The hippest destination in Malaysia
Appealing restaurants and stylish hotels have helped the city of Ipoh stage a comeback
In the middle of the 1900s, the northwestern Malaysian town of Ipoh was the world’s largest producer of tin and its booming success showed.
Informally described by locals as the “town that tin built,” Ipoh grew from a sleepy village in the valley of the Kinta River to a hotbed of cabarets, nightlife and conspicuous consumption, a city fuelled by the fortunes of the Chinese-mining “towkays” (bosses). But the collapse of tin prices in the 1980s curbed the city’s rise.
Now Ipoh, Malaysia’s third most populous city, and one largely unknown outside of Southeast Asia, is staging a comeback to become the country’s hippest destination. The city’s fortunes began to improve in 2004 when the water theme park Lost World of Tambun opened, backed by the Malaysian conglomerate Sunway Group (its founder and chairman, Jeffrey Cheah Fook Ling, was born close to Ipoh). More recently, in 2014, the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, as he had done in Penang’s George Town, placed his imprimatur on the city by beautifying old buildings with a series of murals.
But perhaps the greatest change — one propelled by homegrown talent — has been the boom in hip cafés over the last few years.
The catalyst for Ipoh’s new tilt was arguably the Sekeping Kong Heng hotel. Opened six years ago, it took the peeling bones of a hostel once used by performers at a Cantonese opera and updated the interiors with glass and steel; the effect is remarkable, modern and yet artfully dilapidated, a sensitive reimagining of a storied, decrepit space.
Other businesses followed. Patisserie BoutiQue opened on the street called Jalan Sultan Yussuf with a menu of salads, soups, sandwiches, pasta and excellent desserts (the tiramisu has dense mascarpone and a strong kick of Baileys Irish Cream), and an interior with whitewashed exposed brick walls, white subway tiles, poured concrete floors and a soundtrack of old French songs.
Around the corner, Plan B is a contemporary restaurant with a high ceiling, giant windows and tile floors. The menu is international but pays homage to Malay ingredients; the spaghetti agli olio features “bunga kantan” (torch ginger flower), the pungent, floral plant used in the Southeast Asian dishes rojak and laksa, lending the Italian classic an Asian flavour profile.
Cafés continue to open in the town’s colonnaded shophouses, tucked between established businesses like silk shops, watch repairers and travel agents.
A classically trained chef from Ipoh returned to his hometown after 16 years and opened an artisan bread shop. His story at thestar.com/travel
Market Lane in Ipoh. Malaysia’s third most populous city has a number of pretty shop-house and heritage buildings around the Old Town.
Ipoh, on the Kinta River, has had some highs and lows over the course of its tumultuous history.
Plan B restaurant has an international menu that pays homage to Malay ingredients.
Fried macaroni and cheese and cinnamon tea on display at Thumbs Café. The restaurant is a former orphanage on the eastern fringe of central Ipoh.