Ipoh is a small city located roughly halfway between Kuala Lumpur. It’s got a reputation for awesome street art and so, when we were getting the train between KL and Penang on our recent trip, we decided to stop off on the way. We had about 24 hours in the city which wasn’t quite enough to see all of the fun and unusual things to do in Ipoh that were on my list – but, I definitely knocked off a large number of them. So, if you’ve got a day in Ipoh, two days in Ipoh, or are even coming in as a day trip from Kuala Lumpur (totally feasible as the trains are very frequent), here are some of the Ipoh attractions you might want to check out…
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Ipoh, pronounced eee-po – can be roughly divided into two parts – the Old Town which contains winding streets, faded old buildings, most of the ‘big’ tourist attractions and the Little India district. The New Town, on the other side of the river, is a mix of old buildings (and Ipoh sights like Mural Arts Lane), a small bar district and more modern shopping malls and some of the towns flashier hotels. Around Ipoh is more rural with some extra interesting sights to be found….
What to do in Ipoh
Check out the Ipoh Street Art
It was the reason I came and it deserves its reputation. From enormous murals by internationally renowned artists to smaller independent pieces, murals and paintings crop up all over town. Some of the top spots include…
The Big Ones: These immense murals are spread throughout the centre of Ipoh, but handily they are all signposted on google maps with words ‘Ipoh mural’ and you can easily cover them all in a couple of hours.
Standouts include Evolution (below), a Paper Plane, an Old Uncle (above) and Kopi Break. All the ‘big’ murals were painted by Ernest Zacharevic, the man who put Penang street art on the map.
Zacharevic is best known in Penang for his interactive art which uses 3D objects as part of the work but only one of his works in Ipoh uses this tactic.
Market Lane. Here you’ll find some interactive pieces with stools and jumping kids that let you be in the art. This is also where you’ll find this trishaw-based Zacharevic piece.
The Market Lane art gets pretty crowded so if you can stay overnight in Ipoh it’s definitely worth it as the tour buses tend to disappear at about 4pm and at this point, it’s much easier to get pictures with these works – and also the large murals.
While these don’t have queues, because they are often in car parks, or on long clear walls, they often have cars or buses parked in front of them during the main part of the tourist day.
You’ll find more interactive art dotted around Ipoh. My favourite was the swing on Jalan Bijeh Timah, but keep your eyes peeled for men on beer barrels and kids on steps all waiting for you to join in.
Mural Art Lane. Created by a local art teacher, this was my favourite area as there’s a huge diversity of the type of mural you see – and I loved the way they merged with the old buildings – more on those in a minute.
Concubine Lane: This alley and the small square that run off it are one of the most popular tourist spots in Ipoh Old Town.
There are lots of small, quirky pieces of art dotted around the alleyways and shops – but you won’t see any of them if you try and go down here in the middle of the day. It was hideously crowded. Again, try and go as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as you can or you’ll crawl along at a snail’s pace and still won’t see anything.
Have a Snow Beer
I had a list of things to eat and drink in Ipoh full of curious or famous dishes I hoped to try, but this was the one I was not leaving without tasting.
Snow beer is the speciality of a cafe called Cafe Yoon Wah at the junction of Jalan Bijeh Timah and Concubine Lane.
It’s basically ice-cold beer poured into a ridiculously cold glass – this causes the beer to pretty much freeze into a giant alcoholic slushy.
My first attempt to get a glass did not go as planned.
There may be three restaurants with a variation of the name Yoon Wah within about 200 metres of each other on Jalan Bijeh Timah but none of them was open Saturday lunchtime. A second visit found one of them finally setting up for trade at about from about 6 pm in the evening.
A quick glimpse at another table saw glasses with what looked like a ridiculous amount of froth and frantic selfie snapping….I was in.
Whether the other restaurants do snow beer too I’m not sure but the place above is where we got ours from. The deal is simple, you choose your beer – I had Tiger which cost 17.50MYR and The Boyfriend had one made with Anchor at 16 MYR and the elderly gentleman who owns the place does his frosty magic.
At first, The Boyfriend wasn’t too sure about this tainting of beer, but once he’d tasted mine he was a convert. It’s really refreshing and, as the ice melts, it creates probably the coldest beer you’ve ever tasted. Perfect in the sticky Malaysian heat.
My list of other ‘things to eat in Ipoh’ went sadly unticked, either because they were also on everyone else’s list and so the queues were horrendous, or, they had closed down. But in case you are interested, the ones that are still open included…
Nasi Ganga: A dish apparently so addictive they named it after drugs!
Chicken and beansprouts: An Ipoh institution. Top spots include Ong Kee Beansprouts and Chicken restaurant.
White coffee: You’ll see signs for this everywhere and it’s different from normal coffee as the beans are roasted in a way that makes it less bitter than normal coffee.
It wasn’t all a culinary disaster though. Our lunchtime laksa was awesome and we had a really yummy mee goreng from the stall outside a shop called Kedai Kopi Sun Yuan Foong for breakfast on Sunday! Order outside and then you can sit in the cafe to eat.
Admire the Flaky Paint
While I might have gone to Ipoh to see the street art, it was the city’s buildings that I fell in love with.
Old shophouses painted in pastel colours with chipped paint and faded shutters line every street.
Panels from some of those shutters are missing, some are lacking basics like roofs and everything from mould to entire trees grows up and into the walls, creating a sense of history and decay that’s just beautiful.
I think I actually took more pictures of the buildings than the street art! Although sometimes they teamed up quite nicely.
If you prefer your buildings with more grandeur, check out the Railway Station, the Town Hall, the Chartered Bank and the other sight on the Ipoh Heritage Walk.
Get a Knife Massage
Located in a corner of Kong Heng Square, I totally missed this the first time I went through Concubine Lane – in fact, I missed the entire alley leading to the square as the crowds were so ridiculous!
It was only when I went back at about 4.30, I found the way in and noticed the flashing light on the fast-moving blades.
Knife Massage effectively sees you being tapped hundreds of times by what’s effectively a blunt meat cleaver. I’d tried it in Taipei a few weeks earlier and had loved it and would happily have had another one here, but she was fully booked.
If you get the chance to try it do – it looks weird but is incredibly relaxing. Check out the review of my Taipei Knife Massage here if you want more convincing.
Embrace a Food Trend
Whether it was Rainbow Cheese toasties, brightly coloured ice balls or giant rainbow candy floss, Ipoh seems to have taken every recent food trend from Tokyo’s Harajuku and crammed them all into Concubine Lane or the streets nearby.
The queues are no smaller, but the prices are a bit cheaper!
Check out the Cave Temples
With only 24 hours in Ipoh and a lunchtime train to catch, these were one of the unusual things in Ipoh I really wanted to see but just couldn’t make work.
The name is pretty self-explanatory – they’re temples located in caves, but some of them are incredibly ornate. You’ll find intricate paintings, giant gold statues, turtle ponds and zen gardens.
There are over 30 cave temples located in the mountains around the city – but the biggies include Kek Lok Tong, Sam Poh Tong, Perak Tong and the super bright Ling Seng Tong. Getting to them is fairly easy and cheap via Grab taxis (it’s like Uber – download the app before you leave) but I just couldn’t squish it in. I’m still upset.
Visit the Tat Market
Memory Lane market is a Sunday morning market that sets up in the backstreets of an area of Ipoh east of the river.
It was full of all manner of junk, the very idea of which fills The Boyfriend with glee. The highlight for me was this guy – I want to be that happy at work!
Go Upside Down
There are a lot of similarities between Penang and Ipoh and another one is the arrival of weird museums like the Upside Down House and The Trick Art Museum.
They probably shouldn’t be on your list if you only have one day in Ipoh, but they’re fun if you’re hanging around for a bit.
Hunt Ghosts at Kellie’s Castle
Another out of town sight I really wanted to get to but couldn’t. This abandoned ornate house was built by Scotsman William Kellie Smith after he emigrated to Malaysia.
Unfortunately, he died before he could finish it – and no-one else has ever completed the task.
What has developed over the years though are myths and spooky legends claiming that Kellie, his daughter Helen (natch, all the best ghosts are called Helen), and a few other lost souls, still walk the castle.
Despite its unfinished state, Kellies is now open for tourists. It cost 5 MYR to enter and is open from 9-6pm. You can get there by bus but the easiest thing to do is get a Grab and ask them to wait for you.
RIP Robot Waitresses
Sadly, one of the most unusual things to do in Ipoh seems to have closed down between my visit and writing this post.
A restaurant called Nam Heong Ipoh Soho in the new part of town had cool robot waitresses.
Nam Heong Ipoh is a chain though so, keep your eyes out in case they open in another location in Ipoh – or if you’re travelling in other parts of Malaysia – the branch at Utama Mall and Pavilion Mall in KL both apparently have the robot servers – so keep your eyes out.
Things closing seems to be a bit of a trend in Ipoh – some cool cafes and ice cream shops that were on my original list of what to see in Ipoh either closed between me finding them and getting into town, or have closed since I got back – and that’s some cake calories I won’t get back – so do check the status of things before you set off.
How Long Should You Spend in Ipoh?
As you can tell, the 24 hours we had in Ipoh wasn’t enough to do everything we wanted to do – so, ideally, I’d say you need two nights there at least if you want to explore outside of the city centre.
If you don’t then, 24 hours is plenty – but, to avoid the crowds I would still strongly advise staying overnight.
We got on an 8.35 train out of KL Saturday morning, arrived at 11.15, checked into our hotel – the super cheap, and very central Ban Loong – and then got the 1.55pm train up to Penang the next day arriving there late afternoon.
If we did it again, I’d have one more full day in Ipoh and get the earlier train to Penang. I also wouldn’t spend my evening in Ipoh where I did. Because we like a beer while watching people, we went into the bar district in the newer area of Penang, but even though it was a Saturday night it was empty and pretty soulless – I’d rather have stayed in the old town and indulged in another snow beer or two.
If you’re also stopping off in Ipoh between KL and Penang, you might want to check out some of our other posts. We’ve got some really cool things to do in Kuala Lumpur for foodies – including a bar on top of a working helipad. And in Penang, you can check out the temple full of snakes we loved – or, just take a look at our list of fun and unusual things to do in Penang.
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