The rebirth of Ipoh Old Town

The rebirth of Ipoh Old Town

Ipoh in Malaysia has experienced a reversal of fortunes after decades of economic decline and tourism obscurity. I first went to Ipoh in 2010, and after visiting again in 2021 I can say its revival is real.My first visit was when I was on my way to Pangkor Island. Rather than go straight through from KL I stopped in Ipoh. It's also a travel hub for onward travel to the Cameron Highlands. None of the guesthouses I was staying at in Malaysia had mentioned anything about Ipoh, but I always like to visit new places to break up a journey.I didn't know anything about the place, and I was calling it I-poh until I heard the bus ticket agent pronounce it as E-poh. Upon arrival I was surprised to find an impressive collection of heritage architecture that should have made the town a stop on the Malay peninsula tourist trail.Ipoh made its fortune as a tin mining boom town in the 1880s. The influx of money gave the city its stately Victorian-era administrative buildings and Straits-style shophouses that are so admired in Penang, KL, and Singapore.Tin mining continued until the 1970s when the mines were depleted. After the mining era the city was in the economic doldrums for years afterwards, which turned out to be good for the preservation of its British colonial-era architecture. With no demand for new buildings, the old buildings languished through an era when old buildings elsewhere were being demolished in the name of progress. Part of Ipoh's obscurity problem may have been due to its geographic location. Ipoh is located roughly half way between KL and Penang, about 180 km north of Kuala Lumpur and 120 km southeast of Georgetown (Penang). It's too close to either for connecting flights, and even though it's the third biggest city in Malaysia it only has flights from Johor Bahru and Singapore.Its fortunes changed when the railway was upgraded to electric fast trains. The ETS (the fastest train in Southeast Asia) now takes 2h 50m from KL, and 1h 45m from Butterworth (for Penang).Like the old towns of Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, the old town become revitalised. Word started getting out about Ipoh as a travel destination. Ipoh was listed in the Lonely Planet Best City in Asia 2016 list, and then the Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2017: World’s Top Regions (Perak). Even though Lonely Planet is not as influential as it used to be, it still carries an enormous prestige to have been listed in their best of series. In 2018 it got on the radar of the New York Times.If you’re planning a visit to Ipoh then take the train from KL or Penang. The station is in the old city, while the bus station is about 10km away. The station is in the old town area, so you can walk from there to the main points of interest. Near the station is a collection of old government and bank buildings that hint at its prosperous past. Around here everything looked the same as I remembered it, so I moved onto the part of the old town where all the old shophouses are.When I first visited I was amazed that such a good looking old town had not been taken over by hipster cafes. After walking around the old town for the afternoon I saw there were now so many cafes that I couldn’t possibly visit them all in one day. One of the oldest hipster cafes is Burps and Giggles, which you can tell when you enter has the DNA of an Aussie-style cafe. They even sell Bundaberg Ginger Beer! Sure enough, the local owner had spent six years in Melbourne before starting a cafe in Ipoh.

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