Kuala Lumpur, or better known as KL; is the populous capital of Malaysia. It is a city that is moving upwards; friendly residents, stunning architecture including the icon of Malaysia; the Petronas towers. And of course the Batu Caves.
Australian soil was a yellow speck in the cabin window; Mayble, a local Malaysian visiting folks back home, hands me a working pen as mine sputters ink. Good old Mayble; and the scribbles start for the new chapter of my journey. I was bound for Kuala Lumpur; Malaysia, a nice little stop off for a week before settling in Hong-Kong.
I get my first view of the Malaysian landscape; row after row of palm trees, perfectly placed in symmetrical perfection. With yellow graveled pathways entwined through the thick green scrub. Mayble tells me that it's the farming land for palm oil and I exchange a frown. For those not in the know; Palm Oil is an oil derived from palm fruit, and its used in 50% of the worlds products. For cooking oil, cosmetics,cleaning products and most demanding of all, bio fuel. Malaysia is the second biggest producer of the oil; following shortly behind Indonesia. At the time of writing this, Malaysia exports 19.2 million tons of the stuff each year; and clearly land was being cleared to make room for more. But among all the hype over this bio-fuel; pristine rain forests are being slashed and burned in the process. Sparking one of the biggest debates regarding alternatives to fossil fuel. But we aren't here for figures and lengthy debates; but if you want to find out more you can by clicking here: http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/palm-oil.php
Oh go on have a look; you might be interested.
Despite the lack of sun; Malaysia's weather conditions are perfect, low humidity and no rain, which is a big win for us British. A grey smog cloaks the green hills and surrounding buildings; the price paid to feed and fuel the heaving masses of Asia. After hitting the landing strip; I'm once again greeted with that familiar humidity, and a queue for immigration that takes up the arrivals hall. Mayble wishes me well and trots happily toward the empty gate of the Malaysian residents check-in. And I head towards the lengthy visitors queue; just in front of an Australian family of four, two screaming kids and all. A long day was ahead.
From the moment of landing; I realized that Malaysians are the friendliest nationality I had ever met in my travels. From a banter with the taxi driver; to the hotel receptionist calling me 'the handsome one'. My digs for the week were at one of the architectural icons of Malaysia; the Petronas towers or the Malaysian twin towers. Two chrome towers transcend towards the heavens; in the center, a bridge stands at 170 meters linking up the two chambers. Beacons flash on each floor at random; lighting up the low clouds and make the rest of the skyline seem insignificant. The towers were opened in 1999 by Mahathir Mohammed; the 4th Prime Minister of Malaysia. With 33,000 stainless steel and 55,000 glass panels; standing at 452m above street level, 88 storeys high. I whip out my Canon and click away before I have barely checked out central Kuala Lumpur that night.
I click away late into the night; dosed up high on my passion, and then head to bed. I managed to get lucky by staying with a friend at a 5-star hotel. Making the most of the comfort factor I stuff the free shampoo and soap bars into my backpack; old backpacker habits. At breakfast I spark up conversation with a waiter at the hotel named Sheeraz telling me to 'just remember the wine and you're fine'. I hate the whole waiter/customer scene; so I ask Sheeraz about his work here in Kl. Sheeraz was from Pakistan looking for as much work as possible; things were getting hard in the middle east. It was a sorry sight to see the Pakistan consulate next door to the five star hotel; being over crowded each morning with those looking for work. Days later I bumped into Sheeraz and his brother whilst passing through town; they give me tips and the best places to go on my journey. The power of conversation is a powerful thing.
If you head to Kuala Lumpur; be sure to head to the KLCC mall at the base of the towers. It boasts a designer outlet and a sweet place to hangout at the back. The botanical gardens and water fountains let you escape the chaos of the city and just kick back in a secluded spot. By day a busy hive of tourists; Asians, Malaysians, Americans, Saudi's, Sweed's and Indians; and by night the fountains light up the lake in an orchestra of color. The fountains ascend and descend; and jets of steam and water resemble colored flowers. The whole lake looks like a soundwave; and the skyline towers behind when the jets fall. I spent a lot of my nights writing; reading and watching the colors flow.
Be aware of this though westerners; you may be asked to have a picture taken with your fine white self.
As it seemed I was the only blonde haired white man; one day I was sat at the park scribbling notes of anecdotes when an group of Indian women ask if they can have their picture taken with me; I happily agree and pose. But when I put my hand on her shoulder she shrieks; confused and violated I continue with my writing.
Doing the hurried research on Kuala Lumpur; I had read about the Batu Caves, located just 15km out of the centre of Malaysia. The limestone caves are thought to be over 400 million years old; the whole limestone hill is the most popular Hindu shrine outside of India. I had missed the Thaipusam festival by a couple of days which took place annually at the caves. The Hindu festival begins in the center of Kuala Lumpur; as a silver chariot passes through the streets and all the way to the caves; devotees celebrate and dance around the carriage the whole way; carrying silver pots of milk on their heads as a tribute. Some make further tribute; which I could never comprehend, I found out that some devotees pierce their skin with hooks, hanging fruits, garlands and statues of the Hindu gods. The silver carriage ends at the mouth of the cave. To get to the Batu Caves; you can take the monorail, then the train from Central Kuala Lumpur to the caves. At first look of Batu Caves; you are greeted by a giant green statue of Hanuman, the monkey god.
Lo and behold; at his feet sit dozens of monkeys; rummaging through dustbins and picking food from the weak members of the tourist crowd. As I sit with a gang of the monkeys; one squeaking male takes flight from a stall and snatches a bag of donuts from an Asian man. A proud catch; the monkey hands out the loot among his chums, some with their young gripped to their chests. One pounds at the hands of two Indian men; snatching popped rice with both fists until it takes the entire bag. The Malaysian monkeys are far from aggressive with greed but it doesn't stop me keeping a hand on my camera and donuts. I start at the left of the Limestone valley of Batu caves; after my banter with the monkeys. The first opening is Ramayana Cave; costing just 10 ringgits, a quid. The Ramayana, is one of two of the greatest Indian epics, the other is the Mahabharata. Ramayana depicts the way life was in 1000 BCE. The hero of the epic is Rama; following the Dharma throughout his whole life, (Dharma is an important theme within Hinduism, and can be seen itself as a religion). This is why Indians consider Rama heroic. He was deemed the perfect son, and eventually the perfect husband for his wife, Sita. Young Indians have been taught for 200 years; " Be as Sita"and "Be as Rama". The Ramayana was formerly a 24,000 verses in several books. But since then as with any religion it has been condensed, shortened told and translated throughout South and Southeast Asia. The Ramayana is to this day told through many forms of dance, media and drama. And today I saw it through the eyes of the creators of the shrine.
As I walk in the cave; it glows eerily with the light of nothing more than rope lights and candles. The entire ground floor is hand painted.The cave is filled with the scenes of Hinduism; I don't see myself as a religious man but the sheer craftsmanship and passion of the devotees can be seen in the faces of every Hindu scene in the Ramayana Caves. I stop at Hanuman ( the monkey god); the detail in the statue is so intricate I feel as though the soulless room is full of people. There must be over 200 statues all either glaring, smiling and pointing. Nobody else is in the caves; I find myself in the center of these pristine lively mannequins, young stalactites of a few million years old hang overhead; illuminated with green and blue floodlit lights. Cavern mouths twist behind the statues into a gloomy black in the facades of the caves. I feel culturally nourished; though my nerves would be more settled watching the food snatching monkeys. I'm engulfed again in the familiar feeling of exploration; as I climb a spiral staircase leading to the roof for a birds eye view of the cave. Despite not knowing what I'm really looking at; the cave is a work of art regardless. It is a labyrinth of colors and light; droplets fall onto a silver plate, I could have relished in the silence all day long. Exploring or embracing different religions is a key element to me which I would endorse to any traveller; even if we are just taking the sidelines.
Then it was off to the Batu Caves themselves; a hefty climb for tourists up a flight of 227 steps. At the base of the stairs stands a giant golden statue of Lord Murugan; the Hindu god of war and victory, standing guard at the mouth of the cave. Small temples surround his feet; with more statues of the gods; the architecture is rich with Indian pinks, greens, and blues. I'm pretty fit when is comes to trekking but I was one among many of the crowd of Hindu's taking a second to catch my breath. At this point I'm about level with Murugans golden bonce and I look over his shoulder to see the Malaysian skyline, the Petronas towers peaking over row after row of sky scrapers. Evidence of the Thaipusam festival trails from the bottom to the top in the form of litter, marigold garlands and the odd speck of blood from a faithful devotee. Monkeys buoyantly hop from one staircase to the other; decorating the wheezing crowd of tourists with leaves and crumbs.
It takes me a good 30 minutes to climb to the top; as others wheeze and gasp I can't help but snap my camera shutter at the monkeys on each perch. I snap a photo of a gang of Malaysians; a small celebration of the end to the pain in their calves. The city is a beautiful grey mirage on the humid horizon; and my brown shirt has now turned black with sweat. A devotee passes me with a silver chalice perched on her head; dressed all in yellow with marigold garlands, she makes the climb seem effortless.
The mouth of the cave is jagged with brown teeth; a statue of Krishna stands proud to the right, greeting visitors into its dark depths. Inside there is no light; guidance remains only as a handrail on the right and the light from either end. I inch down the stairs with caution hitting more Canon camera's than I care to count. A cockerel bellows out like a trumpet from the dark; I react by swinging my club of a tripod into a group of tourists. I skulk into the darkness from shame. The cockerel barks triumphantly; echoing throughout the entire cave. Cockerels meander through the small shrines; clucking and picking at stray coconut shells left from the festival. The floor is carpeted with feathers and coconut fur. Another small ascension takes me into the center of a roof opening; vines twist around the rim above, with droplets of water pattering onto the cold empty bed of the cave. It's like being stood in the center of a volcano. Besides the clucking chickens; and the odd monkey here and there. Sitting among the coconut shells I people watch and marvel at the bowl of light above my head. The Batu Caves can't half make a man feel insignificant through their size and age; but can bring one forward spiritually in the silence of such a serene place of worship. You just have to sit and listen.
Just to the right; half way down the grand staircase, another limestone cave sits waiting for tourists to dwell in it's darkness. But this 'Dark Cave' was a conservation cave; the home to the rarest species of spider in the world. The trapdoor spider. The guided tour costs around £3; taking you into the 'Cave of Life'. A small energetic Malaysian named Sha takes us through the 2km of surveyed passages, through the seven sections and into the great chamber. It is a must see for travelers visiting the Batu Caves; and with the government pushing to mine the site, the clock is ticking. The caves are among the most researched tropical caves in the world; hives of fruit bats swirl around the roof of the cave and into a small opening above like a swarm of giant wasps. The ecosystem inside the cave is so delicate that the paths are divided to minimize the environmental impact; some areas are so precious they are reserved for researchers and scientist. What makes this cave so unique is that cave is driven by a guano ecosystem; basically meaning the 100 million year old cave is driven by the rich resource of bat poo. The rich guano can be used as fertilizer and even gun powder; which gives the government reason enough as they see it to tear the place down.
After my tour; I descended down the flight of 227 steps and into the Indian Markets surrounding the Batu Caves. I buy a fist full of Jalebi; a sweet orange Indian pastry from Northern India. Shaped like a Pretzel; the pastry is deliciously sticky. The markets of Batu Caves are filled with all things Indian; Dhoti's for men, Sari's for women, portable shrines, and the freshest of Indian fruit and vegetables. You could almost feel in New Delhi. It was a taste of my journey to India in the future. I marveled a little more then bought some Ladoo. The sound of Malaysians haggling echoes with the sound of kids laughing at the monkeys. I spit my Ladoo in shock as literally hundreds of birds shoot up into the heavens as a white Toyota Yaris heard the cloud of pigeons; I cant believe my eyes and neither can the monkeys from the look on their faces.
One of the top ten things to do in Malaysia is to try the national dish; Nasi Lemak. A fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. The red sauce is spicy with chilli and laced with raw peanuts. You can't beat a good Nasi Lemak; and at just about £2 a dish with a drink I was inclined to have my fair share. The cook tells me it's their family's first day running the stall; she sits and tells me everything about the Nasi Lemak and how her friends go crazy for her secret recipe. They offer me a second plate on the house; sitting and staring at me from the other table is their daughter, watching the funny looking white man shovel down the delicious food no doubt. "Might I ask, what your daughter looking at?" they look and laugh at me as the mother says "nothing we've just never seen a white man eat so much hot food before". I bid farewell to the happy Malaysians and the Batu Caves and head straight for the city bus about town. The day is still young.
I'm not one for tourist tours; but in Malaysia you are better to just hop on the hop-on hop-off bus service. I head to the Kuala Lumpur bird park; the biggest walk around bird aviary in the world. It was time for some fast paced photography and some natural inspiration. Peacocks wander the grounds flaunting their feathers in contest with the other males. A plump peacock drops just in front of me; and starts what looks like a burlesque rehearsal; wavering its tail feathers until all of its feathers are quivering. The female wanders the front taking a good look; and heads to the next contestant. I can't help but laugh as a group of women in Burkas run past me with a gang of green cockatoos flying closely behind.
A white fluffy bird I can't pronounce lines the hedgerows like a line of frail old women waiting for their pensions; backs hunched and beady eyes peeking forward. Cockatoos of all shapes, sizes and colors soar just below the overhead netting; stalking tourists for seed and eating the fruits in the trees. But among all of these species one stands out that I had never seen before which stops me in my tracks. As I clamber over the winding path through the park; a red bird elegantly strolls across the path and into the foliage.
The crimson Ibis is found in South America and parts of the Caribbean and is one of the most striking birds I have ever seen. But there were birds with purple quiffs; blue bellies, chubby pelicans and sneaky storks. Stands filled with papaya are massacred by a flock of starlings; the grounds are photographers paradise. As the grounds are so big; a green cobweb of a net hangs over the entire park. An American woman, I now know as Sam; struggles with her camera as the elegant ibis waddles on by. So I step in and we shoot every bird within a miles radius (with our lenses of course); we exchange ideas, plans, and head our own ways. The beauty of travel eh? Waiting for the bus after my triumphant shoot; I am further questioned on my nationality by locals. A gang of taxi drivers ask me where I'm from after I frantically run for a quick visit to the Lilly Gardens next door. After I catch my breath they ask me which part of the UK I am from; being closer to Nottingham, I give the universal symbol for Robin Hood, the drawing of a bow and arrow. 'We speak English you know, I know who Robin Hood is'. I swiftly put down my imaginary bow; the man reels off more facts about the price of London underground and transport services than David Cameron when making his cuts. I give a standing ovation; only for the man to tell me he never lived there; his cousin did. Just 5 minutes to go I think to myself; then two Saudi's come asking for directions from the obvious backpacker, convincing me to share a taxi and head out for a beer. I'm always up for spontaneous plans and finding the potential in conversations; but beers with two Saudi Arabian men is a tad too far. I kindly refuse their offer and head back home for the night.
That morning; the usual humid grey skies were cast away and in their place a rich indigo glazed my eyes. The golden hours rays licked my arms; my last day of exploring Malaysia was ahead. I stopped first at the base of the KL tower; a 5 minute walk from my hotel. The KL tower is the seventh tallest communications tower in the world. I stand at the base looking up at the 421 meter tower; at its base remains the last hectares of rain forest left in the center of Kuala Lumpur. A stone lotus flower shimmers in the morning sun; droplets run down the gold and blue flecks of the mosaic tiles. Traditional Malaysian architecture lines the base of the monument; a model village with the odd monkey here and there. But if your tastes are set more in the arts department; the bus can take you to the Malaysian Art gallery. You can meet the artists themselves; and even make an offer on their work. I was never the talented one with a paint brush so I stuck with my photographs. Passing through the museum I hold up what looks like a Chinese straw hat; Saji Piring it's called. But it's made for food, not as a hat. I'll stick to my photographs.
Around the corner from the Museum of art was 'Little India'. The Indian district of Kuala Lumpur; I hadn't yet been to India, but upon arrival it felt pretty close. Bollywood scores rattled through the air and the locals flaunted around in their Sari's and Doti's; I move at a snails pace snapping photographs of the archways lining either side of the street. Little India is really just one long street; with Indian clothing stores on either side. In the center of the roundabout; a fountain with dozens elephants spray water through the incense scented air. Through the open glass facades; shop owners boast their endless palettes of colors to passers-by admiring the rich fabrics. I slip down an alleyway to the right playing Indian music; men, children and women of all ages are sat in small metal shuttered sheds on either side. They trim the marigolds they have in their hands; threading a fine red needle through the center, these were marigold garlands. The saffron hoops of flowers are popular in Indian celebration and weddings; and are the key element of color to any festival. And here I am seeing the makers craft them from scratch; a sweet smell of buttercups and pollen intoxicates, and I take a seat next to one of the artists at work. They trim the edges with scissors; wielding the blades with such precision as they sever more heads to be added to the chain. The dedication is inspiring. But time was short; so I tried my luck at the Dhoti store; but my skinny blonde frame supports none. The shop owners giggle as I emerge from the changing room engulfed in the clothes; I eat more sweet Ladoo as comfort food and head to my final stop before my departure from this serene place. Chinatown.
China town located on Petaling street; a 5 minute taxi ride from central Kuala Lumpur. The four connecting streets host stall after stall of the best Chinese cuisine; fresh fruit and poultry and of course, more knock-offs than you can possibly imagine. A man stirs a pot of roasted almonds as another flips homemade pancakes a to a frenzied crowd. Like any China town in the world; red chinese lanterns line every inch of the streets. Giving a sweet red ambient glow to the scene. Among the top ten things to do in KL is to haggle with a Malaysian. I spot a sweet knock off pair of Ray-Bans; 40 ringgits, challenge accepted. I feel like a native speaker as me and the vendor go into a set of clicks and heckles at one another until I get him down to 30 (£5). If you ever find yourself here; be wary that you will have to force your way through dozen upon dozen of vendors offering you the exact same thing as the last. The narrow walkway through Petaling became even more narrow; to the point where only one person could pass through. The two lanes became a one way road; but there was only so many times I could be struck in the face with Gucci knock-offs. But I had been given my warning and heeded it well; 'Hand bag time sir?' no 'You like watch?' no, 'how about lovely purse for wife?' I'm 21 I can't afford one I laugh, 'go around corner you can buy good wife for the night'. Oh dear. On the subject be careful of the growing prostitution here in Malaysia; only when I was being warned did a lady in her 60's offer me her "warming experience; make you feel good". She hands me a card with the name Michelle on it; tiny love hearts and a number decorate the bottom. I'll pass thanks Michelle.
Disturbing topics aside; I decided to take all the alternative food experiences from Malaysia's markets that I could handle. Most fast food joints in Chinatown hold the personal title for me as of the best Asian food I have ever eaten. I start off with frogs legs; after looking at the poor yellow and green blobs hopping around only moment before. Then onto sharks fin soup; I was unaware of the controversy behind this delicacy and assure you it will not happen again; followed by a full honey crab, and finishing off with sweet and sour chicken feet. The whole lot came to around £15. A buffet for me and my cockney friend Micky. Red and yellow umbrella's led from one side of the street to the other above our heads, each with a chain of Chinese lanterns hanging below. It was a taste of things to come; a taste of Hong-Kong. So I sat; people watched, wrote my notes and brought a close to my beautiful time in Malaysia. Hoping that the frigs legs wouldn't make a return. It was a lonely; thrilling and inspiring beginning to the start of my new chapter. I would take with me the culture of Hinduism, the friendly spirit of the Malaysians. And the colorful inspiring color of the Indian culture. As I write this I sit on the rooftop of a complex in Hong-Kong; in a box of scaffolding made entirely of bamboo poles; looking over the pulsing city of Hong-Kong beneath me. It was the start to a new journey. It is Chinese New Year after all...
Thank-you to all of the folks back home and the jolly folks I meet on my travels reading this. I feel truly grateful to have such a big audience following my travels; and taking the time to read this. Thank-you to those who inspire me; pushing me to carry on this hectic journey. And a thank-you to those who might not be here with me; but continue to inspire me and my work always. And a huge thankyou for the unfathomable kindness of Micky. This trip would not have been possible without your help. Kung Hei Fat Choi! Happy Chinese New Year!
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