The Hills are Alive

MarkLean 29 January 2010 3 comments

KLT 01

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).

KLT 02

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.

KLT 03

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.



Mark’s career in journalism began when he was a magazine intern during a summer break from law school. His first assignment was memorable: the voice recorder didn’t work during the interview with an international DJ. Much scribbling ensued, and thankfully, because DJs are famously known for not saying much, the feature turned out well. From writing about music, Mark expanded his focus to design, fashion, food and travel. In recent years, he has explored the highs and lows of Asia – both luxury and no-star hotels; super restaurants and stall cuisine – and has found the possibilities to be almost limitless. And rather inspiring. A key lesson learned: true luxury is all about being able to make choices in life as well in travels. Currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Mark would still interview the occasional international DJ if given the chance. But he’d make sure a spare voice recorder was readily available.

3 Comments For This Post

  1. Monsicha Hoonsuwan Monsicha Hoonsuwan Says:

    I can’t believe that those stalactites and stalagmites are a thousand years old! Amazing, really. It’s good that this place isn’t swarmed with tourists, I like going where it’s peaceful and not too commercialized. Beautiful places like this should be preserved for those who cherish nature and its ordinary beauty.

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