The Art and Food of Ipoh

Prescott and I spent the last day of our Thanksgiving vacation in Ipoh, the third-largest city in Malaysia.  I feel like this is the equivalent of saying that Hartford is the third-largest city in Connecticut — in other words, it’s not saying much.  Ipoh feels small, if a bit spread out, the kind of place you’re glad to have a car even if no one uses their turn signals.

We started our morning searching for some murals that we’d heard about from another traveler.  Ipoh has an unexpectedly eclectic side — it reminded us of Baltimore in some ways — and they are doing a good job of putting their arts scene on display.  We found beautiful murals:





As you can see, lots of the walls of Ipoh would benefit hugely from a good scrubbing.  But we loved what we saw in spite nature’s encroachment on the buildings.  We found bizarre murals…



… and murals that seemed to beg for us to interact with them:


We also found other kinds of wall art to play with:



I think the scene above was more marketing than art, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.  In any case, we appreciated how playful Ipoh seemed after many months in take-us-seriously Singapore.

We stumbled on a place called the Happy 8 Cafe that had unexpected art all over the place.



They even have art hanging over some of the streets of Old Town:


But while the public art is fun and readily available, if you ask anyone from the area what you should do in Ipoh, the first answer you’ll get is: “eat.”  We got food recommendations from a guy on the plane, from a woman we sat next to at the tea plantation, from one of our waiters in the Cameron Highlands (he even gave us his cell phone number in case we wanted more ideas or needed any help).  For breakfast we went to the Thean Chun Coffee Shop, which looks nothing like a coffee shop whatsoever (and is sometimes strangely called “The Hall of Mirrors” for that one big mirror you see on the wall):


There are no menus, so we were glad we’d done our homework before venturing out.  We knew to order chee chong fun, a slippery noodle dish with scallions and chilies, and their terrific egg custard.


The place was so packed that we were assigned table-mates, who turned out to be extremely friendly (on the whole, we found people in Ipoh to be terrifically nice and enthusiastic about their city).  Our new friends gave us more eating tips and shared a delicious piece of chicken satay with me.

Prescott and I then wandered the street stalls, stopping to buy chestnuts that had been roasted in a pan of burnt-looking coffee beans.


And while we didn’t buy any, we did stop to admire the ubiquitous piles of pomelos.


For lunch we decided to forgo our vegetarianism altogether because people kept recommending — and I kept reading about — Malaysian chicken rice with bean sprouts.  I don’t really care about chicken, but if there’s one reason for its existence, you’ll find it out on a street corner at Lou Wong in Ipoh.  The dish is really simple — nothing more than poached chicken in a soy-oil sauce with scallions on top and cucumbers underneath, with a plate of blanched bean sprouts and a bowl of rice on the side.  And it’s somehow perfect.  Yum!


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