Ipoh’s Listing in Lonely Planet

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

The city was abuzz with talks and gossip following Ipoh’s listing as one of the ten must-visit destinations in Asia in 2016. The world’s largest travel guide book publisher, Lonely Planet, has placed Ipoh at Number 6 spot behind Hokkaido (Japan), Shanghai (China), Jeonju (South Korea), Con Dao Islands (Vietnam) and Hong Kong (China).

The opening lines on Ipoh in the Lonely Planet website go somewhat like this:

“Ipoh is undergoing a quiet renaissance. Until now, domestic tourists seldom lingered beyond a weekend sampling of ayam tauge (chicken and beansprouts) and Ipoh’s famous white coffee. Backpackers considered this pleasant, mid-sized city an overnight stop between Kuala Lumpur and Penang. These days, renewed enthusiasm for Ipoh’s heritage is seeing old shophouses restored, while new cafes and craft shops are springing up within historic buildings.

The key to enjoying Ipoh is tackling it by neighbourhood. Its pavements seem designed to shred sandals while its sights sprawl over a large area. Start with the old town’s charismatic laneways and revived-period buildings. Grab a trail map to seek out the best heritage structures and street art. South of here, Ipoh’s Little India has glittering shops and some fine eateries.

East of the river in Ipoh’s new town, a cluster of canteens serve up regional classics like ayam tauge and some of the creamiest beancurd pudding around. Just north of this foodie hub are the city’s more upmarket hotels alongside the shiny Parade shopping mall. As Ipoh’s confidence grows, it’s an exciting place for an urban interlude…”

The thing that got Ipoh listed, by and large, are the avant garde cafes and boutique hotels that have proliferated like mushrooms after a downpour in Old Town or the Old Quarters, for want of a better word. There are many within the Old Town complex such as Sekeping Kong Heng, Burps and Giggles, STG (Sabah Tea Garden), Plan B, Happy 8, etc. These “hipster cafes” are gaining much-needed publicity after the exposure by Lonely Planet.

The inevitable has happened and city fathers have the private sector to thank for this timely boost. Far-sightedness by shrewd businesspersons like Julie Song, who owns and operates the Indulgence Restaurant and Living beginning from an unassuming half shop lot café in Canning Garden in 1996 to her present and more illustrious structure at 14 Jalan Raja DiHilir (Tambun Road), Ipoh.

The transformation came about in 2005 over a decade ago. Today Indulgence Restaurant is a much-sought-after fine-dining eatery in town. The restaurant is synonymous with Ipoh and so is its 7-room boutique hotel, the very first such accommodation in Ipoh. The proliferation of this class of hotels can be traced to Song’s ostentatious effort at putting Ipoh on the travel map. And she did it with such finesse and panache.

The list of individuals who have Ipoh in mind goes beyond Julie. One of them is Julie’s own son Dexter who now operates Burps and Giggles another hipster cafe at 96 Jalan Sultan Yusuff. Other personalities include Linda Damanhari, Azril, Saidatul Emma, to name a few. These youngsters have the vision and the determination to see their hometown grow notwithstanding the negativity long associated with the “town that tin built”.

The demise of the tin industry in the early 1980s had a damning impact on Perak’s capital city and recovery was never expected to be easy. There was an exodus of talent and manpower to Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Ipoh’s loss was their gain, so the saying goes. But these youngsters are making a comeback and they have Ipoh in their sights. And this is a welcome change indeed.

The roles played by big-time developers such as Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah of Sunway Group, Peter Chan of Haven, Dato’ Lee Seng Hee of Team Keris Berhad, Dato’ Lim Si Boon of Kinta Properties and Dato’ Poo Tak Kiau of Kinta Real Estate are, by now, legendary. They have provided the impetus to put Ipoh where it is today.

Incidentally, apartment-living is being initiated in a big way by Peter Chan of Haven Resort and Residences. An on-going spat with MB Incorporated is set to dampen progress as the state-owned business arm is determined to proceed with its plans to develop land around Peter’s Haven.

Does that leave ordinary Ipohites without a role to play? If you think that such responsibility is only for the big boys, you are mistaken. We all have a much bigger part to play. We cannot remain passive and let things pass by unnoticed. Our job is to make sure that the city ticks and is on the right track. Ipoh is as good as the people who populate the city. Period.

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