When I took Weerachai & family white water rafting in Gopeng over a weekend out of Kuala Lumpur, we opted to stay in one of the new fashionable boutique hotels that are now springing up in nearby Ipoh. When we did some research on what we could do in Ipoh, we discovered …the existence of Ipoh street art!

Not just any street art. The same kind of street art that rocketed Penang to internet stardom, by the very same artist, Ernest Zacharavic.

So, the day after we enjoyed the jungle rapids was spent in a much more relaxed saunter around the charming Ipoh old town.

Quirky umbrellas over a random street in Ipoh, Malaysia
Exploring the alleys of Ipoh

The serendipity of Ipoh street art

The morning was lovely. We drove together into Ipoh old town, parking the car so that we could explore on foot. Of course, I came with a map for where the street murals were located.

When I visited Georgetown for its street art, I went alone. I was in a solo mood at the time anyway, so it suited me. Still, the downside to this was that I could not take playful pictures with the art.

This time though, I had friends. Plus, did I mention there was much less ‘other people’?

Ipoh old town is not very big, and is much less busy than Georgetown, Penang. An incredibly under-appreciated hidden gem of Malaysia, it has a much more relaxed, slow-paced small-town feel, despite being the capital of the state of Perak. There is no hubbub and no rush. Although it was a weekend, there were hardly any tourists.

So we had all the time we wanted posing with the murals and the art. 

Fun with street art!

I’m pretty blessed in that many of my workmates turn into friends. Even if we mostly work in ‘a virtual team’. As in, we’re not in the same office.

It’s all down to the work culture. Such a thing would really only happen when there’s an extremely low need for team-mates to compete with each other. And then a collegial – almost family-like – dynamic emerges. It isn’t even really to do with the company I work for. Rather, it’s one of those rare things that just happen sometimes, for some lucky teams.

Definitely to be cherished, especially if it somehow manages to occur in a corporate environment.

My friend-colleague Weerachai was feeling like quite the photographer that weekend, and brought his good camera. He has a pretty good eye and had no trouble directing us to compose a good photo. Which meant… all us girls get a photoshoot!

Posing with Ipoh street art | Photography with Ipoh mural of tin mining
Models for a day – Ipoh tin mining mural

Strike a pose!

Here I must confess something. It really helped me that Weerachai’s family loved to pose and be, well, girls.

Those things are difficult for me, especially back then. I had no feminine role models growing up who positively represented finery and female merriment.

Oh, I clean up well enough – when the occasion requires. But it tended towards regal, not fun. The women of my family by and large make good Amazons – but not Aphrodites. We are Bugis, after all.

So it takes quite a bit to get me to relax enough to take good photos.

The tin mining roots of Ipoh

I think my favourite mural is the one done in a Chinese style, depicting a scene of tin mining against jutting limestone outcrops.

Ipoh town as it is today, like many towns of Malaysia, expanded during British colonial rule. In Ipoh’s particular case, the tin deposits of the Kinta Valley brought a ‘tin rush’ in the form of Chinese migrants, which is why the old town today retains a strong Chinese flavour.

In its heyday, tin mined from the Kinta Valley dominated the global commodity markets, and was one of the reasons why the Malay peninsula was a valuable colonial possession for the British empire.

Posing in front of Ipoh's tin mining scene street mural
Chinese style mural of the limestone hills of Ipoh

The limestone hills of Ipoh

The other reason why I like Zacharavic’s choice of style for the mural, is the limestone outcrops in the background. They are really quite magnificent in real life, rising in broken greys from the horizon, topped with wigs of green. Temples lie in the cradle of its overhangs.

It is the reason why my favourite road approach view, is the approach to Ipoh from the north. It’s one of the most beautiful road trip views in peninsular Malaysia, because of the dramatic loom of limestone along the way. (The reverse direction is less impressive, because the angles aren’t the same.) 

I sometimes wondered whether the limestone hills around the Ipoh area were an additional draw for the Chinese migrants who came here, seeking an escape from the bitter poverty of China back then. In profile, they do seem reminiscent of the limestone hills of Guilin. Such hills are often depicted in Chinese paintings, so I thought it was fitting for the mural of Ipoh limestone to be in this style.

The Zacharavic hummingbird street mural

The Ipoh street art, as with Georgetown’s, drew as much from the local nostalgia as from whimsy.

There was one mural though, that we felt must have suffered from alteration – the hummingbird. It hovers on the wall, facing empty space. We wondered at its seeming incompleteness.

Examining some possible vine traces on the whitewashed wall, we thought perhaps there used to be a sapling or climbing vines against that wall, that would have presented the missing 3D element of the artwork. Perhaps it became overgrown and was cleared.

Nonetheless, in the absence of any counterpoint to the hummingbird, Weerachai talked me into basically kissing the bird’s beak. Hands down it’s the most ridiculous photo I have ever taken!

Ipoh old town street art | Ipoh Oldtown | Ernest Zacharavic street art | Perak, Malaysia
[Clockwise from left] Let me help you set it free | Coffee to go, going, gone | I wonder why I’m sitting with garbage… | A cup of Ipoh white coffee | Paper plane Icarus | Where’s your flower, oh hummingbird? | My most ridiculous photo ever

The non-Zacharavic Ipoh street art

Just like in Penang, the commissioned Ernest Zacharavic street art began to inspire local artistic expression.

When we were there, the Zacharavic street art was not much more than a year old. Nonetheless we could already see signs that local artists were inspired, and had begun to annotate their town with imagination. 

One that I quite liked was tasteful and discreet. It was painted on rough tiled wall, and depicted small leaves swirling and carried on wind.

I liked it, because unlike most street art, it was painted right at the entrance of an office – a bank, if I recall correctly. A bank – one of the most indefatigably stuffy and conservative of professions! 

Wall art of leaves fluttering in the wind
Leaves in the wind

Wandering around, we came across another mural that I thought notable, because it is actually an official public service message. But, unlike typical PSAs, this one had next to it what is essentially street art (is it still graffiti if it’s sanctioned?).

It’s actually pretty good.

Public Service Notice | PSA mural with the message "Don't Let Drugs Take Over Your Life"
“Don’t Let Drugs Take Over Your Life”

I hear that by now, a lot more street art has been added to Ipoh town.

Mural art in Ipoh cafes

I cannot write about Ipoh without mentioning Ipoh food. That said, this was not a foodie trip and I am a southerner, so I will just refer you to this little list by a true blue Ipoh native: 15 Ipoh Must-Eats That Are Approved By Local Foodies.

However, we did have to eat. It gets hungry, posing for photos all morning!

Tau fu fa – a tofu dessert!

While strolling down one of the old town streets we came across a tau fu fa (=soybean curd) shop that looked kind of interesting.

I like tau fu fa – it’s one of my favourite desserts. Looking at the menu, I was surprised to see that there are many novel flavours to tau fu fa these days rather than just the conventional “with sugar” and “with brown sugar” options. There was a red bean one, and a cincau (=grass jelly) one, and… I can’t remember what else.

Ipoh tau fu fa shop | Ipoh soybean curd shop
The tau fu fa shop with an artsy touch

I’m a sucker for novel flavours. I had to try at least one of those.

However, we were in for an even better treat when we got in! This particular shop had decided to turn its upper floor into an eating area + tau fu fa mini museum!

Along the walls were murals showing the stages of soybean harvesting and processing, to make tau fu fa. It was complemented by samples and little models of the different equipment and stages of tau fu fa production. Some – in line with the semi-3D Zacharavic art – combine the two, rendering the art similarly ‘playable’.

Not only that, the cafe area itself was dotted by decorations and artistic touches using soybeans as the medium.

Artwork in an Ipoh tau fu fa shop depicting the making of soybean curd dessert, in Perak, Malaysia.
The story of tau fu fa

The non-zero waste downside to an awesome place

The only downside to this place is that all the soybean products are sold and served in disposable plastic, as you can see from the bottom left photo. Even if you’re dining in.

Nowadays I make an active effort to avoid single-use plastic as much as possible. I’d ask for real bowls and mugs, for example. But in the case of this cafe, I’m not sure whether they would have been willing to serve the tau fu fa in real bowls, or if they even had any. Hence, these days, I usually carry with me a collapsible silicone container and mug, so that I can be served in those instead of single-use plastic. 

Hopefully as Ipoh turns into a happening town, it becomes a more environmentally aware one too. After all, Perak is attempting to ban retail plastic bags. Hopefully it really does shift the habits of people towards a more zero-waste paradigm.

Ipoh’s hipster cafe trend

Ipoh has always had a coffee culture. Ipoh white coffee is famous throughout at least peninsula Malaysia, and I’m told visitors buy them as foodie souvenirs. In fact, it was Old Town White Coffee that commissioned the Zacharavic murals in the first place. 

However, in recent times, a very interesting development is taking place. Ipoh has begun to boom with its own particular take on hipster cafes. Apparently this – along with the other charms of Ipoh – has made it edgy enough to make the cut at #6 on Lonely Planet’s best Asian destinations.

The jungle-hipster one

The most interesting one we came across had a curious shop front. As far as I could tell there was no signage giving the name of the establishment – only a hedge of foliage screening its front. As if the shop was saying ‘no paparazzi!’

I suppose one could say the funky face thing looking down from the top window might count as a sign. Pre-literacy? Or rather, shop signage – but ironically?

Ipoh hipster cafe | Ipoh old town | Perak, Malaysia
Ipoh hipster cafe | Ipoh cafe culture | Perak, Malaysia
I dub thee Jungle-hipster

The inside is just as cool. The main… uh, area? has an intricate stylised mural of jungle. Dotted around are random pieces of furniture art, like a table frame that stretched into a horse, and guppy bowls moulded around tree branches. The menu is very fashionably on strips of bamboo. There really wasn’t anything in this place that wasn’t cool.

I’m already nearly sold on Perak just by the nature spots and how put-together Ipoh neighbourhoods tend to be. I mean, I am Malaysian. I know very well how uh… indifferent we can be to the value of things like a fresh lick of paint and general maintenance.

But from my wanderings, two places in Malaysia stand out from their peers; people in Melaka and Ipoh are noticeably more house-proud. Seriously, if by now there are even more of these curious things in Ipoh, I might have to move there!

Curious to check out the hidden gem city of Ipoh? Save it for later!

Street art | graffiti art in Ipoh Old Town, Perak | Tin mining town Malaysia | Teja on the Horizon

22 Responses

  1. Johna says:

    Wow! Beautiful street art. Some of them reminded me of those 3D Museums! Street art is becoming quite popular now isn’t it?

    • Teja says:

      They’re quite good, aren’t they? I rather like this trend – I mean, graffiti has always been around, but I find there’s more likely to be some play and joy or offbeat whimsy these days which is more relatable.

  2. I am a fan of street art when done in an organised way. Your pictures are beautiful. I have not been to Malaysia yet – I hope to be there soon :)… Very well explained. Thanks

  3. Jen says:

    I love that it’s interactive! It’s so cool seeing street art around the world, I would love to visit here!

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