The Temple Cave of the Artists

27th November, Ipoh, Malaysia

Manda writes:

Ipoh is Malaysia's third largest city. It was a prosperous place in its heyday as a result of the abundance of tin mines. Some mining still takes place in the form of calcite; this mineral is being quarried from limestone outcrops dotted around the outskirts of the hub. Unfortunately, this activity is also having a negative impact on the landscape, which is a shame.

Why did we stop in Ipoh? Well, it seemed like a major spot on the map and it would also break down the journey from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. I also have a friend who is from Ipoh (although she is currently in London) and I was curious to find out where she had been brought up. Ipoh has a large population of Cantonese-speaking Chinese, which makes life easier for me.

One thing that struck me straight away about this city was that it didn't seem geared towards tourists. This was a 'locals' place and Ian got more than a few curious looks for being the only Westerner on the streets.

Since there were no bus stops near to where we were staying, we walked all the way over to the other side of town to see colonial architecture. The twenty-minute walk from our hotel, along Jalan Sultan Iskandar to the Old Town, felt more strenuous than it normally would have done as the sun beat down on our backs. As we wandered through the Old Town, we noticed rows of old Chinese shop fronts. Some of them looked rickety and in need of a good lick of paint, whereas other structures looked freshly whitewashed.

We took snapshots of a few mosques, the City Hall (Dewan Bandaran) and the Majestic Station Hotel (which had obviously seen more majestic days). Then we hopped on a bus out of town to a cave temple called Perak Tong, six kilometres away. This cave temple is one of many set amongst a clad of limestone hills in the area around Ipoh.

The temple's entrance, as viewed from inside the cave.

Named after its founder in 1926, Buddhist priest Perak Tong, the temple has a tranquil atmosphere that is accentuated with Chinese instrumental music playing in the background and well-manicured gardens. Inside is a combination of caves and grottoes, adorned with Buddha statues and Asian mural art. The artwork is truly exquisite and tastefully done.

One of the many murals inside the Perak Tong cave temple.

We climbed the 385 steps to the top balcony of the cave, where we were treated to views of Ipoh and mountains in the distance. Apart from the nearby factories, also in view, this was quite a nice sight. Ian braved another flight of steep steps right to the summit where he got to see the view on the other side. On hindsight though, he didn't think it had been worth the extra climb so I'm glad I gave it a miss!

The view from the summit at Perak Tong.

On the way down, we spotted a troop of monkeys near the top entrance of the cave. A few teenage girls were screaming their heads off at seeing these mischievous creatures who, on this occasion, moseyed on by. As the crowds left, the monkeys could be seen ambling up the steps, scampering along the handrails and swinging from the trees. Then all this excitable activity died down; maybe the midday sun had caught up with our furry friends too?!

The cave was definitely a cool and refreshing place to be and we really noticed the difference in temperature as we waited by the roadside for our bus. It turned up shortly after and we were taken back to the central bus station. On the way back to our hotel, we walked through the Indian district. Every third shop seemed to be a colourful sari wholesaler with vibrant rolls of materials on display, hoping to catch the eye of passers-by. Every second shop seemed to be a goldsmiths; along with a sleepy-looking armed security guard slouched on a chair. And by armed, I don't mean a pistol - these guys were holding shotguns that you couldn't possibly miss. We made sure to give them a wide berth in case they activated the trigger by mistake during their half-hearted slumber. Every other shop after that seemed to be a dark and dingy vehicle repair shop.

It had been a walking/public transport tour around the city and even though it was hard work under the unforgiving sun, it was well worth the effort. Visiting the cave temple was the highlight of our trip to Ipoh and had we had our own transportation or if the town had been more geared towards tourists, we would have visited more places. But for now, we're glad we made a short stop in this city and were able to see it for ourselves.