The third largest city in Malaysia, Ipoh was founded as a tin mining town by the British. The city is generally forgotten by tourists, who head straight from the capital along the major highway to Georgetown on the island of Penang.
When we were talking about stopping to Ipoh for a few days, people began asking why. Even the hostel owner in Kuala Lumpur questioned our reasoning with a, ‘but there’s nothing there…’ statement. If anything, this was part of the reason we were going.
About fifty kilometres outside Ipoh we began to see the limestone hills that are so prominent in the region. Lumps of limestone sticking out of the ground in small groups, scattered at first then more common. Ipoh is surrounded by these limestone hills and they give beauty to a city both in daylight…
and in the rainy gloom of the monsoon season which, we are told should have ended more than a month ago.
A Studio Hostel
With Ipoh not being on the tourist circuit, the offerings on popular hostel sites were minimal. But I was able to find a brand new hostel on a site used mainly for booking hotels. I’ve stayed at more than 50 hostels on my travels, but never in a studio hostel. The hostel has only 3 rooms, two of which are bathrooms. There are 8 beds at one end of the main room and several couches, a TV, stereo, fridge, microwave at the other. As we were only the second group to ever stay at the hostel, we had the place to ourselves.
The hostel is in a new building, in an area still under construction. Nearby there are only three supermarkets, three petrol stations and a couple of restaurants, but that was more than enough to make do. Within a year and when more people move to the area, it should thrive.
The lack of tourists means a lack of organised tours, or perhaps the lack of tours means there’s a lack of organised tourists. Either way, the owner of the studio hostel is hoping to establish a market in Ipoh. So to help with the research, he borrowed a car and for a small fee drove us to some of the more prominent features of the town, some even he hadn’t been to.
The Art of Old Town
Malaysia has a famous Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, who has created murals in most of the major cities across the country. Ipoh is no exception and has 8 of his murals scattered around old town. The murals can sometimes be difficult to find but offer tourists the opportunity to explore Old Town while trying to find these works.
Some of the works take up the entire side of a building, while others are only 2 metres square and are hidden down side alleyways.
The rest of the tour took us to four prominent Cave Temples in the region…
Perak Tong Cave Temple
Perhaps the most famous of the 30 cave temples in the Ipoh region, Perak Tong is the most accessible because of its closeness to the central city. Its initial cavern is large with many statues and shrines tucked into corners.
Of all the temples built into limestone hills, Perak is the only one that allows visitors to climb to the very top, where there are several pagodas. While it’s a hot and humid climb up the 450 steps, the most precarious pagoda gives an amazing view out over western Ipoh.
Sam Poh Tong Temple
After Perak Tong, Sam Poh Tong is the next most popular cave temple in the region. While the cave is fairly small, it boasts an amazing ornamental garden out front.
But the true secret of Sam Poh Tong is the small tunnel that leads to the temple, hidden in an open-topped central area of the hill.
In the same central area as the temple there’s a tortoise enclosure containing five different species.
Gua Kek Look Tong Temple
This is the largest and most spectacular of the Ipoh cave temples. Created from an old tin mine, the entrance is more sedate that then other temples.
The true magnificence are the massive inner chambers split over two levels, with great stalactites and flowstone.
On the far side of the double cavern, the cave emerges out onto a peaceful gardens surrounding a pond.
Dong Hua Dong Temple
This temple is the smallest of the temples we visited. While the caves aren’t large, the climbing design was interesting. Lurking around the temple there are numerous families of monkeys. They have obviously caused strife to the temple, as each of the three cave shrines has mesh covered doors to stop them from terrorising the area.
With few tourists visiting the area due mainly to the lack of infrastructure, Ipoh is perhaps one of the hidden gems of Malaysia. With its growing popularity, it’s likely not to stay hidden long.
Next, we head north to Georgetown.
The Trail Wanderers