KUALA LUMPUR'S JOIE DE VIVRE!
Kuala Lumpur loves to whoop it up. Its citizens—Malay, Chinese and Indian—may follow the precepts of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity, but that's of little consequence. A celebration is a celebration, be it Christmas, Id or Chinese New Year, and everyone joins in the revels.
When I arrive in January the Hindu festival of Thaipoosam, is on the horizon and my tour guide Ramu tells me that the Batu Temple Caves, just outside the city, will soon be thronged with over 800,000 pilgrims. "They will be musicians accompanying palanquins decked with flowers, peacock feathers and bells, and processions of people carrying brass vessels filled with milk, as offerings to the deity," he says. "Unfortunately it will be too noisy, and crowded to visit during the festival, but you can't leave Kuala Lumpur without seeing the Batu Caves—they are spectacular!"
What he doesn't mention is that the climb to the entrance of the caves is equally spectacular. My idea of vigorous exercise is walking up an ascending escalator, and I quail at the sight of a 272-step stairway, crawling centipede-like up the face of the cliff. My first reaction is to turn around and leave. But then curiosity takes over. I take a deep breath, and start the ascent. "Do it slowly," Ramu says smiling, "there's no rush!"
I pause after the first thirty steps to catch my breath and look around. The air, a warm, moist sponge, smells of dust, spices and marigold flowers. A long-tailed macaque perches on a nearby railing, hoping for a handout, while a steady stream of people file past him: old women with walnut wrinkled faces, chocolate-complexioned little girls wearing butterfly ribbons in their hair, holy men, their foreheads smeared with ash and red powder and the occasional camera-toting foreigner in shorts and thongs.
The cavern, cool and moist, is filled with the acridity of bat guano and the odour of damp vegetation. I am surrounded by cascading limestone stalactites—pearl grey, brown or copper—intertwined with garlands of tropical creepers. Long dripping fingers of rock glitter in the shaft of sunlight pouring through the roof of the cave, and stalagmites, some slender, others stumpy, loom like ghosts in the shadows.
I pause to watch a shaven priest, as he circles a flame-lit lamp in front of the deity. His deep chant resonates throughout the cavern. My skin goose-pimples. This is not just any cave; it is as mystical as Stonehenge, as sacrosanct as the Wailing Wall or Notre Dame Cathedral.
But I am drawn back to earthier surroundings in Kuala Lumpur. The city doesn't only party at festivals. It parties every night. The sidewalks throb to the rhythm of its night clubs, and restaurants, and the streets catch fire after dark. Government buildings and the roads which web through and around Merdeka Square blaze with millions of bulbs which whirl, twinkle, curl like ringlets around street lamps and spill down the front of buildings. The traffic flows beneath shimmering scarves of lights, or past scalloped diamante necklaces strung alongside the sidewalks. The Petronas Twin Towers are jewelled pencils pointing towards a cobalt sky, and at the City Centre, fountains perform arabesques in showers of green, rose, blue and orange.
The liveliest night scene, however, is along Petaling Street in Chinatown. After dark, a warren of vendors stalls take over a section of the street, and I squeeze my way between bargain hunters jamming the narrow passageways. The stalls are crammed with brand-name knock offs of watches, leather goods, T-shirts and electronic gadgets. "Come lady, what you want? I have Versace sunglasses, handbags...I give you best price," coos a bearded vendor; "See biggest selection of DVD's in Kuala Lumpur," confides another. Beyond the maze of stalls, Malaysian housewives in baju kurongs (ankle length gowns) and headscarves, collect around fruit sellers, filling their shopping bags with rambutans, durian, papaya, mango and pineapples.
I turn off Petaling and emerge onto a street blasting with rock music and thick with the sizzle of frying noodles, fish and chicken. Sidewalk cooks preside over flaming braziers, kneading rotis, stirring soup pots, shredding, peeling, chopping, slicing and tossing slivers of beef and vegetables into woks.
Under the garish flick of neon billboards, families sit at outdoor tables, chopsticks in hand, deftly working their way through steaming platters of mussels, prawns and rice balls. The atmosphere is noisy and exuberant. Everyone is having a good time. After all this is Kuala Lumpur. And the party is on!
IF YOU GO:
1590 - 1111 West Georgia Street
Vancouver, BC V6E 4M3
T (604) 689-8899
F (604) 689-8804
Web : www.tourismmalaysia.ca
Malaysian Airlines http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/my/en.html has a well-deserved reputation for efficient service, excellent cuisine and superb hospitality. For more information, visit their web site at: http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/my/en.html
Alternative choices are Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines which fly out of Vancouver.
Where to Stay:
Top of the Line:
Luxury at Affordable Rates:
The Sheraton Imperial, Jalan Sultan Ismail, 50250 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Batu Caves:
The caves are located approximately 13 km out of the city centre of Kuala Lumpur. For more information: http://www.tourism.gov.my/en/us/places/states-of-malaysia/selangor/batu-caves
Also at the Batu Caves site, is the "Dark Cave" which is not always open (it wasn't when I was there), so enquire about hours of operation and book in advance. http://www.darkcavemalaysia.com/next/ The adventure tour involves a crawl through a muddy, narrow aperture at the end of the cave, and climbing up a rock face to get out. Not for the squeamish (bats by the thousands, non-poisonous cave racer snakes, cockroaches, crickets, spiders, beetles, centipedes and other assorted critters, which would delight an entomologist's heart!) but infinitely rewarding as an experience within an environment of astounding stalagmites and stalactites which date back to the cave's formation, over 100 million years ago.
There are 2 tours available:
Chinatown is easily accessible by public transport - it is linked from KL Central Station by city rail and bus.
To trawl the city by night, obtain a bus schedule at the Tourist Information Centre: Phone: (03) 4041-1295, or enquire at the Tourist Information Desk at your hotel.
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Batu Caves entrance
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