At a Loose End in Ipoh (part IV): Gua Tempurung

By Mariam Mokhtar

Many Ipohites do not realise that one of nature’s wonders, lies at their doorstep. The Gua Tempurung cave complex is a 20-minute drive by car, from Ipoh.

gua tempurungIn June 2010, State chairman for Industry, Investment, Industrial Development and Tourism (IIDT), Hamidah Osman, told the Ipoh Echo that she would nominate Gua Tempurung for designation as a UNESCO “World Heritage Site”. But no one knows the progress of this nomination.

Does Gua Tempurung deserve the status? Should one cave structure be singled out for nomination? Why not nominate the whole network of limestone hills/caves of the Kinta Valley?

Four Types of Tours

Gua Tempurung’s operators have four types of tours ranging from the easy to the challenging. The choice depends on the ability of the group, time constraints and weather conditions.

We were thoroughly pleased with our tour guide whose knowledge of the caves was good, but my foreign friends were unable to understand him. His English was limited.

Apparently, coach loads of Korean and Taiwanese tourists were always accompanied by their own tour guides, who would translate the Gua Tempurung’s guide commentary.

If Hamidah is interested in improving Perak tourism, she should learn from our neighbours. For example, local Balinese tour guides speak several languages fluently. They are enrolled on language courses. Perhaps, their education system is better.

Touring the caves will provide a good workout. Tours “2” onwards, are not for those with weak knees. Our guide would ensure that the slowest person in the group was not left behind.

Guides Not Asked For Feedback

Any criticisms are reserved for the cave management and the state tourism machinery. Our guide said that with three months to go before VPY 2012, he and other tour operators were still waiting for the state’s tourism officers’ plans, for the year ahead.

We were also disappointed to learn that the management rarely asked the guides for feedback. Our guide opined that tours would be of better value, if guides could communicate directly with the tourists.

He welcomed opportunities to improve his English or to enrol in night language classes, if the company was willing to pay for the courses.

Concrete and Metal Walkways Disappointing

Perhaps the greatest disappointment with Gua Tempurung was the presence of concrete and metal walkways, which apparently cost millions of ringgits to make. These detract from the natural beauty of the caves.

Why can’t we learn to leave things alone? At Kellie’s castle, we destroyed the ruins of the folly. Would we even dream of reconstructing the Colosseum or the Parthenon?

Perhaps, if the Perak state authorities were in charge of Stonehenge, they would build concrete and metal walkways in and around the stones, and blast the biggest boulder to create a passage. We have no clue about conservation.

Caves are natural wonders. People should have the experience of clambering over rocks, sliding down rock-faces and walking around boulders. Only the more challenging tours, in the less accessible parts of the caves, offer these.

Clearly demarcated pathways with safety in mind should be made, rather than miles of concrete and metal structures which spoil the caves. Apart from the expense of building, there is also the unnecessary cost of maintenance.

The book “Limestone Hills and Caves of the Kinta Valley” by S.L. Wong, and published by the Malaysian Nature Society gives a good description of Gua Tempurung.

Information Inadequate

There could be unobtrusive notices naming the various caverns, like ‘Lee Meng’s Chamber’, or ‘Uncle Chong’s Molar’. There could be short descriptions for the cave that was believed to store the cache of weapons of the communist guerrillas, or another for cave formations, like the sparkling crystal deposits, or the impressive ‘Golden Flowstone’.

Tin mining was once an activity in the caves and is depicted in the ‘Tin Miner’s Cavern’. People would be fascinated to learn that in 1959, a flash flood trapped miners in ‘The Tombstone’.

Interesting snippets of information make the cave come alive.

Visitor Centre

Outside of the caves, the management could construct a visitor centre consisting of an information room, showing visitors the geological aspects of cave formation, the effect of weathering and rock erosion. Books on caves or limestone outcrops could be sold.

How about building a small-scale model of the Gua Tempurung for schoolchildren to appreciate the wonders of geology and geography? Cultivate their interest in the archaeological aspects of caves.

There is very little information about the flora and fauna commonly attributed to limestone karsts. Nature trails around the vicinity and notices could show the types of trees or ferns, insects, bats and snakes endemic to the area.

Little has been said about the revenue derived from guano collection. Or the caves’ historical significance as dwellings, a communist hideout or treasure store.

Instead, we have a decrepit and tired looking souvenir shop which sells cheap trash from Indonesia and the Philippines. There is nothing to connect these souvenirs with Gua Tempurung.

The approach road is spoilt by a dilapidated go-kart area, to remind us of an abandoned project.

Perakeans Let Down

Last November, Hamidah claimed that Perakeans are the state’s most important assets to ensure VPY 2012’s success.

She said, “Locals are the best tour guides as they know their home-state well. But before they can reach out to tourists, the locals must be groomed to handle tourists.”

The shame is that the state, and the companies it has appointed, have let Perakeans down.

They have not given full, immediate support to the front-line staff whose needs and feedback are rarely acknowledged nor appreciated by the state.

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