With old shophouses being restored and a burgeoning foodie scene, Ipoh's undergoing a renaissance. Novelist Selina Siak Chin Yoke reveals why you should go and how you can experience the city like a local
Night market in Malaysia (Dreamstime)
Night markets, or Pasar Malam in Malay, happen regularly throughout Malaysia, but the one that takes place on Friday nights at First Garden in Silibin is the largest in Ipoh. Part of a road is closed off for the duration of the market, and many people come from miles around.
Vendors sell all types of items, from fake designer bags to shoes, sandals, T-shirts, dresses, jewellery and even car parts. The atmosphere is very lively and it can be noisy. Some stallholders even wire themselves up with microphones in order to be heard.
There’s plenty of great street food, including juicy corn on the cob, every conceivable type of fritter, ‘loke-loke’ or skewers of meat, fish and offal dipped into boiling water and then into a spicy sauce. On my last visit, I came across a man offering fried ice cream.
Typical Chinese coffee shop in Ipoh (Dreamstime)
Ipoh is famous for white coffee, and this coffee shop on the road known as Jalan Bandar Timah (Tin City Road) is where it all started. Ipoh white coffee is the town’s own version of latte, using beans roasted, ground and brewed here that are tossed with lots of frothy milk.
Personally, I prefer my coffee black, but I love my Malaysian breakfasts. A semi-Western breakfast could comprise two half-boiled eggs broken into a bowl and topped with soy sauce and pepper, accompanied by slices of toast smothered in kaya. Kaya is our own version of jam, made of eggs and coconut, and so delicious that even writing this is making me hungry.
Sun Yee Loong serves the full works. The shop still makes its coffee using the recipe handed down by its founders in 1937. Go early and be prepared to wait. It is exceedingly popular.
Lou Wong restaurant in Ipoh (Dreamstime)
Ipoh is also famous for food, especially fat, crunchy bean sprouts. These are usually eaten with chicken, either steamed or roasted, and Ipoh is full of restaurants that specialise in serving only chicken and bean sprouts (accompanied by either chicken rice or flat rice noodles in soup).
Lou Wong is one of the best. It used to be an insider secret, but has now garnered such a reputation that it has been named on Trip Advisor as the city’s best restaurant.
Despite its new-found acclaim, Lou Wong remains my favourite haunt. I’m happy to sweat under its fans even though air-conditioned competitors have appeared nearby. It has the tastiest chicken, the best bean sprouts and the most glorious rice.
In foodie Malaysia, not only can one earn a living with humble dishes like this, one can even make a fortune. Some stallholders have sent children overseas and bought up buildings. Malaysians really know how to eat.
Kuan Yin statues (Dreamstime)
This temple may seem like an unlikely choice, being neither large nor ornate, nor located inside a cave. But it is the oldest surviving Chinese temple in Ipoh.
The Kuan Yin Temple provides a good example of a working temple where you’re unlikely to find a tourist. For such a small place of worship, its roof is rather decorative, and it has an impressive array of gods, too.
If you stand outside looking at the Kinta River below, as I did, you can try to imagine what the place was like a century ago when the main road beside it was called Brewster Road and there were only a handful of cars.
Macaque monkey chewing on sugar cane in Malaysia (Dreamstime)
To work off the calories you’ll inevitably clock up in Ipoh, this hill comes to the rescue. 800 metres to the top does not sound high, until you experience its steepness for yourself in Malaysian heat.
It’s a very popular exercise spot for locals who walk, jog and cycle up and down the hill. Some go every day. It’s equally popular with the macaque monkeys, who greet you as you start your climb because that’s where the fruit and drinks vendors are.
A tarmac road leads all the way to the summit, where Telekom Malaysia maintains masts and a station. Pavilions dot the side of the tarmac road where people can rest or, in bad weather, shelter from a thunderstorm. I suggest you go with a local early in the morning, take lots of water and keep hydrated.
Main image: Colourful mural on the streets of Ipoh (Dreamstime)