As I cycled along a narrow country road flanked by waist-high wild grass, I tried to picture the tin mine that once stood here. The former quarry, since filled in and left to the elements, was one of hundreds in the area. Tin fuelled the economy in this part of Malaysia from the late 1800s, bringing riches to the town of Ipoh. But when the mining trade collapsed in the 1980s, Ipoh went from boom to bust. The capital of Perak state became a sleepy backwater where Malaysians came to retire and visitors passed through while travelling between the Cameron Highlands and Penang.
Fast-forward to today. Driven by a breed of young, impassioned entrepreneurs, Ipoh is reinventing itself as a hip escape from Kuala Lumpur, dotted with trendy cafés and stylish hotels. Couple this with the striking karst hills, rivers, jungles and waterfalls of the nearby Kinta Valley and Ipoh is on the verge of booming again, this time as a complete travel destination.
Ipoh is a town whose fortunes have risen, fallen and risen again
Ipoh’s transformation, most pronounced in the last couple of years, began in 2012, when a hostel that used to house performers from the neighbouring theatre was converted into the Sekeping Kong Heng Hotel. The refurbishment was sensitive and visionary; large parts of the building’s peeling skeleton were left intact, resulting in a property that somehow manages to look both modern and delightfully dilapidated. In turn, other businesses opened on the same block, which is known as Kong Heng Square and set in the heart of the Old Town. These include the pod-style Container Hotel, a weekend artisan market, contemporary restaurants like Plan B, and the playful café Burps & Giggles, with its quirky dishes, dreamy murals and casually thrown-together look.
“We believed that if we could make the town a stronger food hub through a showcase of random creativity and a wacky food menu, then people would start to visit more often,” says Rachel Yeow, manager of Burps & Giggles.
The creative push has spawned an intriguing and ever-increasing range of ventures. There’s Chokodok, a reggae-themed restaurant and backpacker hostel; a cheery soft-serve ice-cream parlour called Hello Elvis; M Boutique Hotel, with its warehouse-meets-whimsy interiors; and the bistronomy-style Artisan Handmade Bread, a bakery that opened in early 2017.
“When people in Ipoh used to think of the café business, they opened a mamak [Indian Muslim] stall or normal café,” explains Ezzad Elias, manager of Thumb’s, which occupies a former orphanage’s dining hall. “Instead, we decided to create something with a distinctive ambience.”
It’s not just the interiors of the historic buildings that have been revived. Several exteriors are now adorned with the work of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who has paid homage to the city’s heritage through his light-hearted murals, as he did previously with George Town in Penang.
While Ipoh is not huge, it is still Malaysia’s third most populous city and this, combined with the tropical heat, means exploring by bicycle is a sensible option. Roads are plotted in a grid system – planners re-organised the town after the great fire of 1892 – so navigating them on a bike is a cinch, allowing visitors like me to traverse the city with ease. Cycling is also a more efficient way of covering the city’s Heritage Trail (a map of which is available from Tourism Perak’s office near the Padang and selected cafes). It’s a circuit that takes five hours on foot and includes the Neoclassical-style Ipoh railway station, the Mogul Dato’ Panglima Kinta Mosque and the Renaissance-style Straits Trading Building.
The surrounding countryside is as much of a draw as the rejuvenated city centre. Most of the outdoor action takes place around Gopeng, a former tin mining town that’s a short drive away.
A pioneer of the region’s outward-bound tourism, Nomad Adventure is based in a small village near Gopeng. Their sustainably built Earth Camp offers basic accommodation, but since Gopeng is only 30 minutes south of Ipoh, day trips from the state capital are a popular option.
One way of exploring the local scenery is via a 25km bike ride between Earth Camp and Gopeng. My easygoing guide Jay and I passed through the village Kampung Chulek, where Malay families live in wooden houses wedged between banana, mangosteen and durian trees. As we pedalled, with the high-pitched shrill of cicadas a constant soundtrack, Jay pointed out the teardrop-shaped weaver-bird nests hanging from the branches of the burung tempua tree, and the rows of rubber trees where sap was trickling into small containers. Sometimes, the rural road would turn a corner and open up into a vista of imposing limestone formations in the distance.
Our first stop in Gopeng, a town whose shuttered shophouses and decaying buildings hinted at the town’s former prosperity, was Hup Teck, a soy sauce manufacturer in existence for more than 100 years. Rows of large clay pots filled with soy beans, yeast, salt and water lined the yard in front of a simple wooden shack that served as the office and shop, staffed that day by three generations of the family running the business.
Next up, the small Gopeng Museum. Occupying a new premises just off the main square, it traces the evolution of the town, from the days of the Sultan Raja Idris in the early 20th century, through control by Chinese businessmen and the Japanese and Communist eras, to the opening of the first Tamil school. Shelves are lined with old typewriters and radio transistors, while one display of picks used for tin mining is a reminder of the town’s history.
That afternoon, we went caving. Most visitors to Ipoh flock towards Gua Tempurung, one of the largest limestone caves in peninsular Malaysia, which has been made accessible by staircases, walkways and carefully lit interiors. I wanted a more rugged experience, so Jay took me to Gua Kandu. After some scrambling, ducking and belly crawling through the pitch-black cave, we arrived at a small clearing. “This is where the Japanese and then the Communists hid out,” Jay explained. Gua Kandu has been left in its original state apart from a few ropes to help adventurers get up and down the steeper slopes. One chamber, with spindly stalactites and silent but for the squeaky calls of fruit bats, was a whopping 40m high.
The following day, it was time to go white-water rafting on the Kampar River. After a bumpy truck ride, I was loaded onto a boat with a family from Ipoh. Every time our raft was clobbered and spun by the rocks and the swirling current, the nine-year-old boy behind me cried “yay!” with unbridled joy. Rajah Brooke’s butterflies, the largest this side of Malaysia, flitted above the water, the bright green fern-like markings on their wings shimmering in the sun.
Halfway through, Jay instructed everyone in our raft to get into the water and float down the river. I lay back, looked up at the clear blue sky with trees bookending my view, and listened to the sound of the water. At that moment, my trip to Ipoh, a town whose fortunes have risen, fallen and risen again, supplied me with that most elusive elixir – complete tranquility. Two hours later, I fondly recalled that feeling over an altogether different treat – a smooth iced coffee at a cosy little café in the heart of Kong Heng Square.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine