It’s well after 11am by the time we drag ourselves out of bed and down to the bus stop to take what is supposed to be a 20 minute ride on to the Batu Caves. It turns out that the information at the hostel is not quite accurate and over an hour later the bus reaches a terminus about 2km from the Batu Caves. Not that it matters too much. The bus is clean and comfortable, and the trip takes us through random suburbs to see the local way of life in Kuala Lumpur. It’s a side of life we would miss is we were taken directly to the caves.
At the bus terminus the driver tells us we need to catch another bus to the Batu Caves. That bus isn’t at the terminus and it’s only about 2km to the caves so we decide to walk. This leads to one of those ‘road less traveled’ moments where we see the way people live here when the tourist spotlight is turned off. Tall old apartment buildings dominate the landscape. Washing hangs from windows and mould is clearly visible on the walls; probably inevitable in this moist tropical climate. As always, jungle plants fill every gap that isn’t taken up by buildings or market garden.
A random pot hangs from a trellis. I don’t know whether it has a purpose or has been hung there to protect it from being swallowed by the greenery that is exploding everywhere. It feels almost Mediterranean.
Further down the road we pass some trucks parked near the railway yard. I’ve seen trucks like this on the highways but they were moving and I couldn’t get a photo. Here they are standing waiting for work. Much of the truck is built from wood and many don’t have proper doors; just metal sheets hinged to the driver side. It’s weird to look at. When loaded and driving on the highway, these trucks seem to be so overloaded that their seams might burst. They bend out like taco shells and it’s disconcerting driving past them in case they, like a taco shell, might crack. But they must be quite a sturdy machine or they wouldn’t still be using them.
We arrive at the Batu Caves. I remember them from a previous trip to Kuala Lumpur about a decade ago. On that occasion I had a long 15 hour transit during daylight hours so paid a relatively small sum of money (maybe $20) to join a minivan tour from the airport to all the big sights around the city with the promise of being returned to the airport on time to check in for my flight home. At that time, we had a time limit to race up to the main cave, dodge the monkeys, take some photographs and return to the minibus. So it was refreshing to have more time here now.
We started with the first cave at the base of the mountain near the station (I forgot to write down its name). Visitors are charged RM5 ($2) to enter the cave and, once inside, it’s obvious why.
The cave is beautifully decorated with statues telling what must be an important Hindi story. The text is all in Hindi so I couldn’t read it to tell you what it was about. But this large man with the little men around him made me think of Gulliver’s Travels. We are the only people in the cave who are not Indian. Woman look beautiful in their saris while men are well groomed and dressed in conservative clothing. A small child runs around in a gorgeous green and gold dress decorated with bells that jingle every step she takes. It’s no wonder then that she starts to skip and dance a little bit as she moves through the cave.
Outside the cave a half dozen cheeky monkeys, mostly juveniles, play in and around the water. They are hassling tourists to see whether there is any food they can steal. Every time I turn my back a monkey sneaks up, resulting in me squealing in fright on more than one occasion. One monkey runs along the hand rail, snarls at me barring all its yellow teeth and they running off. I’m just glad that the colony of monkeys is significantly smaller than it used to be. There are probably a dozen in the trees higher up but only about half of them are brazen enough to pester us humans.
We exit the first cave and make our way to where the main Batu Caves steps lead ever upwards. These are the infamous 272 steps that hoards of tourists climb each day. The good thing for us is that we had a late start so most of the buses have departed and only a few hardy people remain to brave the scorching afternoon heat. The steps are a formidable sight to behold and I am sure we are both wondering how on earth we will make it to the top without dying of heat exhaustion. But we take it one step at a time, which I am sure is part of the lesson this climb is meant to teach.
At the top of the steps we come to this beautiful decorative piece. I’m not quite sure what it’s made of, maybe died flour or rice. But it’s beautiful and delicate but so bright and lively. The cave itself is underwhelming. There are a few shrines that have long since lost their colour. The soot and grime of the cave have taken over. It is beautiful, though to look up at the hole in the cave roof to the sky way up high. We are so deep in the earth’s crust here that it is awesome. And even here, in this relatively dark damp place, green shrubs are growing anywhere they can. I guess this is the difference between the sub-tropics that I call home and the proper tropics where we are traveling.
We leave the cave and travel back to Kuala Lumpur Station by train. Of the six carriages, two are reserved for ladies only. Just as I don’t quite know how I feel about ladies’ only gyms, I’m not sure how I feel about a ladies only train carriage. That’s not to enter a debate about feminism etc because those who know my personal history will appreciate I have a unique standpoint on this issue. But, rather, I wonder whether segregating people according to labels only creates greater social division, rather than overcoming it. I thought that perhaps here the ladies’ only carriages are to allow women a space where they can remove their headscarves away from the prying eyes of us evil sex-crazed men but the ladies’ only carriages do not have doors separating them from the rest of the train so this can’t be the reason. Either way, the train gets us to Kuala Lumpur station and we alight into an old colonial building with whitewashed walls and oddly shaped turrets. It’s a grand old building that is now used as the train station and a hotel.
I’ve read that Petaling Street is one of the main attractions in Kuala Lumpur. It’s not a bad place. By now I’m hot, bothered and quite over things so I don’t really find the markets all that wonderful. That and I’m not very good at spending money. Well not unless it’s on big stuff like a fat bike or airfares.
Though we do see and smell chestnuts being roasted in a big drum with a mystery black grain in it.
I have to admit that I’m in a foul mood by the time we get through the markets. I’m hot, dehydrated, tired from all the impressions of the past fortnight and feeling a bit sad that Paul’s leaving tomorrow. I’ve reached a point where I simply can’t make any decisions and don’t know what I want anymore. Think over-tired three year old who can no longer use their big boy words and just wants to sit on the side of the road and have a tantrum. Oh, and yes I am admitting to this because this is the other truth about travel that is rarely shared in blogs, films or books. Travel is tiring if you go at it like a bull at a gate. There are times when you feel like you should be out there exploring or doing something big when all you want to do is sit in the air conditioning and cuddle in front of a movie (or with a good book if that’s your thing). But you push yourself and go out anyway; usually at the risk of spoiling whatever fun you started out having.
At just the right moment we discover we are near a LTR station and can take the LTR to the monorail, which will take us to Bukit Nanas near Petronas Towers and the Suria shopping mall. There are other malls but we like Suria best. I’m feeling happy again as we eat hamburgers and fries in the food court. There’s a Canon shop so I can buy a new charger for my camera battery because the one I have with me died. Paul has a chance to do some shopping (he is definitely a better shopper than me – if he weren’t there I probably wouldn’t have opened my wallet wide enough to let the money for the camera charger escape either).
And then we finally find it … the thing Paul has been searching for this whole trip … a place to have a nice massage. It’s not the cheapest place in Malaysia but our 90 minute foot reflexology followed by seated shoulder and back massage combination package is still less than half the price it would be in Australia and sometimes you just have to treat yourself. I’ve been calm and happy again since eating dinner so am pretty much a pussy cat by the time we walk out of the massage shop all rested and relaxed. The tantrum of a few hours ago is forgotten and our day has ended on a high note. And that’s the thing about the bad moments in life. You need to recognise them for what they are (in this case fatigue, over heating and hunger), find a way to redirect your emotions (sit on a train, find some airconditioning and eat some food) and move on (apologising to one’s travel companion is always a good idea too). Oh, and treat yourself to something nice like a massage so that the tantrum becomes merely a small paragraph in the long narrative of the day.