Fortune favours the bone idle – or so it would seem. Our lazy dillydallying and inability to get moving when we plan to meant that by complete chance we arrived in Kuala Selangor in time for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, which involves some fairly eyewatering piercings with hooks and skewers. More on that later.
Our last blog saw us at my brother’s wedding in Chengdu. We left two days later, on the 19th of January and took an overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur, arriving bleary eyed at 5am. After reassembling the bike and riding in circles for about 10km just trying to get out of the damn airport, we weren’t fit for much else and by 11am we were fast asleep in a hotel. Pitiful. Not the hardened, adventurous cycle tourists we like to imagine we are.
The next day we made our way slowly into the outskirts of KL where Annie (a friend we had made on our last visit to KL who is a cyclist and local realtor) set us up in one of her apartments – and very nice it was too! We promptly lost all interest in cycling and spent the next several days sleeping, reading, writing blog posts, sorting and labelling photos, watching DVDs, replacing a few bits of worn-out clothing and, in my case, getting some medical bits and bobs attended to – nothing exciting, just one of those things you boys don’t have to worry about. In short we barely left the apartment or pedalled further than 2km down the hill to Tescos and the mall. We were so lazy the days flew by and we never did any of the things we’d hoped to do, like visit Batu Caves, go to some museums and catch up with our other KL friends Angie & Yuen, and Mike (sorry guys).
Annie had been away for a few days (cycle touring in Thailand) and we’d been supposed to leave when she returned, but somehow we just couldn’t get enthused. Annie needed the apartment back but very kindly invited us to relocate to her house (where we got to hang out with Spike, her elderly English Bull Terrier), and then we hit upon the idea of Annie accompanying us on our first day back on the bike. We finally got moving on the 2nd of February and enjoyed a nice easy 65km from the Taman Tun Dr Ismail area of KL to the fishing town of Kuala Selangor. It was difficult to find quiet roads, but it wasn’t too bad a route out through Kapar to link up with route 5, and Malaysian drivers are usually pretty decent and considerate. Annie was quite jealous about all the toots and thumbs-up we were getting on the Pino while she received hardly a wave.
Annie’s cousin runs a cafe in Kuala Selangor and she insisted that Annie, Keith and I stay in their spare room rather than in the hotel next door. After settling in we hopped back on the unladen Pino, and with Annie and her cousin’s son Shushan and his friend Brian we pedalled off to meet the monkeys up on Bukit Malawati. Next stop was a fishing village for some amazing seafood (so much for my attempt to go veggie), and Shushan & Brian snuck off and bought us a huge bag of the local specialty prawn crackers (nomnomnom!). A quick pedal back to the house and we were in time to celebrate Annie’s cousin’s birthday with some mouthwatering cake, and then we were off to Brian’s house (a gorgeous wooden building) for fresh coconut from the tree in his garden.
We have to rank Malaysia up there with Russia as one of the most hospitable places we’ve ever visited. It’s almost embarrassing how generous people are and how, no matter how quick we try to be, give us no opportunity at all to pay for so much as a coffee in return.
Annie had told us that Brian was feeling a little shy because he’d never met foreigners before. Which made us feel a little self conscious too: Would we live up to expectations? Were we meant to do or say anything in particular? We want to be good ambassadors for cyclists and travellers in general, but we’re no-one special. We’re just ordinary people, with just as many personality flaws as the next person. We love it when people are kind and hospitable to us (who wouldn’t?) but often worry that we’re bad guests and not giving anything in return – all we have to offer is our company and whilst on a a good day we like to think we’re fun to be with, we can also feel awkward and shy, or just plain tired and not very sociable sometimes. Still, as my mum always says, you just have to do your best and hope for the best.
Anyhow, I haven’t forgotten, you’ve only read this far on the promise of gruesome piercings and religious fervour haven’t you? So here goes:
Annie’s cousin’s place is opposite a Hindu temple, and we just happened to arrive the evening before Thaipusam, a predominantly Tamil festival to commemorate the occasion when Parvati (goddess of love, fertility and devotion) gave her son Murugan (god of war) a spear with which he could defeat the demon Soorapadman.
Annie had to leave in the morning to ride back to KL for work that afternoon, but we decided to hang around and watch the festival.
Devotees mark the occasion by carrying burdens to show their devotion to Murugan and plea for his help. These burdens may be simply a pot of milk with which to wash and cool Murugan, or may be a small wooden decorated canopy, or a large, ornately decorated framework resting on the devotees shoulders, and in some cases requiring several ‘spotters’ to ensure he makes the pilgrimage without mishap. For the 48 days leading up to Thaipusam, devotees cleanse themselves through celibacy, prayer and fasting. Some devotees, both male and female, shave their heads and paint them with a yellowish emulsion, and others mortify their flesh to show their devotion. Keith and I didn’t know much about the festival when we first arrived. Shushan and his sister (who are Chinese Malaysians) had explained that there would be a parade from the river to the temple (about 500 metres) so we had assumed it would be some sort of organised carnival, but it turned out to be a series of much more intimate, family-centric pilgrimages. As we stood, feeling a little unsure and confused, watching the preparations near the river a splendidly moustachioed man came over and told us a bit about the day. He explained that there is no parade as such, but each family will complete their preparations and then make their pilgrimage down to the temple with their burdens. Each individual chooses the burden they wish to take on, and he explained that in his family (who, he added, are all doctors and lawyers) one of his sons would be having 48 small pots of milk attached by hooks through the skin of his back, and that we would be very welcome to watch and take pictures provided we didn’t get in the way of the procession.
Bands of drummers set up mesmerising rhythms and raised the energy levels of the devotees, who prepared themselves by hyperventilating, shouting and gesticulating, seemingly to purge the evil from their bodies. Such was the fervour of some that they had to be physically restrained by their friends and family until a state of bliss was achieved and the burdens could be accepted.
With a deft, steady hand the moustachioed patriarch inserted the 48 hooks into the flesh of his son’s back. Both of them were smoking large cigars, and we have no idea what was in them but by the end of the piercing the son, who just minutes before had been raging and shaking, was smiling beatifically as he gently waggled his head from side to side in that particularly Indian fashion.
We saw several other people with small pots of milk hooked onto their backs, three men with much larger hooks attached to ropes with which they were pulling their families and friends along behind them, and several men attached to their enormous frameworks by hooks and chains. One of them also had a skewer through his tongue and one woman pierced her cheeks. Whatever they were praying for they must have wanted it pretty badly.
We started watching at eight in the morning when it was still cool, but by midday the heat was relentless and the devotees were really suffering with their burdens. Annie’s cousin and Shushan joined other locals bringing buckets of water to wash the devotees to keep them cool.
The ceremony would continue until well into the evening, but we decided to call it quits at lunchtime and, after a delicious meal at Annie’s cousin’s cafe (which of course she absolutely refused to accept any money for), hit the road, to get 55km delightfully flat kilometres ticked off to take us into Sungai Besar.
After our lazy days in KL it’s great to have launched back into our journey with such a vivid reminder of why travelling, especially by bike, is so enriching. Enough with the lazy introspection! Let’s get out there and see the world because it’s just full of amazing people and spectacles.