The spark is finally returning to the time-worn neighbourhoods of Ipoh. For too long, the capital of Malaysia’s Perak state was considered a faded has-been of a city – and that’s if travellers thought of it at all. But restorations are in full swing, especially in the streets of Old Town, and Ipoh’s coffeehouses and heritage houses are staging a long overdue comeback.
Ipoh began its drift towards obscurity when the glory days of its tin-mining trade came to an end. After the British withdrew from Malaysia and Perak finally gained independence in 1957, colonial buildings began to slide into disrepair. The last few years have stopped the rot: art-cafes have popped up in period houses, and century-old buildings have found new life as restaurants and hotels. Visitors can see contemporary street art, traditional coffee shops and colonial masterpieces, often within the space of a single street.
Here are the best places to breathe in Ipoh’s rousing blend of nostalgia and modernity.
Explore Ipoh’s colonial ‘golden triangle’
West of the Kinta River, Ipoh's small but perfectly formed Old Town is home to the city’s most impressive historic buildings. Under British colonial rule, palatial architecture sprouted in this part of Ipoh – as it did across Malaysia – and the western part of the old city is a monument to colonial extravagance.
Ipoh’s early 20th-century train station is known as the ‘Taj Mahal,’ thanks to its gleaming white domes, and the best photo ops of the station are from another colonial gem, the 1916 Town Hall facing it. Five minutes’ walk northeast of here, admire Ipoh’s stately white Court House before strolling another five minutes southeast to a rather more controversial monument, the Birch Memorial Clock Tower. Decorated with friezes featuring luminaries from Buddha to Charles Darwin, the tower was built in 1909 in memory of Perak’s first British Resident, James WW Birch. Today, the road it stands on has been fondly renamed after one of the locals who murdered the deeply unpopular Birch.
Glimpse Ipoh’s heritage revival at Kong Heng Block
Radical reinventions have spiced up Ipoh’s historic heart, and its century-old mansions now house cutting-edge hotels, coffee shops and craft boutiques. Sekeping Kong Heng, the city’s wildest place to stay, is at the heart of the Old Town revival. Within this concept hotel, set in a former a hostel for theatre performers, you could find yourself bedding down in a vintage-style bedroom or snoozing in a futuristic glass cube.
Flowing around this atmospheric hotel is Ipoh’s new crop of craft stalls and cafes. The Bits & Bobs stall has brought the ais kepal, or iceball, a wad of syrup and pounded ice, back into vogue. In true retro style, this 1950s refresher is slurped out of a square of paper. Nearby, Ipoh Craftnerds sells artisan jewellery and handicrafts, while Roquette attracts a youthful crowd for supremely blended coffee.
A racy side to history on Concubine Lane
Tourists and locals dawdle along narrow Lorong Panglima, in the midst of Ipoh’s historic centre. But this innocent-seeming lane was once a notorious opium den, nicknamed ‘Concubine Lane’ for its popularity as a meeting spot for furtive trysts.
At the turn of the 20th century, this was where women met their married lovers, often British officers or wealthy tin traders, away from the watchful eyes of their wives. Elderly Ipoh residents still tell stories of beauties beckoning from red-curtained windows, and furious wives storming into the street. Though Lorong Panglima fell into disrepair in the decades that followed Malaysia’s release from colonial rule, it has been spruced up as part of Ipoh’s Heritage Trail (find trail maps posted near Kong Heng Block). It now has restaurants and an entirely respectable hotel, 27 Concubine Lane, within a restored Chinese family house.
Amazing modern art murals
Lithuania-born artist Ernest Zacharevic (www.ernestzacharevic.com) took inspiration from Ipoh’s past to create striking murals around the city. Zacharevic’s experimental 2014 street art, collectively known as The Art of Old Town project, brings Ipoh’s history back to its streets. Murals show a wise old uncle sipping coffee, a cluttered trishaw, bags of coffee dangling over a wall. A number of artworks have intriguing 3D elements, like his mural of a girl reaching for a birdcage set into the wall. A walk along Jalan Market, Jalan Tun Sambathan and Jalan Padang will allow you to take in some of the artist’s best work.
Beyond Zacharevic, Ipoh is awash with street art that seems to change with the seasons and the ever-changing inspiration of local artists. Toucans, rafflesia flowers, memorials and portraits of locals beam out from streets in Old Town, peopling even its quietest quarters.
Drink in Ipoh’s coffee culture
In Ipoh, the preparation of coffee was perfected long ago. Kopi putih, the city’s signature white coffee, begins with beans roasted briefly in margarine, before they are brewed into a rich coffee and sweetened with condensed milk.
While variations on this nourishing beverage are lovingly stirred across Ipoh, the original formula is thought to originate at Sin Yoon Loong, which has served its balanced brew for decades. For a lavish revival atmosphere, venture to Lim Ko Pi, a cafe-restaurant on a mission to preserve Ipoh’s culinary traditions. Their white coffee, ideally served with a breakfast of charcoal-toasted bread with butter and egg, rouses pangs of nostalgia in Ipoh’s older generation. The setting is suitably last-century, too: Lim Ko Pi is nestled within a 1920s building, right next to the pale yellow Oversea Building, another heritage treasure from the 1930s.
Finally, contrast the creaky beginnings of Ipoh coffee culture with its modern incarnation by swinging through the Jln Tun Sambanthan branch of OldTown White Coffee (www.oldtown.com.my). OldTown took off in 1999, and is now a Malaysia-wide chain, with each branch flying the flag of Ipoh’s humble white coffee.
Spirituality that spans centuries
On the outskirts of Ipoh, spiritual sites more than a century old are carved into limestone cliffs. The most renowned is Sam Poh Tong, which started life as the refuge of a cave-dwelling monk in the 1890s and has sprawled into an enormous temple complex. The powerful atmosphere permeating these sacred grottoes hasn’t diminished over a hundred years: stone Buddhas still guard the cave mouth and candles flicker in the shadows.
Close by stands Ling Sen Tong, a more modern temple enshrining a veritable theme park of deities. Spiritual seekers mingle with visitors snapping selfies with the temple’s colourful pantheon. Somehow, this mix of mischief and awe, old and new, suits Ipoh down to the ground.
Make it happen
Daily flights connect Ipoh's Sultan Azlan Shah Airport with Singapore and Johor Bahru. For Kuala Lumpur or Melaka, take the train or one of the frequent bus services. Ipoh's Old Town can be easily explored on foot and there are plenty of taxis for out of town trips.