Through the open door of an empty shop, I see a family in the middle of a redecoration. A woman is putting small paintings on the wall, arranging them in a cool pattern so they form a shape. A boy is sweeping the floor. Leaning up against a stool is a larger painting with the words, “Always give in to your dreams”.
Who knows whether it’s always been a dream of this family to turn their shop space into a trendy café, but that’s what’s happening here. They’ve seen the writing on the wall (so to speak) and they’re going with the movement that’s taking over the Malaysian city of Ipoh.
Ipoh is about 200 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. It’s the third largest city in Malaysia but, with a population of less than 700,000 people, never feels too crowded and busy. Known as the ‘City of Millionaires’ because of its rich tin mining past, it has all the right elements to foster its latest incarnation. Ipoh has become the city for hipsters.
I don’t know this when I first arrive. Ipoh hadn’t really been part of my travel plans at first so I hadn’t done much research. It is just in a good location for a stopover and as a base for some other things I want to see. Straight away, though, as I walk into the grid of streets in the Old Town on the way to my hotel, I notice the cafes.
There are more than usual – that is my first observation. But then I also realise that I recognise the typography being used, the colour schemes, the approach to design. They look like the cafes I am used to seeing in Shoreditch in London or Surry Hills in Sydney.
The boom times of Ipoh, when the wealth was made on the back of tin mining, has left behind a city with a colonial charm to its centre. The old buildings – once used as shops, public buildings and craft factories – had been slowly falling into disrepair since tin prices collapsed in the 1980s.
What I notice when I look closely at the cafes is that, although the interior decoration may be modern in its hipster style, they are housed within these heritage buildings. Buildings that have been given a new lease of life.
When I get a chance to explore a bit more, I find that this approach to an emerging culture has spread beyond the four walls of the cafes and onto walls all throughout the city. Street art has blossomed, from small paintings next to windows to enormous murals across whole buildings.
The local authorities – city and state – have embraced the hipster movement and have been actively encouraging new businesses, supporting cultural events, and bringing in artists.
Ipoh has a series of street art pieces made by the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacherevic. He was financed by a local cafe chain, Old Town White Coffee, but had the support of the relevant government bodies. I guess they probably saw what his murals in George Town have done for the reputation of the city and were hoping to replicate that.
I have put together a map with the best pieces of street art and some of the other hipster cafes and shops, if you’re interested in visiting some of them yourself.
As I explore, I seem to find myself always gravitating toward a particular block in the Old Town – hipster central, I dub it in my mind. On one corner is a cafe called Plan B that has an indoor boutique market attached to it. There seem to be more people taking Instagram photos than actually shopping.
Heading out towards the back of the market, I find myself in an alley with pieces of art on the walls, as I head down the alley, I notice a gallery (with inconvenient opening hours – so trendy!) and then I find myself at the Container Hotel. This hotel chain has budget and boutique options and has popped up in a few locations across Malaysia. It symbolises the normalisation of the hipster trend in the country more than anything else I’ve seen.
Ipoh probably doesn’t have enough to offer foreign tourists to justify a stay of more than a day or two. Even the trendy historic centre can be seen within a few hours. Although, it’s not always simply about the sights, is it? Ipoh is certainly a nice place to relax and enjoy the culture that developed. It’s a cool change on the road north from Kuala Lumpur.
How do you get to Ipoh?
Ipoh is on the main train line between Kuala Lumpur and Penang (Butterworth) and this is probably the easiest way to arrive in the city by public transport. The railway station is a beautiful old building and is a short walk from the Old Town.
There are also a lot of bus connections that go through Ipoh. The problem is that they drop you at the new bus terminal, which is nowhere near the city. From there you need to take a taxi for about 25RM or wait for one of the local buses which come every 30-60 minutes.
Where should you stay in Ipoh?
If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the super cool Container Hotel.
For something cheap but comfortable, Hotel Cheqinn has lovely rooms.
For a real hipster experience in Ipoh, try the M Boutique Hotel.
And for an upmarket hotel in the centre of the city, you should go for the WEIL Hotel.