Today, miracle of Malaysian miracles, Monsieur and I made it to breakfast on time. This was of particular importance as Biba’s, the hotel breakfast restaurant, had been cited as being a favourite destination for martial arts man, Jackie Chan, apparently fuelling his lethal flying side kicks. I wondered what it would do for us.
The buffet catered for such varied Western and Asian tastes that deciding what to eat was far from straightforward. A continental spread of croissants, cheeses and cold cuts sat next to Japanese offerings of seaweed, rice and miso soup. Chefs in tall hats doled out the traditional English brekkie with eggs cooked to order. A fruit and juice island sat in the middle of Biba’s, amply stocked with platters of pineapple, dragon fruit, kiwis, melons and pyramids of glasses stacked next to juice dispensers. As we surveyed the sunlit space patrons flapped their copies of the Asian Wall Street Journal or International Herald Tribune between bites of brioches and slurps of coffee.
In the end, Monsieur settled on his classic continental fix of cafe and croissants whilst I horrified him by tucking into a typical Malaysian breakfast called Nasi Lemak. Consisting of coconut rice with spoonfuls of dried anchovy, chillies and a spicy tomato paste, it was all a bit smelly for my dining companion. Miso soup and dragon fruit followed, and as I crunched on a bit of dried seaweed, I tried not to stare at the veiled women sat at tables nearby.
In London there are many women who veil themselves as part of their religious beliefs, but most opt out of covering their faces. Until now, I had never observed women with face veils eating in public. As their husbands sat in designer casual wear, eating and talking without obstruction, each of the shrouded women quietly ate and drank from under their veils, the only sign of this being the veils moving in a strange way as handfuls of sustenance disappeared beneath them. It looked like hard work. Plates of delicious-looking food lay untouched in front of the women, probably because it was too much trouble to eat like this. I hoped they might order room service later on, somewhere that veils were not required. Meanwhile, I felt strangely guilty for being able to eat so freely in front of them.
After breakfast at Biba’s, Monsieur and I did the maths, working out that for the same price as two tour bus tickets with guide and thirty fellow tourists, we could hire a car and driver for a day trip to the Batu Caves. How decadent we felt being chauffeured out of KL to visit this renowned Hindu pilgrimage site, 13 kilometres north of the city. Our driver was electric, seemingly excited to have a good fare and easy day ahead.
Once at the revered Hindu site, our driver was waved through to an almost empty car park. Tourism was definitely down. Our eyes were immediately drawn to a long flight of stairs and the massive gold statue next to them, but our driver ushered us towards the theatre for a bit of Batu education. As we left our shoes next to several pairs of birkenstocks and dusty trainers, he disappeared off with some acquaintances, assuring us he’d be waiting whenever we wanted to leave.
The mini-theatre was modern, plush and cool after the humidity outside. A handful of barefoot others flocked inside as the lights dimmed and the documentary about the caves commenced. We learnt about native inhabitants of the caves and their discovery by naturalist William Hornaday in 1878. Then we heard about their adoption by the Hindu faith in the 1890s and their dedication to Lord Shiva’s son, Lord Murugan, before being gently warned about physical ailments that might prevent us from attempting the 272 stair climb that stood between us and the caves.
Quite suddenly, pictures of the Hindu adornment inside the caves gave way to quite arresting images of people with huge piercings all over their bodies, upon which hung limes, oranges, and even coconuts. This was Thaipusam, a religious festival commemorating Lord Murugan’s birthday, where in excess of 1.5 million faithful profess their piety. A rigorous physical preparation must be undertaken in advance of the festival, to purge the body of toxins and convince it that in spite of numbers of fish hooks being stuck through its skin and then weighted down with fruit and other items, it will feel nothing. Nada. Nix.
The pierced worshippers are often in a trance (probably praying the pain away) as they drag themselves and their fruity burdens up those 272 stairs to prove their faith. At the top, a swami will remove the piercings and burdens, and they say that no blood is ever shed. That really is a testament to mind over matter.
The lights went on and our host took the floor. “Who is this?” he asked his small audience. “Lord Shiva!” replied a bright, Aussie girl in shorts. We all turned to observe the statue of a blue god with too many arms who, with one leg off the ground, resembled a big, blue wheel. “Yes, this is Lord Shiva, the father of the god, Lord Muruga, whose birth is commemorated here each year.” The host then gave us a summary account of Shiva’s life, loves and attributes, paying special attention to his beloved wife, Parvati and their elephant-headed son, Ganesh. “I must read up on Hindu theology,” I whispered to Monsieur, knowing full well that there were possibly hundreds of other Hindu gods that I knew nothing about. Today’s lesson would cover only a handful.
“And where is Shiva’s second wife?” the host piped up mischievously. All I could see was the blue human cartwheel. The Aussie girl didn’t hesitate, “in his hair!” she replied, full of the enthusiasm of a recent religious convert. Sure enough, there was a little female head poking out of Lord Shiva’s own head. “That’s right, haha!” giggled the host, “that’s Shiva’s hidden wife!”. Apparently, having a spare wife hiding in your hair was a great joke. I elbowed Monsieur. “Don’t get any ideas,” I told him as we went to fetch our shoes. (I later found out that this wasn’t Shiva’s wife, but the goddess of the Ganges, whose earthly dwelling place just happens to be in Shiva’s hair.)
Back in the sun, we had more time to consider just how massive the gold statue ahead of us was. According to our guidebook, this was the tallest Lord Murugan in the world, standing a whopping 42.7 metres tall. He’d taken 3 years to build from masses of concrete, steel and gold paint, and had only recently been unveiled in January, 2006. His smiling face could only tell us that he was quite happy to be the tallest of his kind ever created.
At last it was time to brave those stairs. One, two, three, one hundred and fifty four, one hundred and fifty five, one hundred and fifty eight… In this muggy air we needed lots of rest breaks, giving us time to laugh at the antics of the long-tailed macaque monkeys jumping and climbing alongside us.
“What? Give that back! You cheeky monkey!” a tourist ahead of us had just fallen prey to a macaque with a thing for crisp packets, lifting one straight out of his not-quite-closed backpack. The monkey was now sitting on a ledge at a respectable distance, deftly opening the packet and consuming its contents. Giggling, we continued the climb, careful to avoid the light fingers of the army of monkeys and eventually found ourselves at the top of stair number 272 next to a man and his iguana.
“Photo? Photo?” suggested the man. “Yes, please!” I stepped forward, and before Monsieur could say no, there I was, standing with a three foot long iguana rested on my arms, having my photo taken. Touristy it may have been, but doing this reminded me of a photo of Great Aunt M, python wrapped around her neck at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. This sort of madness seems to run in the family.
I handed the big lizard back to its owner and turned to explore the series of caves behind us. There were three large caves and several smaller ones, filled with Hindu altars and decorations, monkeys and rubbish bins. It seemed that the monkeys had been on a bin-inspection, as most of the rubbish was on the ground as opposed to in the bins, and our long-tailed friends sat munching on whatever they’d found inside that might be vaguely edible.
The largest cave, called the Cathedral Cave, has a 100 metre high ceiling where holes in the cliff allow light to enter. It had a dwarfing effect on everyone there. Even the multi-coloured gods dotted around the place could not compete against the vast dimensions of the cave around us. Soon we were ready to go. I’m not really a cave person, and the naughtiness of all those monkeys was beginning to grate instead of amuse.
We met our driver in the car park and returned to KL. “I can take you to very good pewter factory,” he suggested. “No thanks,” Monsieur replied. “But it’s very, very good pewter. Best in Malaysia! Cheaper than the big shops or duty free.” he was trying his best with us, that was certain. “No thanks,” Monsieur said again. The driver was very quiet for a while. Perhaps he was upset that he’d miss out on a kick-back from the pewter place, but Monsieur and I have no need for anything pewter and we wanted to get back into town.
In the end, the driver dropped us at a craft village in KL and did not think to hide the fact that he was annoyed with us for not wanting to go anywhere else, but our sightseeing time in the city had just about run out. We said goodbye to him, turning to explore the village buildings, most of which housed galleries of art by local painters, pottery, batik-work and the like. The grounds were attractive, with flowers, ponds, fountains and a little stream, and the gift shop was comprehensively stocked but we decided against buying just yet, so back to the hotel we walked, following that beacon of the KL skyline, the Petronas Towers.
That afternoon, there was torrential rain and sheets of water fell from the sky. A ten minute taxi ride to meet friends took more like forty minutes due to flooded street gutters, yet, as soon as we reached our destination, the rain stopped. Our friends took us to a very cool bar to start our evening of revelry. It was the sort of place that has a stream full of fish at the door with a little bridge crossing it, low tables, square pouffe seats, dark bamboo-style walls and wait-staff all in black. We shared some dim sum there – Monsieur and I were starving by this point – and cool glasses of beer to take the edge of the intense humidity. Deciding to do a bit of a crawl of the Kuala Lumpur bar scene, we set off to another bar, where I missed a step on the way to the ladies’ landing on my knees as I slid past the bar in what I can only describe as a John Travolta-esque move. Once my pride had recovered, we talked about life and loves. One friend filled us in on his quest to date only airline hostesses. “I should have been in Beijing by now,” he told us. “I’m seeing a girl who works for Air China and she invited me to spend the weekend with her but I guess I’m being dumped right now.” We asked why. “Well, my flight was this morning but it’s quite obvious I didn’t take it, and now she’s trying to call me but I keep dropping her calls. I can’t be bothered listening to her messages,” he continued, “it’s always the same. I screw things up and then they yell at me but I’m never going to see any of them again, so why bother?” This was a classic case of commitment phobia and would take a few more drinks to cure.
The next bar on the list was an Irish pub called Finnegan’s in Bukit Bintang. There are Irish pubs everywhere else in the world, so why not visit one in Malaysia? It wasn’t exactly over-subscribed with patrons, there was Guinness on tap (obviously) and the Beatles were playing as we walked in. What is it with the Beatles in Asia? Everywhere we go, they’re playing the Beatles!
We were getting a bit tired by now but were hauled off to one more venue before managing to escape. The Beach Club was a massive and heaving throng of bodies, dancing and drinking as a live band played. We went to the bar. The last-standing Friend went to the gents’. That was the end of that. We didn’t see Friend again. Finishing our beers I thought it would be rude to leave without saying goodbye, so I left Monsieur under strict instruction not to move until I returned and went off to see if our pal was still there. He wasn’t, but when I returned, Monsieur had made two new friends. Pretty, petite Oriental girls, he had them sidling up to him, one on each side. “Darling,” he sighed as he saw me, quite obviously relieved, “you see?” he turned to the girls “this is my girlfriend.” The girls didn’t look too thrilled to see me. “Hello.” One said, “we hope you enjoy your holiday here.” I thanked them and hastily steered Monsieur out of there before he could be eaten alive.
Back at the hotel, our heads were still banging with a combination of loud music and too much beer. In a few short hours we’d be off to catch the early morning bus to Singapore. There was still sleeping and packing to be done. In this state, how ever would we make it on time?
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