Ipoh is a curious little town about two hours north of Kuala Lumpur, known for its colonial architecture, street murals, and delicious local food. As a destination, it is popular among the local, ethnic Chinese, though it seems a bit off the tourist trail. I had two days with nothing planned, so I thought it would be a good time to explore this quiet city to the north.
After leaving the train station, one of the first things I noticed about Ipoh’s old town was the layers of peeling paint on the old buildings. Each peeling layer revealed a different color underneath, giving an almost Easter-egg appearance to the walls and facades. Street murals show their age and water stains from drainage pipes leave dark trails on the cement walls. The interior of many businesses were decorated in the raw, minimalist style of exposed pipes, industrial-sized cement sinks, and limited personal effects. I’m not sure if the look was intended, but it gave the whole town a blue-collar, artistic style reminiscent of cities like Chicago or Berlin.
Central Ipoh is dotted with murals, most of them created by Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic. The artist’s work also decorates the walls of neighboring Georgetown and Kuching in Sarawak. The intention behind the images was to show local heritage. Possibly the most famous in Ipoh is the “Old Uncle with Coffee Cup,” showcasing the local white coffee. Also on display is a trishaw driver, with half of an actual trishaw welded into the wall for tourists to pose with. The murals number seven in total, each completely different from the others. After two years of being on display, the murals, while showing signs of deterioration, seem to be an integral part of the city and popular with visitors.
Another must-see in Ipoh is the Buddhist cave temples. Underneath the green hills and mountains of Malaysia lie a surprising number of caves. From the famous Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, to the extensive but lesser know Gua Temperung in nearby Gopeng, there is no shortage of noteworthy caves in this country. No doubt due to the local Chinese influence, the nearby caves were converted into Buddhist temples.
I had heard the most about Perak Cave Temple, so naturally that was my first choice. Perak Tong is a colorful and labyrinthine limestone temple that is the result of 50 years of careful budgeting and building by an immigrant family from China. A 40-foot tall Buddha statue greets you near the entrance, and the walls throughout are covered in calligraphy and paintings. If you walk straight into the back of the cave, you may find yourself ascending some stairs. If you choose to continue ascending, it will take you around the outside, up 450 steps. At the top you will see a view of the city. Be advised, it’s a view of Ipoh, not the Grand Canyon. At Perak Tong, it is more the temple, rather than the cave, that is the reason to visit.
What Perak Tong has in grandeur, Kek Look Tong has in grace and beauty. As a cave it’s worthy of a visit on its own, without the decorative statues and gardens. The inside is covered in jaw-dropping limestone formations that resemble jellyfish and melted ice cream. The Buddhist paraphernalia is minimized, compared to Perak Tong, and what is there seems to blend elegantly with the stone backdrop. Bubbling fountains and stone dioramas line the entrance and bronze Buddha statues seem to naturally rise out of the cave floors. Kek Look Tong definitely had a greater “wow” factor.
It would be unfair to discuss Ipoh as a tourist destination without at least a brief mention of the famous food. It consists mostly, of course, of Chinese fare. I highly recommend the egg custard with white coffee. I thought I could find Ipoh white coffee in the western-style cafes, but it ended up being just a regular latte. I had to go into the Chinese-style open-air restaurants with the plastic table and chairs and staff that don’t speak English. Pointing and denoting amounts with fingers usually works. The egg custard was another surprise. It resembled a French crème caramel, and paired perfectly with the pleasantly mud-like coffee.
I’ve always been attracted to “second cities,” the underdogs, the gritty surfaces with hearts of gold. There’s something about a place that doesn’t demand your attention, but knows it can entertain you nonetheless. Ipoh is exactly such a place. It doesn’t overwhelm, but welcomes you quietly. With every aspect of my weekend in Ipoh, I was encouraged to go a little deeper. Sometimes literally, as in exploring the caves, and other times more figuratively, as with the local food, or the architecture. For better or for worse, this city and country as a whole are shaking off external influences, and what lies beneath is authentic, colorful, and welcoming.