Touted as the next food paradise in Malaysia to visit (after Penang), Ipoh is ideally positioned for a short holiday from Singapore. There are direct flights – via Scoot and Airasia – that will get you there in just over an hour. And because Ipoh isn’t really a huge town, you can easily visit the best parts if you just have one night to spare.
Breakfast, Ipoh style
To make the most of your trip, arrive in the morning so you can start your breakfast with a classic Ipoh White Coffee. For food, you can choose from local favourites like chee cheong fun, gai si hor fun (shredded chicken noodles), or even satay (they have pork innard versions).
You may have heard of the famous ‘Old Town Coffee’, but there are plenty of famous kopitiams serving the same stuff, each with a different twist. Most popular ones are located along Jalan Bandar Timah, including Nam Heong, Ah Chow, Thean Chun and Kong Heng; the last two are located conveniently opposite a famous landmark: Concubine Lane.
Explore the three lanes
Ipoh is a small town filled with charming shophouses, and a great way to explore them is on foot. You have to check out the three famous lanes of Ipoh – when a fire destroyed the old town in 1892, it was rebuilt with lanes, and a mining tycoon gifted three lanes to his three wives so they could collect rents from the shops in their own lane.
The lanes are: Wife Lane, Concubine Lane, and Second Concubine Lane. Wife Lane (Lorong Hale or 大奶巷) is the shortest with nothing much to see, while Concubine Lane (Lorong Panglima or 二奶巷) is the busiest with lots of souvenir shops and a boutique hotel; most of the shophouses here have been refurbished.
The Second Concubine Lane (Market Lane or 三奶巷) is the only one decorated with pretty umbrellas suspended overhead as well as number of interesting murals. One of the murals – the one with a tricycle as part of the art – is done by Ernest Zacharevic, who’s also done a number of murals across town.
Another popular thing to do in Ipoh is to looking for murals, which can be found on many buildings and lanes in both the Old and New Town, so there are plenty of photo ops. Some people come here to ‘collect’ mural photos; there’s even an Ipoh Mural Art Trail Map that concentrates on Zacharevic’s work. There are 9 murals on the map, and one of them is called ‘Mural Arts Lane’, which contains street art from various artists including Zacharevic.
There are currently 6 of Zacharevic’s murals surviving today (the one titled Girl With Bird Cage has been removed by the building’s owner). Some of the murals are huge and easy to find, while others require a little bit of digging (and looking up – Paper Plane is located on top of a building).
His artworks vary in style, depicting the history and culture of Ipoh; for instance, the art of Evolution depicts Ipoh’s history as a mining town in the style of a Chinese painting. This is found on the side of a building that houses the museums of Ho Yan Hor and Han Chin Pet Soo, a former Hakka Miner’s Club established in 1893 and is now a museum that’s only accessible by appointment.
Ho Yan Hor is an institution – its fame lies in its tea concoctions, which are more like elixirs for everything that ails you. People used to take them for anything from colds and sore throats to fevers. The Ho Yan Hor museum (free entry) chronicles the rise of its creator, and you get to sample their teas on your way out.
When it comes to food, there is no shortage of options. Most people come here to sample its famous local foods, especially bean sprout chicken and yong tau foo. The most famous place to get the latter is undoubtedly Big Tree Foot which is a large outdoor ‘food court’ located under some big trees; you can tell it’s popular from the queues. Simply pick your yong tau foo pieces and choose from three soup bases which come with noodles: curry, assam laksa or kway teow.
Finish off lunch with some sweets – nearby Ming Yue is famous for its deliciously crunchy peanut brittles which are made fresh daily. Alternatively, try the local version of caramel egg custard, which is a bittersweet dessert that’s offered at most kopitiams.
After exploring more of Ipoh, you may need to freshen up with a cuppa, and there are plenty of hipster cafes to choose from (with more popping up). In the vicinity of Concubine Lane, there’s Plan B that’s situated in an interesting complex, as well as a number of hipster (read: retro) cafes along Jalan Sultan Yusof, including the popular Burps and Giggles, Aud’s by JJ Cafe, and Nelly Cafe.
In terms of quaint interiors, The Happy 8 Cafe & Retreat (which is also a hotel) and Nestrition embrace their architectural imperfections. For historic interiors, Dong Cafe resembles a nyonya’s house, while STG Ipoh Oldtown and Durbar at FMS are more colonial.
Much like Singapore, Ipoh has a rich colonial architectural heritage which can be seen in the town centre along Jalan Panglima. The most famous landmark is the gleaming white Ipoh Railway Station with its Neo-Moorish and Indo-Saracenic elements with hints of British Indian styles.
Sitting across the station is the Ipoh Town Hall and Old Post Office with its Neo-Renaissance, Moorish and Victorian-inspired styles; next door is the Ipoh High Court, designed by Arthur Hubbard and completed in 1928.
The hardest part about dinner is choosing what to eat – if you haven’t had bean sprout chicken (basically like Hainanese chicken served with a mountain of taugeh) by now, then head to Jalan Yau Tet Shin. Here, you’ll find numerous restaurants that specialise in the dish, where you can sit al fresco and enjoy the night scene. It becomes a sort of pedestrian street where stalls are set up along the road in the evening.
Another popular dish that’s found along this street is salted chicken (and salted duck) – these are marinated with ginger, rice wine, and other Chinese herbs, then wrapped in paper and baked with salt. The most popular shops sell them in packages to be taken home (or to your hotel).
After dinner, a popular dessert in Ipoh is ABC: shaved ice, or ice kacang. You can find plenty of options at the aptly-named Dessert Street (tong sui gai), where ABCs can extravagantly colourful, and most come with fruits.
Ipoh is not a place for parties, but it does have an interesting cocktail bar called Tiga Bar. Remember Market Lane, aka Second Concubine Lane? By night, the umbrellas are lit, and one of the empty-looking shophouses comes alive as a speakeasy; to enter the bar, you have to walk along a boardwalk towards the back entrance (there’s a bouncer to guide you in).
The industrial design interior has with three floors to lounge in; the best is the ground floor where you can see the bartenders at work, since the upstairs is a quieter area for wine drinkers.
By now, most of the famous sites and foods in town have been sampled, so to make the most of your short trip, you can visit nearby attractions just outside town. You can simply book a Grab ride to take you out of town.
Papan (a 20-minute drive outside Ipoh) is a semi-abandoned village that was once a thriving mining town. The 135 shophouses that line the street are now dilapidated and given over to nature, although there are signs of life (there’s a working local primary school). The town’s locals – some 600 greying residents – hang out at one of two coffee shops or at the mahjong parlours.
The town is home to wartime heroine Sybil Kathigasu, a nurse who covertly supplied Allied soldiers with medical aid and information gleaned from banned radios. Sadly, her home (number 74) has been left to the elements and abandoned.
From Papan, you can drive a little further along the road towards Taman Herba Papan – a herb garden that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.
If you still have time before your flight, you can also visit Kellie’s Castle (20 minutes from Papan or Ipoh), a whimsical castle that was once home to a Scot by the name of William Kellie Smith. However, Kellie died before all the elaborate finishings could be done to the building, and it was subsequently abandoned. Today, the castle is shrouded in mystery and is believed to be haunted.
Before you leave…
As a foodie town, you can’t leave Ipoh without getting souvenirs. The most popular is heong peng (translated to ‘fragrant biscuits’ although they’re more like harden buns with bean paste filling). You can find these everywhere in the Old Town (and the airport). Of course, there are plenty of other delicious baked souvenirs you can bring home.