The hippest des­ti­na­tion in Malaysia

Ap­peal­ing restau­rants and stylish ho­tels have helped the city of Ipoh stage a come­back

StarMetro Calgary - - DAILY LIFE - San­jay Su­rana

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

PHO­TOS: LAURYN ISHAK/FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

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.

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