It’s no secret that some of the best hotels in the world set within nature are the most difficult to get to—a small price to pay for peace and tranquillity, far from civilisation. So imagine my surprise to find that The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat was not only a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur but also close to the Ipoh town centre. Yet, as we drove through the stone arches, we were immediately closed off from the outside world, ready for three days of repose.
A visionary ahead of his time, accountant-businessman and founder of Sunway Group Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah had bought the land and developed it into one of Malaysia’s—if not the world’s—most remarkable resorts. The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat is an intriguing natural escape—surrounded by limestone hills that work like a natural fortress, the hotel’s main highlight lies in its namesake: the geothermal hot spring lake. Naturally occurring yet relatively rare, this geothermal hot spring water flows naturally at the base of the limestone hills. The water contains minerals and ions, which make for a great soak that can soothe stiff muscles as a result of stress—something everyone on this trip needed. It helps that the lake itself is beautiful—with steam coming off the water and the grand limestone hills as a backdrop, you can get some of the most picturesque views worthy of any social media profile.
But before you jump headfirst into the lake, stop—we’re not allowed inside the hot spring lake itself. Temperatures are high and vary from 40 degrees Celcius in the afternoons to as high as 70 degrees Celcius in the early mornings and late nights. Well, where does one soak in these famous hot springs, then, I hear you ask? Worry not—there are multiple dipping pools, and all rooms come with their own hot tub with water straight from the springs, where you can adjust the temperatures.
Speaking of rooms, The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat offers 45 villas for guests to choose from, in three types: the Lake, Water, and Garden Villas. There’s also a Royal Villa, which we were told is the largest room type, with Malaysian royalty often taking up residence there. As we were given a tour of the grounds on a buggy, we couldn’t help but wonder: Was it a low season? We barely saw a soul around the guest residences area, and it was so quiet, the only sound you could hear was of running water and the surrounding nature of insects and monkeys. We later discover from the hotel’s general manager, Marc Groh, that they don’t have a high or low season—as the weather remains the same throughout the year, guests don’t need a particular season to visit. He also mentioned that most guests who come prefer to enjoy their rooms during their stay, something we came to realise for ourselves when we entered our Lake Villa.
Measuring 81 square metres, the Lake Villa is lush and spacious. Rustic interiors reminiscent of our natural landscapes combine the indoors and outdoors seamlessly, and the over-water balcony terrace opens up to views of the lake and the limestone hills beyond. The bathroom is also worth mentioning, with two sinks—always a win in my opinion—and a glass door that opens up to the en-suite plunge pool and hot tub. Every room comes with a whole pomelo fruit too—an Ipoh specialty—and turn-down services also come with a packet of Tambun biscuits to keep munchies at bay. Sustainability measures are also in place within the villa, from reusable glass water bottles to an automatic sensor that immediately turns off the air conditioning when the balcony door opens. It’s clear why anyone who comes here would want to just stay in and experience their villas to the fullest. However, if you tire of alternating between a soak in the hot tub and cooling off in the plunge pool, the rest of the resort has much to offer.
Other than your standard fully-equipped fitness centre and pool area, not to be missed is the hotel’s spa and wellness treatments, which are extensive. They borrow treatments from various ethnic traditions including the Malay healing rituals, Ayurvedic therapy, and traditional Chinese medicine practices such as acupuncture and cupping. More contemporary spa treatments are also available, and you can always make an appointment to have a treatment tailor-made to any wellness concerns you have. These are, of course, the standard amenities that any resort would offer—but what’s different with The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat? Alongside the geothermal lake, the resort is also known for another naturally occurring feature: caves.
At the base of the limestone hills close to the geothermal lake is a connection of caves, which the resort has artfully enhanced to house several small-scale attractions. First, the Thermal Steam Cave, a natural sauna that you can simply walk through via a platform overlooking the hot spring. Temperatures can get pretty high from 65 to 70 degrees Celcius, so don’t stay in there for too long. If you want to cool off, there’s an ice bath nearby. For a spot of quiet, make your way into the Meditation Cave. Its dark and cool interior is soothing to the senses, a great respite from the steamy outdoors—and if you’re lucky, the resident guru might even be there to offer some guided breathing exercises. My favourite, however, is the much smaller Crystal Cave. Through a smaller door, you enter yet another cool and dark room, walls adorned with natural crystals for healing energy. With floor cushions atop a bamboo mat, it was the perfect room to escape into for some alone time. Take a moment to look up while you’re in the Crystal Cave, and enjoy the “starlit” ceiling.
But not all the cave features are situated in the dark. Above the Thermal Steam Cave, take a long flight of stairs up, through a plush lounge area, and another set of stairs upwards which opens up to the Sky Bar, located at the mouth of a cave. The bar is open to guests at The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat and is a spiffy place to have a spot of coffee, tea, or wine whilst overlooking the lake and the hills. At this vantage point, we were quiet while sipping on our champagne, simply admiring the view. It truly is a sight to behold, and not many hotel properties around the world can boast one like this. The champagne was only a precursor of dinner, which would turn out to be even more memorable.
After champagne, we were brought to another cave mouth, with imposing, medieval-looking metal gates guarding its entrance—this would be Jeff’s Cellar, a fine restaurant located within a cave. Named after the founder, Jeff’s Cellar first started as a novelty place for Cheah to house his prized collection of rare wines and host friends and family. After his wine cellar and bar were built, it eventually expanded to include a fine dining restaurant, helmed by Ipoh-born chef Lee Choon Boon. With its towering ceilings and dimly lit cave walls, any dinner there would surely be a charming affair. Pick from two tasting menus: The Chairman’s Favourite “Inception” menu, which features European flavours and ingredients, or the Tanah menu, which places a focus on local ingredients and finesse.
I naturally inclined towards the latter menu, as I was curious to see how the chef would transform locally-prized ingredients. Disappoint, it did not. From braised quail with extra virgin soy sauce to local seaweed-fed free-range chicken consommé, each dish was spectacular in flavour and execution. I could not stop raving about the dessert, Taugeh, which featured a Kedah vanilla-infused soy sheet wrap with actual bean sprouts within and soybean foam. For a sprout that drew such a divided opinion—you either love it or hate it—to be placed in a dessert and actually work? You’d have to be a mad genius. It’s no wonder the restaurant has won awards, and not just because of its historic setting.
Thankfully, though, Jeff’s Cellar is not the only dining outlet within The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat grounds that produces good food. Pomelo, the all-day dining restaurant, is a worthy contender, especially for breakfast—not surprising, as Chef Boon can also be seen in the kitchen here dishing out orders. Remaining true to its sustainability efforts, Pomelo doesn’t provide a buffet breakfast to avoid wastage. Instead, order your selection from their extensive menu, and it will be made fresh for you. Portions are kept small so you can try as many dishes as possible. While there is a hefty Western menu to choose from, we often make our pick from the local breakfast menu, and the Ipoh curry noodles are not to be missed. You’re also encouraged to craft your own juice out of the selection of fruits and vegetables they’ve placed out. And since there’s no taboo to day drinking while at a resort, there’s also champagne to be had with your breakfast.
As I sipped on champagne on my final morning at The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, I quietly realised that all this nature had done me some good. Far from the noise pollution of the city, I slept better. My eyes felt refreshed from all the greenery I was seeing, and my muscles a little looser from the generous soak I allowed myself at the hot springs. I was ready to go home.
Address: 1, Persiaran Lagoon, Sunway 3, 31150 Ipoh, Perak
Make a reservation here.