Post 10: Kuala Lumpur & Ko Jum Island

Thaipasam: A Hindu Festival

After visiting Indonesia, I initially planned to visit Myanmar next.  However, while researching flights, I noticed that almost every route included a layover in Kuala Lumpur.  I thought, why not stay for a spell, and check out Malaysia’s largest city?

And so, for no better reason than to explore a new city, I booked a week in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country, boasts a unique combination of cultures, with the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhism, and Christianity religions all present and strong.

The very first thing I heard, buzzing on the plane, in the airport, on the bus, and at the hotel: “Thaipasam.”

Thaipasam, I soon learned, is a millennia old, Hindu festival and celebration of thanks and alms giving.  Once a year, hundreds of thousands of devotees visit the famous Batu Caves, a geographical wonder and holy place about ten miles north of the city center.

The display of religious zeal spans from moderate to extreme.  The tradition is for devotees to make a pilgrimage to Batu Caves carrying different types of “Kavadi,” or burdens that function as symbolic alms givings to appease the gods.  These Kavadi span from carrying milk in silver pots on one’s head to heaving heavy ornate canopies that can weigh hundreds of pounds.  The most avid of these devotees partake in months of fasting before the festival.

In addition to the Hindu devotees, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Kuala Lumpur every year solely to observe the liveliness and uniqueness of the festival.  By mere coincidence, Thaipasam just happened to fall on the day after my arrival.

“Well,” I thought, “when in Rome!”

I woke early to avoid the rush, but even by 7 AM the train station was crowded with buzzing excitement.

The early-morning entrance to Batu caves, with its 272 stairs and impressive 140 foot tall golden statue of Lord Murugan, the Hundu god of war, was packed shoulder-to-shoulder.  Bright colors, loud drums, ringing bells, chanting, and the smell of tropical humidity.

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“Stink Face”

I joined the slow-moving queue to climb the stairs, and began inching my way up, step by step, towards the caves above.

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While the masses climbed up on the outer steps, the burdened devotees made their weary, fervent assault up the middle stairs, reserved specifically for their efforts.

The steps came in flights of 20 or so.  The devotees, with huge canopied burdens on their backs, would let out a roar and charge up one flight at a time.  Each devotee had a throng of helpers who would cheer, encourage, clear the way, and offer pep-talks and moral support.  Once reaching the next landing between flights, the helpers would put down a chair, onto which the sweating, heaving man would collapse, exhausted, shaking, contemplating the next 20 step charge.

I couldn’t help myself.  I thought, “huh, almost seems like a religiously zealous squat workout!”

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The caves, said to have been formed over 400 million years ago, gave an odd, cathedral like feeling to the event.  Chants, voices, and shouts echoed up to escape from the recess above, and even with tens of thousands of people packed right and left, it was hard to not look up.

I wandered around for an hour or so, fascinated by the ancient rock formations.

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By the time I came back out of the caves, the sun was high in the sky and it was close to 100 degrees.  The crowd was still making its slow march up the stairs, and the devotees stretched almost to the end of sight, ten miles all the way back to Kuala Lumpur downtown.

Heading down the stairs, thorough the crowd, and back towards the city, I thought to myself, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”

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Out ‘n About Kuala Lumpur:

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Muslim architecture
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The Old and the New
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Even the playgrounds resemble temples
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Walking around the Muslim district made me feel like I was back in Cairo, Egypt

 

Thailand – An Unexpected Turn:

“Are you happy, Nick?”

I pause.

Anit, my Thai host, really meant to ask “Are you comfortable, Nick?  Is the room alright?  Is there anything you need?”

The last 24 hours had seen my adventure take an unexpected, but pleasant, turn.

I had arrived, baggage in tow, to the international terminal at the Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia the previous day.  My flight to Myanmar was on time, and I had a comfortable three hour cushion to navigate security and immigration.

“Passport, please.”

Click click click.

“Destination?”

“Yangon, Myanmar”

Click click click

“Departure Time?

“1:00 PM”

Click click click.

“Ok, you’re signed in.  May I see your Myanmar visa letter?”

Silence.

“Er, my what?”

“Your Myanmar visa acceptance letter.”

“Err, what is that?”

“To enter Myanmar, you need to apply at a consulate, pay a fee, and wait 3-5 days for them to approve your application and issue you a visa acceptance letter.”

“I thought it was a VOA, Visa on Arrival?”

“Well, it is, but they’ve changed the rules.  Now you need to do this extra step for the application.”

“Uhh, I don’t have a letter.”

“Without the letter, I’m afraid you can’t get on the plane, sir.”

“Well, shit.”

“What’s the next flight out?”

Click click click.

“Where would you like to go?”

“Anywhere.”

Click click click.

“Krabi.  Leaves in an hour.”

“Krabi?  Where is Krabi?  I’ve even never heard of ‘Krabi’.”

“Southern Thailand.”

“How much is the flight?”

“$38 USD.”

“I’ll take it.”

 

A flight, two rickety bus-rides, a choppy sea passage on an ancient, wooden Thai boat, and a sidecar seat on a bouncy motorcycle taxi finds me standing on the second story of a wooden bungalow built by a friendly Thai man named Anit.

I found Anit’s Airbnb posting while searching randomly during the hour wait for my flight.  His hand-built bungalow is situated on the small, picturesque, sandy-beached tropical island of Ko Jum, Thailand, outside of Krabi town.  Standing on the wooden deck, listening to the calming sound of chirping birds, watching the sun filter its magic-hour light through a peaceful grove of surrounding trees, I’m somewhat euphoric that Krabi happened to be the “next flight available.”

It is now that Anit, who ambled over to ensure I am settling in comfortably, asks in his thickly Thai accent:

 

“Are you happy, Nick?”

 

After a brief, thoughtful pause, I reply:

“Yes.  Yes, Anit, thank you.  I am very happy.”

 

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Did I mention this Airbnb cost $17 per night?
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“Magic Hour”
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Summer Skin
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Ko Jum Sunset
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“Bye, dad”
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My kind Thai hosts 🙂

 

 

5 thoughts on “Post 10: Kuala Lumpur & Ko Jum Island

  1. As one door closes another opens. Sounds like you’re on a trip of a lifetime.

    Thanks for this update and the wonderful story from Bali

    Guy Hamilton
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