It was around noon when Charles and I made it to Ipoh after 3 hours’ bus ride from Kuala Lumpur. The city was almost like a ghost town on the weekend when we made our way from the bus terminal in Old Town to the Sunny View Hotel. Everything was closed except for a few restaurants and food stalls. After finding our way into a bowl of steaming chicken noodle and bean sprout for lunch and indulging for a few minutes in the comfort of our air-conditioned room, we were back on the street still unsure of what to do in Ipoh.
With only half day to explore the city, we were left with no choice but to choose between the cave temples and Kellie’s Castle (both located outside the city center) before heading back to Ipoh to continue our self-guided walking tour.
The six-story castle has an interesting story behind it and somewhat suggests the thrill of finding secret passage ways and ghost hunting while visiting the cave temples in a city surrounded by forested limestone hills seemed to be a must-see destination.
CAVE TEMPLE VS A CASTLE
After much contemplation, we decided to visit the nearby Perak Cave Temple. It was more accessible and easier to reach by public transport than Kellie’s Castle and it was something we both readily agreed upon without further discourse.
I gave up on my delirious notion of making it to the three cave temples as well as Kellie’s Castle in half day while Charles reluctantly brushed off the idea of an afternoon spent at the waterpark. I reckoned it wasn’t worth paying the whole price at The Lost World of Tambun for a few hours of fun and I thought again about whether I really wanted to see three cave temples. After all, if you’ve seen one, you’ve them all and so they say.
Before long, we found ourselves walking along the highway about 6 kilometers from the city quite relieved after disembarking from a jam-packed rickety old bus. I knew we were on the right track after diligently reminding the bus driver’s assistant to drop us at the turn-off of Perak Tong Temple.
We trudged along the main road hemmed by forest-clad limestone hills. There was no cave temple in sight so we pushed on under the sweltering heat until we chanced upon a roadside hawker stall brimming with beer-drinking blokes and skimpy-clad waitresses. I went inside and approached a table of inebriated locals asking for directions and quickly glanced at Charles waiting for that disapproving look and typical bearing that says he’d rather figure it out himself.
My query was followed by some riotous gibberish around the tables and I somehow managed to understand a few words – ah Englis and noh Englis. But like true cavaliers who are always apt to help a damsel in distress, they proudly summoned another attendant, who thankfully, told us the temple was just a few meters walk on the other side of the road.
It was right there all along tucked away at the base of a towering cliff. Its façade is nothing extraordinary not unlike many Buddhist temples we have seen before. But after spotting the Buddhist pagoda perched at the very top of the towering cliff (which promised us a calorie-squandering afternoon and some panoramic views) we dashed into the cave with renewed enthusiasm.
We breezed through the landscaped garden and emerald ponds fronting the temple and clambered up the concrete stairs towards its narrow entrance. Enormous Chinese calligraphy inscribed in black ink greeted us at the doorway before emerging into a gaping cathedral-like cavern with a looming 40 foot tall golden Buddha as its centerpiece.
We were totally surprised by its sheer immensity and didn’t quite expect an impressive complex of caverns extending into a maze of smaller recesses and grottoes. The interior walls were adorned with colorful murals depicting figures and events from Chinese mythology and Buddhist scriptures while several statues of Buddha and other Buddhist saints were scattered around the temple.
THE PATH TO NIRVANA
We wandered behind the main altar past a statue with 18 arms and another Buddha aglow with burning fire and found a staircase that led into an opening on the side of the hill. We only had an hour left before closing time so we scampered all the way up to the gazebos only to find an uninspiring view of an industrial city.
Charles as expected tried to scale the vertical rock wall up to a point where falling wouldn’t be that fatal. He later joined me in finding that pavilion we spotted down on the road. The stairs on the right however, were a dead end that led us to another statue perched on a sitting elephant.
Where the heck is that bloody pavilion? I muttered to Charles while huffing and puffing our way to the summit of Nirvana. Somehow, we knew more or less what to expect from the top but it was fun for my limestone-hugging partner to trace the winding and twisting maze of over 400 steps and it was something I needed to do in order to compensate for another impending overindulgence of Ipoh food.
It didn’t take long before we made it to the highest point of the hill this time with a better view of the suburbs and industrial zone. It was a rewarding trip and we’re glad we didn’t rush ourselves while visiting this temple. Perak Tong surprisingly surpassed our expectations and had proven to be the perfect choice for us among the many cave temples in Ipoh.