By Lloyd Green
There’s a sense of East meets West in Malaysia. A lot of old versus new as well. Ipoh is no different with a unique blend characterised perfectly by its people; a community moulded from the tin mining boom of the 19th century and its position as Malaya’s second greatest city. There’s remnants of that era littered everywhere as well as evidence of a concerted effort to place Ipoh back in the limelight. For a writer and observer, it’s actually quite difficult to articulate this character into words. I see it and I feel it, but it’s like I’m witnessing Ipoh’s transformation as it happens. In the words of a local, “We’re trying to copy Malacca in portraying Ipoh as a popular historical destination, but we’re doing it in our own unique way.”
As such, tourism exists in Ipoh, but not quite in the sense there’s a dedicated industry to cater for it (not yet anyway). For years Ipoh was seen as a ‘passer-by’ town; the post-independence economic decline in the 1960s after the British left rendering Ipoh a shadow of its former self, only frequented by visitors on their way to and from Penang and the Cameron Highlands. It sort of still feels like that — a stopover town — with backpackers staying a maximum of two nights en route to somewhere else. But now locals are open to utilising that rich history to give it a much needed facelift and enticing people to explore Ipoh’s hidden gems.
There’s a bevy of museums highlighting the migration of the Hakka-Chinese to Malaysia in the 19th century and their extravagant behaviours at clubs gambling, smoking opium and entertaining girls. There’s also the emergence of urban street art to depict this period through the preservation of historical buildings plus the city’s famous Old Town White Coffee and delicious food, all of which are easy to find. I guess what makes it feel ‘un-tourist-like’ is a lack of designated tourist area and tourists themselves — which for me is a good thing as there’s no threat to its natural appeal.
Sure, there’s Old Town, home to archaic colonial buildings and snippets of cultural treasures — grand British buildings such as Ipoh Railway Station and Ipoh Town Hall remind you of Ipoh’s once iconic standing as Malaya’s second administrative capital — but rather than the city’s famous eateries targeting foreign tourists (think Jalan Alor in KL), they are frequented by proud locals enjoying the cuisine.
There’s no real sense of Old Town as a touristy area; more an enjoyable place to explore. There’s no heckling from the streets, instead a nod of the head and pleasant smile and when you do venture into the circus of the night market in search of food, groceries, toys, clothes and household items, there’s a less forceful form of heckling and bargaining. What’s better is there’s that same personal connection with the locals in the suburbs than in the city.
Ernest Zacharevic, the Lithuanian artist who made a name for himself in Penang and Singapore has offered his artistic genius to Old Town’s history-steeped walls. Recruited by Old Town White Coffee company to showcase the heritage and history of the city, the eight unique murals give great insight into life here. There’s s also Mural Lane, a series of paintings by renowned local artist Eric Lai, highlighting the many cultures of Malaysia: lion dance, kuda kepang dance, Indian dance, plus a pinch of cheekiness with popular childhood games such as hide-and-seek and mother hen as well as a beautiful waterfall scenery amongst others.This has also transcended into the cafe and juice bar scene with many new venues combining the city’s affinity with coffee and modern artistic influences. Places such as Bougainvillea City Cafe and Happy 8 Retreat Cafe head this list with murals depicting Ipoh’s strong Chinese flavours. Photo source from ernestzacharevic.com.
Ipoh is famous for its food and in particular Ngah Choi Kay or chicken and bean sprout. The best places for this are Lou Wong and OnnKee near the main Chinese market and on Cowan Street. Old Town White Coffee is a must and there’s plenty of family owned Chinese shops specialising in this including Nam Heong which is the original exponent of Old Town White Coffee (and its egg tarts) located on the corner of Jalan Bandar Timah and Persiaran Bijeh Timah. If you’re keen for an adventure, head out of town five minutes to Buntong for Ipoh’s famed Kacang Putih (Indian snacks). This area is famous for the manufacturing and retail of Kacang Putih and makes millions each year selling these savoury treats to England, New Zealand and Australia.
For accommodation, I chose a conceptualised ‘self-sustaining’ hostel called Bed & Bike Backpackers Studio. It is what it says it is; a studio apartment with modern stylings and is supervised by fellow travellers on their way through Malaysia. There is no reliance on permanent staff with the owner popping in once a week. Information about the city is passed on via a traveller’s journal and the building itself is located within minutes of both Old Town and Ipoh Railway Station. Also check out 27 @ Concubine Lane — a themed residence showcasing life as it was for the Hakka people during the 19th century.