It’s 4:30am and I am already in the shuttle van from the hotel to the airport to pick Paul up. He messages me to say that he’s already landed and has cleared customs. A long four hour wait stretches out in front of us because our hire car won’t be available until 8:30am so it’s a good thing KLIA2 is a big transit airport with plenty of ways to pass the time. McDonalds has the most comfortable seating options so we pass an hour or two there with Paul falling asleep in his seat after we’ve eaten our breakfast. No one rushes us to move on and many of the other patrons are also just resting after completing their purchases. After getting tired of McDonalds we check out the massage chairs near the car hire counter. For RM3 ($AU1.07) we get 9 minutes of pummelling from the automated massage machine. It’s pretty intense but probably good for us. We pass the remainder of our time with Paul sleeping in a chair in a corner while I do some HIIT exercise sessions and a 2km run through the airport and outside bus terminal. Security just smile and greet me with a salute and “good morning sir”. They’ve obviously seen it all before. This is something I like about KLIA2: it’s a relaxed place to transit.
We collect our hire car and head out onto Malaysia’s roads. I’ve heard mixed reviews about driving here. My parents say it is easy and that the roads are good while I’ve read some Trip Advisor reviews and forums where people say that driving here is particularly dangerous. So I’m curious about what it’s going to be like. I will soon discover that my parents are correct and that the expressway to Ipoh is an easy drive.
We do spend about half an hour caught in traffic as we come close to Kuala Lumpur but I wouldn’t say it was any different to the 30km of traffic jams we get on the Pacific Highway heading into the city at peak hour. If anything, at least here the drivers don’t seem to be as aggressive as at home; they just wait their turn and there are fewer heroes trying to weave between the near stationary lanes.
Once we’re clear of Kuala Lumpur the expressway takes us all the way north towards Ipoh. There’s not much to see for most of the drive, other than palm tree plantations. But this interesting overpass is pretty grand.
We stop at a rest area. The rest areas here are similar to the large highway service stations we have in Australia. There’s a large service station where you can buy fuel, drinks and snacks, and a carpark attached where you can park to rest and buy drinks and snacks from little vans. We both notice the random flavours of the Twisties here in Malaysia. As well as ‘Chicken Yo!’ and cheese they have tomato and ‘BBQ Curry Dude’. The curry is spicy and leaves a burning sensation at the back of our mouths just like curry would. It’s not a disgusting flavour but I probably wouldn’t buy it again.
The weather here is fickle. One minute it’s bucketing down heavily and visibility is greatly reduced.
The next the skies are blue with woolly Simpson-esque clouds billowing around. This is how it’s been since I arrived so I guess this is what this part of the rainy season will be like.
As we draw closer to Ipoh we are struck by the limestone formations that start to pop up in the landscape. They are fascinating. Many are heavily scared by mining and some of those being mined look like they are about to topple over under the pressure of constant digging and blasting.
As we drive along the highway we notice this temple (Kong Fook Ngam) buried in a limestone cave. A short exploratory drive later and we have found our way there.
A small pack of dogs greet us as we park the car. There are four caramel coloured canines and one black and tan mutt. They bark and snarl a bit but mostly keep their distance. They don’t seem to be a real threat and no one comes out to see what the commotion is about. I think the dogs are just as curious about us as we are about the temple so we walk on and they go back to whatever they were doing before we arrived.
The temple is lovely and peaceful. Much of it is closed off and inaccessible but there’s a real sense of calm here in the relative cool of the cave.
The formality of the Chinese Buddhist Temple is contrasted by the frivolity and colour of the Hindu Temple right next door. Its bright pink figurines and blue trim are punctuated by the dense jungle green backdrop. There is a tour bus parked nearby and a group of Indian people are eating lunch in a hall. Two monks greet us with the traditional Indian head wobble that I have seen so many times in movies (I haven’t made it to India yet). They indicate for us to enter.
The ceiling under the pavilion is stunningly decorated with peacock feathers and portraits of various deities. We both stand in awe of it and the monks seem to appreciate our admiration of their temple. The monks seem to speak only Hindi so the whole experience will be completed using gestures. And what an experience it will be.
We are led into the entrance of the cave and walk through a pink passageway. I can’t help but wonder whether this is meant to signify a rebirth of some sort.
Once inside we are offered a blessing in which we apply water to our faces and the monk marks us with white ash. It all feels very spiritual. We make a small donation to the temple and then are instructed to dip another ringett note in the ash before placing it back in our wallets. Back in the main hall we are taken to another locked room where the monk lights a flame and blesses us with the fire. It doesn’t seem to matter that we are not Hindus; we are there and interested in his temple so he wishes us well.
After a quick stop for some lunch as a local restaurant we make our way to the Every Fresh Mushroom Farm where we have booked a chalet for four nights. The chalet was only $AU24 a night so I haven’t got very high expectations of it given some of the places I have stayed in Indonesia and Thailand at that price point. But what a find it turns out to be. We have a private single room in a chalet set in a pretty tropical garden that is nestled under limestone cliffs. There is a large dam where we can fish (fishing rods supplied) or just sit to enjoy the sunset. The room is clean and well-appointed with Western bathroom and hot water shower. There’s a jug for boiling water, free coffee and a television with an English-language entertainment channel in case we get bored. The lady at the mushroom farm is super friendly and armed with plenty of tips for places we should see while in Ipoh. She even loans us two torches to use on the adventurous cave tour we want to do on Saturday. We just need to supply the batteries.
On our host’s recommendation we drive to the nearby Kek Look Tong temple. This is one of the two more famous cave temples here in Ipoh.
Again the temple dogs form a welcoming committee but this time we are not the first guests so they simply laze around relaxed at the top of the entrance stairs without snarling or barking.
Inside the temple it is amazing. A lot of work has gone into the decorations over the years. There’s Chinese mountain scenes embedded into one of the side walls.
And many statues of deities abound the cavern itself.
But the most stunning feature is the garden in the large grotto on the other side of the cave. This place is spectacular.
It seems to be a place of exercise too with a paved walking path that locals are using to take an energetic afternoon walk or slow jog. There is some exercise equipment off in a far corner but mostly the garden is dominated by the beautiful landscaping and walking path.
There is also a rock walk for which you must remove your shoes. It is about 500m long and quite challenging. I’m not sure whether it’s meant to teach something or to be for reflexology. It takes me quite a while to get through the whole walk; partly because I have a heel spur that’s bothering me and doesn’t feel good when the rocks poke into it. But hey, that’s all part of the experience.
It’s getting late in the afternoon so we are unable to attend any of the other nearby cave temples. Instead we drive into Ipoh Old Town. We wander around looking at the 3D art works (I’ll post about them separately) and look at the old buildings. The Birch Memorial is quite a famous landmark and quite an impressive colonialist sight.
The ghosts of colonialism abound here in the Old Town. We’ve arrived after the daytime shops are closed and the night time restaurants open so the place is eerily devoid of people and overrun with commuter traffic cramming through the streets.
The buildings here are old and run down on the outside but many are being repurposed for restaurants and retail outlets selling brand name clothing for the young adult market. Think RM200 ($AU72) for a 1970s styled button up shirt and RM12 ($AU4.50) for a small slice of cake. Mind you, the quality of the products and food is top shelf and not at all intended for the price-conscious consumer. And I think this is something I will like about Malaysia, just as I liked it in Thailand. There is variety and we can choose whether we feel like a RM4 ($AU1.45) meal or whether we want to treat ourselves to a little luxury.
By the time we head out to dinner at a small Chinese restaurant near our hotel it’s already after 8pm. It’s been a long day and we are both exhausted. Paul was up all last night on the flight over here and I woke early in the morning to collect him then drove up to Ipoh while he slept. But it’s worth the fatigue to have seen so much even in just one day. I can’t wait to see what the rest of our fortnight here brings.