Nestled between the renowned foodie haven of Penang and the bustling metropolis of Kuala Lumpur (KL), Ipoh doesn't always make the must-visit list of Malaysian tourism hotspots. However, since making sixth place on Lonely Planet's 2016 'Best in Asia' list, the capital city of Perak has enjoyed a surge in popularity as visitors discover its great food, historic architecture and natural beauty.
By far the most popular mode of transportation to Ipoh is self-driving, as the journey only takes two hours via the North-South Expressway from KL. However, this is on a good day; on public holidays and festivals, travel time can take up to six hours or more as you'll be joined by other drivers using the same road to head to Penang. If you have no choice, I can't stress this enough: leave early!
Alternatively, you can reach Ipoh by bus, train or plane. You may prefer to take the Electric Train Service (ETS) which runs from KL Sentral to Ipoh and back every day in two and a half hours. The carriage is comfortable and tickets are very reasonably priced from RM25 to RM40. While you won't have to worry about the traffic, book early during festive periods as tickets sell out fast.
Out and about
Most people come to Ipoh to escape the fast pace of city life, so don't expect to find a particularly vibrant night scene here. Instead, take a trip back in time with the self-guided Ipoh Heritage Walk, a two-hour activity that will take you around historical landmarks in the Old Town. Highlights include the Ipoh Railway Station (where the trail starts), Han Chin Pet Soo (the country's first Hakka tin mining museum) and the Birch Memorial. You can even download the Maps One and Two online here.
Ipoh is also famed for the beautiful cave temples scattered throughout the limestone hills surrounding the city. While Perak Tong is renowned for its 40-foot-tall golden Buddha statue, Kek Lok Tong is our top pick for the manicured gardens on the other side of the cave surrounding a lotus-filled lake. Closer to the city, Sam Poh Tong's gardens are a photographer's dream, boasting an abundance of interesting rock formations and greenery reminiscent of a Chinese fantasy painting.
For something more adventurous (or if you have kids in tow), head to the Lost World of Tambun. By day, you can explore the six theme parks to watch tiger feeding sessions, learn about tin mining and go on thrilling rides; by night, kick back and relax in the hot springs and spa, watch the man-made Geyser of Tambun shoot high and visit nocturnal creatures in the petting zoo. There are also plenty of shows to mark your schedule for like the Awesome Pool Party, Tin Story, Flaming Percussions and Tales of the Tribe.
You know the food is good when Malaysians are willing to travel for it, and with Ipoh just two hours away from the city centre, it isn't uncommon for KLites to head up to Ipoh for the day just to sightsee and more importantly, indulge in good food before returning home in the evening.
Topping this list has to be the renowned Ipoh chicken rice, which traditionally comprises of poached chicken drizzled with a combination of soy sauce, shallot oil and sesame oil with rice. The dish's crowning glory are the bean sprouts (taugeh), said to be particularly crunchy in Ipoh because of the hard water from the surrounding limestone hills. Though there are plenty of chicken rice outlets in Ipoh, we can't get enough of the offerings at Lou Wong, which has several outlets in the city including one on Jalan Bandar Timah.
Head for Tong Sui Kai (Dessert Street), where locals and tourists alike go for their street food fix. Living up to its name, the most popular dishes here are the icy desserts, including the mixed fruits ABC (shaved ice with syrup and fruits) and Hong Kong-style sago-based desserts. However, there's plenty of savoury fare to be found here as well such as curry mee, rojak, grilled squid, chee cheong fun and more for those looking for something more substantial.
Other must-try delicacies in Ipoh include tau foo fah (soya bean pudding), and Funny Mountain Soya Bean serves up some of the silkiest examples around; charcoal-baked heong peng (fragrant biscuit) with a savoury-sweet malt and shallot filling encased in flaky pastry; rich 'white' coffee, which is produced when coffee beans are roasted, then mixed with margarine and sugar; kai si hor fun (shredded chicken rice noodles in a flavourful broth)... the list goes on. Are you hungry yet?
With all that Ipoh has to offer, it's a wonder it hasn't made larger waves earlier, but the Lonely Planet listing means that its treasures won't stay secret forever. So why wait to discover the next star of Malaysian tourism? Get yourself down to Ipoh and immerse yourself in a part of Malaysia that still offers a tranquility not easily found these days.