips, I try to visit lesser-known cities that have decent attractions. Examples include Hiroshima, Milan, and Hue in Central Vietnam. Ipoh is another example. Having traveled by train from KL, when you arrive in Ipoh, you have already visited one of the city’s most attractive landmarks, Ipoh train station. While not very big, the 101-year-old station is regal in its all-white form incorporating Edwardian Baroque and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles.
Across the street from the train station is the city’s Old Town, which features more stately colonial-era buildings, shophouses, and a large mosque. There are also several large murals dispersed across the Old Town, painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who also painted the well-known murals in Georgetown, Penang’s capital. Also in the Old Town are several modern cafes and old Chinese restaurants. One particularly impressive building I came upon was an art boutique center in which the building’s old, worn-down exterior was left intact while the interior was renovated. The building in the top photo in this post follows a similar concept – don’t be fooled by the hanging plants, the shops at the bottom are new, modern cafes.
Ipoh lies in the Kinta River Valley, surrounded by limestone hills and tin deposits. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was home to a booming tin mining industry hence its stately colonial-era buildings and large Chinese community, many of whom worked in the tin mines. However, the tin deposits were depleted in the 1970s and the city suffered a decline. Recently, Ipoh has seen a resurgence thanks to tourism, with the city having made an effort to renovate and conserve its heritage buildings. Ipoh did not have an air of decline at all, and seemed fairly well-off by Southeast Asian and Malaysia standards.
Ipoh’s large Malaysian-Chinese community is mainly Cantonese-speaking, being made up of Cantonese (people whose ancestors were from China’s Guangdong Province) and Hakkas (also from Guangdong but with a more complex origin. Half of my family is also Hakka). Penang, in contrast, has a Chinese community that is mainly Hokkien-speaking (a language from China’s Fujian Province, which many Taiwanese speak as week). Michelle Yeoh, Malaysia’s most famous actress, is from Ipoh.
The city’s Hakka heritage is preserved in Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club, a former clubhouse for Hakkas which is now a museum.
Across the street from the museum are Chinese eateries serving specialties like bean-sprout chicken and Hakka mee (noodles). There are a few lanes which historically served as the homes of prostitutes or mistresses, hence two of them are called Concubine Lane. These lanes have been renovated for tourists and instead of ladies, are filled with stores, cafes and hostels. Ipoh white coffee originally was made from beans roasted with margarine and served with condensed milk, though nowadays white coffee doesn’t need to be roasted with margarine. Apparently the white coffee has a caramel flavour when roasted with margarine, which I found a little off-putting.
What was surprisingly pleasant to realize was that Ipoh’s Cantonese are probably the most polite Cantonese-speakers I’ve encountered in Asia. People who have been to Hong Kong or Guangdong might know what I mean. Whenever I spoke to local Chinese, whether service staff or museum guide or even an entrepreneur at the center I mentioned above, they were all polite in responding to my queries, with none of the surliness or brusqueness you’d get in Hong Kong.
Ipoh is also famous for its limestone hills just outside the city. While not as beautiful as the ones in Guangxi, China or Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, Ipoh’s limestone hills are pleasant enough. In fact, so pleasant that several temples were built inside of these hills. I visited three of these cave temples, but a fourth turned out to be closed even though it was only 2.30 pm.
Ipoh Train Station
From the way I’ve written about Ipoh, you might think everything was fantastic. But the truth is I had a few small issues. First is my hotel was actually next to a mosque, which you know broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer several times a day. For some reason, the morning call was particularly long and would go on for at least 20 minutes. I have nothing against mosques (I actually visited one in Ipoh, after I was invited in by two friendly local volunteer guides, but not the one next to my hotel) but I wouldn’t want to stay next to one in the future.
Second is Ipoh’s buses are very scarce and not reliable. While I knew in advance they only come about once an hour, I twice experienced seeing buses drive past me while I was waiting at bus stops outside the cave temples to return to Ipoh (I’d taken the bus from the Ipoh station to get to those places). Given I was the only one at the stop and that these buses don’t get many passengers, perhaps the drivers just didn’t see me. I ended up getting a taxi back to Ipoh both times.
Third is the Old Town is rather quiet at night and most of the streets are dark as there aren’t many restaurants or bars open, besides the street next to the Hakka Miners’ Club.
But weirdly enough, I actually enjoyed visiting Ipoh and all these issues couldn’t make up for the good experiences. I heartily recommend visiting Ipoh if you go to Malaysia.
Two of Ipoh’s giant murals done by Ernest Zacharevic (above and below)
Birch Memorial Clock Tower, built in 1909
The mosque opposite my hotel
Ling Sen Tong, one of several Chinese cave temples
Nan Tian Tong is another cave temple