Mysterious Buddhist cave temples filled with swirling incense penetrate the nearby limestone cliffs. Neolithic cave art dating back 5,000 years decorates others. Enter old Ipoh and find stately British colonial buildings juxtaposed against traditional Chinese shophouses and Perak’s largest mosque. Throw in a modern city centre and a street food culture that rivals Penang’s (but without the tourists). This is Ipoh: Malaysia’s unsung tourist haven.
Perak’s capital Ipoh features British colonial architecture, magical temples etched into limestone caves and is Lonely Planet’s ‘lesser-known food capital of Malaysia’. Culture Trip explores the best things to do in Ipoh, including a self-guided historical walking tour, speciality museums and an eccentric Scotsman’s half-finished colonial mansion.
Take a whirlwind tour of Ipoh’s stately architecture
Perak’s tin mining boom in the late 19th century transformed Ipoh. Wealthy British residents and Chinese miners commissioned grand houses and offices. The Ipoh Heritage Walk showcases the best of this extravagant architecture. Covering some 6.5 kilometres (4 miles), the walk passes through old Ipoh to various colonial buildings, restored Chinese shophouses and the controversial Birch Memorial Clock Tower. Information boards near each monument provide historical context and fascinating facts. Get a map and recommendations from the tourist information centre at Ipoh Railway Station.
The colossal mosque opposite Ipoh Railway Station spans two floors, has a soaring 38-metre (125 feet) minaret and 44 orange domes. Sultan Idris Shah II Mosque by its official name opened in the 1960s. It quickly became a state landmark and a symbol of Ipoh. Crisscrossing air vents above U-shaped patterns with a smattering of glistening mosaic tiles decorate the white-washed façade. A conference centre, Islamic library and a wedding venue fill the inside space. If you arrive in Ipoh by train, prioritise photographing the city’s largest mosque because of its close proximity to the train station.
The controversial Birch Memorial Clock Tower sits near Ipoh State Mosque. With a grand appearance and intricate decorations, a first glance might not reveal its hidden controversy. Jump back to the late 19th century. Imperial Britain expanded their influence in Perak, taking control of territory Malay sultanates controled for centuries. Disputes culminated in the assassination of the First British Resident, or government official, of Perak: James Birch in 1875. A few decades later, the firmly established Imperialists commissioned this memorial to honour their fallen hero. After gaining independence in 1957, local authorities responded by naming the two surrounding streets after the Malay chiefs (Dato Maharaja Lela and Dato Sagor) who murdered Birch.
See blends of traditional, colonial and religious architecture
Ipoh combines majestic structures with colourful Buddhist cave temples. British buildings sit next to long rows of restored shophouses, each with a different design on their second-floor façade. Ipoh bursts with eclectic styles of architecture. Colonial and traditional juxtapose the contemporary of the modern city centre. Culture Trip recommends Han Chin Pet Soo (Hakka Miners’ Club), the tripod-like MBI Clock Tower and Perak Tong Cave Temple.
Limestone cliffs surround Ipoh. Mystical Buddhist temples penetrate some, transforming the cave systems into incense-filled prayer halls. From the outside, you’ll see the characteristic red colours and Chinese calligraphy next to peaceful gardens. Step inside and find bronze statues and religious images on shelves carved into the limestone. Murals decorate the walls as rickety metal staircases rise to viewing platforms overlooking Ipoh. Visiting the cave temples consistently features among the top things to do in Ipoh for all travellers. Culture Trip recommends Perak Tong Cave Temple, Sam Poh Tong Temple and Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple.
Pro tip: Allocate a full morning or afternoon to visit the cave temples, as they’re in different parts of the city. Either agree on a fixed price with a taxi or use GrabCar from one temple to the next.
Experience tin, tea and tiny figurines in Ipoh’s speciality museums
Ipoh’s speciality museums range from covering Perak’s history and the tin mining boom to one dedicated entirely to tea (Ho Yan Hor Museum). Others include Malaysia’s largest geological museum and the Miniature Wonders Art Gallery which presents tiny figurines that have been painstakingly crafted and arranged into scenes from ancient China. Low entrance fees combined with only a handful of visitors make visiting the museums one of our favourite things to do in Ipoh. The city has plenty of must-visit museums.
Mention street art in Malaysia and almost everyone (Malaysians included) think of George Town in Penang. Few outsiders know about Ipoh’s famous Mural Art’s Lane (near Jalan Masjid) and Panglima Street which rivals the best of Penang’s street art. Cartoony images depict scenes from Perak’s lifestyle (think family life and childhood games) and promote multiculturalism.
Pro tip: Street art covers walls in all parts of Ipoh. Plan a route before setting off with your camera. If you’re unsure where to go, ask at Ipoh Railway Station’s tourist information office.
Unlike Penang and Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh is a somewhat secret foodie destination in Malaysia. Food courts and Kopitiams (Malaysian-style coffee shops) line the city serving mouth-watering meals for a few ringgits. Culture Trip recommends tasting gai si hor fun (shredded chicken noodles) with an Ipoh white coffee. Or check out the unusually named Nasi Ganja for Indian food and hawker-style dining at Central Point Food Court. Tasting the best of Ipoh is always among the top things to do in Ipoh for foodies.
More than 600 paintings of shapes, animals and humans cover the walls of Gua Tambun (Tambun Cave), a short drive from old Ipoh. Archaeologists estimate the art in this little-known national heritage site dates back more than 5,000 years. Sadly, decades of vandalism destroyed some of the lower images. But the higher ones remain intact and unchanged for millennia. Despite featuring among our top things to do in Ipoh, few locals know about Gua Tambun, making getting there a challenge. Take GrabCar or a taxi to Jalan Tambun’s Caltex Petrol Station. Walk towards and over the bridge next to the field. Signs will guide you from there to the Neolithic art.
Once an eccentric Scotsman’s colonial mansion; now a potentially haunted half-finished relic that’s a testament to imperial greed. William Kellie Smith migrated to British Malaya (modern-day Malaysia) and became wealthy from his coffee and rubber plantations. He commissioned a mansion merging Indo-Saracenic, Moorish and Roman architectural styles. Kellie wanted the biggest residence to spite the other colonial bureaucrats, and he almost achieved his dream. However, he died suddenly after developing pneumonia, so his family returned to Scotland. The neglected half-finished mansion quickly succumbed to the jungle. Culture Trip recommends a half-day trip from Ipoh to nearby Batu Gajah to visit this mysterious and spooky building. Learn the romantic and tragic story of Perak’s strangest resident.