Perak's cliffs, caves and ancient forests are more than a feast for the eyes. These majestic landscapes demand that you jump in – feet first – to swim, hike, raft, and get marvellously sweaty. For adventures in this Malaysian state, all you need is time and tough hiking boots.
Shaped like a crescent moon, Perak sweeps across the northwestern corner of Peninsular Malaysia. Limestone cliffs are the state’s most unmistakable landmarks, but Perak is a tapestry of mangrove swamps, jungles and beaches, too – terrain so varied that exhilaration (and exhaustion) are practically guaranteed. Here are four adventures to get your pulse racing...
Get off the grid in Royal Belum State Park
The only sound is a rhythmic swish, swish, as our boat glides across Lake Temenggor. We're heading deep into Royal Belum State Park (royalbelum.my), a 117,500-hectare wilderness made even more impassable by its water levels. This jungly swathe of northern Perak, right against the Malaysia-Thailand border, was flooded in 1972 when Temenggor Dam was built. And in this remote nature park, the chances of getting phone signal are roughly the same as spotting the elusive sun bear.
The boat thumps noisily against the wooden gangplank at Belum Eco Resort (belumecoresort.com.my), my island home for the next few nights. While resort staff busy themselves securing the boat, my fellow travellers are already wriggling out of their T-shirts and dive-bombing into the lake. As we bob around in the water, the jungle chorus of whistling blue-rumped parrots and chattering crickets surrounds us.
At daybreak, we gather in walking boots and liberal coatings of mosquito repellent. Boat transportation and a hiking guide are essential in this dense, swampy wilderness. Ours is leading us into the 130-million-year-old rainforest, one of the world’s most ancient. It’s home to tapir, seldom-seen tigers, and rafflesia, one of the largest flowers on the planet. Along slippery trails we spot tiny orchids that cower amid tree roots, while grasshoppers whir past our heads like toy helicopters. Hornbills swoop between branches, their orange beaks easy to spot in the gloom.
Make it happen: Royal Belum is a 170km drive north of Ipoh, Perak's main city (or 150km east of Penang). Daily buses from Ipoh reach gateway town Gerik from where you can get a taxi towards the park. Stays at Belum Eco Resort include boat transfer from Pulau Banting jetty, a 42km drive east of Gerik.
Board a Jeep safari to Kinta Nature Park
‘No other place in the world can claim to have 10 species of hornbills in one location,’ declares Jek Yap with pride. For Jek, a fanatical local birdwatcher, Perak's wildlife is hard to beat. And in contrast to remote Royal Belum, some reserves lie in easy reach of Perak’s cities, like Kinta Nature Park.
Around 20km south of state capital Ipoh, this former tin-mining land is a tangle of low-hanging trees and teeming fish ponds. The park is home to around 130 species of bird, and it's the region’s largest gathering place for herons and egrets.
‘Birds usually show up at dusk and dawn,’ counsels Jek. Despite Jek's advice, dawn has long broken by the time I trundle into the park by 4WD. But hitting the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm hasn’t caused me to miss out: wildlife is abundant here, and much of it is barely troubled by the sounds of the car engine.
I can see grey herons alighting on fence posts, and plump little herons looking improbably weightless as they perch on fine tree branches. Huge monitor lizards dawdle on pathways. I’m poised to photograph a blue-tailed bee eater, but its flash of jade feathers is faster than my camera’s click. Still, it’s a good excuse to lay down my camera and admire the flourishing reserve, distraction-free.
Make it happen: book knowledgeable Ipoh-based guide Mr Raja for a guided 4WD excursion into Kinta Nature Park for RM400 per head (minimum two people). It's also possible to cycle parts of the park.
Experience Gopeng's caves and river rapids
The ceiling of Gua Tempurung yawns above my head. As I hike deeper into the cave, one of the largest in Peninsular Malaysia, every footstep sends echoes bouncing off the walls. Long spindles of limestone reach up from the slippery ground, and stalactites drip from above. Squinting, I can make out other walkers further along the dimly lit trails. They seem microscopic in size, dwarfed by vast folds of limestone.
Hikers with flashing headlamps aren't the only ones to venture into the 4.5km-long cave. In the 1950s, Gua Tempurung was a communist hideout, and soon after served as a Japanese-run prison. But these are mere blips on its geological timeline: the cave is estimated to be up to 400 million years old.
Exploring this dank grotto on foot allows plenty of time to take stock of Gua Tempurung's scale: at its tallest point, it towers 72m high. There are also more claustrophobic challenges to be had, such as wading through chilly chest-height water between cave chambers.
There are waterbound adventures above ground, too. The thrashing Kampar River has turned the town of Gopeng, 7km from the cave, into a miniature watersports hub. Just east of Gopeng's dusty colonial buildings, Nomad Adventure Earth Camp (nomadadventure.com) leads excursions along 22 river rapids. And after a humid hike through the cave, there’s no more invigorating way to cool off.
Make it happen: guided forays into Gua Tempurung range from 40 minutes to four hours long; book well ahead for spelunking. Stay in or near Gopeng for easy access to the river. Nomad Adventure Earth Camp can arrange rafting and waterfall abseiling.
Ascend to Ipoh’s sacred grottoes
Spelunkers weren't the first to enjoy the tranquility of Perak's caves. In the late 19th and early 20th century, hermit monks sought refuge in Perak’s cliffs, meditating atop limestone crags and living in caves. From these spartan beginnings, a few ballooned into large temple complexes.
A notable trio are in easy reach of Ipoh. Gua Kok Look Tong, with ornamental gardens and Buddha statues in its central cave, is the most peaceful, while Sam Poh Tong is much visited for its lucky tortoise pond. But the most interesting ramble is up to Perak Tong, a frescoed cave temple 6km north of Ipoh.
The highest point of this cave complex, reached by steep stone stairs and seemingly endless spiral pathways, overlooks a muddled vista of wild greenery and urban sprawl. I stare into the distance at Ipoh's uniform lines of houses, framed by surrounding trees. Tower blocks strain for attention against the silhouette of Perak's cliffs, while forested hills roll into the distance.
My calves are stinging from the climb, but somehow the view makes me want to plunge straight into my next adventure.
Make it happen: on request, buses from Ipoh to Kuala Kangsar will stop near Gunung Lang, a 3km walk from Perak Tong. Better yet, rent a car from Ipoh (there's plenty of parking within reach of the temple pathway).