I don’t like the expression ‘best kept secret.’ But if there’s one such thing, you’ll find it here. Ignored by travel books and bloggers, Gopeng is where Malaysians go Kampung. Situated about 2 hours drive from KL - 20 kilometres before Ipoh - it’s the ideal place for rafting, caving and chilling.
Ulu River Lounge - Welcome to Eden
When we drive up the porch of Gopeng’s Ulu River Lodge, we can only say one word: WOW! The place is a set of pavilions, wooden Suria (mosque) and restaurant on stilts along the Kampar river. Our comfy, double room sits right on the river’s edge. Palm trees are covering the surrounding hills. There’s nothing but green. Hello Paradise!
Meet the Rafflesia
Gopeng is one of the rare places in Peninsular Malaysia where you can see the Rafflesia. The oversized flower that seems to come out of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’. The leathery, 5 petalled flower can grow up to 80 centimetres. Contrary to popular belief, the Rafflesia is not a carnivorous plant. Its smell of rotten meat attracts insects that will spread the pollen from male to female flowers. It only blossoms for 3 days, so you’ll need a local guide.
Our Orang Asli (aboriginal) guide looks at us like we’re total poseurs in khaki gear. We sure look overdressed compared to his worn-out t-shirt, too-short-shorts and Kampung Adidas (faux rubber shoes). He immediately storms down the trail. For a guy with a potbelly, he has amazing stamina. It’s drizzling when we speed walk through the jungle. The path is spectacular and we have to wade through rivers. The rain intensifies and it’s a nasty climb up. Soon we’re soaking wet from the rain and the sweat.
Finally, there it is! A Rafflesia, growing on a muddy 45 degree slope. I’m risking my life posing next to it. There’s hardly any light to take a decent picture. All this effort for a bad picture. No time for Instaglam. Heavy rain is now pouring down, turning the path into a mud-fest. We hold on tight to the ropes as we crawl down the slippery hill. But that’s the easy part. We have a bigger enemy: leeches!
These crawlers suck
By the time we reach the van, leeches are everywhere: on our socks, legs, arms … They are even crawling on the van’s floor. I’m trying to smash them but they seem to be made of rubber. We keep hitting and hitting as we drive on curvy roads. Soon we’re facing another dilemma: stop the leeches or stop getting carsick? Leeches? Carsick? We arrive at the lodge, plagued by both. I scrape a fatty, fully nourished vampire off my knee. Another from my arm. No big drama but the little wounds keep bleeding, hours in a row. It’s bloody annoying. We learn a local trick: just tear off one corner of a paper napkin and stick it onto the wound. Works!
All Aboard! - White water rafting
Day Two is all about water sports. We have 2 activities planned: white water rafting and tubing. Rafting on the Kampar river is category 3. In 1.5 hours we’ll float down 7 km, riding through 14 rapids. After a quick safety brief, we hit the water. The air quickly fills with screams and giggles as our flotilla of rafts slides down the rapids. It’s not the Zambezi but the surrounding nature is overwhelming. It’s like we’re floating through a National Geographic documentary. We can hear jungle sounds and see butterflies the size of your hand. We swim in the quite areas and stop for drinks. In the final 100 meters I manage to fall overboard. The water pushes me against every big boulder in the waterbed. If it wasn’t for my water jacket, my ribs would be toast.
Tubing - Drifting on a Donut
After a Malay style buffet, we continue our river journey on tubes. The water level is low so we almost move in slow motion. It takes a bit of time to find the right balance on these floating donuts. I quickly figure out that the paddle is not for speed but steering. What steering? The water keeps pushing me into the bushes. I am getting a hang of it. Until I reach a tiny rapid and the tube slides from under me. BANG! My derrière is smashed against a rock. For the next few weeks, a giant black bruise will remind me that over-confidence can kick you in the A—. What really strikes me is the total silence around us. Gone are the screams and giggles of the rafting. This is the river and us. But not for long. After 40 minutes - unnecessary break included - we reach the end point. Way too soon for a RM 60 trip.
Outside these activities, there’s nothing to do at the Lodge. Except listening to the sound of the water. It feels like we’re in the middle of that beautiful movie 'A river runs through it.' I wish they had some bicycles to scroll through the charming kampung. When electricity comes at 7 pm, we can finally switch on the AC in our room. After a day on the water, I’m quickly drifting off to dreamland.
Gua Tempurung cave - Going underground
It’s our last day and we still have one key activity left: caving! Gua Tempurung is one of the largest limestone caves in Peninsular Malaysia. We are shipped like cattle: on the back of the truck. Now and then we have to dive down. Or risk getting slapped by low hanging trees. The truck quickly fills with laughter.
It’s a festive day and it’s busy-busy-busy inside the cave. The grotto quickly turns into a sauna. We climb a thousand steps up, another thousand down, until we reach the underground river. Normally it’s pitch dark in here. Today it’s disco inferno with hundreds of visitors swinging their flashlights. We are walking bumper to bumper, one endless line of tourists. Narrow passages create bottle necks. The ceiling is so low, we need to dive into the ice-cold water. A helmet is no luxury as I keep scraping my head against low hanging stalactites. It’s better to float on my back - Limbo style - through these narrow tunnels. Hardly 50 minutes later we can see light at the end of the tunnel. I wish our caving trip was a little longer. The nearby cafetaria offers some basic snacks but is infested by flies. I feel like the Lord of the Flies.
We booked a ‘Mix and Match’, full board package with www.riverbug.asia (RM 397.5 /person). We added one extra night (RM 116 /person) and as a couple we had to dig out 2x RM 50 extra for a double room. Total: RM 1126. In retrospective, way too much money. I recommend you stick to a day or weekend trip.
Don't take the package. From 4 activities, 2 are killers (Rafflesia trek, rafting), 2 are fillers (tubing, caving). If you have a car, visit the cave on your own. Much cheaper (RM 15, foreigner: RM 40 / versus RM 60 with Riverbug). The guide adds zero value. Also check rafting with other companies, starting at RM 110.
We’ve spent another fortune renting a car with Europcar in KL. They insisted on writing my secret credit card code on every possible document. This really freaked me out. I had to apply for a new card (RM 50). Better take the bus or Uber.
The road is easy once you reach the highway. The road system around KL is designed by the architect of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Thank goodness for 3 letters: G-P-S. I also made sure my Proton is an automatic. Driving on the left wasn’t that hard. Now and then my wife only had to scream: "Right! Go right!” as I keep forgetting there’s 2 meter of car on the left. There are many toll stations. Buy a Touch ’n Go Card (in 7-11’s) and charge it well. The bill quickly ads up to RM 100.