Everyone has a hometown outside Kuala Lumpur that they usually balik kampung during festivals and holidays. I was always a little bit jealous when friends said they were going out of town to see relatives in whichever state their parents families were at. While they were having a rowdy good time with everyone in their hometown, my family and I were one of the families left in an empty town. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds really — we liked having the roads to ourselves, and my brothers and I got to practice taekwondo moves right in the middle of main roads with no one to run us down.
If anyone asked, my closest claim to a “hometown” would be Ipoh. I was born in Hospital Fatimah and spent my first year of life on earth in Ipoh. Of course I don’t remember anything — or did I? I have fuzzy memories of facing upwards, looking at fluorescent lights, a fan spinning overhead and those patterned air vents built into the walls — but if we did join the balik kampung crowd, it was usually to Ipoh to visit my parents’ friends. During those visits, we’d hit the highway, zero in on my dad’s favourite place for hor fun noodles when we arrived, checked into the hotel (usually the Syuen or Casuarina) and then set off to meet the friends. I never really saw Ipoh town properly, not till last year when I went up for a couple of trips. Comparing it to KL or Penang, Ipoh is less of a big city and more of a quieter small town, but still has many wonderful places to visit and things to see.
1 | Colonial Buildings
Old buildings are clustered quite closely around Ipoh town, so it’s quite easy to do a bike or rickshaw tour of all its historical buildings. Like the town hall, a beautifully preserved building designed by AB Hubback, the architect who also designed the railroad station in Kuala Lumpur. You can’t miss this European building that looks like it was airdropped small in the middle of a heavily Malaysian-Chinese influenced background. It’s impressively well-maintained and lends an air of grandeur in this quaint town. According to non-profit heritage organisation, Ipohtown, there is a secret tunnel under the town hall that links to the High Court, and was built to transfer prisoners.
2 | The Ipoh Tree
You don’t have to go very far from the town hall to see the tree. In fact, turn around, cross the street towards the railway station and you’re there. Check out the majestic solitary tree right in from of the station — it’s an antiaris, which is part of the fig/mulberry strain but in Malaysia, it’s known as ipoh. Now you know where the town’s name comes from! The poison from the ipoh tree was (is?) commonly used in darts and arrows. When the Portuguese invaded, darts laced with antiaris toxicaria was a common weapon used by natives against the intruders.
3 | Wall Graffiti
Take that Penang! You guys aren’t the only ones with awesome wall art. Coffee company Old Town commissioned street artist Ernest Zacharevic to create seven murals that depicts unique Ipoh culture — from its’ tin mining heritage to Ipoh white coffee, you can view all that is unique to Ipoh in these murals on a 30-minute walking tour. Ipoh is hot, so bring a hat, sunglasses and an umbrella. Alright, Penang still wins the street art scene, but these are the ones you can look out for when in Ipoh.
4 | Old Fashioned Kopitiams
Your trip here is incomplete if you don’t visit an old-fashioned Chinese kopitiam. These food shops are everywhere across Malaysia, but the town’s ’80s era vibe makes it that much more fun to slurp up a curry laksa and an iced drink, while sharing a round table with strangers because that’s the quickest and easiest way to get served in a small and cramped corner shop. And unlike many food places in KL, where people taking your drink orders are sadly and hopelessly clueless about kopitiam lingo, you can be guaranteed they know it here in Ipoh. You can’t have an authentic kopitiam experience if you don’t know the drinks lingo — it just doesn’t work that way.
5 | Tauge Ayam
And of course, a classic Ipoh meal is tauge ayam — steamed soy sauce chicken and bean sprouts, served with rice, but here, we had it with flat rice noodles. Another must-try street dish is kai see hor fun, which is shredded chicken meat and taugeh in noodle soup. Prawns are sometimes added to give additional sweetness to the broth. There are a few variations on this soup dish, but whichever your favourite is, if you’re eating it in Ipoh, it’s bound to be good.
Here’s an aerial view of this charming town: