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Ipoh, Malaysia: Discovering hot springs on a short break from Singapore

By: Shamus Sillar

If you’re considering where in Malaysia to go for a resort holiday, Ipoh, the capital city of Perak State, probably won’t be the first destination to spring to mind. Langkawi, Penang, Malacca, Tioman and Kota Kinabalu are much more likely to get a mention. (Perhaps Ipoh should start marketing itself as iPoh?)

Fair enough. Although it’s Malaysia’s sixth-largest city, with 750,000 people, Ipoh is a mellow place. Granted, the streets are exceptionally neat and tidy, hinting at a welcome degree of civic pride, and the locals are justifiably proud of their white-bean coffee and hawker dishes – bean sprout chicken being the most famous. After that, though, the well of attractions runs relatively dry.

At least, that’s what I thought until I stumbled on The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat , a luxury spa resort whose recent slew of awards shows that it’s good enough to go toe to toe with the likes of Aman and Banyan Tree. Here are some of the highlights of a three-day stay.

The Cellar

Ipoh, Malaysia
Wines in Jeff’s Cellar2

 

Are my priorities wrong? Am I a bad person? I’m beginning my roundup of the best features of The Banjaran, a natural wellness retreat that promotes healthy living, with a profile of its bar.

Stay with me, though, because this is a really cool bar – definitely one of Asia’s quirkiest, and perhaps one of its best. Called Jeff’s Cellar (after Banjaran boss Dr Jeffrey Cheah, reportedly Malaysia’s 18th-wealthiest person), this is a vast natural cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites that has been tastefully filled with timber dining platforms and moody lighting – not to mention rows and rows of dusty bottles of Bordeaux and Grange. Some of the more expensive bottles are off the menu because they form part of Dr Cheah’s personal collection.

Ipoh, Malaysia
Duck steak at The Pomelo restaurant2

 

Nearly all meals at The Banjaran are taken at The Pomelo restaurant, helmed by French-born chef Abdelhak Bourenane. For a special treat, though, you can arrange for your dinner to be served in Jeff’s Cellar. I highly recommend it. Aside from the incredible surrounds (and the booze), the food is excellent. On the morning before our particular feast, Abdelhak took us through Ipoh’s markets, making wisecracks with the seafood and vegetable vendors. In the evening, he served light but complex dishes including a eggshell filled with a warm milk of cauliflower tapenade and smoked salmon, and an incredible dish of black tofu topped by a truffle reduction, a parmesan crisp and a drizzle of sage jus. The emphasis is on fresh, local and – wherever possible – organic ingredients.

The Surrounds
While they’re not quite as dramatic as the famous karst landscapes of Guilin in China, the semicircle of limestone hills that surround Ipoh are still impressive. And, wouldn’t you know it, The Banjaran is located pretty much in the middle of them. The resort sits in a steep valley, almost completely surrounded by plunging, jungle-clad cliffs. The effect is that you really do feel like you’re in an exotic hideaway, rather than a few kilometres from a middle-sized Malaysian city.

The only drawback of the almost-vertical hills is that they’re not conducive to walking or exploring. Considering the pleasures of The Banjaran’s heated mineral springs (see below), it barely matters.

In any case, there is one walk you can do: a 25-minute stroll through monkey-laden jungle to the adjoining valley, where you’ll find Ipoh’s popular amusement park, Lost World of Tambun. There’s a side gate to the park here that allows guests of The Banjaran their own private access. (Bear in mind that children under 12 aren’t allowed to stay at the resort, so if you’re thinking of bringing your young ones to the theme park, you’ll need to source alternative accommodation in Ipoh.)

The Springs

The jewel in the crown of The Banjaran is its steady supply of natural geothermal water that billows up from the base of the surrounding hills. Every day, three million litres of the stuff bubbles to the surface.

Ipoh, Malaysia
Looking across the water to the Steam Cave

 

In a place as a hot as Malaysia, you might wonder how 65-degree water could be an attraction. But The Banjaran’s collection of natural waterholes, stylish pools and steamy caves are actually a complete treat. And because it’s percolated through rock, the water is full of minerals, dissolved ions and other goodies, so it’s fantastic for soothing muscles and joints that might be aching from the aforementioned 25-minute jungle walk. (I ache easily.)

The best place to sample the hot springs is in the four Jacuzzi-style dipping pools on the edge of the main lake that the resort is built around. A chalkboard next to each pool provides a daily update of its temperature – this can range from the mid-30s to the high 40s. You can regulate the heat – not much, but enough – by turning on the overhead rain-shower of cold spring water.

If you prefer to turn lobster-red in private, each of the Banjaran’s 25 villas (these are enormous, by the way – the Garden Villas measure almost 3,000 square feet, with huge courtyards and private pools) has its own personal supply of spring water piped in to an open-air recessed tub.

The Spa

With so much restorative hot water around, it’s no surprise that The Banjaran is serious about good health. The resort’s ginormous Spa & Wellness Centre offers more than 40 types of holistic therapies, incorporating Ayurvedic, TCM and Malay treatments, colonic irrigation, reiki and energy healing, reflexology, organic facials and more. You can book all kinds of programmes, from a short burst of two days to a whopping three weeks.

The ultra-friendly Health & Wellness Manager, Dr Santhosh, is on hand to give personal consultations – you can choose from six types of tailored consultation, including Naturopathic, Fitness and Nutrition.

Ipoh, Malaysia
Stone tub at the spa

It was also the good doctor who led my breathing and meditation class in the resort’s crystal-studded cave and politely hid his alarm at my inflexibility during an early morning yoga session beside the main hot-spring lake.

That’s right: I did a yoga class – for only the second time in my life. I loved it, too, no only because of the excellent instruction and the unique surrounds, but because it atoned for the previous evening’s indulgences in Jeff’s Cellar. Well, mostly.

A hint of historyJust beyond the resort’s Steam Cave is a narrow set of steps leading up into the cliff. Climb for a few minutes and you’ll arrive at a small platform beneath a rocky overhang that offers a great overhead view of the resort. Look a few metres to your left and you’ll see a group of markings on the cliff wall that could be mistaken for recent graffiti. In fact, these are Japanese characters dating to the occupation of Ipoh in the 1940s. It’s thought that the valley where The Banjaran now stands may have appealed to Japanese soldiers because the hot springs reminded them of the beloved onsen of their home country.

Getting There


The Banjaran is a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur but you’re much better off flying there direct from Singapore on Firefly. Firefly flies twice daily between Singapore and Ipoh, departing Changi at 9.40am and 2.30pm (flying time: 90 minutes). The resort is 15 minutes from Ipoh’s airport.

For more information, call +60 5 210 7777 or email reservation@thebanjaran.com.

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