Nomad on a Budget: Review of Ipoh, Malaysia

Are you a digital nomad or budget traveler who is heading to Malaysia? Maybe you'd like a place near Kuala Lumpur that isn't a giant megacity? Here is our city review for what it's like to live in Ipoh, Malaysia, a pleasant town only a few hours train ride from Kuala Lumpur. It's lovely and perfect for nomads on a budget!


We left Ipoh a few weeks ago!

Spoilers! We liked it.

There is a certain something some cities have that we like. We try to quantify here in these city reviews, but try as we might, it sure is hard to quantify the qualitative. So, to avoid any confusion, we want you, dear reader, to be able to go to bed tonight assured of at least one thing: 

The Normal Nomads liked Ipoh, Malaysia!

We spent Christmas 2017 there, as well as the rest of the month of December and a good part of January. 

Originally, we were looking at other, more popular towns, to stay at during the holidays, like Penang or Malacca. However, a lot of people had similar ideas because lodgings in these cities were very scarce and expensive. And if we are one thing, it is budget focused.

Looking at all her options, including where she could book a reasonably priced room, Monica ran across an article that mentioned Ipoh was a fun, often overlooked, city pretty close to Kuala Lumpur with a lot to offer. Then she checked AirBnB, found a place that looked nice and was within our budget, and the rest is history.

There, that is the method, the curtain is officially pulled back, the mystery is over! Phew!

Oh, and the best part of Ipoh, the thing it is renowned for throughout all of Malaysia? COFFEE!!!!

Ipoh has awesome coffee and a fun, vibrant, and a little chaotic coffee shop culture. They literally roast their beans with palm oil margarine, making them extra roast-ee. If that doesn't sound good to you then trust us, your mouth will like it. They also use condensed milk to add sweetness and creaminess. It is pretty awesome. Bad for you, most definitely, but tasty nonetheless. 

Let's get to the actual review!

As you may have gathered by reading our other posts, we are not on vacation. We are on life (and yes, all of you who have read our other city reviews, we will always make that joke), so we didn't do all the touristy stuff. If you really want to go there and spend loads of money (that one too!), then we won't help you much here.

If you are unsure about what the categories are referring to and you'd like a bit more clarification, then click here to see an in depth explanation of what we are on about. In fact, go ahead and check out the explanation even if you are pretty sure you've got a handle on it. It is here (and here [and here!]).


So, with all that out of the way, how'd Ipoh, Malaysia do?!?!

Ipoh: 23/30. Not too shabby!


Ipoh's greatest asset when it comes to its affordability is the exact thing we heard many people, primarily in Kuala Lumpur, level at it as criticism; there just isn't that much to do.

If you are in a place that is world famous for its night life, you can't, in good conscience, not go out at night. Even if that night life is expensive, you gotta do it.

Thankfully, Ipoh doesn't have a crazy night life scene.

On an evening, if Warren and Monica wanted to get crazy, they would walk up to a local restaurant and order a pizza for less than 30 ringgit (like 8 bucks) that had lots of cheese on it (cheese has become the flavor of home for us, our occasional and decedent treat), and then on the walk home they'd stop in at a corner store and purchase a few cans of Kingfisher beer to have at home while watching Netflix. Not exactly Night at the Roxbury.

Most normal nights, we'd go to a local restaurant that served delicious Chinese food, since Ipoh has a very large percentage of ethnic Chinese people, and order everything we wanted and still struggle to spend more than 50 ringgit.

Still, Malaysia isn't Vietnam or Thailand, and the costs reflect that. A beer costs a buck or two (not a quarter), and a meal tends to fall around the three to four US dollar range. That seems cheap until you are writing this from Ho Chi Minh City, drinking a tasty beer and eating a filling sandwich that altogether cost less than a dollar. Then you find yourself exclaiming, "Two dollars for a beer! Outrageous!" with a fake British accent.

Conclusion: Ipoh is pretty nice to the pocket book, just not too complimentary.


We took this shot after exiting a movie theater into a parking garage...
Seriously. And that's pretty cool.


Most days, at some point throughout the day that was shockingly hard to predict, it would rain. Like a lot. But it never seemed to last that long, usually done within 20 minutes and almost always within an hour.

At some other point throughout the same day it would get very sunny and be a little uncomfortable to stand around in the sun. But there was usually a cloud nearby that could be counted upon to provide shade eventually.

We never figured out much of a pattern to any of this, even in how the sun and rain related to each other. But we did learn that if it wasn't perfect, you only had to wait a little bit for everything to be totally different. So everyday, we used those ancient devices called "windows" to make a plan.

"Wanna get some food..." *checks the window* "... in about an hour?"

We were pretty fine being flexible, but that is what we do. Our day to day is to sit around and work on our laptops with occasional breaks for things like coffee, exercise, food, and beer. But, if we wanted to plan a big day out full of crazy activities, then we have to admit the constantly changing weather could be a bit of a pain in the butt.

Conclusion: Always keep your sunglasses and umbrella handy when hanging in Ipoh.

When it comes to visiting free geology museums, we don't just talk the talk....


Well done Ipoh!

Seriously, how hard is it to have sidewalks that are pleasant to walk on and not covered in giant, deadly holes? Not hard at all, especially if you are a city named Ipoh that happens to be the capital of the state of Perak in Malaysia!
We fully understand that many people in this world appreciate the combustion engine a bit more than we do, but can we all agree we should be able to park in front of a store and then get to a store across the street without having to reenter a vehicle and drive to it? Please, can we all just be okay with that?

When you are in the Old Town neighborhood or downtown part of Ipoh, you'll see people doing just that! They park in a convenient spot, walk twenty meters to a shop, then another thirty meters to a restaurant, then stop off at a place across the street for a cup of coffee, and then back to their car to drive home.
Sorry, did your brain just explode? (There is a totally appropriate gif we wanted to link to here, but we wanted to warn you that it is a bit violent... but remember, it is from a movie, called Scanners, and no one actually got hurt during the making of the movie or this scene in particular... and it is so absolutely appropriate!)
Conclusion: Take a bow, Ipoh. You deserve it!


We don't know this for sure, but we suspect not everyone photographed was from Ipoh...


Free Stuff:

Do you like looking at early 20th century colonial buildings while walking around? Great!

Are you into awesome street art? Look no further than Old Town!

How about Geology Museums? Really? You do? Oh, cool!

And your thoughts on staring idly at a river? Your favorite, you say? The best, you say? Super!

How about wandering around gorgeous temples built into limestone caves? Fabulous!

This is some of the stuff we, the majestic Normal Nomads, like to do everywhere we go if it is available and it just so happens that everything we just mentioned was free!

Ipoh has a lot to offer the idle and easily impressed traveler that doesn't cost anything, but we felt like it could go just a little further.

The city and surrounding area has a rich history, with Hakka Chinese immigrants coming in to work at tin mines, British colonizers colonizing, Japanese occupation during World War II, and more modern developments as well. And a few of these historical times are explained and depicted with museums... but they cost money. Because of course they do. But still, it is small costs like charging admission that really differentiates between something being "free" and "not free."

Conclusion: Ipoh has a lot of free stuff, but bring your wallet just in case.


Nothing to see here, just crazy amounts of beauty, move along!


Malaysia has a free three-month visitors visa, at least for Americans. And that's pretty cool.

Ipoh is an easy train from Kuala Lumpur, which has an international airport you will probably fly into.

If there was an easy bus or train you could take from the airport to the train station in Kuala Lumpur, this score would be higher. But there isn't, or at least not one you can take and reliably get from one to the other in a set amount of time. Most of this has to do with how horrible traffic can get in KL, frequently at random times for random reasons.

We feel bad deducting a point against Ipoh because of problems in Kuala Lumpur, but that's how you are probably going to get there in the first place... so...

Conclusion: Great trains, great airports.... really crappy traffic on the bus between them though.

More beauty!
Tourism Factor:

This is our most subjective subject. What we are really trying to get across with "Tourism Factor" is how well a town treats visitors compared with how exploitative it is.

For people from a small town, what they idyllically remember about what it was like to grow up there is exactly what would drive visitors batty.

"Everyone knows your name," "we take care of each other," "hand-shake agreements," "family owned businesses," are all potentially horrible things for visitors. They all mean, "this city has the means and motivation to exploit you, the visitor, because it can identify you readily and take advantage of customs and habits you couldn't know."

But there are things a city can do that help make visitors more comfortable!

-Listing prices prominently, on signs or menus, let people know they aren't getting ripped off.
-Signs with accurate hours of operations prevent people from wasting their time!
-Covering your town with religious iconography might be great if you only want visitors from that one religion to be comfortable, but it is not even a little welcoming to literally anyone else.
-Visitor's CENTERS! Holy crap, just build one! Every town should have one, and also signs throughout the town pointing to where it is. Listen, every town has at least one old person with nothing to do all day that would love to tell someone new about where to go to eat. Just put that person in one spot, preferably with air conditioning andFacc/or heating, a map, and a sign! Bam, instantly a more visitor-friendly city!

What we are looking for in this section, really, is how well a city balances all this in addition to having amenities available to allow digital nomads to work.

Whew! Well, with that rant out of the way, how'd Ipoh do?

Pretty good.

Nice visitor's center with some nice pamphlets, good amenities (such as wifi), and pretty easy to navigate.

The coffee shops and restaurants can be a little confusing the first few times. You order your food from a stall in the front, hover over a table until whoever is sitting there leaves and sit yourself, order coffee from a different person, and pay for everything as it is brought to you. Not exactly intuitive for Americans, but we figured it out... although there was the time Warren ordered food and was told, "No," by the woman at the cart... still a little unclear what that was about.

In the end, we felt like a lot of people were only recently learning that Ipoh was a cool and fun city to visit and it was only a few hours train ride from Kuala Lumpur. We suspect the next time we go back, maybe in a few years, we might have to upgrade this score as Ipoh figures out ways to be more accommodating.

Conclusion: Ipoh does a good job helping confused tourists and will probably be better in the future.


Monica trying the infamous durian fruit. Tastes like slightly fermented,
cinnamon covered, sweet onion. So, not too bad, but definitely weird.

And that's it! Ipoh, Malaysia gets a Normal Nomads City Rating of 23/30:

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Thanks for reading our review of Ipoh, and don't forget to check out our other city reviews!

What's that you say? You still want more things to read? You love our writing so much and wish it would never end?

Oh, cool. Here is a few more things to click on then:

Okay, cool.

That's it. There isn't any more. You can go home now.

You want one more? Maybe an older one you missed the first time?


Visit Your Family.

Now go home. Or where ever, you can't stay here. Better yet, go check out Ipoh, Malaysia!


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