Ipoh, Malaysia travel guide: Third-largest city could be Asia's next big tourist destination

"Are you sure you want to go? No-one goes to Ipoh," a crinkled ex-pat in a Kuala Lumpur bar is sharing his life story: four-and-a-half decades traversing the Asian continent from back to front. He's been everywhere, he's seen everything; he says he knows where all the treasure is. Ipoh – Malaysia's third largest city, a former British tin mining outpost whose industry collapsed in the 1970s – is not where you'll find it, apparently. "No-one goes there, there's nothing to see," he says.

Twenty-four hours later, I'm riding in the back of a rickshaw under bougainvillea and palm trees, a slow breeze off the Kinta River (which cuts Ipoh neatly into two) cools the city, and spreads the sweet stench of sunbaked frangipani across the red evening sky. There are tiny red lanterns spread across footbridges that dissect the river; and after two months of travelling through south-east Asia, I'm surprised to see not a single plastic bottle in sight. "Keep Ipoh beautiful", a sign says, funny, who ever knew it was? "There used to be nothing to see, no-one used to come," my rickshaw driver tells me. "But it's changing."

Truth is, I'd never heard of Ipoh, in five previous visits to Malaysia it hadn't registered on my radar, only the most adventurous of backpackers even bothered stopping here, to break the journey up from KL to Penang. But the past two years has seen a steady transformation of the city, so much so that Lonely Planet named it amongst its Top 10 Asian Destinations To Visit in 2016 (the only Malaysian destination to rank).

From my rickshaw I can already see why: there's the same kind of murals on old colonial limestone buildings I love 150 kilometres north in Penang (drawn by the same artist, Lithuanian Ernest Zacharevic). I see entire trees grow right out of cracks in the limestone giving Ipoh's Old Town the look of a colonial-era movie set.

The imperfections of the century-or-so-old streetscape aren't ironed over in Ipoh, instead the street beautification process illuminates the aging process – no-one's knocking anything down to induce modernity, like so many other parts of south-east Asia. New cafes, craft stores and boutiques have been established in old shop houses, carefully restored to their former glory.

There's some of the same celebrated British colonial architecture you'll find in Penang here in Ipoh: the railway station and town hall designed by British architect AB Hubback with its famous large central dome, and old world schools such as the century-old St. Michaels with its grand, green football fields, right near the middle of the city.

But the difference between Ipoh's quiet renaissance and Penang's much more documented one (in the aftermath of that city's World-Heritage designation in 2008), is that Ipoh is still a mystery to most. Sure, I'm here in the shoulder season, but I can't see another tourist in town.

And so I get to traverse the narrow, shaded laneways of the Old Town as some sort of western voyeur, watching life play out around me as it might have for generations. Change is in the air, however, in the Old Town I stop for a collagen juice and a Green Tea Matcha Latte at the sort of new-age cafe I would expect to see in Bondi.

But right next door, I drink a sweetened, milky plastic cup of the city's famous white coffee seated on a sticky, red, plastic stool in a room full of cigarette smokers – I'm the only foreigner in the room. The coffee costs me 25¢, the Matcha Latte cost 15 times that.

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Coffee and food were always Ipoh's draw-cards, even when the streetscape offered so much less than it does today. Like Penang, Ipoh is one of south-east Asia's food hot-spots, with local delicacies such as ayam tauge (chicken and beansprouts) served up by hawkers for ludicrously low prices at vibrant night markets. At many restaurants, you'll have no choice of cuisine – dishes like salted chicken and char kway teow need no substitutes.

While it is the refurbishment of the Old Town that's getting Ipoh ever so slowly noticed, I can't help wondering why Ipoh's surrounding countryside didn't entice more travellers all along. Ipoh serves as the gateway to the Cameron Highlands, though it's the dramatic landscape of its sheer limestone outcrops just outside town that are as impressive as the hazy, green mountain ranges on the horizon.

These outcrops remind me of the famed limestone karsts of Vietnam's Halong Bay, though these are home to sprawling Hindu temples you can visit, built inside huge caves. And only 15 minutes from the centre of Ipoh, I stay at a wellness retreat built within a huge valley right in the middle of these 260-million-year-old limestone outcrops and caves.

It's not far to the attractions of the city, though sometimes I prefer to forget about Ipoh and retreat to the day spa, built amongst geothermal hot springs where I soak for hours watching huge monitor lizards swim around me.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/malaysia

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FLY

Fly to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines, malaysiaairlines.com, then take the high-speed train to Ipoh, myhsr.com.my

STAY

Stay in a villa beside the day spa at Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat, banjaran.com, or for modern chic in the middle of Ipoh stay at M Boutique, mboutiquehotels.com

Craig Tansley travelled as a guest of Malaysian Tourism

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