Close to the hometown of my boyfriend’s mum, there are a couple of limestone caves that I always wanted to explore. We never really got around to do it until Pierre decided one afternoon to surprise me by booking an advanced level cave exploration tour for the Gua Tempurung (= Coconut Shell Cave), which is assumed to be the largest cave on the peninsular Malaysia. The Gua Tempurung stretches for 4.5 km under the earth and contains an 1.6 km long underground river that you need to swim through in order to get out.
Exploring Gua Tempurung was a great adventure that involved a lot of climbing, sliding, swimming and scrambeling around in the dark where spiders, snakes, leeches and centipedes were hidden in every corner. It was great fun! The inside of the cave is really like a different world in itself and I am really glad that we got to experience this adventure.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing the full adventure tour, it is also possible to just view some of the easily accessible caverns using a walkway that was constructed in the first parts of the caves for tourists. The Alam Cavern is already very impressive as it is 75m high, which is an enormous space that you can walk down in a staircase that gave me a bit of vertigo, even though I am usually comfortable with heights. There are beautiful stone formations and giant stalactites that are illuminated in the show caves. They are well worth looking at.
How do I get to Gua Tempurung?
The Gua Temperung is part of a limestone mountain called Gunung Tempurung that is located near the village Gopeng in Perak. If you are coming from Ipoh, you can reach it easily by car, using google maps. Or you can take the train from Ipoh/Kuala Lumpur to Gopeng and then take a Grab to get to the cave.
How much is a tour in Gua Tempurung?
There are different tour packages for the Gua Tempurung from different tour companies with various difficulty ratings. We went for the most advanced tour for 50RM for me (foreigner price) and 22RM (local price) for my boyfriend who is Malaysian.*
The easy tour, where you just see the first caverns via walkway are as cheap as 20RM per adult foreigner or 8RM for an adult local.
*You will find the price differences for foreigners and locals everywhere in Malaysia, it is not intended to be racist, people just assume that foreigners are richer because most currencies from abroad are stronger than the ringgit, which is true in most cases. So I get why they do it, even though it might seem unfair and racist at first glance.
The advanced tour is supposed to take 3hours and 30 minutes, but in our case it ended up taking more than six hours, because some people were too scared to continue in some of the more difficult spots and blocked the way for everyone else and some had to be escorted back out, so we had to wait with one of the guides in a small cavern until the other guide came back. So make sure you have plenty of time.
The easy tour takes 40 minutes to see all caverns with a walkway but can be completed faster, depending on how long you want to stay and look around.
The guides will speak a little bit of English, but since most people who do these tours are locals, all the instructions will be in Malay. It was no big problem though, I only speak a little bit of Bahasa, but could follow the instructions easily and when I could not understand something, either Pierre or one of the guides would repeat it in English for me when I asked. So no need to worry too much about that.
What gear do I need for the advanced tour?
You will need a helmet, headlight or flashlight, climbing gloves, sturdy waterproof shoes and sturdy old pants that you don’t mind throwing away afterwards. My jeans got completely destroyed during the tour while sliding down slopes and getting ripped on the stone edges and dyed brown by mud and bat droppings.
A helmet you can borrow at the entrance of Gua Tempurung, but if you have your own, I recommend bringing it because those helmets are passed on from tour to tour and you receive them soaked in the sweat of the person who went before you.
If you do the wet tour, make sure to also bring a towel and dry change of clothes as you will get submerged in the river completely at some points. I would also wear long socks because there were some leeches. Not too many though, don’t worry.
If you want to take pictures, make sure to take a waterproof bag that you can put your phone or camera in while swimming through the river. Keep your baggage as small as possible and make sure that you can attach it to yourself so you have your hands free to climb. You will have to squeeze through some very narrow spaces and holes where people with bagpacks got stuck occasionally. Best is a fanny pack or small pouch.
I took my mini bagpack from Decathlon with a waterproof pouch inside which worked well. It was small enough that I could squeeze through the holes with it on my back while climbing down. Pierre who is bigger than me and was wearing a normal backpack always had to take it off and throw it to me to be able to fit through the tighter tunnels. And as you need to swim through the river at the end, definitely have a waterproof pouch or at least plastic bag tightly closed around your electronics as your stuff will get soaked.
Also make sure to bring plenty of water and eat enough before you go, as you will get very thirsty and hungry after climbing for hours and it is not allowed to bring food into the caves. Only at the entrance you can get some warm food at the food stalls before and after you go.
What to expect on the advanced caving tour:
- very tight spaces, have to slip through holes, normal backpack does not fit trough
- you have to slide down slippery but scratchy slides: first one 4 meters long, after that they are 9m and longer without seeing the end in the darkness
- you have to climb up steep slippery wall without ropes or any kind of security
- there are only two guides for group of 21 people
- there will be many stops to wait for the less brave people to master the obstacles
- your will clothes get realllly dirty, because you walk, slide over and crawl on all fours through the mud and bat droppings
- you also get really wet, first from sweat and condensation and later from river water and water dripping from stalactites on the ceiling
- have to walk through the river at various depths for about 1 hour, sometimes crawling through the water submerged until your neck with the ceiling directly over your head while you have to evade many big stalactites that hang from the ceiling
- amazing flowstone and stalactites
- some very high ceilings and steep drops (be not afraid of heights) very tight spaces and at one point having to squeeze through hole in the ground, dropping into river below
- sometimes very hot, so you can see steam in the air
- guide makes you yell ho-ho he-he at every stop
- there is one stop where you get outside after first 3 hours to take a break in the sunlight, after that another 2-3 hours climbing down and then walking/swimming through the river until the exit
- some leeches near the water, but not many
- you will see bats, spiders and centipedes
- you will have a lot of fun and be able to challenge some fears of yours
- you will see things that hardly any other humans have seen
- once in a lifetime experience that you will remember forever
My Impressions from under the Earth
Getting so deep inside a big cave (I had only seen the dark caves in the Batu Caves and an open cave in Vietnam so far) was a completely new experience for me. The sheer size of some of the caverns where you could see neither bottom or top was mind-blowing! The diverse shapes and sometimes glittering colors of the stalactites (some looked like dragon heads) and other rock formations were amazing! It was amazing to imagine how much time it must have taken for so many huge stalactites to form. Some big pieces from the ceiling had crashed down in some places – it was scary to think you could be hit by so much weight and stunning to realize how heavy and big some of these structures hanging above you are up close. The stalactites all have different surfaces: some spotted, some smooth, some are droplets, some are already pillars.
When you walk around them there are seemingly so many ways to choose from, but most are dead ends where they grow too tight to get through. Walking and climbing around in total darkness with no light for hours except the little circles of the flashlights was eerie, yet enlightening in the sense that you realize how much you rely on your eyes and how some creatures can live their lives without ever seeing anything like we do. I wonder what the world looks like through their senses and how much we miss out on relying always on our eyes to perceive the world.
At some spots it felt like I could feel the weight of the mountain over my head and felt a bit claustrophobic but also amazed at the same time. The stagnant air everywhere is extremely humid, sometimes hot, sometimes cool (near the river) but not moving at all, except in the two wind tunnels.
There were many bats on the ceiling that we had to take care not to startle with our lights and it was creepy to think there are millions of animals hanging over our heads that we can hear and smell but not see and that might rush on us if somebody accidentally or out of curiosity shines their light at them. But it was interesting just to listen to their sounds and imagine how they feel at home in this place.
In the beginning there is a looong way leading down the stairs of a giant cavern that was so deep that it unsettled me a little and made my stomach flutter when I Iooked down into the seemingly endless abyss. My legs were shaking a bit when I reached the bottom but it was fun in a weird way, like a roller coaster. There were many kinds of rock embedded in the walls, like glittering flowstone and open cracks in the layers of rock that looked bizarre.
The salt of the rock was burning on my fingers where the skin was scratched open while climbing. Everything felt wet and slippery, muddy and grimy but soon you don’t care anymore, because you are wet and muddy all over anyway and luckily you cannot see anything too clearly in the dark.
There were big, creepy spiders between the rocks that can bite painfully and have long clawlike legs, so I was cautious when I touched spider webs. Pi and I competed to go first at every challenge which makes the experience more exciting as you are the first person to slide down a long slope and see how long the fall will be and what awaits you in the pitchblack at the bottom. It actually helps to keep your courage up to just decide to always go first and then do it every time. The longer you wait and hear other people scream and hesitate before you, the more nervous you get yourself, I guess. We also felt more courageous because the others who saw us volunteer to go first through a difficult spot got inspired by us leading, so we wanted to continue to set a brave example.
The smooth, white, shiny marble rocks in the river were beautiful and felt nice to touch. Crossing the river while being enclosed by walls and only having enough room filled with air to keep your head above the water was intimidating, especially knowing that a sudden rainfall outside could make the water rise unexpectedly. But when you come out alive at the end you feel ecstatic that you dared to do it. How many people can say they swam through a river underground around stalactites in the dark? How many people have seen and felt the things you experienced deep under the earth?
It was an amazing challenge! I am not sure if I would do it again, but I am glad that I did it and I recommend anybody to experience this at least once in their life. Exploring Gua Tempurung is a special adventure that shows you a part of the world that you cannot easily see otherwise. I felt that my horizon of imagination was expanded by this experience and I wish I could have taken more pictures or videos down there to remember every detail. But seeing was not the most important thing: It was the combination of all those feelings and sensations that made this tour so interesting and memorable. If you can, do it. Then you will know what I mean!