The Sam Poh Tong cave temple is located at Gunung Rapat on the southern edge of Ipoh. This limestone hill has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese as there is a proliferation of cave temples in the vicinity.
According to to Lonely Planet, Sam Poh Tong is ranked as the 18th best thing to do in Ipoh out of a total of 33.
That does not sound very encouraging until you realise that most of the other 32 things to do on that list are eating at restaurants – Malaysia is a food-obsessed country!
So when the restaurants are excluded, Sam Poh Tong does score quite highly but still behind the Perak Tong, Ipoh’s other famous cave temple.
This assessment is fair as Perak Tong has the more interesting cave interior and provides a good view of the city, but then Sam Poh Tong has better gardens.
If you only have time to visit one then Perak Tong it is. But Sam Poh Tong has other interesting cave temples right next door so you can kill two or more birds with one stone if cave temples pique your interest.
History of Sam Poh Tong
The story goes that the cave was discovered by a Buddhist monk from China and that he lived there until his death 20 years later. Construction of the temple is said to date from 1912 although the current façade was added in 1950.
Sam Poh Tong can be translated as the Cave of Triple Gems but there does not appear to be any explanation of what or where these gems are. Perhaps it is a reference to Buddhist meditation techniques rather than actual jewels.
It is claimed to be the biggest cave temple in Malaysia, but this seems doubtful when compared with Batu Caves.
In addition to the Buddhist cave temple, the temple’s compound includes a crematorium and a columbarium. Sam Poh Tong’s columbarium looks like a 4-storey blue coloured apartment block.
This area becomes packed during the Ching Ming period when relatives pay respects to their ancestors, leaving food and burning paper replicas of items which are of use to the dead in the next world such as paper money, cars, iPads, Louis Vuitton bags and so on.
In front of the temple is a very attractively landscaped garden designed around a large fish pond. Islands in the pond are embellished with artificial rock formations shaped to resemble the Huang Shan mountains of China.
Japanese stone lanterns and pagodas add to the beauty of the garden. An information board says that it was awarded the best landscaped garden in Malaysia in 1993. The garden still seems to be well looked after.
Inside the cave temple
The main altar area is smaller than you would expected and is filled with statues of Buddha and other deities.
A staircase leads up to an upper level where there are a few more statues in display cases. Behind a padlocked gate some steps lead up the hillside but the path seems abandoned and overgrown.
Beyond the altar is a passage way leading out to a secluded garden containing the “tortoise pond” and an ornate pagoda building with red roof tiles.
The pond is a disappointment – a fenced-off pool of vivid dark green water surrounded by an assortment of turtles sitting on a drab brick pavement.
When volunteers from the Turtle Conservation Centre conducted an inventory in 2009 they counted 265 turtles of five different species, all native to Malaysia except for the red-eared slider.
The volunteers concluded that the water is changed irregularly and that the living conditions are rather poor.
You can purchase a bunch of kangkung (swamp spinach) from a vendor at the entrance and throw pieces over the fence in the direction of the turtles. They will initially seem lazy but will eventually gobble down the food.
The pagoda building is reminiscent of Buddhist temples in Japan but it is fenced off and padlocked. The whole area is completely encircled by towering cliffs and there is no exit other than the passageway back into the cave temple.
It is a silent and forlorn place, not helped by the fact that the only sounds you hear are the turtles doing belly-flops into the pond and the abundant mosquitoes buzzing near your ears.
How to get to Sam Poh Tong
The temple is clearly marked on all the interactive maps of Ipoh. A number of other cave temples are located right next to it including Nam Tian Tong and Ling Sen Tong.
These are well worth visiting. There is no entrance charge at any of these cave temples but it is customary to drop some money in the donation boxes.
From central Ipoh head south on Jalan Gopeng (Federal Route 1) towards Simpang Pulai. You will see the colourfully decorated temples on your left at the foot of Gunung Rapat hill.
Access to the cave temples is via a slip road directly behind the pomelo stalls opposite Hillcity Hotel.
This article first appeared in malaysia-traveller.com