Thaipusam – Day time

Day 42, Tuesday 07 Feb, Kuala Lumpur

I didn’t get a huge amount of sleep, paid a lot of money for this bed and was only in it for four hours!  I got up at nine and packed my stuff up and headed downstairs for breakfast and got a call from Trefor, he is back in KL and I can stay the night on his couch ! Awesome. I checked out of the hostel and left my bag in the locker and headed back out on my own to see what Thaipusam (TP) looks like during the day.  I had to only walk meters before finding the first bus heading to Batu Caves, as I was one of the last on board we pretty much went straight to the highway and were off. The traffic was a lot worse today and there were cars angle and double parked a good kilometre up the motorway from Batu…. Crazy !

When I arrived there seemed to be a lot less people than last night, still tens (or hundreds) of thousands around the site, but  the main entrance to the caves  was relatively calm today, it was only thinly packed ! There were a lot more stalls selling souvenirs and the usual cheap Chinese crap that seems to find its way into every market I have been to. There were also a few stalls selling the dreaded horns that were a real feature last night, bit seemed quieter today.

I walked back up the motorway ramp where we saw the small procession of guys with the hooked ropes in their backs. It was pretty deserted but I could see there was some action at the end of the ramp where we spent most of the time last night watching the blessings and the garlands being made and the guy being pierced. I snapped a couple of shots from the bridge.

The river here is where people were bathing last night, the rubbish was just everywhere.

 You will see more of this guy later.

And this guy !

Fortunately there were still a number of devotees getting ready to do the walk and I got a number of shots of the hooks being pushed into the skin. One thing you will notice, and it was not obvious last night was there is no blood. Writing this the next day I do not recall seeing any blood at all during the festival. I will let these pictures speak for themselves…

I spent a bit of time just watching and walking around, as it was extremely hot and sunny I finally wandered off with the intent of getting to the caves and doing the “steps”.

In one of the shots above you will see a guy standing there with a large curved sword, I didn’t see any weapons at all last night and was wondering what it was for, I soon found out…

The devotees  come to the steps from a number of preparation sites but all end up walking along the final section of road to enter through the main entrance to the caves, I am guessing they probably walk around a kilometre to the steps. As I said above the day was very hot and the closer we got to the steps the more breaks the devotees we taking. As they walked people mainly women stopped and gave the pierced guys drinks of milk from the cups they were carrying as part of their worship. The pierced guys then ‘blessed’ them – or something anyway !

This guy has three spears through his cheeks, everyone of those chains ends in a small hook in his skin. He is also carrying a large feathered kavadi (offering) that must weigh many kilos.

At the bottom of the steps, you can just see it in one of the photos below, there s is an entrance way the devotees must pass through, for those with the tall kavidas, they have to bend their tortured bodies down to pass underneath. In the middle of the entrance they stop to dance with their supporters, watching this was an absolute highight of my day, but we soon got moverd on by the police.

The devotees then climb the 272 steps the temple inside the cave. It was incredibly hot by the time I got to the walk through the crowds, and the suffering the devotees must be going through would be incredible.

The skewer through the cheeks or tongue is to prevent the devotee from sharing his pain with others.

Remember this guy from one of the early photos !

Once their offering has been presented the piercings come out.

I wandered around the cave for a little bit and then literally dripping with sweat I went back down the stairs, skulled a warm bottle of water and caught a bus back to the hostel. And there ended my TP experience.

The day was interesting certainly, so much easier to take photos than last night but it did ‘feel’ the same for a witness, I am sure the devotees and their friends and family do not share my simplistic point of view though !  The heat got to me definitely, the level of commercialism was frustrating, not that the festival was in anyway commercial, but the number of stalls and people trying to sell me cell phone contracts and pirated DVD’s was just not what I was there for.

Don’t get me wrong, it was still amazing ! and I am extremely glad I came bacthe day, was gok t KL for it. The night experience definately rocked my boat.

I grabbed a shower before heading off to the Petronas towers to meet up with Trefor.

Ah, NZ – famous for its curry houses

We went and dumped my gear in his 24th floor apartment, (the lift shows 23a as 4 is unlucky !) and soon headed for a wee lager at some of the local bars. Trefor had two old work colleagues  from his London days in the 90’s also turn up in KL as well so the four of us spent a few hours sucking down suds before heading back for some (for me, much needed) sleep.

An interesting final day in KL !

Thaipusam – night visit

Night 41, Monday, 06 Feb, Kuala Lumpur – Thaipusam Festival

As at least one person has probably guessed, I have been really avoiding trying to write this post as I just don’t know how to document in written form the experience that was attending Thaipasum (TP) at Batu Caves (BC) at night.

I wrote notes on the night to capture some of it, but it is now four days later and I am in Singapore. I picked myself up a (relatively speaking) cheap bottle of Shiraz and have some sounds cranking so hopefully the words will fly. I am hoping that my pictures have captured a tiny bit of the essence and intensity of the night, but I am no National Geographic photographer !

TP is a Hindu festival, primarily celebrated by the Tamil people, though each year there are more and more people of other races celebrating and this was quite obvious in KL with many Malay and Chinese people actively involved. The festival is celebrated in a number of centres but one of the biggest is at BC in KL, with well over a million people attending over the four days. The eve of the first day and the first day are the two most popular times. To save me some time describing the history, here is the wiki….

Right, back to the beginning of the night, which is roughly 7.00 PM,  and lets crack straight into my daily whinge, it seems there is always one, and as usual it is going to follow a similar path – information ! Information on the festival is surprisingly sparse on the internet as well as locally. Much as I really liked the hostel guys they were totally useless when it came to information on anything, I would have thought they would have the details on such a major festival (and public holiday) that starts less than a km away !!! .  Surprisingly most of the other travellers in the hostel were not interested in it, so they were not much use either – why do people visit foreign countries with no interest in their culture ?

The festival starts with a parade from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, just up the road from the hostel and ends at BC about 15km away.  The parade kicks off around 12.30 am on the eve of the festival.  I was not expecting vast hoards on the street at 7 pm so was patient. Over the next three hours I went out numerous times and saw nothing on the street. At 11.30 PM two other guys from the hostel were heading out with a plan to stay out so I asked if I could join them and off we went. Mike from Canada and Giovanni from (you guessed it) Italy and I wandered up to the temple and it was still closed and dark, not a great sign. As we were standing around wandering what to do a car pulled up,  I went over and asked the Indian driver what time the parade left, he said it had – 23 hours ago….  Apparently the parade does start on the eve of the festival, just really really early on the eve. (Tip for anyone going in the future – you need to be there 24 hours before the official start date !). He also told us to head up to BC as there will be plenty happening, he also told us the train was running 24 hours a day during the festival.

We shot back to the hostel so I could grab my camera and some water and then hit the streets again to walk to the station, as we arrived on the main street near the station we found a bus with BC written on it so jumped on board, we were the only passengers. After waiting for a while we found that the bus doesn’t actually go to the caves until it is completely full. The bus finally left and did a few laps of little India and little China as we got increasingly twitchy. Eventually we stopped outside a closing restaurant and a busload of very ‘happy’ Hindu men piled on board and we were off !

We arrived close to BC about 12.30 am, the traffic was appalling and after a while of virtually not moving and BC well within site I got up and walked to the front of the bus and said we wanted to walk, this seemed to start a rush and we all got off the bus into a heaving throng of scooters, barely moving cars and throngs of people heading in all directions at once, scores of people had plastic horns and the night air was a blast of noise.  I know it kind of sounds like going to Eden Park on the train to see the All Blacks play a test against the Aussies but it wasn’t anything like that at all

We followed the crowd that was heading into the site and soon found ourselves packed into a massive scrum of happy, smiling people, lots and lots of men, but numerous family groups and many dressed in what was their finest dress. The three of us are all quite tall so stood out like sore thumbs in the crowd. Before we left I was a bit concerned that some would see us as voyeurs to their special, holy moment and we would be made to feel unwelcome, but this was so far from my experience, a lot of people smiled, waved and said hello and seemed so pleased that we were interested in their celebrations. We spoke to many people over the night, got some good viewing tips (would never have ended up by the river without being told to go there) and people were so keen to hear what we thought of the event and our experience, one of so many things I found humbling.

Our first viewing point was almost opposite the entrance to the temple area, and it was heaving with people, being quite tall we sort of had some sort of view of the proceedings. The devotees come from numerous start points around the site but all come down one final section of road into the temple grounds.

It was very hard to take photos here, quite dark but lots of bright lights to throw exposures off, and well, it wasn’t if I was going to set up a tripod and ask people to stand still for a long exposure !  flash was used on occasion. We soon saw a number of devotees coming through with their kavadi (offering). As you would have read in the wiki (you did read it didn’t you ?) these can take many forms, and the first of these huge feathered towers (I can think of no more apt description) came past.

It was quite warm – a woman collapsed in front of me from the heat, but we all formed a circle around her, someone produced some water and someone else a fan and she was soon helped up and off – I am so glad I am six foot and reasonable access to air. These men were carrying a large, completely top heavy, weight, with hooks piercing their skin, in this heat and for hours. We were watching the parade for an hour and it moved less than 50 metres.

Finally I managed to get close enough to get a couple of shots of one of the devotees with hooks, which to put my voyeuristic hat on, was what I was there for.

After an hour in the throng we decided to move further up the road way, as were passing through one of the many small areas where families were sleeping the night a man stopped us for a chat and pointed out a spot we should head to down by the river, where the men are blessed and the hooks and skewers are done. He was so pleased to find that three strangers from three different continents had come together to visit his people’s festival in his continent. The atmosphere was amazing, I know my photos do not show it at all, but there was a real feel of joy and celebration in the air.

We walked down what appeared to be a motorway onramp which had a mix of devotees who were heading to the preparation area.

And some on their walk.

When I saw this group approaching I jumped over the mid-lane barrier in the motorway to get some closer shots, others were  there and no-one seemed to mind and I ended up being extremely close, I didn’t want to offend by taking a million shots, so snapped a few and left. But I was very close, I could feel the intensity from these men, the shared pain and purpose, the devotion,  it was unlike anything I have experienced before and I really cannot describe it at all. I have never seen or head anything like it in the flesh before. It was just amazingly intense, powerful, alien, but also full of life, of celebration. It looks painful, and you could see pain in their eyes and in their bodies, but mostly you could feel pride, I won’t say joy – maybe celebration is more apt…  When I crossed back to Mike and Giovanni I was almost shaking with the experience.

We carried on down the road until we reached a smallish area partially under the on-ramp and by the canal, it was utterly heaving with people and this area encapsulated the TM experience. It was complete sensory overload, with every sense being assaulted all at the same time, it was confusing, it was extremely intense it was everything.

Imagine every sense being battered at once – a number of the devotees had a drumming group and leader who would lead a chant and there were a large number of seemingly independent groups going as well. As we were all jammed together it was a cacophony of sound, like being at a rock festival and having five stages playing around you all at once, somehow it all made sense. Adding to the noise were a number of supporters blasting toots from the ubiquitous (and eventually very annoying) plastic horns. Each devotee had a small shrine with incense burning and a number had small fires going, so there was a good layer of smoke rolling through the site. It was so packed that we were constantly jammed up against the people around us and none of the people around us looked like us, or us them, and they didn’t mind at all.  And finally the sights – just so much, colour, action, scenes so un-western that you didn’t know where to look. Every sense was in action, almost overwhelming, very intense, very powerful, very alien.

A small group of women were making garlands, I am not sure how they weren’t crushed.


A devotee being hooked up.

We watched this guy preparing for his walk for a long time. He was part of a small group, they danced, they hugged, he blessed some of his supporters. The intensity of their preparations, which include fasting, special diets among other activities over the preceding days puts the devotees into an elevated space, the look in their eyes is just the most amazing thing, they call members of their entourage out and bless them and the fervour passes on, sorry I cannot describe it adequately at all, but it was amazing. This man had a very slow and special walk he undertook as his devotion.

These guys were in the same group

My fave shot… there was something massively primal in this hug, you could feel it from ten feet away.

It was soon almost 4.00 Am and we were hungry and tired so decided to head back into town and the hostel. We wandered back past the entrance to BC and it was still packed so changed direction and aimed for the train station, which we discovered was not running!

To get across the tracks we followed a crowd and climbed up the side of a locked over bridge, squeezed through the fence, crossed the tracks, then through another fence to drop down on to the road on the other side. This just added to the whole radicalness of the experience for me, loved it !  We  found our way to a bus and got to bed about 4.30…

So, what did I think ?

The most intense thing I have done, ever. Words cannot describe it. There were a lot of people, hundreds of thousands – and I would have seen maybe a dozen other westerners. It was loud, it was full of smells, it was close and tight and I was constantly banging into people, the scenes were amazing, the ‘feel’ was one of celebration, of a shared pain and a shared joy. It was utterly alien to my wee sheltered New Zealand world.

On the bus on the way in I was – hmm, scared is not the right word, but almost. This put me into so many places I don’t like, and the crazy thing was I think I was the least concerned of all of us when we arrived. So rising above my own discomfort and enjoying the festival for what it really is, a huge celebration of the human spirit, where race and wealth or caste seemed to irrelevant and celebration was the order of the day (or night in this case).

It was fucking awesome ! and I am so utterly glad I went – I almost didn’t, so thanks Mike and Giovanni !

PS. Excuse the swearing mum.

Leech cures and Petronas at night

Day 32, Saturday 28 Jan 2012, Kuala Lumpur, part two

Just sitting in the lobby of my resort in Langkawi, accessing the free wifi and supping my first (second, third, fourth) red in over a month. Wine – how I have missed thee ! Ok it is a chilled Chilean, but it is still red and still wine.  More on Langkiwi tomorrow, this post is all about yesterday.

OK, I am going to say I loved Batu Caves, a great mix of history, culture and monkeys, definitely something you cannot see outside of Asia, so a great morning was had.  As I was leaving the weather packed in and it started to drizzle, I made a hurried walk to the station and missed the train by about 10 seconds. Luckily this is not Auckland so the next train arrived early and left on time, also unlike Auckland it had a chicks only carriage, or maybe there are just no ladies in Auckland, so there is no need for them 🙂

I got the train back to the old Kuala Lumpur train station and walked back towards Merdaka square, which was hosting a celebration of some sorts, not too sure what for, but there was a weird mix of dragon dancers, this awesomely loud car, playing appalling Chinese dance music.

And a Malay pipe band !

From Merdaka Square I wandered around little India for a while, which was pumping with lunch time crowds. I had one of these, a very thin waffle filled with crushed peanuts and sugar, very nice.

I loved these irons ! Awesome, I was sorely tempted to buy one.

After lunch of veges and rice i headed back to the hostel for a rest and got a phone call from an old friend from my London days in the eighties. Trefor had just taken a job in Kuala Lumpur and we arranged to catch up in the evening. I was planning on heading back to Petronas Towers to try for the night shot I missed last night, conveniently Trefor is now working for Petronas and has an office on the 19th floor and lives close by.

The late afternoon saw a massive downpour hit KL, possibly the heaviest rain I have seen and I was watching my night shoot disappearing down the drain.  Like all good downpours it was relatively short lived and I managed to sneak out just after 6.00. The sun obviously sets a lot later in KL than it does in Borneo as I had a longer wait at the towers than I anticipated, I took a listless half hearted walk around the mall and a very average chicken rendang for dinner – I should have asked for more chilli (what is becoming of me, more chilli !!!).  After dinner I headed out to the back of the mall area and set up the tripod and camera to await the dark. I took a lot of photos !

I then moved around to the front for a couple more. Did I say how awesomely well set out for photography this place is – OK I know I did but it really was worth mentioning again !

I was wrapping up my photo taking when I got a call from Trefor to say he had arrived at the towers.  At a very loud Irish bar in the tower mall complex, that appeared to be full of very loud expats, we caught up on a few years of each others lives over a lager or two. . I had an enjoyable couple of hours and it was good to catch up, Trefor works in the oil industry in project roles and has worked in some interesting places. When I am back in KL in a few days I am going to stay at his place, which is just awesome. As I had to be up early to find my way to the airport I left just before 11 and had a reasonably quick ride back to the hostel on the train.

I had just settled down in my bunk when there was a series of loud explosions outside, I lay there for a bit wondering what the hell was going on and finally decided to get up a for a look see, there was a massive midnight fireworks display, sadly there was a bloody great tower block between me and it so I only got to see the periphery. Damn it ! no idea what it was for and disappointed the hostel didn’t mention it to guests as it appears to have been a BIG deal, lots of big fireworks over a ten minute period.

I got back to bed and listened to some one snore for 6 hours – and no, earplugs did not work !

Play loud

Batu Caves

Day 32, Saturday 28 Jan 2012, Kuala Lumpur, Batu Caves

This could be my first two post day, if anything happens this afternoon it will definitely be, crikey it is all happening! I went to Batu Caves this morning and it is worth its own post, also because I am spending the afternoon  in the hostel until I go back to Petronas Towers for another crack at a night shot, weather dependant of course.

Interesting night in the ten person mixed dorm, there are nine beds with packs on them and by 11pm only two of us were in bed, I suspected it was going to be a long night, having said that, I kinda slept OK. Last person came in at 5.30 am and first people up at 5.45… I was talking to young English guys this morning, they said they were leaving KL after seven days as it was costing too much to drink. They had been to Petronas Towers and Chinatown, thats it – seven days worth of site seeing– and the hostel is in Chinat That made me feel all adventurous, as I had been further than that!

Batu Caves is a 15km train ride from thje local station and is one of KL’s key attractions. The fare was 80c and the train went all the way there, yay for KL !

The caves are the most import Hindu shrine outside of India and are dedicated to Lord Murugan. The site also has a 42metre high golden coloured statue of the lord, the temple cave is accessed via a 272 step staircase which must be ascended by devotees heading to the temple, many with their offerings.

I arrived there fairly early and missed the worst of the tourist rush, which was great. The site is also famous for its macaque monkeys, and as a poor Indian women learnt – it is advisable to not carry any food or drink…

Blessing before the climb.

Macaque peeling an orange.Lord Murugan and the famous 272 steps.

The climb.

I was looking back up stairs when I heard a woman shreak, as I turned round this monkey was undoing the screw top on this bottle of milk it had stolen from her. Milk is one of the key offerings made and is in the containers the women are carrying on their heads. The macaque didnt drink it from the bottle, just poured it on the ground.The cave temple and a shrine.

The view to KL

The site is also where the Thaipasum festival parade ends, I was talking to one of the devotees at the top of the stairs and he said in the day of the festival there will be 1.5million people there.  I imagine the trains will be packed…

I really enjoyed Batu Caves !

Homer reincarnated?

Apologies, some of these images are a soft, will have to give the camera a clean as I am not sure if the auto-focus is picking up some dirt on the lens.

1 month of travel completed !

Day 31, Friday 27 Jan 2012, Kuala Lumpur

Well if you read my last, brief, post you will know that my first completed month on the road was not a day I will remember fondly. I had a lousy sleep as the hostel is internally not very soundproof, so people noise all night long kept me awake. I will stay the next two nights in the dorm and see how it goes and then decide if I come back here when I come back for Thaipusam in Feb, this hostel is very close to the start of the procession to Batu Caves so is a good spot for it. I am going to check the caves out tomorrow if the rain stops as they will be a few hundred thousand people there during the festival.

Anyways, back to the story, good breakfast and coffees and then started getting ready to hit the streets when I discovered that most of my US cash and some Malaysian money had been stolen from my money belt that was locked in a hostel locker, probably about 500NZD worth. I wasn’t angry, the hostel were unhappy about it, realistically they cannot do anything about it. I was pretty gutted, I had had a good day yesterday and was getting into a groove with being in KL on my own but now I was just feeling alone and lonely, with no one to share my disappointment with. The sun was out as I trudged out the door and went for a walk around the area, old train station and another building that I had no idea what it was but I did like these steps !

I then caught the monorail to the Bukit Bintang shopping area.

They had a good display of friendship buddy bears, there was no NZ one, this was as close as I got to my heritage 🙂

And Moldova was my favourite.

I spent a couple of listless hours wandering the shops, very uninspired, and then headed back to the hostel. Had a great chat with my oldest son, Dom on the phone and a Skype chat with a friend and was back into it ! I have decided (and booked) to take a couple of days out and fly to Langkawi in the north east of Malaysia and hang out in a resort by the beach and recharge. I was going to do it in the next couple of weeks but needed it now, it wasn’t cheap, but certainly nowhere near the price of the expensive resorts.  I will then come back to KL via Penang.

I then headed out for a planned visit to the Petronas Towers, I intended to spend some time looking around the outside, go into the big mall inside and have dinner then get a couple of night shots in.  I was absolutely blown away by the towers, they are stunning to look at, fourth tallest buildings in the world and they look so metallic, hard to describe, but I really liked them. What has also been done well is the front of the towers is clear of trees and buildings which allows easy access to take photos, so unusual and very well done !

I managed to snap a couple of shots before the heavens opened so I went inside for a couple of hours and came out just before dark. Still raining !!!!

So I left and went back to the hostel.