Hint: It’s not Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Malacca.
Earlier in February this year, CNN Money ranked George Town, Penang number six in a list of best places to retire abroad in 2016. Besides that, Malaysia was ranked among the top five most retiree-friendly nations for American expatriates.
Well, the accolades keep coming in this year, as a beloved Malaysiam town made its way into Lonely Planet’s Best in Asia travel destinations. Eschewing the usual favourites, Lonely Planet writers picked the town of Ipoh, Perak for the #6 spot, as a fresh twist for travellers looking to travel off the beaten path.
Ipoh has long been known as a food haven to local foodies, from the early morning dim sum crowd at Foh San, to Lou Wong’s nga choi kai (chicken rice with bean sprouts) for lunch – not to be confused with Malacca’s famous chicken rice balls, which is a different category of chicken rice – and some refeshing tau fu fah for dessert at Funny Mountain. And who can ignore the ubiquitous presence of Ipoh’s famous white coffee everywhere?
Of course, food alone wouldn’t have earned the rustic town a spot among Asia’s top ten best travel destinations. Art, architecture and ‘hipster’ trends have contributed to a new atmosphere witin the town. In recent years, Malaysia’s lesser-known food capital has been rejuvenated, thanks to a crop of boutique cafes that have sprung up in its historic quarter. At the heart of Ipoh’s renaissance is concept hotel Sekeping Kong Heng, a 3-storey neo-classical preserved building complete with glass attic rooms and wall-free rooftop quarters, located within the heart of Ipoh that allows guests to admire the fusion and contrasting textures of old and new architecture. Talk about hipster flair, indeed.
Elegant colonial buildings stand in stark contrast next to decades-old kopitiams (coffee shops) where old folks exchange gossip, along with artsy cafes that serve Instagram-worthy cakes and latte art. Explore the streets of Ipoh’s Heritage Trail for larger-than-life mural paintings by Ernest Zacharevic and local artists. Urban explorers can head to Kellie’s Castle, an unfinished mansion lying in ruins that is popular tourist spot (and said to be haunted). For nature lovers, the Kinta Nature Park offers excellent birdwatching opportunities, while more adventurous folks can try a spot of whitewater rafting at Gopeng.
If you’re the type to visit historical places, or need some spiritual help, centuries-old temples are carved into limestone cliffs in the outskirts of town. The most renowned is Sam Poh Tong, which started life as the refuge of a cave-dwelling monk in the 1890s and expanded into an enormous temple complex. Stone Buddhas guard the cave mouth and devotees give offerings and pray for good health and fortune. Nearby is Ling Sen Tong, a more modern temple housing a huge variety of deities. Temple visitors burn joss sticks and snap photos, adding to the mix of mischief and awe, old and new, which suits Ipoh down to the ground.
It is this quaint mix of good food, recreational activities, history, culture and contemporary trends that attract visitors from near and far to this not-so-sleepy town just slightly south of hotspot Penang. So, next time you’re contemplating a trip to Penang but shudder at the thought of being stuck in traffic jams, maybe you can re-route to Ipoh instead. 😉