The Malaysia trip, part 2

Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves, Malaysia

Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves, Malaysia

GEORGE TOWN, PENANG, MALAYSIA — So, I’ve been here three weeks so far. What have I been doing?

Walking a lot and riding buses, taking lots of pictures, eating interesting food. Soaking in all these new places and experiences. And trying to relax. No hurries, no worries.

So far, I have spent about a week in Kuala Lumpur, about five days in Cameron Highlands, and tomorrow I will finish a week in George Town, Penang. Next, I will spent three days in Singapore for Chinese New Year — which should be fun — and then a week in Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. Then back to KL, and China.

The most interesting thing I’ve done by far is witness the Thaipusam festival (see photo at right) at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 24. It’s a religious festival, but a joyful one. So the feeling was very light hearted.

I like Kuala Lumpur in general, too. But I grew up near New York City, so if you’re not a city person, KL may leave you feeling exhausted. There are tons of things to see and do (and eat!), but it’s also crowded, noisy and not especially hospitable to pedestrians. If you’re an urban hiker like me, getting around is not an issue. It just , requires you to be on the lookout for approaching cars, motorbikes and bicycles from the “wrong” side.

[Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore all follow the British custom of driving on the left hand side of the road so you have to remember to look right when crossing the street, and not left. Better yet, look both ways, because some scooter drivers don’t follow the traffic laws.]

My usual mode of operation when traveling is do combine some typical touristy things — you know, visit some famous places to say I went there — but in general try to live like a local person as much as possible. That means I ride the bus or the metro/subway as needed, or walk. I visit everyday restaurants, like the ones in the malls or in shopping districts. I look for bargains.

I do what the locals do, except for that whole going-to-work thing. My overall goal is to see how people live in different places around the world.

In Kuala Lumpur, where I landed first, I visited the Petronas Twin Towers, and paid $20 to go up to the 86th floor to get a panoramic view of the city. Pretty touristy, and frankly, $20 is lot for a 30-minute excursion to the top of the headquarters of a major petrochemical company worth billions of dollars. Surely, they could afford free admission.

Well, maybe not since oil prices have plunged.

Given the 95-degree heat in KL, I did not try to pack in a lot of activity in one day. So, Petronas Towers and the nearby area one day, Merdeka (Independence) Square another day, the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia and the National Mosque another day, and so on.

I wasn’t aware of it when I planned my trip, but Jan. 24 this year was a major Hindu festival, Thaipusam. So, I arranged to be near Batu Caves, so I could spend most of the day there.

Friends help a young kavadi bearer while he rests on the Batu Caves steps.

Friends help a young kavadi bearer while he rests on the Batu Caves steps.

The festival actually lasts three days. In KL, the tradition is for devotees of Murugan to walk 14 km (about 8.75 miles) from the Hindu temple in the downtown area to the Murugan shrine in Batu Caves. The city closes off a few streets to make this work. Some devotees carry heavy displays called kavadis — kind of like portable shrines — that can weigh up to 100 pounds. Usually, they are accompanied by friends or relatives who help them take a rest along the way, provide snacks and waters to give them strength, and generally cheer them on. Passers-by will also cheer to give the kavadi-bearers strength to carry on.

Did I mention it was 95 degrees out?

The young man shown above was so tired from carrying his kavadi that his legs were quivering while he rested on a stool. Two helpers are taking the weight off his shoulders and hips while he recovers.

Devotees will also carry containers of milk on their heads to the Batu Cave shrine, as milk is holy to Murugan. Men will shave their heads bald and smear turmeric powder on their scalps. Women will also smear turmeric powder on their foreheads. Yellow is Murugan’s color.

Men get their heads shaved to honor Murugan during Thaipusam

Men get their heads shaved to honor Murugan during Thaipusam

Once they arrive at Batu Caves, they climb 272 steps to reach the shrine inside the caves.

Well, I didn’t walk the 14 km (and in fact many devotees don’t either) but I did walk up to the shrine with everyone else.

It’s a family outing, festival day, and religious observance all rolled into one. [And a tourist magnet, of course.] There were booths all around the entrance to the Caves, providing refreshments, food, souvenirs, head shaving and turmeric smearing, kid’s toys, balloons, T-shirts and ball caps, and religious literature. There was a blood drive going on, and a booth for a charity benefiting orphans.

In other words, not that much different from going to the state fair, minus the farm animals and baking contests.

After I left the festival, I walked for a bit, trying to find a convenient place to catch a taxi. While I fumbled with my MyTeksi app (kind of like Uber for Southeast Asia), a taxi just happened to round the corner. So, I flagged him down, and despite paying twice what a MyTeksi driver would have charged, it worked out OK.

My driver, Bob, asked me the usual questions of how long I was in Malaysia, where would I go next, etc. When I said I would go to Cameron Highlands, Bob said he could take me there, stopping at some tourist places on the way, for 550 Malaysian ringgit (about $130). If it sounds pricey, you have to realize than Cameron Highlands is a good 2½ hours north of Kuala Lumpur by car or coach. I had planned to take the coach, which would have been much cheaper (35 ringgit or about $8.50), but first I would need to take a taxi from my hotel to the bus station, and then another taxi to my next hotel.

Bob was offering convenient door-to-door service, plus some tourist places besides. I decided to go the lazy, but more expensive way.

So shoot me.

[NEXT: Cameron Highlands is pretty and comfortable, but kind of boring when it rains.]

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