Ipoh

Ipoh is the capital city of Perak and located in the rich tin-mining valley of Kinta. It is one of the underrated cities in Malaysia because people tend to overlook the city of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Malacca. This quiet little town is a perfect off-the-beaten destination for a Malaysia trip.

Well known for its British colonial buildings, traditional shophouses, Buddhist cave temples clinging to limestone cliffs, and contemporary street art, Ipoh is definitely a place that can’t be missed on your bucket list.

Ipoh is also Malaysia’s culinary capital and you will find special dishes that can’t be found elsewhere in the country. The town has a fair share of its unique food and must try its famous local white coffee, egg tart, and kaya puff.

Ipoh’s History

The town of Ipoh is divided into two parts by the Kinta River- Old Town and New Town. It can be traced to the time during the discovery of tin in 1848 by Long Jaafar in Larut. The mining industry together with rubber production helped to boost Malaya’s economy from the early 18th-century until the 1930s.

Best Time to Visit

This laid-back Ipoh has been under the radar and has been visited mostly by Malaysians. Nevertheless, the town is the perfect destination to explore throughout the year. The peak season is between November and February during the long year-end school holidays and Chinese New Year as well as the Muslim festivals which usually fall in May or June.

The low season is from March to April, and July to October. You will feel more relaxing with a lesser crowd in the neighborhood. Most hotels will offer discounted rates for their guests during this low peak period.

Getting There

By Plane

Interestingly, there is a small airport called Sultan Azlan Shah Airport, simply known as Ipoh Airport (IPH). The airport is about 6 kilometers away from the town and is reachable within 20 minutes. There are daily domestic routes from Langkawi and Johor, which is an hour flight and operated by Air Asia and Malindo Air. A Singaporean budget airline, ScootAir is only an international flight that flies daily between the two cities, which takes an hour to travel. Once in the arrival hall, you can use e-hailing services from Grab or AirAsia Super App to the town (Remember to download the Grab or AirAsia Super app to your phone beforehand).

By Train

There are trains going to this peaceful little town at Ipoh Station from three main departure points in three cities- Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Malacca. They are operated by ETS, an inter-city rail service company under KTMB (Click here to make a booking online or download their KTMB mobile app to your phone). Trains leaving from Kuala Lumpur will depart from KL Sentral– the main transportation hub of the city. The journey will take 2 hours and 40 minutes with 5 services running daily.

There are also trains available from Penang to Ipoh. However, you will first need to take a ferry from Swettenham Pier, Georgetown to Pangkalan Sultan Abdul Halim Ferry Terminal to catch the train at Butterworth (Be advised to check the ferry schedule before making the train booking. Ferries may not be punctual, so give yourself a time gap in between taking the ferry and train). The train station at Butterworth is close approximate from Penang Sentral and the train ride takes an hour and 40 minutes with 6 services daily. If you are coming from Malacca, the ETS train will depart from Batang Melaka which is an hour away from Malacca city. The journey takes about 5 hours, with services running twice a day.

I had taken this ETS train from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, being my first time experiencing this amazing train ride. What impressed me was their service because the train was very punctual and left the station on time. The seat is very comfortable and clean, and there is an F&B Bistro on board that sells Malaysian food, snacks, and hot and cold beverages.

Ipoh Station is located in the heart of Ipoh Old Town. Once arrive at the train station, you can take a Grab car to your hotel or Airbnb (Be careful with these taxi drivers waiting outside the station. They will offer a ride to your hotel, but charge an expensive rate even for a short distance because they occasionally don’t follow the taxi meter)

By Bus

Traveling by bus to Ipoh can be quite easy. The bus terminal in Ipoh is Amanjaya Station which is about 10 kilometers away and there are Grab cars available to ride to the town.

The buses are widely available in Kuala Lumpur and can choose to depart from KL Sentral or Bersepadu Srlantan Selatan Terminal (TBS), the main city bus terminal. However, there are more choices in TBS Terminal in terms of which bus company and the timing to pick. You can get to TBS by KLIA Transit from KL Sentral or from KL International Airport. Alternatively, you can choose to take a Grab car to the bus station. The journey to Ipoh takes about 3 hours.

If you are currently in Penang or Malacca, you can find many buses departing from Penang Komtar near Georgetown in Penang island (take 2 hours journey) and Melaka Sentral in Malacca (take 5 hours). There are also bus services from Tanah Rata in Cameron Highland and the journey takes 2.5 hours.

Getting Around

Ipoh Old Town is a small town that easy to navigate and able to explore by foot. The heritage buildings and traditional coffee shops are just situated in the heart of the Old Town. However, there are some popular restaurants, Buddhist temples, and attractions that lie further out of town and only need to take a 10-20 minute Grab ride.

The best activities for 3 days in Ipoh

Ipoh Old Town may seem small but is surrounded by many colonial buildings, a unique taste of local food, and stunning Buddhist temples. Exploring the town on foot is the best way to discover the early 20th-century old buildings built by the British. It is recommended to spend three full days in Ipoh Old Town.

1. Admire the beautiful Ipoh Railway Station

If you are traveling to Ipoh by train, you will be familiar with this white-dome building. Known as “The Taj Mahal of Ipoh”, the station was built between 1914 and 1917 by a British architect, A.B. Hubback that adjoined the Majestic Station Hotel (who also designed Kuala Lumpur’s famous train station). This impressive architecture features a mixture of Neo-Moorish and Indo-Saracenic elements with British Indian styles. The station is the perfect point to start your Heritage Trail in its old town district. After more than a century, this colonial-style train station remains fully operational to serve as the route that runs north to Butterworth, Penang, and southbound to Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.

2. Take the Heritage Trail walk

Since Malaysia declared its independence from British rule in 1957, the town was left with a legacy of incredible architecture. The colonial buildings have since been surrounded by municipal buildings, townhouses, and mosques that had been well-preserved until today.

Just next to the railway station is the Cenotaph War Memorial, a memorial to commemorate the fallen heroes in Perak during World War I and II. Other notable landmarks include the Town Hall and Old Post Office building, the 1931-built Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building (once the tallest building in Ipoh until post-independence), the Dramatists’ Hotel (to accommodate actors performing at Ipoh’s Chinese Theatre which has been demolished), and Mikasa Photo Shop (used by a Japanese spy, Masaji Fukabori to send information about Malaya back to the Japanese army during WWII). 

3. Take a glimpse of the Birch Memorial Tower Clock

The grand Birch Memorial Clock Tower was built in 1909 in the memory of J.W.W. Birch, the first British Resident of Perak, who was assassinated in 1875. There has been controversy that Birch was hailed as a fallen hero. 

Back in the 19th century, Imperial British had brought heavy influence to Perak and took control of territory from Malay sultanates for a few centuries. It has sparked anger among its people and two local Malay chiefs had killed Birch. A few decades after his death, the memorial was constructed to honor him.

4. Explore the charming Kong Heng Square

Kong Heng Square is one of my favorite Instagrammable spots in town. The shop lots were once an abandoned row of old buildings with orange bricks, old wooden windows, and ruin walls and had been restored into a backpacker inn, cafes, and a bar at the corner called Plan B.

There is an artisan market that sells all sorts of unique handcrafted items made by locals, books, pillows, and other accessories. Do try the ais kepal (shave ice) from Bits and Bobs, an ice-based dessert made with a block of shaved ice and topped with syrup and other sweet ingredients.

Travel tips: The artisan market opens from 11 am to 5 pm on weekdays and 10 am to 5 pm on weekends.

5. Visit the extraordinary Bookxcess book store

This Bookxcess is unlike any other branch or other bookstores. Located in Kong Heng compound, the outlet was given a new life as it was converted from a bank and decorated with amusing neon light signages. The most interesting part is its basement where its original vault doors and safety deposit boxes have been transformed into bookshelves. It is also home to a museum dedicated to the late Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad.

Opening hours: Daily from 10 am to 10 pm

6. Enjoy breakfast at Nam Heong Coffee Shop

Nam Heong Coffee Shop is famed for its famous Ipoh’s white coffee claimed to be its birthplace. Enjoy the Ipoh’s signature egg tarts freshly made from the oven, kaya and butter toast, or Cha Siu pastry (Barbecue pork) and paired with their white coffee. Otherwise, you can go with dim sum or local favorites: fried kuey teow, chee cheong fun, curry mee, and Kai Se Hor Fun

Opening hours: Daily, 7 am to 5.30 pm

7. Visit Ho Yan Hor Museum

Ho Yan Hor Museum is dedicated to Dr. Ho Kai Cheong, a Chinese medical practitioner who founded the company in 1945 and formulated the herbal tea with 23 special herbs. He and his family started the business in this building to sell Chinese herbal tea until the 1960s and later transformed it into a small museum to share his success story. The herbal tea helps to relieve heatiness and cures common cold, and became a popular alternative to Western medicine.

The friendly staff will give a brief introduction to the museum and visitors can take a self-guided tour to learn the history of Ho Yan Hor. The building still retains some original structures, including the wooden staircases to the second floor. At the end of the tour, I was invited to try their 6 herbal teas and had great chat with her to know more about the company and its neighborhood.

Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm

Entrance fee: Free

8. Stroll around Concubine Lane, Wife Lane and Second Concubine Lane

Wife Lane, Concubine Lane, and Second Concubine Lane are lined with townhouses that have been restored and rebuilt into cafes and boutique shops. It is said that each of these lanes was gifted to three wives of a local mining tycoon named Yao Tet Shin in 1908. The townhouses became the center for opium smokers, gamblers, and prostitutes owned by tycoons and millionaire miners around Ipoh.

Concubine Lane famously known as ‘The Second Wife Lane’ or ‘Mistress Lane’, is now filled with stylish boutiques, antique stores, gift shops, and fancy cafes. It is the most popular lane among those three lanes because there are several coffee shops nearby selling local food, such as Ipoh Asam Laksa (picture below), toast with butter and kaya, and caramel pudding at Kong Heng Coffee Shop, and curry mee at Thean Chun Coffee Shop.

9. Discover the alleys of mural street arts

It comes as no surprise that Ipoh town is filled with a series of beautiful mural arts. The row of shophouses has been brightened by many creative murals that were commissioned by Old Town White Coffee in a way to honor the city’s heritage and bring the history of the town to life.

The eight popular murals were painted by the same Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic who did the wall-painting in Penang. This includes an Old Uncle Drinking Coffee (located right outside Ipoh Tourist Information Center) a Paper Plane, a Yellow Hummingbird, A Coffee Break, A Bag of Coffee, and Old Town Relives Nostalgia with Trishaw. There are other cute and funny street arts hidden behind these shophouses around Market Lane and Cocoubine Lane that can relate to Ipoh’s life and culture.

Travel Tips: Get a map of Ipoh Mural Art Trail for a self-guided tour from Ipoh Tourist Information Centre or the Ipoh branch of Old Town White Coffee They are easy to find and marked out on Google Map.

10. Have Nasi Ganja for lunch

Opened back in 1957, this popular Nasi Kandar Ayam Merah @ Yong Suan Restaurant has got everyone in town talking about it. They are famous for their Nasi Ganja and ‘Ganja’ is translated from a Malay word as Cannabis! You might be wondering if they use such substances in their recipe? But don’t worry, the term was only used to describe how addictive their food is, just like a DRUG.

Their signature Nasi Ganja comes with steamed rice, a choice of 6 different curries, lady’s fingers, cucumbers, and of course, the tasty chicken. The chicken is marinated with spices, coated with thick curry gravy and takes up to 8 hours to prepare. They also served 18 dishes, such as salted duck egg or mutton.

I find the chicken a bit tough though, but love the taste of the curry. It comes as no surprise that the shop owner claimed that his cooking is so delicious and addictive that his customers would keep coming back for more. I had the chicken, egg, cucumber, and rice for the price of RM8.50, which is quite reasonable.

Travel tips: Come as early as possible before 12 pm or after 2 pm to avoid the crowd during lunch hour. The restaurant allows patrons to dine in for 30 minutes because the queue is long and the seating area is limited.

Opening hours: Daily from 9.30 am to 6 pm

11. Snacking the fresh kaya puff

Being a fan of kaya puff?

This Malaysian pastry can be found at Sin Eng Heong Biscuit Shop (Kedai Biskut Sin Eng Heong) which has been around the corner since 1961. The flaky layers of kaya puff are filled with coconut jam. As you bit, the great texture of coconut flesh will melt into your mouth. 

If kaya puff isn’t your thing, they also sell pineapple pastries and egg tart. You will expect a long queue in this store to get their hands on the yummy pastries.

Opening hours: Daily 9 am to 7 pm

12. Roam the back alley of Mural Art’s Lane

More of the street arts can be found at Mural Art’s Lane- the back alley of Jalan Sultan Iskandar. The “entrance” is located near the bus stop at Jalan Datuk Onn Jaafar where there is an adorable cat that welcomes you. Here you’ll come across a whole lane of contemporary murals painted by the school community and local artists.

13. Have Ipoh’s best chicken rice for dinner

Located in the buzzing street of the old town area, Tauge Ayam Lou Wong Restaurant is famous for its fresh steamed chicken with bean sprouts. The single chicken portion is slightly bigger than those sold in Kuala Lumpur. On top of that, you can add the meatball or fish ball.

Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10.30 am to 12 am

14. Get pampered at Banjaran Hotspring Retreat

Spend a day at the Banjaran Hotspring Retreat to unwind from a busy life. Get rejuvenated in the geothermal hot spring and enjoy the surrounding views of lush green rainforest and million-year-old limestone hills. There is a fish foot spa right next to the hot spring where you can dip your feet and a swarm of Garre Rufa will come feeding on the dead skin. These fish are native to Turkey and Jordan and usually be found in the hot springs. You can also go to meditate in the hidden Meditation Cave or relax at the steam cave and ice bath.

For an exquisite dining experience, the Pomelo Restaurant is an open-walled restaurant with a giant HELI fan at the garden entrance that serves healthy and organic food. The atmosphere is calm and decorated with artworks and wooden wall pieces. For starters, a complimentary charcoal-oven baked focaccia is served with salted butter, finely pureed olives, and truffle. I had the fresh, savory salmon and creamy seafood chowder soup.

Travel tips: Facilities are provided for outside guests, which include lockers, bathrobes, towels, and shower room. Buggy service is available to pick up and drop off guests at the spa treatment area and the compound of the resort. Do call up the spa centre one day in advance to provide your car plate number or inform them that you will be coming by Grab car.

Opening hours: Outside guests can access the facilities from 10 am to 7 pm.

Entrance fee: Buy a day pass to use the resort’s facilities without a stay and redeem a cash voucher of RM150 for spa treatment and dining at Pomelo Restaurant. The voucher is valid for the Jeff’s Collar (Click here to buy the day pass from Klook)

15. Take a half-day trip to the haunted Kellie’s Castle

Kellie Castle comes with a romantic, tragic and mysterious story. The unfinished mansion was built by Scottish planter William Kellie Smith, who left his hometown at the age of 20 and moved to Malaya to seek fortune in 1890. Despite his failure in construction projects and the dwindling coffee industry, he finally found success and good wealth in the rubber plantation and tin mining business.

He returned to Scotland in 1903 to marry his sweetheart Agnes and brought her back to his home in Malaya. Later, they soon had two children, a daughter, Helen and a son, Anthony. Upon giving birth to his son, Smith began planning the construction and was fancy with Indo-Saracenic, Roman, and Moorish architectural styles. 70 workers were hired from India and brought together with bricks and marbles. An elevator was planned to be built, making it the first in Malaysia with an indoor tennis court and a rooftop courtyard to host parties.

Sadly, there was a major setback when his workers were contracted with Spanish Flu and died in the 1920s. On his route back to Europe to collect his elevator, he had pneumonia and suddenly died at the age of 56 in Lisbon, Portugal. His grieving family returned to Scotland and the mansion has been abandoned and unfinished.

The castle was soon surrounded and swallowed by the jungle. It was later discovered that there are three secret tunnels with rumors saying that the Japanese used the premises to torture and execute prisoners. Others claimed that there are spooky tales with sights of ghostly figures in the window.

Travel tips: Parkings are available for RM2. You can get to Kellie’s Castle by train from Ipoh Station to Batu Gajah Station in just 12 minutes (The normal ticket costs RM11 and RM10 for disabled passenger) and then take Grab car to the castle. You can also take Grab car direct from Ipoh to the castle if traveling in a group because the fare is higher.

Opening hours: Monday to Thursday from 9 am to 6 pm and Friday to Sunday from 9 am to 6.30 pm

Entrance fee: Local- Adult: RM5/ Children: RM3/ Senior Citizen and Disabled Adult: RM4/ Disabled Children: RM2 and Foreigner- Adult: RM10/ Children: RM8

16. Visit Perak Tong Cave Temple

Ipoh is known for its amazing Taoist and Buddhist temples that sit on the sides of limestone karst or caves. This stunning Perak Tong Cave Temple situated 20-minutes away, is one of the oldest temples in Ipoh and has an impressive palace-like architectural design. It took half a century to build in 1926 by Buddhist priests from Jiaoling, China. 

At the main entrance of the temple stood the 40-feet tall gold Buddha statue with guardian deities on each side. The walls of the hall were painted with Chinese calligraphy and amazing murals of figures from Chinese mythology and Buddhism. It also houses over 40 Buddha statues, including different representations of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. 

If you have extra time, take the challenge to climb 450 steep staircases to the top of the limestone hill. The gorgeous panoramic view awaits you that overlooks the Ipoh town and can relax under one of the pagodas surrounded by shady trees, lotus ponds, and two bell towers

Travel tip: Wear proper sneakers if you attempt to climb up to the hilltop pavilion. Avoid going to the top of the hill after raining due to slippery path.

Opening hours: The temple is open daily from 8 am to 5pm. Visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the pavilion from 9 am to 4 pm and during fine weather conditions.

Entrance fee: Free but a small donation is much welcomed to support and maintain the temple.

17. Taste the sweet tofu pudding

Funny Mountain Tau Fu Fah served its traditional silky soya bean curd with a drizzle of sugar syrup and a little ginger. It is the best comforting dessert after lunch. They also sell soya bean milk, ais lengkong (grass jelly drink), and mixed soya bean milk with grass jelly.

This shop is currently operated by the third generation of the family, where their recipes were passed down by their grandmother who came from Shantou, the province of Guangdong in China. The soybeans are imported from the US and Canada, while the soy milk and tofu are freshly self-made every day.

Opening hours: Daily from 10.30 am until items are sold out. Recommend to be there before 3 pm.

18. Uncover the hidden gem of Mirror Lake

This stunning lake was nicknamed the ‘Mirror Lake’ (Tasik Cermin) due to the beautiful reflection of the limestone karst formations and forest upon the water. This magical Mirror Lake is situated in Gunung Rapat, a 20-minute drive from Ipoh Old Town. Let the beauty of this wonderful nature mesmerize you

Travel tips: You will first come across an abandoned house. Then, continue walking up on a hilly path leading to the right entrance and 20-meter limestone rock tunnel towards Mirror Lake. Please practice caution and be extra careful while the quarry remains active.

Opening hours: Daily 9 am to 5 pm

Entrance fee: Local- Adult: RM2/ Children: RM1/Disabled Adult: RM1 and Foreigner- Adult: RM4/ Children: RM2/ Disabled Adult: RM2. Children below the height of 90 cm is free of charge regardless of their nationality.

19. Visit Kek Lok Tong Temple

Kek Lok Tong Temple is another charming cave temple with one of the most picturesque settings. The temple ground comprises of Buddha statues on the inside and outside, and also features a beautiful lake garden and other deities within the compound which is great for a peaceful nature stroll.

Opening hours: Daily from 9 am to 4 pm

Entrance fee: Free but a small donation is much appreciated to help support and maintain the temple.

20. Enjoy the delicious dry curry noodle

Established in 1955 by a Hainanese man, Yee Fatt Curry Noodle House is one of the local favorite food and it was recommended to me by one of the Grab drivers in Ipoh. The shop is located further out of Ipoh Old Town at Jalan Kampar, but is worth the journey to get there. It was known for its dry curry mee that comes with barbecue pork, chicken meat, and bean sprout. The curry is made from 20 types of spices with secret blend. It is best to get there as early as possible because they are easily sold out around lunchtime.

Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 7.30 am to 3 pm

Going Elsewhere in Malaysia?

If you are planning to stay longer for more adventures in Malaysia, you can check out some of my other posts:

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