A long weekend to Ipoh, the capital of the Perak region of Malaysia proved to be just what the doctor ordered. We stayed at the Banjaran hot springs retreat where we could easily have spent the entire weekend lounging around the hot pools and taking in the gorgeous natural surrounds. However in between all the relaxing and indulging at the hotel we also found time to explore some of the nearby limestone cave temples, the Old Town centre as well as the Lost World of Tambun. There is a lot you can pack into 3 days here!
The Banjaran is an exclusive hot springs retreat only 25 minutes Ipoh airport. It is no exaggeration to say this place is pure relaxation and luxury. Upon arrival were were presented with a sturdy pummel and invited to hit a giant cymbal at the entrance to the hotel. The loud gong-sound attracted several staff who rushed to warmly greet us and we were offered a small refreshment with hot towel whilst we waited to check in. As with most Asian retreats, the manager was an older European and we saw him frequently during our stay, always walking around and making a point to say hello to the guests.
The Banjaran is nestled amid giant 260 million-year old limestone hills and has natural caves, geothermal waters and cascading waterfalls within the green and leafy valley it occupies. We stayed in one of the beautiful Water Villas that overlook a canal during our visit. The villa was large and consisted of a bedroom with queen sized bed, furnished living room, bathroom with rainforest shower, large balcony and private pool and jacuzzi. We were advised by staff not to leave any food or drink out as it would attract the monkeys in the area. The bathroom was fully stocked with beautifully smelling aromatherapy products such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body lotion that were replenished daily. Being surrounded by reeds and the sound of the canal waters proved to be a relaxing way to fall asleep.
The key feature of The Banjaran is its huge geothermal lake . The lake is framed by hills and a waterfall but the water is too hot to swim freely. Instead, there are small hot pots within the lake that you can bathe in. The hot pots are shaded under thatched roofs and have hot and cold water taps so you can control the temperate and have a hot soak whilst enjoying the surrounding nature.
The geothermal lake feeds into the swimming pool as well as the jacuzzi’s in all the private villas. The swimming pool is a vivid blue colour and the temperature is warm enough to be pleasant but not so hot you cannot do a few laps for exercise. Other features of the resort included a steam cave, ice bath, meditation and crystal caves and a garra ruff doctor fish pool.
Wining and dining options at the retreat are less fantastic, however this is not a problem as there are plenty of other cheaper and better options outside the hotel. Within the retreat there is Jeff’s Cellar, which is a wine and cocktail bar inside a limestone cave. Whilst there is the novelty of drinking inside a cave the reality is less pleasant because a cave is damp, musty smelling and has a constant drip-drip-drip sound going on. The main restaurant The Banjaran is called Pomelo and the menu is heavily geared towards Western tastes and it is pricey. Breakfast was included as part of our package and was served here. Surprisingly we thoroughly enjoyed a local dish called roti canai dish each morning. Roti canai is an Indian-influenced recipe that consists of flaky fried flatbread. It came served piping hot with small pots of vegetable and chicken curry on the side for dipping. Aside from the included breakfast there is no other reason to eat at this restaurant.
Limestone Cave Temples
The unique feature of Ipoh is its hilly landscape and several limestone hills have been used to create more than 30 Chinese Buddhist cave temples in the area. The biggest and most well-known of these is Sam Poh Tong. According to legend, the cave was discovered in 1890 by a monk from China who was passing through Ipoh and decided to make it his home and a place for meditation. He remained there for 20 years until his death.
I was disappointed when we visited Sam Poh Tong as it seemed derelict and run down. Paint on the buildings exterior was peeling and inside the temple was dusty with collections of junk piled up in various dark corners. We had read there was a 246 step viewpoint here but many parts of the temple were closed and we could not find it. Instead we met with some stray barking dogs when we wandered further afield. The highlight of our visit was the turtle sanctuary at the back of the temple that homes over 30 small to large turtles, which visitors can feed with tomatoes.
The second cave temple we visited, Kek Lok Tong was much more impressive and been used as a place of worship since 1920. You need to ascend a large marble staircase before entering the massive cave that occupies 12 acres. Inside there are several statues of Buddha and various Chinese deities and some miniature items of worship. At the back, the temple looks out onto a beautifully landscaped garden with two lakes that is pleasant to go for a run or walk and features the longest reflexology footpath in Ipoh.
Ipoh Old Town
The city centre also known as the Old Town of Ipoh is easy to navigate by foot and is very charming with its colonial era buildings and shophouses, many of which are decorated with modern street art. One of the most distinct wall murals depicts an old woman in a kitchen making beverages on Jalan Bijeh Timah, which was commissioned by Home Soy and painted by local school children. The city was founded on the tin mining industry, which began to decline from the late 20th century. More recently Ipoh has undergone a tourism boom and there is an interesting contrast of old-school kopitiams (coffeehouses) and hipster bars.
Ipoh is very proud to be the birthplace of white coffee in the region. Old Town White Coffee is a popular kopitiam chain with over 200 stores in Asia that originated in Ipoh and the original coffeehouse is decorated with the iconic artwork Old Uncle with Coffee Cup by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. However we decided to visit at the second most famous coffeehouse instead, Lim Ko Pi on 10 Jalan Sultan Iskandar. The interior is super cosy with banquet seating and an open kitchen and bar area so you can see the staff at work. I ordered pork and mushroom noodles for lunch, which were a generous serving and rich in flavour. Whilst the touristy thing would have been to order a coffee, a finished off my meal with a cup of hot milo which is surprisingly popular in these parts.
For architect lovers, Ipoh is the kind of city you don’t need an agenda and you can enjoy simply by strolling around. Wandering down Concubine Lane, a small uneven alleyway of old colonial terraced houses is such an example. The alley was first established in 1908 as a place for wealthy British officials to keep their mistresses however after Malaysia gained its independence in 1957 the area became abandoned. Today, despite extensive restoration, the lane has an eery feel to it. These beautiful old buildings have become overrun with plants and some look desolate and empty whilst others have been converted into trendy eateries and souvenir shops.
The magnificent Birch Memorial Clock Tower is also worth a visit for the bizarre twist of faith with which it is now regarded by locals. The tower was erected in 1909 in memory of James WW Birch, Perak’s first British Resident. Birch was murdered in 1875 at Pasir Salak by local Malay chiefs and the road on which the clock tower stands is renamed after one of his murderers. Today his killers are considered nationalists whilst Birch is remembered for his disregard of local customs. The friezes on the clock tower are quite beautiful and show Moses, Buddha, Shakespeare and Charles Darwin in a study of civilisation.
There are many stunning mosques in Ipoh and the one that most caught my eye was the Padang Badar Mosque near the Ipoh Padang (which is field in Malay) and private members club, which is ornately decorated with crisp, deep green trim against its white facade.
My favourite meal in Ipoh was from a local hawker centre (food court) and was translated in English as Fried Silver Needle Noodles although I am told a more accurate translation from Chinese would be Mouse Noodles. These were super thick rice noodles, which kind of look like mice, and were stir fried with soy sauce, bean shoots, egg and chicken. I am a hardcore rice noodle fan and these noodles really hit the spot, I would love to discover where I can also find them in Singapore.
Lost World of Tambun
The Lost World of Tambun is a huge theme park in Ipoh that attracts scores of tourists and families. For those staying at The Banjaran retreat, entry is free and you can access the theme park through the hotel’s jungle walk accompanied by a guide at 11am and 2pm everyday. The size and spectacle of the park is impressive and it is home to many wild and interesting animals including tigers, snakes, racoons, monkeys, deer, llama, giraffes and elephants some of which visitors are able to feed. It is also a water theme park with many pools, slide, rides, waterfalls and hot pools to have fun or chill out in. We had fun on the Adventure River in which we floated around own a big blow up boat through manufactured waves and waterfalls around the park. However this place is mostly for children and we would not have gone out of our way to go here if it had not been a free option to check out through our hotel.
Hiking and Night Market in Menglembu
Hiking up Kledang Hill is the best way to enjoy the views of Ipoh. Whilst we did this during the day, it is advisable to do so in the early evening when temperatures are cooler and you can watch the sunset and see the city lights. Kledang Hill is 800 metres tall and in the Menglembu district of Ipoh. The walk is well paved and twines all around the hill at a steady incline, although there are a few steep staircases during the hike for those who wish to take a shortcut. The total time to complete the hike can take anywhere between 1 hour and 4 hours. The level of hike is fairly easy and there are plenty of resting points along the way, however it might be difficult for those who are not used to the humidity and heat. Because this is jungle area do expect to see monkeys here and be careful not to feed them as they can become aggressive if they see food.
Every Saturday night at Menglembu there is the night market, which you can visit after your hike. On the particular Saturday we went it was raining, so the usual venue had shifted to Pusat Makanan Sun Place, a massive hawker centre on 28 Lorong Kledang Timur 15, Taman Gelombang, 31450 Menglembu. This place was good fun and a chance to let down our hair. Outside there were stalls frying up local snacks and kebabs. Inside there were over 20 different food shops serving Chinese and Malaysian foods. However most people had come for the entertainment and were sitting facing a big stage where a sort of Chinese version of X Factor seemed to be happening. Different singers clad in shiny lycra with hats and props took to the stage to sing their guts out amid loud cheers from the audience. Everyone had ice buckets full of beers on their tables and people were smoking, drinking and generally having a good time. As I am not a beer drinker, I had asked the waiter for another beverage and he recommended I try a special Asian dessert. I was horrified when it arrived as it was a scary mass of shaved iced, cream corn, jelly and some sort of dark coloured power.
We packed a lot into our long weekend in Ipoh. This is a truly great city to chill out for a couple of days and enjoy a combination of good food, city sights and beautiful nature.