Wrapped in my trusty scarf I step outside the train at Ipoh Station. The 2.5h ride from Kuala Lumpur wasn’t the most pleasant – the AC was cranked up so much it felt more like an inside of a fridge than a train. I’m so glad to be out and feel warm again. Taxi! Taxi! Miss! Taxi! – it’s only about 10 minutes stroll down the road to my hotel so I walk past the taxi-naggers quickly. I still need to soak up some sun and thaw.
It doesn’t take more than 5 minutes for me to regret that decision. The sidewalk ends abruptly every few meters so I need to carry my suitcase most of the time. I also need to add quite a bit of extra walking to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing that is nowhere near the station. This unplanned workout helps me warm up very quickly and now I use the scarf to wipe the sweat off my face.
What on a map looked like an easy walk turns out to be a terrible idea. Lesson learned, don’t ever choose walking over a car option in Ipoh, especially with a suitcase. But I also learned another important lesson on the way to the hotel – red traffic light means very little to Ipoh drivers (as I found out a few days later it’s even worse in Melaka) so cross the road very very carefully.
I drop my bags at the hotel, refresh and go for a walk around the Old Town. I don’t have any itinerary to follow and zero plans for the next 48 hours. What I do have is a cold that’s becoming more and more annoying. Fever or not, I’m off to explore.
Ipoh is the state capital of Perak (number 9 of Lonely Planets Top 10 Regions to visit in 2017), and is one of the largest cities in Malaysia. It’s located 250km north of Kuala Lumpur and was developed during Malaysia’s tin mining boom.
The city is divided into two parts – Old Town and New Town separated by Kinta River. Most visitors spend their time in the Old Town. That’s where the train station (known as the “Taj Mahal”), heritage buildings, Little India and most of the street art are located.
For the whole 2 days I was there, I couldn’t put my camera down. Ipoh is ridiculously photogenic! From colourful, beautifully restored buildings (heck, even the dilapidated ones looked great!), daily life and cats to food and decorations – it’s all worth capturing. At times, it felt like a carefully prepared set with props ready to be photographed.
Also, what is it with people on motorbikes that appear in the perfect spot at the exact needed moment and their outfits match the scenery?
For those who are interested in history and like to know more about the place they visit I do recommend a visit to Han Chin Pet Soo. It’s an excellent museum about the history of the Hakka Tin Miners Club which used to be VIP-only kind of exclusive.
You need to pre-book your ticket online – the entry is free but donations of RM10 (AUD3) at the end of the tour are welcomed and encouraged.
During the 90-minute guided tour, you’ll learn about the history of the Hakka people, tin mining and history of Ipoh. Most of the rooms are set with mannequins and sounds to showcase daily life of people in Ipoh and there’s also a short movie about tin-mining.
Not only the colonial architecture side of Ipoh is photogenic and eye pleasing, there’s also a lot of street art around the Old & New Town. The most famous and photographed are 7 artworks of the Ipoh Mural Art Trail by Ernest Zacharevic but if you keep your eyes peeled while walking around you’ll find many hidden gems by local artists.
Eat & drink
Ipoh is best known for food and white coffee (margarine roasted coffee served with condensed milk). Some even call it the secret food capital of Malaysia – as in the food scene is amazing but not many people know about it… just yet. With an abundance of Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes there is lots to choose from.
I had a list of dishes I wanted to try but everything went out the window when I caught a cold and couldn’t be bothered searching for specifics. I did find some things I can recommend though.
Australian-coffee-deprived me stumbled upon this place on the first day in Ipoh. With its warehouse style interior, it looked like something that could exist in Melbourne. I got a bit homesick and decided to stop for a drink. Then it was a double take at the flyer on the table kind of situation. MELBOURNE COFFEE. I ordered 2 flat whites (RM11 – AUD3.35 each) and came back the next day for more. I also had a very nice late lunch – Halal Guys Chicken Rice and stayed for some happy hour beers. This place made me very happy indeed.
Lim Ko Pi
For breakfast, I wanted to try a place serving white coffee. I went for the RM5 (AUD1.50) breakfast set of charcoal toast with kaya, half boiled eggs and white coffee. The restaurant was conveniently located right next door to my hotel and recommended by one of the staff members. I was the only non-local person in the restaurant and felt a bit awkward sitting by myself being watched by everyone around me. But the food was great and I came back for another round the next day.
Cafe Sun Yoon Wah
The street next to the Han Chin Pet Soo Museum closes in the late afternoon and transforms into a restaurant. Once you sit down the table is decorated with a cloth and you’re presented with a book-sized menu. Everyone around drinks beer, which is served very cold and called Snow Beer and chats the night away as the place is open until 2 am.
It took me quite a while to decide what to order from the biggest menu I’ve ever seen but didn’t have a problem with what I want to drink – big, cold beer on a sweltering evening sounded too good.
By observing others around me I’ve worked out how everything works. When you’re ready to order you raise your hand and call a waitress carrying some kind of smartphone-like device and place your order. Some time later a waiter brings the food and presents you with a bill. You pay cash on the spot and enjoy your meal. Easy.
Sin Eng Heong
A bit of research told me Sin Eng Heong in the New Town is THE place for kaya puffs. A couple of times a day they have a freshly baked batch and it’s so sought after the line may be quite long. It’s worth the wait and makes for a great afternoon treat. I paid RM5 (AUD1.50) for a box of 5.
For my 2 nights in Ipoh, I chose Sarang Paloh Heritage Stay located in the Old Town. The hotel and event hall are housed in a property made up of three buildings connected side by side. Formerly they were the first Chinese bank in Perak, a goldsmith shop and jewellery business.
My lovely Kingfisher Loft room was $114 for 2 nights.
How to get there?
By train from KL Sentral Station – easy, cheap and convenient. Regular ticket from KL Sentral set me back only RM25 (AUD7.60). On the way back I went on a Platinum Class train for RM46 (AUD14) which included a free snack pack. The seats are reserved, trains air conditioned (some too cold) and quiet. It can get quite busy on weekends so pre-booking tickets is recommended*.
* I didn’t book my Friday morning ticket and had to wait 3 hours for a place on the next available train. While I was waiting, maybe one hour later, they glued a piece of paper on the ticket counter with “All SOLD OUT for today” on it. I was lucky to even get my spot!
The question I was asked by every local I had a chat with. They all seemed very surprised I chose their city over Penang.
Ipoh is so far my favourite place I visited in Malaysia. I became totally smitten with it very quickly on my first day there which I wasn’t expecting at all.
Walking around I had a big smile on my face. The food was great, the people were some of the nicest I’ve met during my travels and even though it was extremely hot, it was picture-perfect beautiful. And thanks to all those tourists who do pick Penang over Ipoh, it hasn’t become a place full of tourist traps, overpriced cliches. It was quiet, more authentic and perfect in its imperfections.
Don’t change much Ipoh but please start believing in yourself, you’re wonderful!