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Where is Ipoh? The capital of the state of Perak is located halfway between the resort island of Penang and Kuala Lumpur. From the Malaysian capital city, it takes about two hours to drive to Ipoh.

Steps to pagoda facades of Perak Tong Cave Temple
Steps to pagoda facades of Perak Tong Cave Temple
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Perak means "silver" in Malay, but it is a misnomer. Malaysia's northwestern state should be called "tin," because it was this silvery metal that was mined here until 1980. It was also tin that led to a large influx of Chinese people and the Buddhist legacy that we discovered here.

Cave temples

Our Chinese guide, Yap Hock Kee, suggested that we break our drive from Kuala Lumpur to Penang to see some cave temples. In Gunung Tasek, about four miles (six kilometers) north of Ipoh, Yap turned the car into an architectural fantasyland nestled into a forested limestone outcrop.

Perak Tong (Cave) Temple and its grounds are 12 acres (five hectares) in size. Willow trees gracefully lined the driveway. White stone railings framed lotus ponds and yellow tiled roofs crowned multi-level pagodas.

Golden statue of Buddha Sakyamuni with altar and wall paintings in Perak Tong Cave Temple
Golden statue of Buddha Sakyamuni with altar and wall paintings in Perak Tong Cave Temple
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The pagodas, we learned, were only facades. As soon as we stepped inside, we found ourselves in a large cavern, considerably cooler than the temperature outside.

There is no admission fee to Perak Tong, but donations are accepted. A massive bell, believed to be more than a century old, resonated throughout the temple whenever someone made a donation.

Buddha statues

Our eyes were immediately drawn toward a 42-foot (12.8-meter)-high golden statue. "It's Buddha Sakyamuni," said Yap. "There are 40 statues of Buddha in this cave."

We were surprised to see a golden swastika symbol (a cross with bent arms) below several statues. "It's an ancient Buddhist symbol meaning eternity and goodness," explained Yap. Thousands of years later, Nazi Germany used it as an emblem with a completely different meaning.

Adjacent chambers housed other deities, including one which Yap identified as the Goddess of Mercy. Some worshipers bought joss sticks and knelt in front of the statues, while others lit candles that flickered warmly on the jagged cave walls.

Wall painting and imperial guards
Wall painting and imperial guards
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"The temple was developed by Chong Sen Yee, a Buddhist priest from China, in 1926," explained Yap. "When he was called to nirvana in 1980, his eldest son, Chong Yin Chat, continued his work."

Wall murals

Yin Chat was a noted calligrapher. He invited eminent artists from China, Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia to grace the cave's walls with their masterpieces.

The limestone walls come to life with murals, beings and calligraphy, recounting ancient legends and folk stories. "These imperial door guards kill evil spirits before they can enter," said Yap, pointing to four fearsome warriors.

Laughing Buddha

We approached a white tiger, painted so that the contours of the cave added form to its sinuous body. "We worship the white tiger in the Chinese calendar month of March and offer it meat and noodles to get rid of bad luck," explained Yap. "Unlucky people can also stick paper effigies of themselves on the wall and hit them with a shoe to drive bad spirits away."

Laughing Buddha statue
Laughing Buddha statue
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Deeper in the cave, a large Laughing Buddha with a perpetual smile and a well-rounded abdomen guarded the entrance to a flight of steps that spiraled almost to the peak of the hill.

The 385-step climb was well worth the effort, because the cave opened up to reveal a panoramic view of valleys and forested hillsides.

Sam Poh Tong cave temple

"Come," urged Yap. "I want to show you Sam Poh Tong, the biggest Buddhist temple in Ipoh." Located in Gunung Rapat, it is three miles (five kilometers) south of Ipoh.

While its exterior was not as elaborate as the Perak Cave Temple, its interior offered impressive works of art and faith, including statues of Buddha mingling with natural stalactites and stalagmites.

Outdoors, there is a pond where you can feed vegetables to the tortoises, traditional Chinese symbols of longevity. There is also a wishing well, for those seeking a better fortune, and a vegetarian restaurant serving modestly priced meals.


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