From historical landmarks to heritage food, timeless temples to ancient caves, Ipoh in Malaysia’s Perak state has it all
Stunning cave temples, charming colonial architecture and a mouthwatering food and restaurant scene, Perak’s capital city brims with plenty of things to do. We’ve rounded up our top picks of attractions to see, as well as the best places to eat and stay in – including a few options of quick day trips to the likes of Batu Gajah and Gopeng.
What to do in Ipoh
Take a step back in time
Ipoh has a rich collection of well-preserved, colonial-era buildings, many of them concentrated along Jalan(s) Dato Sagor and Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab, namely the Ipoh Town Hall, the Ipoh High Court and of course, the stately Mughal-inspired Ipoh Railway Station, affectionately called the Taj Mahal of Ipoh.
Way before industrial-chic became trendy, a group of “Ipohites” ambitiously rejuvenated a block of once-derelict buildings into a lifestyle hub of hip restaurants and quirky shops, breathing new life into a historic neighbourhood where tin miners once congregated, while retaining its old-world charm. An outstanding example of urban revitalisation done right, Kong Heng Square helped land Ipoh in Lonely Planet’s 2016 list of top 10 most attractive Asian destinations.
Book a guided tour to Han Chin Pet Soo Museum, a handsome heritage building (previously the Hakka Tin Miners’ Club) that preserves one of the oldest collections of tin-mining history artefacts in Malaysia.
Inspired by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic’s etchings, local artists have converted the walls of old buildings into colourful canvases. Spot them at Jalan Dato Maharajalela, Jalan Tun Sambathan, Jalan Panglima, Jalan Bijeh Timah and Jalan Bandar Timah.
Inspired by Beijing’s Niu Jie Mosque, Masjid Mohammadiah, the country’s first Chinese mosque, has been drawing the pious and the curious since it opened in 2013. In place of onion domes and towering minarets, the mosque is marked by symmetrical open spaces, bamboo gardens and green, red and white palette reminiscent of ancient Chinese grand halls.
Ipoh’s distinctive features include cave temples built right into the limestone hills that dot the city’s outer periphery. Boasting stunning temples with colourful frescos, monumental statues and idyllic gardens, Perak Tong, Sam Poh Tong and Kek Lok Si are hugely popular with tourists, especially during festivals. Tip: Climb the 450 steps to a hilltop pavilion in Perak Tong for breathtaking city views.
Erected as a tribute to Lord Murugan, the architecturally exquisite Kallumalai Arulmigu Sri Subramaniar Temple straddles Gunung Cheroh, an area covering the foothills of a limestone outcrop and the banks of Kinta River. At the back of the prayer hall, you will find a sanctuary of peacocks, said to be Lord Murugan’s mythological escorts.
Trivia: Gunung Cheroh was the catalyst for Ipoh’s transformation from a sleepy village into a thriving township. This area was the final navigation point for river travel between towns during Ipoh’s mining heydays. Since the river beyond Gunung Cheroh was too rocky for boats to pass, the journey would stop here, before the supplies were transported by elephant or bullock cart.
Just half an hour’s drive from Ipoh, Gopeng is a magnet for adrenalin junkies who enjoy outdoor activities like caving and white water rafting. Former mining town Batu Gajah may look sleepy but is chockful of interesting destinations, including the supposedly haunted Kellie’s Castle, bird lovers’ paradise Kinta Nature Park and a restored tin mining dredge. The royal town of Kuala Kangsar is home to majestic mosques, old palaces and traditional cottage industries, including the making of keris (Malay dagger) and labu sayung, a wood-fired gourd-shaped water container.
Where to stay
Sekeping Kong Heng
A former opera performers’ abode reimagined into a boutique hotel that reflects acclaimed architect Ng Seksan’s rustic-industrial chic, Sekeping Kong Heng – the centrepiece of Kong Heng Square – may not be everyone’s cup of coffee, but nowhere else will you experience such an authentic old town setting. Perched above a working coffeeshop, chances are you’ll either be awakened by the hawkers’ banter or the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
Indulgence Restaurant and Living
Created by award-winning chefpreneur Julie Song, Indulgence Restaurant and Living is housed in a stunning colonial villa and has only seven rooms, each exquisitely furnished to evoke the country that inspired it. Don’t miss the excellent Western fusion restaurant downstairs.
Commune with nature at The Banjaran, a wellness retreat just 15 minutes’ drive from the city centre. Capitalising on a fairytale setting surrounded by limestone hills, it offers geothermal hot springs, meditation caves, spa treatments and unbeatable privacy – it only has 25 villas.
Where to eat
White coffee and bean sprouts chicken are probably on your bucket list already. If you have time, also sample sar kot liew (a deep-fried yam bean fritter), roti goyang (soft-boiled eggs on buttered toast) and wan thau long (a herbal sour dessert with shaved ice), popular street snacks that are the hallmarks of Ipoh.
Dubbed hipster capital by some, Ipoh has more independent cafés than you can shake a coffee cup at. Artisan Handmade Bread’s innovative menu has won admirers the world over. On the next street, Patisserie Boutique’s delightful cake selection includes pavlovas, lava cakes and a killer durian cheesecake. Not far from Sekeping Retreat, Burps & Giggles is another charming spot offering a standard menu of classic bar bites like burgers and chips, but with a stunning interior featuring mismatched furnishings and a striking mural as its piece de resistance. En route to water theme park Lost World of Tambun, grab the town’s best coffee at Six and a Half Café.
Something for barflies
The white coffee might be the city’s most famous beverage, but a vibrant bar and speakeasy scene is also brewing in Ipoh. At Tiga Bar, a hidden gem tucked away in a vintage building in Ipoh’s old town, classic cocktails like the pina colada and old-fashioned are given a quintessentially local spin, featuring classic Malaysian spices, herbs and fruits. Try the Move Like Jagger, the bar’s take on pina colada that’s inspired by the rich flavours of Indian cuisine.
Stock up on heong peng (molasses-filled discs baked in coconut-fired tandoori-style ovens) for friends and family. Order a butter cake from Nancy Cakes, helmed by an 80-something lady whose decadent creations reputedly use 300 grams of butter per one kilogram of cake.
Though the football-sized fruit isn’t native here, Ipoh’s pomelos are reputed to be the world’s best, thanks to the famed limestone water. Another popular food souvenir is salt-baked chicken, free-range birds seasoned with angelica root and baked in rock salt to achieve flavourful, fall-off-the-bone meat. Visit the world’s only kacang putih village, home to dozens of family businesses that sell crunchy vegetarian snacks originating from India’s Bombay mix.
Things to know before you go
1. Rail connections. Introduced in 2015, the high-speed rail system, the Electric Train Service (ETS) that connects Ipoh to the north and south of Peninsular Malaysia is a boon to travellers seeking comfortable and safe alternative transport to come here. Check ktmb.com.my for schedules.
2. When to visit: Given Ipoh’s year-round tropical weather, anytime that doesn’t coincide with a school holiday (check the Malaysian public holidays calendar) is a good time to visit.
3. What to wear: The locals are pretty casual, so even T-shirts and khaki bermudas can get you into most air-conditioned restaurants.