Ipoh in Malaysia has experienced a reversal of fortunes after decades of economic decline and tourism obscurity. I first went to Ipoh in 2010, and after visiting again in 2019 I can say its revival is real.
My first visit was when I was on my way to Pangkor Island. Rather than go straight through from KL I stopped in Ipoh. It’s also a travel hub for onward travel to the Cameron Highlands. None of the guesthouses I was staying at in Malaysia had mentioned anything about Ipoh, but I always like to visit new places to break up a journey.
I didn’t know anything about the place, and I was calling it I-poh until I heard the bus ticket agent pronounce it as E-poh. Upon arrival I was surprised to find an impressive collection of heritage architecture that should have made the town a stop on the Malay peninsula tourist trail.
Ipoh made its fortune as a tin mining boom town in the 1880s. The influx of money gave the city its stately Victorian-era administrative buildings and Straits-style shophouses that are so admired in Penang, KL, and Singapore.
Tin mining continued until the 1970s when the mines were depleted. After the mining era the city was in the economic doldrums for years afterwards, which turned out to be good for the preservation of its British colonial-era architecture. With no demand for new buildings, the old buildings languished through an era when old buildings elsewhere were being demolished in the name of progress.
Part of Ipoh’s obscurity problem may have been due to its geographic location. Ipoh is located roughly half way between KL and Penang, about 180 km north of Kuala Lumpur and 120 km southeast of Georgetown (Penang). It’s too close to either for connecting flights, and even though it’s the third biggest city in Malaysia it only has flights from Johor Bahru and Singapore.
Its fortunes changed when the railway was upgraded to electric fast trains. The ETS (the fastest train in Southeast Asia) now takes 2h 50m from KL, and 1h 45m from Butterworth (for Penang).
Like the old towns of Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, the old town become revitalised. Word started getting out about Ipoh as a travel destination. Ipoh was listed in the Lonely Planet Best City in Asia 2016 list, and then the Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2017: World’s Top Regions (Perak). Even though Lonely Planet is not as influential as it used to be, it still carries an enormous prestige to have been listed in their best of series. In 2018 it got on the radar of the New York Times.
If you’re planning a visit to Ipoh then take the train from KL or Penang. The station is in the old city, while the bus station is about 10km away.
[Search for train tickets to Ipoh.]
Arriving by train you will get to see one of the grandest train stations in Southeast Asia, and it makes for an ideal introduction to Ipoh.
There’s an old railway hotel at the station (the Majestic Station Hotel Ipoh) but unfortunately it has yet to be renovated.
The station is in the old town area, so you can walk from there to the main points of interest. Near the station is a collection of old government and bank buildings that hint at its prosperous past. Around here everything looked the same as I remembered it, so I moved onto the part of the old town where all the old shophouses are.
When I first visited I was amazed that such a good looking old town had not been taken over by hipster cafes. After walking around the old town for the afternoon I saw there were now so many cafes that I couldn’t possibly visit them all in one day.
One of the oldest hipster cafes is Burps and Giggles, which you can tell when you enter has the DNA of an Aussie-style cafe. They even sell Bundaberg Ginger Beer! Sure enough, the local owner had spent six years in Melbourne before starting a cafe in Ipoh.
The centre of activity appeared to be around the old buildings at Plan B Cafe.
There is a cafe and market here built among shops and old warehouse ruins.
At Market Place cafe you can see the remnants of a former hardware business.
The ruins and old windows here are an Instagrammer’s dream.
In addition to the shophouses there are a number of laneways that I always thought would look good if there were some shops there. Coming from Melbourne, where laneways are a celebrated part of the city, it seemed obvious to me that the laneways would make good public spaces.
One lane in particular I remember was Lorong Panglima, better known as Concubine Lane.
I recall taking a photo of the lane in 2011, thinking that it could become popular if they had some cafes and shops there.
[Concubine Lane – 2011]
And here is the same lane in 2019. It’s fair to say that Ipoh has well and truly been discovered.
If you had abducted and blindfolded me and dumped me in this lane, I might have guessed it was in Hong Kong. It also reminded me of one of the laneways in Macau I was recently in. I wouldn’t have guessed Ipoh.
Big disclaimer though – this was in the midst of the Chinese New Year holiday. It was a Thursday, so it couldn’t have been all KL day trippers. Ipoh has strong Chinese heritage, so it may also be mainlanders on holiday. Even without the crowds it looks different to when I was last here.
Around “hipster ground zero” (which is the block containing Plan B and Concubine Lane), it felt like an Instagram playground.
Even the food is Instagrammable.
For some reason Concubine Lane was the “must see” lane. Nearby Market Lane looked just as Instagrammable, yet the crowd was more manageable.
And here is Hale Lane, looking like it will be become the next social media sensation.
It appears that the city is well aware of the popularity of these laneways, and during my visit I saw a few other laneways that were being renovated for future pedestrian use.
Here is a laneway in the early stages of redevelopment.
Even little alleys which previously had nothing to offer have been put to good use. This looked like it would have been filled with rubbish. Now with the addition of a gangway it promises something interesting around the corner (another cool cafe).
And if you’re dismayed by the crowds you’re never far away from an undeveloped laneway.
Along with Aussie-style cafes, Ipoh has followed in the path of Penang’s success by placing interactive murals in laneways.
These murals usually have a physical item attached to a mural of a story of an Ipohan.
Big wall murals are also a thing here, and they can be found all over the old town. This one is a nod to the towns mining past.
I liked this mural of takeaway coffee bags.
Most of the old town is still just a regular town with regular shops. I enjoyed seeing old businesses that still occupy the shophouses.
And old hand-painted signs are always a delight to see.
The Perak Chinese Mining Association is another reminder of bygone days.
It’s hot work walking around Ipoh during the day, so when I walked by this enticing little shopfront I couldn’t resist going inside. Uncle Kong Soybean only sells soybean drink (hot or cold) and it has been a family business spanning three generations. I had an icy cold soybean drink and it was the best soybean drink I’ve ever had.
Ipoh is also famous for food, which is a prerequisite if you are going to be a popular destination in Malaysia. I was all set to have the famous Ipoh Bean Sprout Chicken for lunch, but after arriving at my hotel I didn’t get past this all day breakfast place.
Instead of lunch I had a second breakfast of the classic Malaysian half-boiled eggs.
I like durian, but not enough to have it in cendol.
And I couldn’t get a seat at Durbar at FMS. This is apparently in institution of Ipoh, so maybe next time.
A downside of this newfound popularity was that the traffic was awful. The small streets were gridlocked with traffic, though this might have been holiday traffic as well. People often ask me if I get overwhelmed by the traffic in Saigon, but most of the time it doesn’t bother me. Perhaps that is because it is moving most of the time. What gives me more anxiety is hearing the the fans of overheating car engines stuck in traffic.
Where to stay in Ipoh
The bulk of the old town is between the train station and the Kinta River. Unless you are planning to visit nearby towns or theme parks, you can visit the old town in half a day. I would stick within the old town to make walking around easier.
For hostels the 1981 Guest House is also in the midst of the old town area.