A breath of fresh air

A breath of fresh air
PHOTO: Carolyn Hong

Ice balls! I hadn't seen them in a good many years and so, despite it being a drizzly morning, we had to have one.

We chose the Sarsi-and-assam (tamarind) ice ball to share - a concoction of finely shaved ice that the hawker deftly shaped by hand into a ball and then drizzled our choice of flavours over it.

Like school children, we sat in the pebbly courtyard of Sekeping Kong Heng - a recently regenerated neighbourhood - and slurped on the sweet-sour treat.

This nostalgic dessert prompted us to explore the remaking of quiet, laidback Ipoh - the capital of Perak state - into a hip Malaysian destination.

The good old days

For now, pockets of sleepy Ipoh still exist in its old town. Elderly craftsmen painting bamboo blinds or etching traditional Chinese signboards still ply their trade here.

They are my favourite places to visit whenever I am in Ipoh, along with the traditional coffeeshops for white coffee and chicken rice.

But this time, we came to check out the chic Sekeping Kong Heng area, named after its time-honoured Kong Heng coffeeshop, which still operates beneath what was once a hostel for the Chinese Opera House performers.

Many old-timers rate the coffeeshop among the best in the business, recommending the pork satay, char kway teow (fried flat noodles) served on a banana leaf, and soft popiah (spring rolls).

Kong Heng has not changed its appearance much but its neighbours are now chic eateries housed in pre-war shophouses that have been restored lightly to retain their old-world flavour.

These include a full-fledged restaurant, Plan B, and small cafes like Burps & Giggles, Missing Marbles and Roquette. Together, they offer a contemporary menu that is a refreshing alternative to hawker food.

With each cafe quirkier than the last, we had a hard time picking one.

But food is not the only attraction in the new hip Ipoh, of course.

The Sekeping Kong Heng redevelopment is all about nostalgia, polished to a high shine with a hipster brush - my childhood made cool.

I had family in Perak, so visits to Ipoh were a regular feature of my younger days. Taking a walk down memory lane, we stopped at the news agent, Hopscotch, which was a treasure trove of memorabilia and tempting keepsakes.

We particularly liked the enamel mugs, more for their nostalgic value than practicality, and bought a pair of lime-green and white ones.

Instagram-worthy spots

Next, we explored a curious aquarium like glass box housing just one chair. It turned out to be an ultra-modern version of an old-world barber shop. It was set up for the barber who had plied his trade in the neighbourbood for decades.

We didn't take up his offer of a trim, though, for fear of ending up on someone's Instagram; the place was that photogenic.

The whole development is charming, down to the quirky accommodation in Sekeping Kong Heng and the adjoining The Old Block guesthouses.

Both offer rooms for couples as well as families, and have preserved the best of the old architecture but updated with modern conveniences.

It would have been easy to spend all our time reliving the past or chilling in the hotel hammocks or rooftop pool, but we wanted to see what else was new in Ipoh.

Like Penang's George Town, Ipoh has come alive with the interactive street art of talented young Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.

My favourite is of an old man and his heavily laden cart, executed on an old grimy wall with peeling paint that served as the artist's canvas. A real bicycle cart blends in with the painting, and it is hard to see where art ends and reality begins, so skilful is the optical illusion.

For those who do not have a lot of time to search for these murals, there is a map showing their location. But the fun is in the hunt and stumbling upon hidden cafes in the process.

In fact, as we walked around, we came across too many chic cafes to count. They will have to wait for our next visit - and it won't be long.


We drove to Ipoh from Kuala Lumpur, a journey of around two hours.

You can stay at Sekeping Kong Heng, which has lots of space for big groups, or The Old Block, if you prefer more contemporary decor.

- Chill at the quirky cafes but check out the coffeeshops for good hawker fare.

- Take home traditional pastries and sweets as edible souvenirs from the many confectioners in the old town.

This article was published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.

This article was first published on July 14, 2015.
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