Getting deep in Ipoh

Buddha laughing in the sun
A fat laughing Buddha in the sunshine at Kek Lok Tong

Getting to Ipoh is a doddle. It’s about a tenner on the bus from Georgetown, including the transfer to Butterworth, which is the town on the mainland facing Penang. The roads are well maintained, and the view of lush rainforest-covered hills gives you something pretty to look at for the majority of the journey.

Yes, the bus terminates at a terminal about 45 minutes from the centre, but friendly staff there will stick you on a public bus that’s going the right way – and which are blessedly air-conditioned. And making your way around the city is easy too, with proper road signs at each junction and a river to keep your bearings.

It’s a wonder, then, why Ipoh is so little visited by tourists. There are cheap eats facing the pedang (the Chinese like to have a flat area of grass for recreation in the middle of their towns), and some lovely grand street art near the tourist information office (currently undergoing renovations).

Street art in Ipoh
Old Man And The Tea
LED trees in Ipoh
Pretty LED trees line the river bank

There’s a grand old train station (under renovation), and big mosques to have a look at, and there’s a lovely river walk by the Riverside Hotel, which at night is decorated with LED trees and lit up bridges, shining over little restaurants and coffee shops, with live music being played on the sidewalk.

Sure, there’s not an awful lot to do in the town; it’s the attractions in the surrounding limestone mountains that draw the most attention.

Made it out alive
Gua Tempurung caves

The most impressive thing you’ll find are the vast caves at Gua Tempurung. Tours are rated by difficulty, from simply observing the caves from a walkway, to wading through underground rivers and squeezing through claustrophobic gaps in the dark.

Halls deep

The size of the first few chambers is breath-taking. It’s not terribly adventurous though, as initially everything is well lit and there’s a metal causeway that links all the staircases. But it’s still staggering to see.

Our guide’s grasp of English was limited to “See this? This the [insert animal name]”, while pointing at stalactites that might look a bit like an elephant, or at a limestone lion, or some other wildly imaginative mammalian approximations.

The tour is a little slow at first, mainly because the majority of tourists here are from China or South Korea, and insist on having their picture taken gurning in front of everything the guide points at, so there’s a lot of stopping, until you get down in the river. Wear trousers and trainers, as you’ll be scraping your knees up as you crawl under shallow passages. A waterproof torch is also a good idea.

One exit from Gua Tempurung
Ug, this, Swarana cave. This home. Ug.

The caves are quite far out of town, with no access by bus, so you need to take a taxi. However, if you forget to ask the driver to wait, you’re going to have to make some friends to share someone else’s cab, which is what Fabio, Swarana and I had to do. We jumped in with a Korean girl called Diana, her two mates, and their Swedish friends, all visiting for the day from Kuala Lumpur.

We had intended to go to a place called Kelly’s Castle – a dilapidated mansion built by some rich westerner who died mid-construction in the 1920s I think – but our taxi saviours were going to the Buddhist and Taoist cave temple at Kek Lok Tong.

Turtles by the Kek Lok Tong temple
Fearsome fighting team

Happily, it turned out to be absolutely beautiful. As you approach the limestone cliffs – thick green vegetation draping over everything – you climb the steps into the temple, with its marble floor and large golden Buddhas sat among the stalagmites. Head up a little further and you find a statue of a fat Taoist deity, smiling as he gazes outside.

Kek Lok Tong's Buddha statue
Gazing over the gardens
Buddha's garden
Landscape gardens (and a factory hidden beyond the trees at the far end)

What he’s looking at is stunning. A kind of cliff-enclosed garden, with pools teeming with koi and turtles, monkeys clambering over the vine-covered rock surface, and sculptures dotted about the winding paths, of dragons and birds and the like. Some of the paths are designed for reflexology, so you can take your flip-flops off and give yourself a foot massage walking over the warm, smooth stones.

Obscure geek reference

The place reminded me of the T-Rex grotto in the original Tomb Raider game, if any of you recall it. But without any dinosaurs. And really nice, rather than scary and full of monsters trying to kill you.

Back in town, we went for a drink with our taxi companions at a Movida – a kind of bar chain that plays obnoxiously loud dance music – where we were introduced to the Malaysian take on happy hours. They like to tier them, with happiest hour in the early afternoon, gradually decreasing in joviality until you reach misery midnight, when prices are extortionate.

The next day I smashed Swarana’s iPhone on the ground with my greasy sun-creamed hands. Profuse apologies and an assurance we’d get it fixed in KL calmed the situation, but it was touch and go for a while.

At the time, we weren’t aware of the giant water park in Ipoh, which my mate Millsy later brought to my attention. It was so freaking hot, that would have been amazing. But instead, we booked a bus to the Cameron Highlands to the north, leaving the caves behind for clouds and cooler climes.

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