Malay Peninsula 5: Kuala Lumpur & The Batu Caves

I’ve totally given up trying to predict my work life. It seems chaos and uncertainty are this year’s watchwords. In an attempt to retain sanity, gratitude, and joy, I’m going to focus more on things I can influence and enjoy. This week that means cherry blossom soda, cherry blossom beer, cherry blossom frappuccino and of course cherry blossom viewing. So until I can write about all those blooms in Korea, here’s another tale from Malaysia, and a much happier one since Kuala Lumpur is less scary by daylight.


Batu Caves

20170119_100407The morning after my late night and less than welcoming arrival, I woke up early, scarfed down my leftover convenience store sweet buns and took off to find the train station that would lead me to the Batu Caves. In recent years, the Malaysian government has added a train stop at this popular tourist attraction, and now it’s much easier to get to. The train itself was a new experience. When you purchase a ticket, you are given a plastic token with an RF chip inside. When entering the platform, you hold the token up to a pad to be read and it opens the gate, but hold on to that chip! When you disembark, you need to feed the chip into a slot to pass through the exit gate.

20170119_105910I met a tour group on the train platform and we chatted during the train ride. I hung around with them and their guide to hear a few of the explanations offered about the caves. The guide rushed us past the dozens of sales stalls (saving us from souvenir swindles), gave a brief presentation under the statue of Hanuman (the Monkey King) and landed us in the main square at the base of the stairs and the giant golden statue of Murugan (a god of war, made of concrete and painted gold colored). There was a tremendous flock of pigeons in the main square and it seemed to be a major tourist attraction to stand in the flock and have them hop onto your hand to get some food. Occasionally construction in the background caused a loud boom that set all the birds a flutter, which was surprisingly pretty.

20170119_111631After a few obligatory photos with the tour group and the giant statue, we began the climb. The stairwell is not insanely long, a mere 272 steps. They were so popular as a form of exercise that the government had to ban fitness use of the staircase to keep it clear for tourists and worshipers. With my kryptonite-like response to humid heat, the staircase became a long haul obstacle, but there were plenty of interesting things to stop and look at on the way up, like the expanding view of the courtyard and city below, the rock formations on the cliffs along side, and of course the hordes of monkeys roaming freely through the grounds. Given that the monkeys are wild, I was totally happy to keep my distance, but they were not shy and enjoyed coming right up to tourists or even forcing a showdown over who got to use the hand rails. At one point there were two monkeys perched on twin posts on either side of me and I managed to get a cute double monkey selfie, checking off a bonus square in the Batu Caves tourist bingo.

20170119_113054When I finally got to the top, I was greeted with a large cave mouth opening that led to an even larger cavern. The entrance of the cave had small buildings installed for souvenirs and police. Once all the way inside, I could see that although this huge open space was graced with a few decorative statues around the edges, it was largely left in its natural state. The cave mouth was wide and there was a natural sky light further on, so the cavern was well lit. There were a few artificial lights in strategic places and an area of worship off to the left. Finally, there was another short staircase leading through to the open area beyond. At the top of those stairs was the rearmost chamber of the cavern, another broad space; however, the roof had long since fallen in and the walls soared up into open air, creating a round room with no roof.

Here a few more monkeys wandered around the main area of worship and some wild roosters serenaded us with late morning greetings to the sun. While the monkeys weren’t looking to steal any watches or cell phones, they were out to grab any food or drinks they could find, and had no problem at all photobombing everyone. I decided to step into the little shrine in the center of the chamber, donating a small amount and lighting a candle in gratitude. I am not Hindu, but I like to donate to historical sites and there is no entrance fee to the Batu cavern. The symbolic gesture of the candle was a good way for me to donate to the preservation of the site and to solidify my own expression of gratitude for getting to live a life where I can have experiences like this one.

I spent a little more time in the cave, just enjoying the surroundings and watching other tourists interact with the monkeys. Responses ranged from the insanely forward to the blatantly cowardly, but the monkeys themselves were so bold that they would simply walk where they wanted to go, trusting the humans to get out of the way.

Dark Cave

20170119_135901As I exited the temple section to descend the stairs again, I detoured off to the right to investigate a “dark cave”. The Malaysian government has taken this side section of limestone cave and created a conservation space. The limestone quarries and careless unregulated tourism of the recent past had wiped out a lot of the cave ecosystems. Efforts to restore the guano based ecosystem of living limestone caves are now underway in many parts of Malaysia and this cave was for both preservation and education.

I couldn’t pass up a chance like that. The cost of entry was 35myr (less than 8$US) and while it was the most expensive thing there, the entry fees all went into the environmental conservation efforts, so I don’t mind. I signed up for the next tour and sat down to wait in the cool cave mouth.

The cave has 3 chambers, but only 2 are open to view. The third is closed off as part of The Science (micro-climate study). The Dark Cave is the most studied cave in the world (they claim). People are only allowed in with a tour guide to prevent damage to the cave and it’s creatures. There are no lights inside. We were each equipped with a flashlight and helmet before entering, but the lights were not needed for most of the tour because of the amount of sunlight that makes its way far into the cave. Our guide was very knowledgeable, talking to us about the history of the cave, the near extinction of the ecosystem and the restoration projects. She then taught us about the ecosystem which is based almost entirely on the bat guano. Bats are the only thing that leaves the cave to bring nutrients in from the outside, so their droppings become the source of a tiny but thriving pile of life.

20170119_125933Nearly everything that lives in the cave is so tiny you wouldn’t even notice it if no one stopped to show you. When we see nature documentaries, there’s often nothing for scale, so it’s easy to imagine the animals as being similarly sized to their daylight counterparts. When our guide showed us a picture of the little white snail that lives on the rocks, I imagined a tiny snail, but not nearly as tiny as the ones we found! The biggest of the snails was about the size of a grain of rice, but there were smaller ones dotted around.

On our journey through the dark, we got to see a number of beautiful cave formations as well. These are similar enough to the limestone formations found just about anywhere there are limestone caves, but they were 4-5x bigger. Photos do not do a good job with scale, and my photos in the dark are a little meh, but if you think you don’t need to go because you’ve seen it before, can I just say, no.  We passed some adorable spiders (although we didn’t get to see the trapdoor guy who is superfamous there), and met the Godzilla of the cave ecosystem. Nearly every creature in there was ultra teeny (even the spider really only had a pea sized body), but this cave centipede was massive. An average currency bill would have covered his body but not his legs. In comparison with his rice grain sized prey, he was a leviathan. Our last fauna sighting was a nearly microscopic troglobite that was about 2mm, but still had a distinctive spiky pattern that made it stand out from the rock on which it sat.


Our entire trip was serenaded by bats. The bats were mostly resting, hanging from the ceiling above us, but they were not silent sleepers. Because of the need to preserve the bats’ environment, we were asked as a group never to point our lights above our own eye level. If you go late in the afternoon, you may even get to see the bats waking up for dinner, but I was there around 1ish, so it was a purely aural experience.

20170119_133356
At the end of the path, the cave had another skylight, revealing the bats’ back door and creating a stunning lighting effect as a single beam of light pierced the blackness of the cave from high above. With just a little light, photosynthesizing algae had coated the rocks and gave the entire area a soft green glow.

The walk back out was much faster, since we were simply retracing our steps. If I spent more time talking about the Dark Cave than the temple, it might be because I was greatly impressed. It has not been long since developing economies were not able to give resources to research and preservation that didn’t directly lead to feeding more humans. In the recent past, these caves were unprotected and used as places for who-knows-what, leaving the land covered in litter, cigarette butts and graffiti. Not that long ago that the monkeys were fed potato chips and soda, while today they are given nuts, fruits and flowers. It’s amazing to me what a society can achieve toward a relationship with nature and our past when we make it a priority. As I watch the power and funding of US national parks and the EPA come under fire, it gives me some hope that other countries will take up the stewardship.

Other Attractions

20170119_140630.jpgAs I descended back to ground level, I passed still more monkeys, several sets of mother and baby wandered around, and some tourists were feeding them peanuts (despite the do not feed signs). I noticed that the dominant males were very protective of their snacking rights and would drive off the mothers aggressively. Of course, no trip to a monkey colony would be complete without a little fornication. I happened to be standing right next to a female when a male walked up, took her butt in both hands and peered at it closely, then proceeded to mount her, much to the shock and amusement of tourists from 6-7 different countries. No, I did not take monkey porn pics.

At the base of the stairs, I detoured into a little shopping area where I was able to get some much needed water (bring more than you think you need!) and a little snack. I wandered through a shop selling Malay and Indian styles of clothing that was just to die for. It was all overpriced because Batu is such a tourist location, but it was still fun to look, and gave me a strong desire to return to Malaysia one day with a bigger suitcase!

20170119_150442.jpg
There were more attractions along the walkway between the stairs and the train station. I passed the “Cave Villa”, but a short search on Google advised me that this area (which had once been an art gallery and museum) was now hosting a sad number of mistreated animals for paid photo ops. I wish this were outdated information, but I found another one while writing this that was written since I got back. It’s very disappointing, considering everything I just wrote about the good steps that Malaysia is taking toward environmental preservation, but sadly, animal rights and animal welfare are another area that humans at large have only recently started to be concerned with. Animals often have a link to one or more deities in Hinduism and may be involved in rituals or (as in the case of the monkeys) given free reign at a temple. However, it is NOT a tenant of Hinduism to mistreat animals, and this display is likely merely a tourist attraction since visitors toss money into the small cages and pay to pose with the snakes and birds. I didn’t go in, and I hope if enough tourists reject this treatment of animals, the government will upgrade the Villa to a cruelty-free art gallery.

Ramayana Cave

20170119_151445Farther on, beneath the looming statue of Hanuman we passed at the beginnging, was the Ramayana Cave. This attraction was much more highly reviewed and was only 5 ringgits to enter, so I decided to give it a shot. There is a stream inside the mountain that comes out and is used as part of a beautiful fountain depicting the chariot of Rama and Sita. If you’re not familiar with the Ramayana, it’s a very popular dramatic tale from the Mahabharata (one of the most important Hindu religious texts). In addition to being a big part of the faith, the Ramayana is a soap-opera-esque tale of love and betrayal that is to this day one of the most popular television series ever aired in India. Kind of like if the Iliad were still relevant and cool today.

20170119_151916.jpg
The cave had two entrances (or more probably one entrance and one exit, but there were so few visitors that it wasn’t enforced). I first found myself in a section of the cave that appeared to be preserving the graffiti of the recent past or maybe even inviting new graffiti, giving visitors a place to scrawl to spare the other areas? Escaping the graffiti tunnel, I discovered the main chamber of the cave to be filled with larger than life depictions of scenes from the story. I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten most of the plot, since I read it longer ago than I want to admit and only once, but there were a few informative signs to help out.

20170119_152654.jpg
There was a stone arch leading up some stairs that gave a closer view of the cave’s internal waterfall, as well as a bird’s eye view of the main cavern, complete with birds. There was a LOT of graffiti in the cave, but most of it seemed to be on smooth walls rather than on the cave formations, and it was clear in any case that with all the electric lights and colorful statues that the cave was not likely to grow any further (all the more reason to be supportive of that Dark Cave!). I can’t hold the modern Malaysians totally responsible though, because evidence suggests that humans had been using these caves for centuries, and the modern laws prohibit building or excavating in living ecosystems. All in all, I consider the Ramayana cave worth the visit for both the cave and the man-made additions.

Batu Cave is often depicted as the giant golden statue and sweeping staircase, but there are plenty of other things to do there. I visited 3 of the 4 “attractions” at Batu. Only the main temple cave is truly free; however, I think it is worth the less than 10$ I spent to visit the Dark Cave and Ramayana Cave. On the other hand, the prices of souvenirs is high and the quality is low, so unless you really need something from Batu, it’s best to do your shopping elsewhere. On the way out, climbing the train station up a couple stories, there’s a nice view of the temple complex from the air as well.

20170119_154852.jpg

MORE KL

20170119_165307.jpg
There are times in a journey when the universe just opens a path. I was ridiculously hungry by the time the train got back to KL but didn’t know where to get food because I’d only eaten at convenience stores since arriving. Instead of taking the same path out of the station that I’d come in by, I followed a beautiful sky-walk that lead out and around, giving me a nice view of the city and of the river swollen with rain that had fallen while I was coming back from Batu. The sky-walk ended in a large, clean, and above all air conditioned building of indeterminate function. I think it may have been an office building, 20170119_170032but the main floor had a few shops and restaurants. I pulled into the first one I saw and confessed my massive ignorance of Malaysian cuisine, asking the staff for a recommendation. Moments later I had a heaping plate of some kind of fried rice dish that was smokey and pleasantly but not overwhelmingly spicy. Sometimes you just gotta walk on the road that looks more interesting.


Having discovered that Kuala Lumpur was not actually a rat-infested cess-pit, I had a very nice time. I wish the heat did not affect me so adversely because Malaysian cuisine is unique and delicious and I too often had mild heat exhaustion related nausea that kept me from properly enjoying it. If this trip taught me one thing about travelling in tropical climates it’s to plan an indoor/air-con activity every other day. For more photos, please check out the full album on Facebook, and stay tuned for the next chapter which includes some up close and personal with animals in the city’s wildlife sanctuaries/gardens. As always, I hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading!

 

Malay Peninsula 3: Singapore Temples

Here in Korea, the insanity of the first month of school is winding to a close, the root canal adventure goes on with no end in sight, and the first cherry blossoms have burst forth, promising at least two weekends of magical pink snow beauty and wonder. In the mean time, here’s the story of my second day in Singapore exploring the famous temples in Chinatown.


20170118_104531After an incredibly full first day in Singapore, I had a much lighter day of temple viewing planned before I hopped on the bus to Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon. It’s never hard to wake up in a dorm hostel, since everyone else is waking up, too. After packing up and enjoying another cup of teh tarik, I headed out to catch the sights. The night before, I’d run across a giant rooster in the street (in anticipation of the impending lunar new year holiday), so I did a quick rerouting to pass back by in the light of day. Chinatown was already putting on a decorative show two weeks before the holiday; I can only imagine how crazy it was on the actual holiday weekend. 20170118_104832In addition to the stunning decorations, I passed by a street artist sitting in the shade of an overpass and working on the beginning of a painting of the festivities. He was kind enough to let me take a photo and we wished each other a happy new year in parting.

I found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the middle of a sprawling street market. One major advantage to backpacking is the space restrictions prevent you from picking up souvenirs. Otherwise, I might have been in danger (I love the red paper cut art!). After locating the temple, I ducked into a little food court and wrangled some dumplings and fresh lime juice for breakfast. I seriously dig the Singaporian food court concept, using a larger space to allow a multitude of different cultural food shops to share a common dining area. We have them in malls in the US, but they are usually terrible food and not a wide variety (plus embedded in a shopping mall, ew). In Korea there are dozens of tiny restaurants with very small seating areas, so you can get variety, but if one place is more popular, seating is limited. None of the food courts in Singapore were top notch restaurants, but they were all several steps above corporate fast food. Just in case anyone is looking for a new business model.

The Love of Money…

20170118_113909After breakfast, I headed into the temple. I generally don’t wear short shorts, and while I go wear sleeveless in heat sometimes, since my plan for the day was temples, I was dressed appropriately. However, for the tourists who weren’t, a staff of firm but polite people arranged for them to wear long skirts or shoulder wraps from a shared bin. Once past the main entrance, I walked into a smaller room where two monks were performing a blessing on a couple donating to the temple in a red envelope (traditional for money gifting at the new year). As I watched, I realized people around me were taking photos and video and I was surprised. I looked around for any signs about cameras, but there were none. It seemed that the temple allowed visitors to take pictures. It felt very strange taking pictures in a temple, and in the end I could only take a few before my sense of unease overcame me.

20170118_114516The main hall on the ground floor was an ode to opulence. I’m used to Buddhist temples being ornate. Wood and stone carvings with intricate detail are common (though never boring). Paintings or works in colorful semi-precious stones, and even the occasional gold paint or gilt covering to add some shine. The point is, that I’m used to temples being about effort and time and skill, rather than about blatant displays of wealth. In fact, a common art form is the sand mandala, which is made over weeks or months of painstaking hand work, then wiped out to represent the impermanence of reality. I don’t have an issue with beauty in a temple, I go to temples in part because they are beautiful, but something about this temple and it’s over the top gold, it’s donation jars every few feet, and it’s designated VIP seating for supplicants just did not sit well with me.

20170118_115923I found the elevator and went all the way to the roof to see the orchid garden. That at least was in keeping with temple life as I think of it. Although orchids are rare in the world, they are common in Singapore and the difficulty of their cultivation reflects the work that monks and nuns put in as part of their practice. Below the gardens, the top floor contained the relic for which the temple is named, a fragment of the Buddha’s tooth. It was also the only room in the building where shoes and cameras were prohibited. There were dedicated meditation mats along the windows where a few people were sitting in silent contemplation, and there was another large gold display.

I don’t actually believe in holy relics. I did not come to the temple to be close to a piece of the body of the Buddha. Aside from the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that this bone was really from the human being known as Siddhartha Gautama, if one embraces the ideals of Buddhism, one would know that the body is not the person, and even beyond that, the idea of separate person-hood or individual ego identity is an illusion. I almost understand Christians who seek holy relics because they are thought to be touched by the divine, but I scratch my head at Buddhists who think that enlightenment may somehow be transmitted through dead tissue.

A sign next to the relic boasted that the shrine housing it was made of solid gold (not merely gold plated) and went on to say that offering gold to the Buddha (meaning of course the temple) was a high honor and was greatly encouraged. I nearly gagged.

20170118_114221I’ve seen American “mega-churches” that have gold plated elevators and preachers with 5 cars and 3 houses and a minimum annual income requirement for membership. These also disgust me and I often wondered how any Christian could justify that kind of obvious money-grubbing and wealth favoring within their doctrine. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Buddhist “mega-temple”, and it was awful. It made me feel ashamed to be associated with the faith. It made me want to run around to tourists and exclaim “that’s not what Buddhism is about!”. It made me want to drag out some scripture and ask the people praying there if they’d even read it. And for just a moment, it made me think about Terry Pratchett’s Yen Buddhists, whose main theological argument is that:

excess money and valuables are a drain on one’s spiritual welfare and an active impediment on achieving dharma and oneness with the universe. Therefore, the monks make the world the selfless offer that they will undertake, at the risk of their own union with the godhood, to take away this impediment to other people achieving consciousness and the opening of the Third Eye. They accept the spiritual tarnish that comes with being one of the richest religious sects on the Disc so that you don’t have to.

Sadly, I don’t think that the Buddha Tooth Relic temple had such altruistic motives in collecting wealth.

20170118_120625I headed down to the third floor to see the museum, which was a worthwhile collection. It was a nice museum of Buddhist art and man-made relics that included a sort of “intro to the Buddha” story on signs around the displays. Like the rooftop garden, it felt far more authentic and enjoyable. The relics were primarily stone, clay, bronze or wooden and had clearly been the result of effort and craftsmanship. Although the extraordinary focus on Guan Yin and the Maitreya was a little overwhelming, it did point to the fact that the temple’s own branch of Buddhism was a salvific form that relies on Bodhisattvas and future Buddha’s to save the world, rather than on the practice of self cultivation for individual enlightenment.

20170118_122525.jpgThe second floor had a nice place to rest, which I desperately needed. Adjusting to the heat and extra walking was taking a toll. It was such a great contrast to my energy level in New Zealand where the weather was cool. Just minimum exertion in a hot humid climate seems to drain me like a marathon! After a rest and a look through the last floor of displays, I made my way back to the ground floor, once more shaking my head at the ostentation, this time walking past the VIP seats they were filled with supplicants who had paid I’m not sure what to get past the velvet ropes. All in all, I’m still glad I went to see it, because I learned something about the corrupting properties of money. All temples ask for donations to help feed the monastic population, pay the basic bills, and to provide services to the community. Money is, in this world, unavoidable. However, when a house of faith relies on wealth or doles out blessings for cash or claims that the donation of great wealth is a higher holy act than living a good life, that’s corruption.

Count your deities, count your blessings…

20170118_132532.jpgAfter the Buddhist temple, I took the short walk two streets over to see the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore: Sri Mariamman. This humble wooden structure was not a display of wealth, but was still anything but plain. Wooden carvings covered every inch of the outer facade and were brightly painted besides. Anyone was welcome to enter, leaving their shoes behind on racks on the sidewalk. There were saris for anyone who felt inadequately dressed, and while we were free to wander around the grounds barefoot, the main areas of worship were cordoned off, not for a fee, but for the faithful. I am not a Hindu, so I contented myself with observing from behind the lines. The interior of the temple is a large courtyard with smaller buildings, each one dedicated to a different divinity. There are over 330 million gods in the umbrella of Hindu faith, and while only a couple dozen are among the most popular, it can 20170118_132153.jpgbe hard for a layperson to know which altar is for who. I found 10 names of deities for this temple on it’s Wikipedia page. There might be more. In addition to the colorful decor and variety of spots to worship, there appeared to be a large hall at the back used for everything from yoga classes to wedding ceremonies.

On my way out and back to grab my bag from the hostel, I passed by one more religious building, a famous mosque. It struck me then that within only a 20170118_132927.jpgcouple city blocks, I had passed 3 major religious buildings, and I knew from the map that a Christian church was not far off. Curious, I looked around the map for a synagogue and found one a little over 3km away, and it was neighbored with another church, Hindu temple, and Buddhist temple. It seemed that it wasn’t hard to find a spot in Singapore where at least 4 out of the 5 major world religions shared a small space and yet no one was getting blown up, shot or even harassed on the street! While I’m sure that Singapore’s strict legal code has something to do with the lack of violence, I like to think that pluralism in the culture helps everyone to get along. People of other faiths or cultures seem less scary when they are our neighbors and not “those others”.


Please check out the rest of the photos in the Facebook albums: Around Singapore and Singapore Temples, and stay tuned for the next installment where I leave the clean and ordered city-state of Singapore and experience a mighty dose of culture shock in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). As always, I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading!