Global travel authority Lonely Planet has included the Malaysian city of Ipoh amongst is top ten Asian as part of its inaugural ‘Best in Asia’ list, and it’s not hard to see why.
Long regarded simply as a stopover on the way to Penang or the Cameron Highlands, the capital Malaysia’s Perak State, Ipoh is now emerging as tourist destination in its own right. From humble beginnings, the British colonial city has blossomed into a beautiful cityscape that marries old-world charm with modern amenities. Here are our top picks for things to do and see in and around Ipoh.
This is definitely a foodie’s city, offering endless street stalls and restaurants all eager to serve up a sample of mouthwatering local fare. Ipoh’s signature dish is the famous Nga Choy Kai, a combination of tender chicken and Buntung bean sprout, and Malaysians regularly travel from all over the country just to eat it.
According to locals, one of the best places to try it is Restoran Onn Kee (48, Jalan Yau Tet Shin, Pusat Bandaraya). Grab a table on the pavement outside and watch the passing parade outside in this busy food strip while you chow down on some of the best Nga Choi Kai in town, as well as other local delicacies like hor-fan soup.
But if you really want to immerse yourself in Ipoh’s culinary traditions pay an early morning visit to Ipoh’s Great Wet Market. Located between Jalan Sultan Idris and Jalan Sultan Iskandar right in the heart of town, and spread among five stories, it’s the largest fresh market in Ipoh. The best place for fresh vegetables and seafood, roasted pork and non-halal meats, the second floor features row upon row of colorful stalls lined with exotic and local fruits, as well as dried herbs, fresh eggs of every kind, curry and spices stands with clouds of sneeze-inducing chilli-powder. The fourth floor is for anyone with a sweet tooth, with stalls selling all manner of Malaysian pastries and cookies and is also the best place to try authentic Ipoh roasted Kopitiam Coffee.
IPOH OLD TOWN
Walk off all that eating on a jaunt through Ipoh Old Town. Situated on the west bank of the Kinta River, it features an eclectic mix of pre-war architecture dating back to the colonial era, blending Moorish, Islamic, Chinese as well as Hindu architectural elements. Alongside quaint shop-houses, are a number of heritage and government buildings including the Ipoh Railway Station. Built in the early 20th century this impressive landmark is affectionately known as Ipoh’s Taj Mahal by the locals, and features a combination of Moorish architecture with modern embellishments.
A walk through Old Town’s streets also reveals a number of murals by Ernest Zacharevic, a Penang-based Lithuanian artist celebrated for his interesting wall murals in Georgetown, Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru and Singapore. Teaming up with OLDTOWN White Coffee he has created the ‘Art of OLDTOWN’ as a celebration of the heritage and history shared between Ipoh, Old Town and OLDTOWN White Coffee, painting 8 murals that celebrate Old Town as the birthplace of white coffee.
No visit to Ipoh is complete without a visit to its limestone caves. The city is surrounded by caves, many of which house Chinese cave temples built by the Chinese miners who first came work to in Ipoh’s tin mines at the turn of the 19th century.
Circling the southern outskirts of the city are several easily accessible ones including Sam Poh Tong, Nam Thean Tong and Ling Sen Tong. But if you are stuck for time, visit the Perak Tong temple north of Ipoh. Climb the steep internal staircase to the top to a panoramic view of Ipoh and its surroundings. Ipoh’s most famous cave, and one of the easiest to explore, is Gua Tempurung, located in Gopeng, about 24km south of Ipoh. At 3km long, it is one of the largest in Peninsular Malaysia and comprises five huge domes, each featuring a breathtaking gallery of stalagmites, stalactites and other amazing rock formations.
WHITE WATER RAFTING AND WATERFALL ABSEILING
Ipoh has also established itself as something of an adventure seeker’s paradise. A number of companies offer white water rafting for beginners through to more experienced canoeists on the Kampar River, near Gopeng and for something completely different, try waterfall abseiling. Riverbug is one of the best operators in the region, with professional guide and a range of packages to suit every level of experience and budget (www.riverbug.asia).
BANJARAN HOT SPRINGS RETREAT
For those in pursuit of ultimate wellness experience, Ipoh’s Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat (www.thebanjaran.com) is not to be missed. Only 15 minutes from the city centre, the Banjaran is built around natural geothermal springs and a naturally heated swimming pool set in lush green rainforest against the dramatic backdrop of Ipoh’s limestone hills. Amidst the tranquil and relaxing surroundings guests can enjoy a broad range of bespoke holistic experiences and treatments and the retreat’s eco-friendly spa including ayurvedic therapies and traditional Malay healing rituals plus a fish foot spa.
And if you want to stay, 30 or so secluded villas each come with a private pool and outdoor hot tub making it an ideal venue for honeymooners and couples. In the evening guests can enjoy a glass of wine in Jeff’s Bar set inside a vast cave adjacent to the geothermal springs, with a comprehensive wine list featuring some of the best wines from right around the world.
M BOUTIQUE HOTELS
For more centrally located accommodation, try M Boutique Hotel (www.mboutiquehotels.com) or it sister property M Boutique Station 18 (http://s18.mboutiquehotels.com). The two feature retro and vintage décor and furniture with hipster elements – and more than a passing nod to Ipoh’s tin-mining heritage, and everything about them is stylish and chic. Although rooms are not overly big (other than the suites), they offer every comfort imaginable and the lobby shop in M Boutique Hotel is a great place to pick up some interesting and quirky gifts.