The former tin mining town of Ipoh is situated 200 km north of Kuala Lumpur. So theoretically, this isn’t a blog entry about KL. But the former’s limestone hills, which skirt around the city for 20km in both north and south directions, have been immortalised in author Tash Aw’s Booker Prize-nominated “The Harmony Silk Factory” and are, undeniably, worth mentioning.
In his book, Aw describes these very hills as a hide-out location. Indeed, according to Ipoh legend, the ancient caves were often used as a sanctuary by locals against the occupying Japanese army during the Second World War.
These days, much of the limestone has been used to generate cement (which along with tin) has been the city’s main commercial enterprise. In recent years, much of the limestone has been levelled, creating gaping holes in the hill range that surround the Kinta valley, where Ipoh is situated.
Besides mineral resources, the fourth largest city in Malaysia is home to over a million people including former Bond girl and international kung fu sensation, Michelle Yeoh, and has been renowned for both its cuisine (Cantonese-style flat noodles, bean sprouts and succulent chicken) and temple caves (both Buddhist and Hindu).
Incidentally, a 10-minute drive from Yeoh’s residence (when she is in town) is Kek Lok Tong or the Cave of Eternal Happiness, situated at the fringe of a housing estate.
Here, towering statues of golden bodhisattvas sit in repose alongside thousand-year old stalagmites and stalactites. There isn’t too much development, unlike in perhaps Hong Kong or Singapore, where the commercial viability of the location would have resulted in a cable car-equipped theme park or two.
The cave temple, which one reaches by ascending a flight of stairs, is, thankfully, a destination without the usual tourist paraphernalia. There is no gift shop or fast food restaurant nearby. There aren’t busloads of tourists, either.
What Kek Lok Tong has instead is an amazing view of the surrounding limestone hills, which is best appreciated during the morning accompanied by a fresh breeze and the sight of senior citizens practising their daily round of tai chi. One shares the sense of tranquillity with Maitreya, the laughing Buddha of the future, whose giant rotund golden figure looks out to his lotus pond domain below.
The Cave of Eternal Happiness is situated close to the North-South highway, which links Ipoh (take the Simpang Pulai exit and be prepared with a good map) with the north of Malaysia. It makes for a perfect detour for an hour or two. By doing so, at least you’ll get there before the tourists arrive.