Bitten by the travel bug and trying to fit the whole family in without over-stretching the ringgit? Why not try free walking trails through the countryside of the Kinta Valley?
While Ipoh is well-known for its gastronomic delights, there is much more to the region than just food - like trails right in our backyard that are known to many locals but explored by few.
One such trail leads to an outdoor museum of sorts that offers neolithic rock art. Haematite drawings more than 3,000 years old can be found at Gua Tambun, a rock shelter located high in the hills of Gunung Panjang, Tambun.
Though we have visited this site a few times over the past 20 years, my friends and I decided to explore it once again recently. Sad to say, signage leading to this ancient wonder is lacking, and the few signboards that exist are not strategically placed. Newcomers may be baffled as one has to bypass a polo pitch and an army camp before reaching the foot of the site.
Dainty, strikingly coloured flowers grow wild along the 1km path in. There is even a soundtrack to accompany the walk: the sounds of birds and the chattering of primates in the trees. A shallow creek teeming with tiny fishes swimming among the reeds flows through this area too.
At the base of the limestone massif of Gunung Panjang is a steep 50m concrete staircase leading to the rock shelter. Ascend the narrow stairs and be rewarded by a panoramic view of the Kinta Valley first. And then, high on the cliff face, are the haematite paintings depicting the lifestyle of the valley's early dwellers. Illustrations of dugongs, tapirs, deer, wild boar, humans and geometric designs can be spotted. Sea shells are scattered about and buried along the ledge too.
Strolling in the orchard of Paradise Valley.
Photo: Yoon Lai Woon
Due to natural deterioration, though, these paintings are starting to fade and may disappear from history completely. Uncontrolled vandalism is also taking its toll with some of the drawings already obscured by graffiti.
What's next? We choose the enchanting hills of Gunung Rapat from among the valley's abundant limestone hills and caves as our next destination.
A little way from the hills, we stumble upon a lovely mushroom farm-cum-homestay at Taman Panorama Rapat Indah.
The cosy chalets at the Ever Fresh Mushroom homestay.
Photo: Yoon Lai Woon
Jimmy Chee, the manager of Ever Fresh Mushroom Nature Homestay (EFM), invites us to tour his place. On this 2ha farm are an orchard, a fishing pond, mushroom farm, stables and nine clean and cosy chalets.
It's amazing that this serene place is only a stone's throw from Ipoh city's famous Kek Lok Tong Temple. A kopitiam offering scrumptious food is also within walking distance. Behind the farm is a magnificent view of a limestone hill soaring up into the clear blue sky.
It's also a great place for bird watching - we even spot a pair of falcons gliding through the air!
EFM offers an educational mushroom tour too. Jimmy, who attends mushroom cultivation courses at Universiti Malaya, has 18 years of experience in this field. He prepares his own tissue cultures and cultivates white and grey oyster mushrooms (Pleurotis species) for the market. Lustrous, reddish-brown lingzhi (genus Ganoderma) are grown as a showcase for those who are interested.
After that, it's "Paradise Valley here we come!"
"Eh, I thought only Concubine Lane existed in Ipoh but Paradise Valley as well? Ipoh must be awesome!" comments my son Ben, setting us laughing as we make our way to a hidden valley half an hour from EFM. Do seek permission from the farmers before venturing in, though.
Silhouette of cave entrance, Paradise Valley.
Photo: Yoon Lai Woon
Surrounded by limestone hills, lush vegetation and ponds, Paradise Valley is a place where time has stood still. The clean air is a tonic, and mirror images of steep-sided limestone towers reflected on the ponds' surfaces are mesmerising. Orchards laden with big, aromatic, golden-yellow cempedak (Arto-carpus integer) ready to be harvested are very inviting (but we know better than to give in to temptation!).
Having been informed that mysterious caves are housed in the crevices of the karst landscape here, a few of us decided to do a bit of a recce.
I am 55 years young. So what? A good climb and hike still does wonders for the soul.
After a steep, 25m ascent through dense foliage and over loose rocks, we chance upon a narrow cave opening which leads to a much larger chamber. The floor of this humongous cave is covered with sea shells, seemingly the same type found at Gua Tambun.
Without a torchlight and camera tripod, though, I have to bid farewell to this wonder without taking any photos (and I'm still kicking myself for the oversight!). Still, with a slight breeze caressing my face and the blissful sound of rustling leaves, I feel at peace with the world.