One Slow Day in Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia

It was a Wednesday morning, and we were late. Half past ten found us still in KL rushing around, trying to get ready, and hoping to make it to Ipoh in time to fit in several eating opportunities. Though perhaps we should have realized that a ten o' clock departure was a little ambitious after two weeks of awaking at noon. By the time we departed it was nearly eleven, we had two hours of driving ahead of us, and I was mildly hangry. In hindsight, we probably could have afforded to leave a little later.

After spending five magical, relaxing, food-filled days in Penang the week before and hearing from a friend that Ipoh was like a small Penang with less elephant pants-wearing backpackers, we decided to fit it into my last week in Malaysia.  And while it did have a similar aesthetic with its preserved storefronts and street art hiding around every corner, and is clearly developing into a destination of its own, it might have been a bit of a stretch to compare the two quite so closely.

Our Ipoh adventure began when we rolled into the city around one, set off in search of food, and settled on Restoran New Hollywood. Despite them already being out of the thing that we wanted to try the most, we ended up having not one, not two, but four different dishes (most notably a plate of roti telur goyang, thick sliced toast smothered in margarine and topped with two jiggly eggs poached so lightly they were barely holding together). Quite full, but with separate dessert stomachs yet to settle, we headed on to the only real item on our agenda, Concubine Lane.

A plate of noodles from New restoran Hollywood, Ipoh, Malaysia

Concubine Lane's jarring name, much like it suggests, refers to a time in history when merchants, made rich by the prosperous tin industry in Ipoh, would keep concubines. And this street - so the rumors say - was where many of them were housed. All that's left now of its shady past, however, are the houses themselves - many of them converted into storefronts and guesthouses.

Besides being home to the best tau fu fah (sweet silken tofu, one of Ipoh's specialties) in the city, in recent years Concubine Lane, lined with vendors selling kitsch and dessert, has become an attraction in itself. As we walked down the street after stopping for both tau fu fah and coconut ice cream, it really did feel like I was back in Penang. With the hot sun beating down, the multi-lingual chatter coming from every direction, and the paint-chipped historical facades, it was hard not to draw the connection. 

Concubine lane in Ipoh, Malaysia
Concubine Lane in Ipoh, Malaysia
Tau Fu fah in Ipoh, Malaysia

And then, it stopped. At the end of the street, rather than turning a corner and continuing on into a snapshot of centuries past bursting with life and activity, we were met with, well, a small, sleepy city. Many of the buildings were abandoned or closed, there were few cars on the streets, and there hardly seemed to be any people. It was 2:30, and it had appeared that we'd already seen most of what Ipoh had to offer.

So we walked, and walked, and walked. We walked to the train station. We got a tour of an herbal tea museum. We circled Old Town maybe three times, stumbling upon several adorable little cafes as well as a beautifully designed complex of shops and restaurants. We found Concubine Lane's quieter sister street. And while everything was picturesque and made for some prime Instagram shots, the whole place felt kind of empty, and nothing really kept our attention for long.

Staircase in Ipoh, Malaysia
Street art in Ipoh, Malaysia
Red and white umbrellas hanging above a street in Ipoh, Malaysia

At six, we were pretty tired of walking, but we still hadn't had the one thing Ipoh is most known for, chicken rice. So we decided to stick around a bit longer and have an early dinner. As our luck would have it, both of the places recommended to us were closed. Slightly disheartened with a nasty craving for chicken rice, we headed back to KL just as the sun began to set and got our fix once we arrived back in the city.

I definitely didn't regret going to Ipoh as it allowed me a peek into yet another side of Malaysia, and it really was an enjoyable day as a whole. The mistake, instead, was going in with an idea of what it was supposed to be like. Maybe one day it really will resemble a smaller Penang, but for now it might be better not to make such comparisons. So while I can't say that Ipoh is somewhere you need to fit in during your next trip to Malaysia, it would be a nice way to spend half a day, taking things slow, stopping to get a few snaps for Instagram on your way between Penang and KL.