Ipoh, Malaysia’s Most Understated City
Ipoh, Malaysia’s Most Understated City
Few travellers hang around for long in Ipoh. I realized this as I strolled through the quiet charming streets. Most foreign tourists use the Malaysian city purely as a transport hub, to get to the hiking in the Cameron Highlands, or to carry on up to the islands further to the north. And that’s made easier because the bus terminal is way out of the city. It’s their loss, and I was quite content to enjoy the relative solitude I found myself in. Until that is, I ended up at the street food market that evening, and soon realized, that Malaysian tourists have long known that Ipoh is culinary heaven when it comes to street food. They’ve just been keeping it a secret from the rest of the world.
Over the sound of fiery woks, raucous laughter and surrounded by the smell of steaming dumplings, frying noodles while engulfed by the humid, Malaysian air, I settled into a seat on the street and dug into a hot bowl of Curry Mee – noodles in a curry-like soup. Now I knew why everyone on the packed night market street was so happy. This was delicious.
Ipoh is one of Malaysia’s biggest cities, but it still feels like small-town Asia, even in the centre. There are no huge skyscrapers, the narrow alleys and lanes date back to at least the colonial days and there’s an array of street art and decorations along the ramshackle streets to rival Penang.
Just outside the city, I found a wealth of attractions too, from stunning limestone karst scenery to beautiful lakes and the strange remains of Malaysia’s only castle, a grand estate built by a mad Scotsman with too much money and an elaborate vision in the British colonial days.
Ipoh, I soon understood, is Malaysia’s most understated tourist destination. But I know it won’t stay that way forever.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Ipoh is a big transport hub in the region, but too many people pass through without visiting the city itself. The huge bus terminal has connections across Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is just two hours away along winding mountain roads, while Kuala Lumpur is just two and a half hours away along the fast highway. To the north, you can easily reach Butterworth, for the ferry to Penang, or even continue on up to Langkawi or to Thailand.
The train line to Ipoh also connects the city easily to Kuala Lumpur and then onto Butterworth too. The international airport isn’t quite so busy as other Malaysian airports, and there are only a few routes on offer, with Singapore being the only actual international destination you can fly to. There are domestic flights though to Kuala Lumpur, where you can then travel to almost anywhere else in the world from.
Do – Activities & Attractions
The alleys and winding streets of Ipoh’s historic city centre are awash these days with beautifully decorated cafes, funky shops and an array of street art that makes the place seem more like a den of hipsters than your average Malaysian city. You can wander the streets simply admiring all the art that’s awash in the city, for hours on end.
Concubine Lane is one of Ipoh’s most historic walking streets, which as the name might suggest, was once a favourite street for British colonialists looking for some night time antics. Today though, nothing of the sort happens, and instead, the street hosts a vibrant and colourful array of cafes and shops and has become somewhat of a boutiquey hangout for locals and tourists.
Ipoh has preserved a huge number of colonial buildings from the British days, many of which still function as government buildings. The most extravagant is the Ipoh train station, a grand whitewashed affair that remains the cities major rail hub.
Gunung Lang is a beautiful area just outside the city, that will give you just a brief taste of the surrounding landscapes that are to be found near Ipoh. Gunung translates into English as mountain, and the park contains a lovely lake that’s encircled by scenic, green peaks. You can take a boat across the water and walk along boardwalks that extend over the swamps.
Kellie’s Castle is found close to Ipoh, in the small town of Batu Gajah, and this strange, crumbling estate with its own huge tower is the closest thing Malaysia could ever have to a medieval castle. It was built by an eccentric Scotsman named William Kellie-Smith, a rubber plantation owner and colonialist who paid for all the marble and bricks to be imported from India. He died before his vision could be completed, and some say the castle is now haunted by his ghost. That doesn’t stop people – especially Malaysian tourists – from flocking here though, to see the remains of this bizarre structure.
Stay – Accommodation
Ipoh isn’t yet as touristy as many other Malaysian cities, so there is not as much accommodation on offer as other destinations. There are an increasing number of backpacker hostels for the budget traveller. The pick of the bunch is generally considered by travellers to be the Bed and Bike Backpacker Studios, or the Vloft Backpackers Hostel. There are a few mid-range hotels, with plenty of boutique options, as well as a few high end, luxury hotels too. You will find that most accommodation is clustered around the streets of the old city, in walking distance of the train station and an even easier walk to the major sights and street food stalls.
Eat – Restaurants
Ipoh is a haven for street food. At night, you will find the city comes alive after dark, as food stalls set up and start cooking, with tables and chairs spilling over from the sidewalks onto the streets. There’s a huge diversity in the offerings, from simple Nasi Goreng – fried rice – to more unique dishes, such as Ipoh Laksa, a delicious, almost curry-like broth. During the day – and night too – there are many Nasi Kandar restaurants, where you point and choose at the many offerings in the buffet, to create your own delicious blend of Malay and Indian cuisine.
Ipoh is also a great place to visit for coffee lovers. This is the home of Ipoh White Coffee, one of the nation’s most loved brands of local coffee, and a brand which you can now find in almost any city in the country. If you love a good brew, then this is the place to visit.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
As a predominantly city based destination, Ipoh can be visited all year round. The weather too, is great most of the year, with very consistent tropical temperatures waiting to be enjoyed. Anyone who has ever travelled to Malaysia though will know from experience that this is a part of the world that also sees a lot of rainfall, and it can rain any time of the year. The worst of the rain generally falls between March and April, and again between October and December, but if you carry a raincoat around, your trip shouldn’t be interrupted too much at all.
Safety – Possible risks
Ipoh is a very safe city to travel to, and you will find the locals to be very welcoming, particularly those trying to sell their delicious street food! As always though, be as careful as you would be anywhere else in the world, particularly around the huge bus station, and don’t even think about leaving your bags unattended there. The bus station, with its many independent and private transport companies, can be a bit of maze to navigate, and you may find one company telling you one thing, and another trying to get you solely on their bus. Ask around at a few bus companies, find out who is leaving when, and book the most appropriate for your plans without worrying about the pressure from any sellers.
Late at night, the streets can seem a bit intimidating, as the winding alleys and even the street food areas can be dimly lit, be confident though, and you will find that it’s a safe and pleasant place to travel to.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Staying in Ipoh can be very affordable, especially in comparison to other Malaysian cities. Prices for a basic dom bed start from just 4 USD a night, and with easy access to the city centre too.
You will find that the more boutique and luxury hotels are actually very affordable as well, especially if you’ve just arrived from a more touristy location such as Penang or Kuala Lumpur. Mid-range rooms can start from just 20 USD a night, while a five-star hotel can be as little as 40 USD a night.
A good meal at the night food stalls will be just a few dollars, depending on what you order, while a good cup of excellent Ipoh White Coffee will also cost just a few dollars.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Ipoh has a range of eco-friendly shops and restaurants which can be visited. They are generally found around the old, colonial streets, as this is a city that prides itself on its efforts to be environmentally conscious. The surrounding area though, suffered from environmental damage during the colonial days, when huge rubber plantations were built, and many of these are now being turned into palm oil plantations too. Tin mines also ruined a large swath of the beautiful scenery you will see outside the city too, but luckily, the city has protected vast areas of natural jungle and much of the landscape from future intrusion.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Ipoh is a downright pleasant place to visit, but you will find that the city is short on attractions, and once you have spent two or three days here, you may be looking to move on if sightseeing is your thing. If you enjoy the pleasures of a charming, relaxed city, and love Malaysia’s fantastic array of diverse culinary dishes, then you may, however, want to hang around longer.
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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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