There is a strong Chinese influence in Ipoh so it stands to reason that that there are also many Chinese Buddhist temples scattered around the city. Many of them are cave temples that have been built into the surrounding limestone mountains. We start our day of exploration at Sam Poh Tong. This temple is marked on almost all the tourist maps of Ipoh and I have found many references to it online.
We start by entering the temple cave and following a pathway through to the other side. Here there is a garden surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs many meters high. A building sits in pride of place at the center of the garden. It is closed off to the public but looks amazing sitting proudly in place hidden from all but those who venture through the temple cave. It must be a wonderful place for contemplation and prayer for those who use it for that purpose.
Nearby is a turtle pond. There are many small turtles sitting on the banks of the pond drying their shells. They are rather cute to look at unlike the four or five massive turtles swimming around in the pond itself. The big turtles are huge and fight each other for territory. You could buy small cherry tomatoes at the entrance to the cave temple. People who have bought them throw the tomatoes into the turtle enclosure and giggle as turtles eat the fruits. There are more tomatoes in the enclosure than the turtles want to eat but still we humans can’t help ourselves and take great delight in feeding the animals. We didn’t realise that the tomatoes were for the turtles or we too might have joined the tomato throwing because we like to feed animals too.
Back outside the cave there is a rock island garden in front of the temple. I love these Chinese-style gardens where spiritual landscapes are recreated in great detail. The rock islands are decorated with little bridges, temples and pagodas. Figurines fish, walk and meditate on the islands. It conjures up images of the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist aesthetics of old who might have spent their entire lives in contemplation.
Sam Poh Tong has a huge blue urn building to one side. This is where urns containing the ashes of the deceased are stored. This is where all the people have come. I’m not sure whether they come to pray for the deceased every weekend or whether this weekend is particularly important. But the air is filled with joss stick smoke as people walk around waving them and then leaving them in these huge joss stick holders.
Tables are laid out with feasts of food. I can only assume they are for the deceased. A beggar eyes off the food hungrily but controls his urge to take some. The food that has been placed here are not just small offerings of fruit or flowers to deities. Rather, these are elaborate meals including dumplings, rice, fruit, beverages and sweets. Flowers decorate the tables like center pieces at an American Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve never seen anything like this before.
A little further along there is a huge pit where cardboard boxes shaped like treasure chests, luxury cars, luxury homes and Lois Vitton handbags are being burned. The heat from the flames is intense. Someone told me that the items being burned represent products that are being sent to deceased loved ones in the next world. This is probably a simplistic explanation but I’m no expert on Buddhist practices and am just reporting what I see.
With all this praying and the thousands of people who will come here to make offerings today there is a lot of cleaning up that needs to be done. Elderly men fill large baskets with food from the tables and carry it over to this big rubbish pile. Everything comes here: fruit, meals, styrofoam containers, plastic bags and flowers. Other men are stoking and clearing the fire pit of plastics, which they also bring here. Everything is being burnt but this doesn’t deter the local monkeys from trying to steal the food scraps. They sneak across to the rubbish pile while the elderly cleaners try to chase them away. It seems like a dance that has gone on for decades.
Next door to Sam Poh Tong is another cave temple. This one is not as busy today as Sam Poh Tong though the burnt joss sticks in a large holding area indicate that it gets just as busy as its neighbour. This temple looks like it is slowly being swallowed by the cave in which it is built. Inside, this temple is far less ornate than its neighbour. It feels more somber and cavernous. There is no garden behind the cave. Rather, this entire temple is built into the mountain.
A steep staircase leads upwards from the back of the cave. There are no signs indicating the destination of the staircase but there are signs warning that the temple closes at 5pm sharp and that visitors should not start climbing the staircase after 4:30pm. This should have been a warning that what was to follow was not just a short flight of stairs. But it’s not a warning we heed.
After climbing 245 steps, we reach the top and discover there is actually nothing here. The austerity of the cave has continued all the way to the top. It’s almost like this cave is intended as a lesson in not holding onto anything and just accepting what is. The holes in the cave walls here at its upper reaches are largely shrouded by jungle trees so there are only glimpses of the city below. People have crawled out through some of the holes in the cave onto narrow ledges outside. Perhaps they have come here to meditate because it feels like that kind of space. The atmosphere was such that I would not have been surprised to see the white bearded Lao Tzu sitting cross legged meditating.
Climbing and descending the staircase certainly was an act of faith; what with much of the top section being in the dark.
And the mid section being rickety and wooden. But we got up there and back safely. I felt quite uplifted by the experience.
Next door the Lin Sen Tong was a complete contrast to the other two temples. This is a bright and fun temple. It looks almost childish in it’s brightness. There are colourful cartoon-styled religious characters in the courtyard and concrete animals with stirrups that encourage you to hop on and ride them. And no, I wasn’t the only person riding the animals.
A short drive across Ipoh took us to Perek Tong. Our host at the mushroom farm recommended this temple because you can climb some steps to see a view of Ipoh.
She wasn’t wrong about the view. From the top of the temple there were stunning views over the whole city. It became obvious why the city is so hot: it is nestled in a three-sided valley between tall mountain ranges. On one side, the city is dominated by heavy industry, possibly related to the quarries in the limestone mountains. On the other it is all residential. Up on the mountain top above the temple, the city felt like it was a world away. Everything was peaceful and I again felt that sense of spirituality come to me.
The mountainside pagodas helped with that sense of the sacred. Again I could imagine aesthetics sitting here meditating. My mind wandered to Dan Millman’s Peaceful Warrior books and the way Socrates trained Dan to run up mountains effortlessly and the stories of Socrates living for years in the mountains meditating. It is easy to see why the Chinese of old settled here in Ipoh with its tall mountains and limestone caves. There is something about the place that is similar to some of the sacred mountains in China.
Though perhaps what I was feeling was exhaustion from walking up yet another long flight of stairs. This time there were even signs warning that those with certain health conditions should not attempt the climb due to the physical exertion required. The signs were not wrong. The climb was tough, especially in the soupy humidity. But, like I said, the views and sense of space at the top was worth it.
And so ended our exploration of Ipoh’s Tongs. There are many more temples here to explore but we think we got a good taste of the variety by seeing the ones we did. Besides, we can always come back another time.