Sunday, August 5, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Saturday

We saw the coolest, coolest thing today, so cool that I can barely stand it. Ryan said that it's the first thing we've done that makes it feel like we are really in a foreign country. This ultra-cool place? The Batu Caves.

The Batu Caves is another thing from the KL episode of the Amazing Race, but this time we wanted to see it on it's own merits, not just because it was on the show. It was one of the only two things that Ryan went into the trip saying he really wanted to see. (The other was the KL tower. I guess he can go home now, the whole country has satisfied him.)

We got off to a slow start that morning, which is okay, it's a vacation, although it meant that we ended up at the caves in the full heat of the day. We took our time getting ready, and it seems like it always takes longer to get somewhere when Darcey needs attention. By the time we got down to the lobby, it was around 11:30ish, and Darcey was so whiny that I sat and fed her right there. Then Ryan mentioned that he was getting hungry, and come to think of it, so was I, so we proceeded into the mall for some fantastic Malaysian food before we left.

Tummies full, we went back to the hotel and I asked at the front desk for a taxi to get us to the caves and then bring us home. The man I dealt with was different than the woman I talk to every day, who seems used to all of my questions. He said that a taxi wouldn't take us to the caves and we'd have to take a limo. "Limo" just means "nicer car with seat belts" not an actual limousine. And they are more expensive - retained hourly, the limo costs RM50 while a taxi is only RM25. The man said that to get us to the caves and back would be RM100 total, and I said fine, because we just wanted to get there and I'm hamstrung by my complete lack of public transportation knowledge. It kills me.

But this turned out to be a perfectly acceptable way to get around. We all had seat belts on, which is a comfort, and since we weren't going into downtown, the traffic was light and there was no need to drive like it's the final turn of the Indy 500.

The caves are a natural formation inside a huge limestone cliff, inside which is a shrine to a Hindu god, I can't remember which one. Every year there is a festival called Thaipusam, where a special gold box (the significance of which escapes me right now) is carried by foot from the temple of Sri Mahamariamman, which I went to a couple of days ago, all the way up to the cave. The interesting thing is the way it is carried - people have some kind of poles stuck through their skin, which the box then is hung from. There was a picture of it in one of my books. It's acupuncture meets moving van, and it's the grossest thing ever. Of course, Brad was interested in that in the way only a 10 year old boy can be. Sadly, I saw neither box nor pierced parishoner. (If you want to read more about the festival, here's a good page:

At the foot of the caves is a gigantic gold painted statue of, again, some Hindu god. It would help my credibility if I knew the names of the gods in question, but I think that is the last reference to the actual religion of the place. The statue is enormous. I'd say bigger than the rather disappointing Statue of Liberty, but I could be wrong. It's mammoth.

Our driver dropped us off and waited in the parking lot after telling us that we were the first foreigners he's taken to the caves. That doesn't mean that we were the only tourists, though. There were plenty of Muslims there, easily identifiable, and a couple of white people (like maybe two), and the rest were probably Hindu. There's no telling the religion of the monkeys, though.

Oh, the monkeys. They were like the pigeons of New York, not the exotic animal you'd see in the zoo, but just oversized rodents of some sort. And they were everywhere inside. That's not to say that I wasn't absolutely fascinated by them. How often do you see an animal other than a typical house pet, wandering around at their leisure? The only wild animals I tend to see in my life are deer, and they aren't exactly interesting anymore. We were starting to climb the stairs, 272 of them, which doesn't seem like a lot until you are at about stair 50 (they are numbered for your convenience, so the obsessive-compulsive amongst us don't feel the need to count) and your knees start shaking and your thighs are burning. At about stair 100, we saw the first monkeys - two of them, sitting on the stairs, hanging out, one guy picking bugs off the other. Then they turned and headed up along with us. I took a million pictures of the two of them, before I realized that they weren't the only monkeys around.

Once we got to the top, we looked to the left of the stairs at the limestone cliff which was covered with vines and trees and monkeys. When we started looking, we could see them everywhere, like a close up of an ant farm. These seemed cooler than the stair monkeys, because they were in some kind of natural habitat. Inside the cave there were dozens more of them, everywhere, all over the place. They were engaged in their natural actions of scavenging for food, unfortunately all they could find was people's garbage. I felt so bad for the poor creatures at that point. One had a juice box, but had it upside down and was trying to eat his was into the box. I wanted to point out the straw but I suppose opposable thumbs does not a gourmand make.

When I stopped looking at the monkeys, I could not help but feel completely awed by the cave itself. The ceiling was so high you could fit an apartment building in there, and at the top were natural holes in the limestone, letting through some ambient light, though not enough to take away the creepy-cave feeling. There were stalactites hanging down that had green stuff growing from the tips because it is so humid and drippy in there. The texture of the walls, the rough hewn look was so rustic and natural, it was like being in a real cave. Well, it was a real cave, I just have never been in a cave before, and it looks just like I would think a cave should look, except with higher ceilings. Not so claustrophobic.

We walked down some more steps into the cave, and then up some more to the shrine itself, which looks a lot like the ones in the temple that I saw already. We spent some time in there, looking around, absorbing the ambiance. Darcey had her fans up there, not the monkeys thank goodness, but a family that had hiked up there also. The liked her so much that they asked if they could pose with her while I took pictures of them with their cameras.

Heading out, we passed the requisite souvenir stand, right there at the mouth of the cave. It makes me think of Christ throwing out the moneychangers in the temple - if a Hindu god showed up at his shrine and found some guys selling bottled water and cave magnets and baseball caps, what would he think? Maybe he'd be more pragmatic, I picture Hindu gods being fairly laid back. Although any god that required people to pierce their bodies with sticks and hooks to carry burdens 8 km and then 272 steps to prove their devotion is not the quintessential picture of "laid back god."

There was also piles and piles of litter on the ground outside the cave, which the monkeys were picking through. Was it all from tourists, who have no reverence for another religion's holy place? Or is it acceptable behavior by all? If I lived here, I'd make Brad have his Eagle Scout project be picking up trash at the cave.

At the top of the stairs, I turned to talk to Ryan while I walked backwards, until he very calmly said, "There's a monkey right behind you." It's funny how the calmness in his voice is the exact opposite of the amount of panic his statement is going to induce. I turned around and, startled, jumped back, because the monkey was so close to my back I almost bumped right into it. I mean, I almost knocked the poor thing right off of his perch. Monkeys are nice and all, but I think I prefer them at arms length. A really long arm.

Ryan was right, going down was a lot easier than going up, although we had the added fear of falling straight down and breaking our collective necks. The stairs are steep and narrow, so I ended up trying to place my feet more sideways to get a little more purchase. This was probably the most interesting thing I've seen the entire week I've been here.

The rest of the evening was uneventful. We went out for dinner, again, although to say it that way sounds like I'm tired of it but I'm really not. Then we did some browsing at Cineleisure, the other mall next to our hotel. On the weekends there is a street market with all sorts of semi-interesting stuff - some junk, some knock-off clothing, surprisingly no pirated dvd's (not that we were looking). I was tired and fed up with maneuvering through crowds (no one here pushes a stroller) so after a while we headed back to the room for the evening. It may not have been a good sightseeing day quantity-wise, since we only went one place, but it was the best quality-wise.

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