Ipoh's Old Town Revival
A fresh batch of boutique hotels, cafés and restaurants is making Ipoh's Old Town feel brand new. By MARCO FERRARESE. Photographed by KIT YENG CHAN.
Published on Mar 25, 2016
SLEEPY IPOH IS WAKING UP. The Malaysian city still has all the charm and elegance that wealth from its former life as a 1930s colonial tin-mining center once afforded, but until recently, it has been stuck in the past. Even the multicolored Chinese shophouses that line the charming lanes of Old Town seem to lean against each other, like they too have succumbed to the languid ebb and flow of time in the tropics, and nothing much seems to have changed in the way local shopkeepers tend to their century-old crafts. Much like the ore that put Ipoh on the map, the city had tarnished with age, but the flights from Singapore on Tiger and Malindo plus a spate of recently opened hotels and dining options have the dreamy destination spiffed up to a high shine.
Night view of Town Hall.
+ Experience a modern take on true shophouse-living straight in Old Town's pumping heart at the boutique hotel Sekeping Kong Heng (75 Jln. Panglima; +60 5 241 8977). The eight rooms, including two hanging glass boxes, are a luxe refit of a 1920s-era building that hosted the Cantonese opera troupe way back when. Visiting troupes performed regularly until the 1950s in the 1,500-seat theater next door, which is the trendy bistro Plan B (+60 5 249 8286).
+ Also in the center of Ipoh's Old Town and nearby the Kinta River, another old Chinese shophouse is ready to host heritage-hunters in spacious and fabulously renovated rooms. Sarang Paloh (16 Jln. Sultan Iskandar; +60 5 241 3926) welcomes guests in a throwback lobby furnished with Chinese vintage housewares and inspiring batik paintings. A spiral staircase leads to the second floor that housed a bank in the 1920s but is now a collection of tastefully refurbished rooms.
A trendy bistro Plan B.
+ Start your day like a local with a cup of white coffee; the quintessential Old Town brew is made from coffee beans roasted with palm-oil margarine and served with condensed milk. Sip a cuppa alongside a hearty breakfast at Kedai Makanan Nam Heong (2 Jln. Bandar Timah; +60 16 553 8119), known for its spot-on brews and silky egg tarts, while you listen to hawkers' ladles crack and woks sizzle on the streets outside.
+ Try to find a seat among the locals at mom and pop Restoran Ong Kee (48 Jln. Yau Tet Shin; +60 5 253 1562) for some of the best tauge ayam, or beansprout chicken, in town. Here the classic Ipoh dish is boiled to perfection, sprinkled with fresh bean sprouts and soy sauce, and served with noodle soup or rice.
+ In the mood to live a little dangerously? Loosen your belt and steel your nerves for the RM18 one-hour noodle free flow at Wheel Noodles (26 Jln. Market, under 1981 Guesthouse shop sign; +60 5 242 3777). This artsy bistro has lively touches like rows of hanging umbrellas, vintage bicycles, wooden tables and lofty interiors, and noodles come in old-style, crowing-rooster-decorated bowls.
Egg tarts at Kedai Makanan Nam Heong.
+ Eight murals by Ernest Zacharevic, the Lithuanian artist who made Penang a street-art star, are hidden throughout the lanes and walkways of Ipoh. Go on a treasure hunt to find them all.
T+L TIP The artwork locations are marked on the Ipoh Tourist Map available at the tourism information office and most hotels.
+ The city's heritage museum Han Chin Pet Soo (3 Jln. Bijeh Timah; free tour booking at ipohworld.org/reservation; RM10 donation optional) was originally founded in 1893 by tin magnate Leong Fee as a gentleman's club for miners and tycoons. The musuem offers a peek into the Old World charm of a Hakka Chinese clan house, complete with a central courtyard and packed-earth walls. The first floor recounts the history of Ipoh's industrial past, while upstairs the quirky reproduction of a Chinese gambling and opium den with life-size statues of Fu Manchu-alike punters is definitely worth a look.
+ Take an evening stroll to see the light show at the fountain in the square facing Ipoh's Taj Mahal—an apt local nickname for the sumptuous 1935 white marble train station. Walk the Kinta riverfront under LEDglowing trees, your red carpet to Ipoh's nightlife, and lose yourself to the city's quiet but infectious beat.
Art by Ernest Zacharevic celebrates Ipoh's white coffee.