I finally got around to visiting Lenggong Valley in 2024. After putting it off several times due to just being far too busy, I was reminded of a promise and resolved to move this trip forward as the new year came around. Lenggong Valley is Malaysia's other UNESCO Heritage Site on its peninsula*. I had promised Rachel a submission for this site to her World Heritage Sites website, and I had also promised Nash of Rumah Tiang 16 of the same. Not knowing much else about the place than the information in Rumah Tiang 16's stay package, I booked a stay, added a few extra days as per my usual habit, saved a few ideas from the area map, and hit the road. Why is Lenggong Valley a UNESCO site? Although it was inscribed way back in 2012, Lenggong Valley is Malaysia's least known UNESCO site. It's not particularly obvious what parts are in the UNESCO area, never mind how to visit them. This was a major reason why I went on a package with Rumah Tiang 16, rather than try to explore the UNESCO site myself. Gua Kelawar. Photo credit: Nash However, after my trip, it was obvious to me that Lenggong Valley certainly deserves its UNESCO listing. The valley contains a nearly 2 million year record spanning every period of hominid history, with archaeological findings discovered from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, and Metal ages**. It is one of the longest records of early man settlement in one location, and the oldest outside of Africa, placing tool-making hominids in Southeast Asia from an extremely early date. Through the (un)lucky accidents of fate which saw the Lenggong Valley hit by a meteorite 1.83 million years ago, and then buried in the ash of the Toba volcano eruption 70,000 years ago, palaeolithic tools and even workshops were preserved. Other workshop and burial sites provide the remaining history for neolithic and metal ages. Lenggong's best known discovery is the skeletal remains of a palaeolithic hominid male, dubbed 'Perak Man'. The skeleton is Southeast Asia's oldest, most complete human skeleton. Perak Man's remains were doubly significant, as the skeleton was of a mature male and interred with signs of honour, such as a bed of river shells. Yet the individual suffered from a condition where one side of his body developed slower than the other, called brachymesophalangia Type A, suggesting that the society he lived in cared for people with disabilities, and that they could attain a position of respect. Where is Lenggong? Lenggong is a town in the north of the state of Perak. It lies within the Lenggong Valley, which is a valley at the foot of the Bintang range, with the Titiwangsa range across the Perak river. It is about halfway between Kuala Kangsar, the royal capital of Perak, and Gerik, close to the Thai border. The valley's location in between the two mountain ranges is reflected in the local folklore. Two tribes of gibbons live in the forest on the two ranges, with the river between them. The ungka tangan putih (the Lars gibbon) on the Bintang range, and the siamang on the Titiwangsa range. They once warred with each other until eventually, their elders separated them to where they are found now. Today, you can still hear them call to each other in the mornings to declare their territories. Walking through a row of shophouses in Lenggong town. Photo credit: Apipi Adnan Seeing the UNESCO sites in Lenggong Valley The sites comprising the Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley are distributed across the valley. For this reason, almost the entire valley falls within the UNESCO zone. I wouldn't have known which sites in the valley were actually related to the UNESCO listing on my own. You would need to first go to the Archaeological Gallery, which is now almost fully open, or have a guide as I did. The archaeological sites consist of both cave sites and open pit excavations. The heritage site plan groups them into two clusters. Cluster 1 comprises the palaeolithic sites of the gruesomely named Bukit Bunuh***, and the archaeological dig site at Kota Tampan. The Toba ash plain at Bukit Jawa, the Kajang cave complex, and Gua Harimau, comprise Cluster 2. These are sites where late palaeolithic, neolithic and metal age artefacts were discovered, including Perak Man himself. 1. Bukit Bunuh meteorite site Bukit Bunuh lies within an oil palm plantation and requires a guide who knows where to go once inside the plantation. The way is not a paved road, and requires a vehicle with high ground clearance, or considerable skill with a regular car. The area used to be rubber plantations previously, which contributed to its discovery. Archaeologists surveying the area spied the suevite rocks which happened to be visible because the land was being cleared in between planting. Bukit Bunuh is the site of the meteorite strike that struck the valley about 1.83 million years ago. The force of the meteorite impact was so great that it formed suevite rocks. Lenggong is the only suevite site in Asia, and one of only 27 in the world. The ground liquified to magma, pushing it up in ripples. Hills such as Bukit Bunuh formed as it solidified again. The change in terrain diverted the flow of the Perak river. Coincidentally, the meteorite strike hit a settlement, since stone axes were found encased in the suevite rock. This provided the conclusive evidence that hominids were present at the location since 1.83 million years ago, and they made stone tools. Suevite boulders still lying around in a plantation on Bukit Bunuh after 1.83 million years! Quartzite rocks lodged in suevite 2. Kota Tampan & Archaeological Gallery The second site, Kota Tampan, is an open pit site where a stone tool workshop was discovered. Lenggong has the thickest accumulation of ash from the prehistoric Toba eruption 74,000 years ago. The ash fall accumulated on the palaeolithic settlements and buried the contemporary workshop at Kota Tampan. According to my guide, its discovery was what put Malaysia on the map for palaeoarchaeology. The Archaeological Gallery has since been built at the site. Renovations to upgrade it were almost complete when I visited. Once fully complete, it will have a holographic interactive display in the Perak Man exhibit. At the time of visit, there was only a replica of the skeleton on display. The real skeleton is in the custody of the Heritage Department for the time being. Kota Tampan dig site 3. Bukit Jawa & Toba ash Lenggong has the thickest accumulation of ash from the prehistoric Toba eruption 74,000 years ago. You can still see the Toba ash layering at various places in the valley, but the most important site is Bukit Jawa. The ash deposition here also overlies a more ancient stone tools workshop, dating from 200-100 thousand years ago. At Bukit Jawa, you can also see where the Perak river had once come up to, a much wider and mightier river than the slender river in the distance. In fact, Bukit Jawa (Java Hill) had once been a lake! Left behind as the river retreated are the quartz rocks that had fallen down the ridges long ago and now lie on the dried-up lake bed. Dig site at a stone tool workshop site. Photo credit: Apipi Adnan 4. Kajang cave complex The Kajang cave complex represent more recent settlements. You need a local guide to get in, as it is not open to unauthorised visitors. Your guide will make an entry request to the municipality in advance, and the gate will then be open on the day of your visit. There are several caves in the complex, with three known to have archaeological importance. The first, Gua Gunung Runtuh, was where Perak Man was discovered. Gua Teluk Kelawar also has burial sites, and where a more recent female skeleton was found (predictably called 'Perak Woman'). However, both caves are still reserved for researchers only. The third is Gua Kajang. The earliest cave to be explored in Lenggong, it was surveyed in 1917 by the British anthropologist Mr. Evans, curator of Taiping Museum. Research was then abandoned until exploration resumed with Universiti Sains Malaysia 70 years later. They found two skeletons at the same location. Interestingly, the two date from different periods. The neolithic skeleton was found in a sleeping position facing the sky. However, further down, the palaeolithic skeleton was interred in a foetal position. Findings also indicate that the cave was continually inhabited. For instance, shells of the belitung or siput sedut river snails are present across the excavation layers, indicating that it has been a protein source for people in the valley for tens of thousands of years. Some of the other caves can be visited and are fairly interesting, if only as contrast to the habitable caves. The cave opening of Gua Kajang looks like a heart when viewed at the right angle The cave opening of Gua Asar Gua Kelawar isn't a good shelter with its lack of natural lighting, poor ventilation, and not having a particularly dry floor. Photo credit: Nash Gua Kajang, literally Shelter Cave, is spacious and airy, with light coming through much of it, two entrances, and a dry floor. 5. Gua Harimau Metal age artefacts are found in the third site, Gua Harimau. However, it was not part of my tour. Getting to Lenggong The most convenient way to reach Lenggong is by driving. It's about 3 hours from Kuala Lumpur, but I suggest adding some time in case there are traffic jams to leave KL. Once on the North-South Highway, it is a straightforward drive north. Tip: When driving along the highway, look out for broad-leafed trees planted alongside it in close groups. These are teak trees, planted as an experiment. Teak typically requires a hot and dry micro-climate, which highways have. So some forestry folks suggested planting teak to see whether they would grow into timber. If it worked, then they could harvest high value timber. Unfortunately, it seemed that teak required a bit more than that, and the trees remained disappointingly slender even decades later. There is no Lenggong sign until you get close to the Kuala Kangsar turnoff. The sign will provide the name of the UNESCO site in Malay, on a brown tourism signboard: "Tapak Warisan Dunia Lembah Lenggong". Exit at Kuala Kangsar and you will pass under the royal capital arch. This road goes both to the UNESCO site, as well as the Royal Belum State Park beyond. You can go to Lenggong with public transport. You'll need to take the train to Kuala Kangsar, and then a bus to Lenggong. However, you would still need your host to pick you up from the bus station to your accommodations. The area doesn't have a lot of public transport. Lenggong bus station When you're on the highway, near the Ipoh exit is something that always amuses me. The highway signs marking the exit to Perak's capital city are hilariously massive and numerous. For some reason, even though Ipoh is a major stop along this route, people keep missing the exit. Where to stay in Lenggong Lenggong is probably one of the most underrated places in Malaysia. It has remained little more than a rural town, and still retains a relaxed pace of life. People still go to its high street shops, buying newspapers still a thing. Consequently, there aren't many tourist accommodation options here. On the other hand, while the local people are generally happy with the rising tourism, they also cherish their laidback, community-centric, river-oriented lifestyle. They don't want to become another Phuket or Bali either. Indeed, the type of tourism draws it has - archaeology, heritage and nature - does lend itself better to small scale tourism rather than mass tourism. Budget and logistics aside, where you should stay in Lenggong depends on what you want to do besides the UNESCO site. If you're interested in full spectrum history and culture, encompassing Lenggong's natural history (i.e., geological history), human heritage and native culture, I recommend taking a package with Rumah Tiang 16. You could also opt to stay by a river stream, for example at Rumah Sungai Lenggong or My River Village in Kuak. However, do take necessary precautions if you are into riverside glamping; for example, enquiring if they're licensed. Streams can flood very suddenly if there is a kepala air event upstream, where heavy rainfall in the catchment causes the headwaters to burst. Another option is to stay near Chenderoh Lake, which is a very lovely lake. For example, Sukasuka Lake Retreat offers a lake-based holiday with water activities. And finally, you can also book a homestay, which is typically like an Airbnb. This is suitable if you're travelling in larger groups and want more freedom to drive around. Traditional Pattani cuisine for dinner at Rumah Tiang 16. Other interesting things in Lenggong When I decided to go to Lenggong, it was solely due to its UNESCO credentials. I was dimly aware that it is also a geopark, but I wasn't too interested in why. I knew a little basic geography, of course - for instance, that it was near Chenderoh Lake and therefore the Chenderoh hydroelectric dam. And I was kind of aware of some Pattani culture due to Nash's marketing materials. Little did I realise that these things were fascinating in their own right, and they weren't even all that Lenggong has to offer! Here are other things I discovered about Lenggong, and perhaps you'll see why I consider it underrated and a hidden gem. 1. Lenggong is a UNESCO Geopark candidate The Lenggong Valley is a National Geopark due to its combination of significant geological features. Deposition from the ancient Perak river formed the valley, creating a series of alluvium terraces flanked by the Bintang and Titiwangsa ranges. Much of the valley comprises of granite from the two ranges, as a result of the collision of the Sibumasu and Indochina tectonic plates more than 240 million years ago. Limestone outcrops are also present. Over time, caves have formed, where ancient man sought shelter. There are 27 geosites in the Geopark, some of which are also UNESCO sites or local attractions. So you are likely to come across at least some of them while in Lenggong. There are red-marked information displays for the geosites, which is handy for knowing when you're at one of them. However, geology enthusiasts might want to see all 27. I suggest contacting Lenggong Geopark for advice. You can also visit the newly built Galeri Lenggong Geopark, which is near the Archaeological Gallery. Lenggong Geopark is also a candidate UNESCO Global Geopark, which will make it Malaysia's third after Kinabalu and Langkawi. It was expected to be inscribed in 2024 (but the revised target is 2025). Lenggong National Geopark 2. Nature & waterfalls Lenggong's relatively untouched limestone and granite features resulted in the survival of high biodiversity areas. It is close to Belum rainforest, so you may also find the rafflesia flower here. We saw a hornbill fly past, and I thought it's ironic that I once went to Belum which has all the hornbill species yet saw none. But I finally saw a wild one driving around in Lenggong. There are 8 biosites in Lenggong Geopark, with green-marked information displays. Lenggong's limestone caves are home to an endemic species, the cicak batu Lenggong (Cyrtodactylus lenggongensis). We might have seen its eggs in the Kajang cave complex. Lenggong's riparian botany and bush still supply villagers with food and medicine. And of course, the mengkuang habitat in Tasik Raban is still a supply for local weavers. There are several waterfalls in the valley, locally called 'lata'. Lata Kekabu is both a geosite and biosite, and a relatively easy hike to the waterfall. You can take a dip, but note the signs warning you to look out for snakes. Lata Kekabu Mengkuang weaving. Photo credit: Nash Mushrooms in Lata Kekabu Eco Park Safety tip (signs of a 'kepala air' event): When the headwaters burst, the river condition can change very rapidly. Getting caught in it may be fatal, as you can see from the statistics displayed inside Lata Kekabu Eco Park. There is a sign that teaches you to recognise the warning signs of this event, but it is in Malay. Basically, the signs are: darkening sky in the upstream direction (upper levels), a loud thunder-like sound, booming sound of rock and timber debris bursting loose with the river flow, frothing on the water, sudden increase of the water level, and the warning siren. Leave immediately when you see any of these signs. 3. The charming Chenderoh Lake The Perak river is dammed to the south of Lenggong for hydropower generation. This created Chenderoh Lake. I knew I should see it, but I hadn't expected it to be such a charming lake. In fact, Perak river itself is lovely. I think a boat tour of the lake is a must-do when you visit Lenggong. Get a morning tour for the best chance to see lotus in bloom. The backwater channels are crowded over with reeds and riparian shrub. Forest and rubber groves rise beyond. They open out to the lake, which snake down in a dragon-like shape towards the dam. Its banks are tall with reeds, with the occasional fisherman dropping his lures or casting a net. The lotus fields were fading when I came, its leaves browning and most of its flowers turned to seed or cropped off by water buffalo who like to swim out to snack on them. If you came with a guide, he can point out filming locations for the movie Anna and the King (they shot the entire film in Perak, not Thailand), and a well-known Petronas Eid-ul Adha festive ad. The new local centre is Dataran Tasik Raban, which is an islet now connected to the mainland with two bridges. Although Tasik Raban (Raban Lake) has a separate name, it is actually part of Chenderoh Lake. There are restaurants there, as well as a boat jetty and a sculpture referencing the origin of the name Lenggong. An exceptionally lovely lake According to folklore, the name Lenggong came from the unsuccessful effort of a Semai woodcutter. He wished to cut down a great tree, and spent weeks chopping it down. But it caught in the branches of another tree and didn't fall. The position is called 'langgung' and became the local name. 4. Lenggong crafts & Pattani culture Although today Lenggong is in Perak territory, historically it was once part of the Malay sultanate of Pattani. Thus, the people of Lenggong have a Pattani culture which is distinct from Malay subcultures elsewhere in Malaysia. The culture encompasses a whole way of life, though it is beginning to dilute with modern life. The best way to experience these cultural elements is through a local guide, such as a tour with Rumah Tiang 16. You would be able to better appreciate how to observe it in traditional architecture, in how clothing was worn to send subtle social signals, its dialect, its particular manners and frugal worldview, and in its foods which are inseparably linked to its local ecology. Handicrafts in Lenggong are similar to the rest of the region, except for one. Lenggong batik is a recent and unique innovation to the conventional melted wax batik technique. It is a stencil technique with a clay mixture in place of the typical melted wax, invented by the folks at the local rehabilitation centre as an effort to make batik more inclusive for people with developmental challenges who might hurt themselves handling hot wax. Other crafts in Lenggong include the traditional facial mask beads called bedak sejuk, and mat weaving. Architecture and crafts of Lenggong 5. The blue hole in Chepor village (Telaga Biru) Telaga Biru is a local curiosity in Lenggong. Located in Kampung Chepor, it is a spring that appears visibly blue yet the water is clear. One of a series of springs along a geological fault, its mineral-rich and slightly alkaline water is believed to possess health benefits. It is also thought to link to the Ring of Fire in Indonesia, because whenever there's volcanic activity in Sumatra, bubbles appear in the water and the smell of sulphur. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, the Perak river had just topped its banks and flooded the area. So the blue hole was not pristine. Nonetheless, it still somehow looked truly blue. Telaga Biru 6. The King's Mosque (Masjid Raja) Also in Kampung Chepor, Masjid Raja is a heritage building of Perak. Though small, the mosque is the second oldest in Perak. The first sultan of Perak decreed it built in 1539, presumably following Perak's split from Melaka after the capital of his father's empire fell to Portugal in 1511. It was completed in 1541. The current wooden building is not original, except for its columns of cengal hardwood. Prior to its renovation in the 1960s, it had a humble roof of rembia thatch and kelarai walls woven from the fronds of the bertam palm. This construction is indigenous here but is now rare. However, from my visits to the Philippines I think it is still common there. Within, you can still see grooves on the columns near the floor. These were made specifically to be tied with rope so that the hewn columns can be pulled by elephants from the forest to the mosque site. It is a sign of how much domesticated elephants had once been a part of life in Perak culture. The mosque is now no longer used for regular services, and has been taken over by the parish women for their religious classes. Masjid Raja Groove intentionally cut on a cengal column to facilitate pulling by elephant 7. Lenggong's fantastic rural gastronomy One major reason I'd advise you not to come solo to Lenggong, is the fabulous food. You will be extremely well fed, and you will need to bring help to finish all the delicious food. Lenggong has its own unique cuisine that's hard for me to describe. A gastronomist blogger should come and do that. What I can describe, is how sustainable the cuisine is. Almost everything is grown, fished, harvested or foraged from the valley's own landscape. Many dishes came about from zero waste efforts, turning leftover random ingredients into even more tasty inventions. After hearing how people make the different dishes, I understood why you can't get them outside the valley. You need bits of numerous ingredients, which is free and easy when they're all in your backyard or in a 'food forest' by the river, but impractical to grow separately. You can't even find all of it in its local market! Lenggong's signature dish is pekasam fish, a fermented fish integral to Lenggong's food culture. Traditionally made with loma fish from the Perak river, every household has their own recipe. They say no maiden is ready to marry until she can make pekasam. Today, it is a cottage industry and no longer made only with loma fish. Aside from its unique cuisine, Lenggong used to grow coffee and tea. Its tea had once been on the shelves in Harrods of London. Also, Lenggong would have you know that the Perak river has patin fish too, not just Pahang. And that its durian is allegedly superior! Lenggong is a great place for a foodie trip Spot the difference. Breakfast is the only time people don't eat pekasam! The thick crepe is called pek nga. The name comes from 'tepek belanga', which refers to how it's made (by sticking it to the inside of a cooking pot, similar to making naan). 8. Lenggong town & modern history Finally, Lenggong's turn of the century small town, its nostalgic rice fields and traditional houses, and its friendly rural manners, has its own charm. Its strong Malay culture does not stop it from also preserving the heritage of its migrant communities. And in the town, the different ethnic groups live in mixed neighbourhoods more than might be the case elsewhere in Malaysia. Like many small towns across Malaysia, Lenggong received a wave of Chinese migrants during the decline of imperial China. However, they mostly came to work the tobacco plantations, not as miners. Most are Hokkiens, but there were those from other regions as well, such as Guangdong. There are also locals of Pakistani origin; one family has a coffee shop that still makes coffee using a warming contraption from the old country. If you know what you're looking for, you'd see signs of Perak's early modernisation. Signs of wealth, such as the cinema building indicating disposable income and leisure time. A pharmacy that has been in business for generations. A coal storage license from the Malayan Emergency period, when the government wanted to prevent supplies reaching the communist insurgents in the northern jungles. If you're into this stuff, make sure you have a local guide who is passionate about history. Sauk neighbourhood. Reportedly, the name refers to the abundance of fish in its river backwaters, once upon a time. Apparently, there were so many that you could haul them in by the armful (sauk). Best times to go to Lenggong You can visit Lenggong at any time in the year. However, it is located to the north of Malaysia, close to Thailand and its weather tends to be similar to that region. Hence, it tends to rain less in January and February, although 'less' is relative for its generally humid equatorial climate. Come in the middle of the year to see the putat flowers bloom around Chenderoh Lake. I'm told there is a synchronised bloom around May to June. At that time, the red flowers fall on the water, carpeting the lake's edge. Additionally, this is also durian season. Road trip suggestions for nearby destinations Since it's likely that you'll be driving to Lenggong, you might consider making it a road trip. You could easily combine a road trip to Lenggong with these two destinations. Kuala Kangsar The royal capital of Perak is very historical and the centre of Perak's traditional culture. Visit the landmarks in the palace area and the iconic royal mosque. Look for the signature Perak crafts of tekat gold embroidery and the iconic labu sayong water jar. Malaysia's first train station is also here. Make sure to drop by nearby Enggor to see Victoria Bridge, the first rail bridge. Royal Belum State Park If you continue north along the road past Lenggong, you can visit the Belum rainforest, the peninsula's other oldest rainforest. The State Park is the protected part of the Belum-Temenggor rainforest, which boasts some of Malaysia's highest biodiversity, including 3 rafflesia species and all 10 of Malaysia's hornbill species. The closest hotel is the Belum Rainforest Resort. The first railway bridge in Malaysia is in Perak. Notes: *The other being the twin sites of Melaka & Penang and their Straits Settlements heritage; the remaining two sites are in Malaysian Borneo. **At the Archaeological gallery, I saw these periods of human history explained in terms of degree of fire mastery, and it suddenly made so much sense to me. Palaeolithic people have discovered fire, but can only manage open fires. What the neolithic age means is that people have mastered fire such that they can reach at least 600 degrees Celcius, and thus can make pottery. Whereas the bronze age means that fire mastery can reach a temperature beyond 1000 degrees Celcius, thus unlocking metal smelting capabilities. ***Literally translates to 'Murder Hill', it obtained its name during the Communist Insurgency, because the insurgents used to kill people on top of the hill. Inspired to visit the Lenggong Valley World Heritage Site? Save this article!