Ipoh got rich quick thanks to its tin reserves. Though the mining industry is long gone, the one-time El Dorado is capitalising on other treasures: its rich heritage and happening foodie scene.

Nestled snugly among limestone hills in the Kinta Valley, Ipoh is two hours north of Kuala Lumpur on the epic railroad that runs all the way from Singapore to Bangkok. The Eastern & Oriental Express train service shunts back and forth on this very line, rolling through the lush tropical landscape in early-20th-century style.

The journey recreates the Golden Age of train travel, a time when those capitals along the route were a string of jewels and little Ipoh was equally precious. Because, you see, this town was built on tin. The Kinta Valley used to be the most productive tin-producing district in the world, and, as the 19th century turned into the 20th, moguls, miners and merchants arrived by the locomotive-load to claim their slice of the action.

The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat is enclosed by the lush limestone karst landscape to the east of Ipoh.

My first visit to Ipoh was about 10 years ago, a century after the tin rush. I jumped off the train at the city’s stately station and walked straight into the adjoining Majestic Station Hotel. The lodgings were charming, but hardly a ‘majestic’ experience. The flip side, one could say, of the E&OE. Opened in 1917, at the same time as the station, the Majestic’s grandeur was a little worse for wear when I  stayed there. The marble floor had lost its shine, paddle fans on the ‘loggia’ verandah were jammed, art deco taps dripped. Despite loyal locals remaining fond of the baroque and Indo-Gothic landmark, fondly referring to it as their ‘Taj Mahal’, this ‘palace of palaces’ shut its doors for good in 2011.

New for old

Fortunately, the fortunes of Ipoh as a whole have fared better. The city may have fallen on hard times in the 1980s when the tin industry hit rock bottom, but this is a place that knows the value of reinvention.

Consider my digs second time round. Colonial-era whitewashed columns and domes are out of the picture – this time, I’m staying in a brick-and-girder structure that stands on a Brooklyn-esque spot among shophouses and contemporary units in Ipoh Old Town, a kilometre-square grid of streets near the station. It’s M Boutique, which features an interior that mixes industrial vintage style with the feel of a Manhattan loft.

Historical shophouses in Ipoh Old Town.

The in-house café is named after the city’s signature beverage, Old Town White Coffee, from a recipe originally introduced by  Chinese prospectors. The ‘white’ refers to the paleness of the beans: they’re roasted with a little margarine, low and slow, and without any of the added sugar that gives Malaysian black coffee (kopi o) its molasses dark kick. Also worth searching out for this local brew are the coffee shops Nam Heong and Sin Yoon Loong, located on opposite corners from each other. A cup of buttery white coffee and toast with kaya (coconut) jam is a miner’s way to start the day!

If you prefer a flat white to an Ipoh white, there’s always Plan B – a restaurant-café that is evidence, if any were needed, that a hipster spirit is percolating through the bricks and mortar of old Ipoh. What was once an abandoned furniture warehouse has been reinvigorated, thanks to some artful retrofitting of its original steel frame, into a space that is shabby and chic inside and out. The brasserie-style menu offers international chow (everything from dirty fries to English scones with jam and cream), and is a pleasant spot to relax over a cup of joe.

Breakfast dim sum at Ming Court, Jalan Leong Sin Nam.

Heritage and Hip

In the same way that a kopi putih is an appetising blend of bitter coffee and condensed milk, Ipoh Old Town is an organic fusion of heritage and hip. Next door to Plan B, traditional kedai kopi Kong Heng scores highly for its popiah (a type of spring roll), offal satay and kai see hor fun (chicken noodle soup). Stylish guest rooms occupy the floors above, part of the Sekeping Kong Heng Hotel and hostel originally built as accommodation for performers at the Chinese opera theatre that once stood next door.

A walk through the Old Town is a journey through the ambition and diversity of Ipoh in its heyday. Amble down Concubine Lane, and discover the buildings of Masjid India (from 1908), the imposing HSBC bank (1931),
the F.M.S. Restaurant (1923) and traditional Chinese herbalist Eu Yan Sang (the company, which today has 300 branches throughout Asia and Australia, began in 1879 in nearby Gopeng, another tin town). Among the 1920s shophouse façades and historic plaster banners, you might catch sight of some street art, including the ‘Paper Plane’ mural on Jl. Sheikh Adam, and ‘Evolution’ over by the Han Chin Pet Soo, a private museum in the one-time Hakka miners’ clubhouse that tells the story of the tin-mining industry and the Hakka community.

Ipoh proves that where there’s money to be made, city folk have long known the value of a brand. The New Town district has retained its name since it was first developed about 1910, vying with the Old Town as Ipoh’s commercial hub. These days, it’s home to new-age foodie-scene mainstays – think frozen yoghurt lounges and cosy gastropubs – and the night market. At the eastern edge, there’s a sister restaurant to Old Town’s Nam Heong kopitiam, where your order (placed via tablet) might be delivered by one of eight robot waitresses!

Slap bang in the middle of New Town, Aun Kheng Lim has been a hotspot since 1987. Its speciality is paper-wrapped ayam garam (salt chicken), so named because it’s cooked in a Dutch oven filled with scalding salt crystals. The result is chicken that is juicy and tender, with the gentle fragrance of goji and dong guai (Chinese angelica).

Making ayam garam (salt-baked chicken), Aun Kheng Lim, Jalan Theatre.

Ipoh chickens would be wise to learn how to fly because they’re in high demand at kitchens throughout the city. Tauge ayam (beansprout chicken) is another Ipoh mainstay: in this case the bird is poached in a mild stock (with a good splash of soy and some oils), then served with crunchy beansprouts (blanched for precisely 15 seconds). As I’m devouring this simple yet satisfying lunch at Ong Kee (the eatery has a culinary ding-dong with neighbour Lou Wong over who makes the best version!), an elderly gentleman taps me on the shoulder. “You know,” he smiles, “you could poach the chicken in plain tap water and it would taste just as yummy.” He glances around, keen to keep his secret safe. “It’s the minerals.”

Mountain high, cave deep

The local water, it is claimed, is also key to Ipoh’s famous hor fun noodles – and it was essential to producing the tin ore that made the city a colonial-era powerhouse. During the tin boom, it was these waters that were used to pan for the ore that enriched the soil around the limestone hills to the east of the city.

Groundwater takes years to filter down through the hills, but when it emerges, it is clear, mineral-rich and alkaline. What the water gives, it takes. Over millennia this water eroded the limestone upland into a stunning karst landscape of jungle-fringed rock towers riddled with caves. It’s in these grottoes that Buddhists and Taoists have established approximately 30 temples over the years – their murals and other cave paintings are fascinating when seen along with the Neolithic art at Gua Tambun or the 1950s graffiti of communist insurgents in the Gua Tempurung cave system. Meanwhile, at the contemporary Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, stunningly positioned around a lake hemmed in by limestone cliffs, caverns have been transformed into a thermal steam bath, meditation spaces, and even a restaurant and bar.

Queuing for nasi kandar, a spicy curried rice at Yong Suan.

Exploring the caves and temples naturally gives one an appetite – so it’s back to Old Town for some more tasty culinary fare. Traversing the streets of this ever intriguing city, it’s clear that Ipoh’s tin-mining past will always remain at its heart, but it is the increasingly vibrant urban culture that bodes well for its future.