The impressive Batu Caves, with the golden idol of Lord Murugan standing guard.

Well, we’ve been off to a bit of a bumpy start the past few days, but I have confidence that things will improve. We’ve been here for 3 days now, and although there’s definitely been a few amazing/gorgeous highlights to file away, it seems like a lot of our time has been spent driving in circles, trying to find things to do!

Fully divested of street clothes, I’m enjoying my snacks before my full-body massage.

My dear adopted sister Farahnush, whom I last saw on my trip to Tajikistan in 2009, met us at the airport with her Sudanese friend Beebo. We were whisked off by airport-city commuter train to Bin Bentang, a nightlife-neighborhood where Christine and I were first introduced to the glorious SE Asian massage. Farah and Beebo had never had one in their 3-4 years living as students in Malaysia, but their friends had recommended a place where the employees wore orange shirts. Armed with this knowledge, we scoured the street twice – our senses constantly both assaulted and allured by the constant throbbing music of the nightclubs surrounding us – before Christine’s sharp eyes picked out a single man standing in the crowds of walkers, handing out flyers and wearing an orange shirt. We looked at the flyer he handed us – it was for a place called Liang Xin Reflexology Centre. Good enough for us! We followed the little man into an elevator which took us up a single story, and into a beautiful room filled with wood décor, long curtains, dim lanterns, and the faint sound of waterfalls. The two of us were left to our massages while our hosts ran errands, and our masseuses, Ida and Anita, did an amazing one-hour Thai massage on Christine and I, in adjoining curtained cells. Afterward, we were served fresh fruit, juice, and dragonfruit ice cream. The bathrooms, Christine reported, “looked amazing. I kind of wanted to live in there.”

Farah and Beebo took us to a delicious Iraqi restaurant, where I had a chance to bone up on my Arabic with the servers (I already had been with Beebo, of course, but Sudanese is quite a bit different the dialects I know). The prices were refreshingly low compared with Hong Kong, but it didn’t matter; Farah had steadfastly refused to let us pay for anything so far. After a dinner of schwarma, Turkish coffee, and kebabs, Farah hailed a taxi for us to carry us back to her apartment in the nearby university city of Cyberjaya. The trip took about an hour and cost 50 ringgits, which at 3 ringgits to a USD, seemed quite reasonable. The apartment complex was named Cyberia Smart Homes, and with seven adjacent 15-story buildings, it seemed like it could easily host the entire population of my hometown of Brodhead. Each one looked identical and without our native guides, I would have easily gotten lost and slept on the concrete floor. I was tired enough to do so!

We slept well in the college apartment dorm that Farah had procured from us from another student, and the next morning, Farah and Beebo had a car rented for us from another contact. So far, so good! The car, rented to us by the somewhat oily and shady-looking Ajnan, was a cute and compact little white Proton Saga, a Malaysian car company that of course, both you and I have never heard of before. Beebo volunteered to be our driver, and as neither Christine nor I had experience driving in the right-sided British style, and Farah didn’t have a license, we immediately agreed. And we were off! The Malaysian highways were numerous and confusingly labeled, but Beebo confidently navigated us through the heart of Kuala Lumpur to our first destination of Batu Caves.

The first snag in our journey was all my fault. Batu Caves is a beautiful Hindu cave system hosting several shrines to the Lord Murugan, and has a massive golden statue to the man outside the front of the caves. However, besides being a monument and tourist attraction, it’s also the name of an entire city district in K.L. and when I searched for directions on Google Maps, I didn’t realize I was just getting directions to the district, not to the tourist attraction. Beebo, thankfully, was a master of direction inquiries, which he called out in friendly English to anyone who looked even slightly local when my directions proved false. Eventually, after politely refusing the offers of several taxi drivers to escort our car to the location for a small fee, we spotted the massive golden statue of Murugan from the highway.

The statue stands in front of a large staircase, covered in tourists and macaque monkeys, that leads up to the cave shrine itself. A large and ornately decorated Hindu temple stands slightly to the left of the stair system, and in front of that, numerous Malaysian cart vendors helpfully sell small offerings of food and flowers that tourists can offer to the shrines and the monks within. The four of us selected some coconuts to offer the monks, reasoning that although they weren’t as pretty to look at as the ubiquitous yellow flower wreathes, the monks might be able to get more practical use from coconut meat and milk than flower petals. We offered our coconuts to a priest/monk in front of a particularly large shrine – there must have been at least a couple dozen in the temple – and then a few minutes later at a different shrine, received blessings of reddish paste, smeared onto our foreheads by a solemn looking fellow who helpfully rattled his collection plate in front of him afterward. I guess 4 coconuts weren’t enough for the Full Blessing Package.

Feeling lightened in wallet and spirit, we ascended into the cave, pausing to photograph the extremely playful and mischievous little monkeys who cavorted around the tourists, snatching food from their hands and leaping on each other the low hanging trees surrounding us. A few of them had babies, which prompted adoring coos of delight from the multitudes. In the temple caves themselves, we even saw one tearing apart an aluminum Diet Coke can with its bare paws. “Diet Coke: So good, a monkey will rip apart metal for it.”

Baby monkeys at Batu Caves have to get used to paparazzi from an early age

The four of us right outside the cave system. It stretches inward for about 200 meters, and the ceiling is 50-60 meters tall!

Besides the cute monkeys, some pigeons and roosters, and the a few more shrines and gift shops in the huge natural cave, there wasn’t much more to see, so we headed back into the city for what turned out to be a fruitless search for a perhaps-mythical Tourist Information Center somewhere in Kuala Lumpur. Without the internet, Google Maps on my phone was restricted to street maps and a GPS, so I couldn’t search for anything new, so we drove in circles around the famous Petronas Towers and begged anyone standing still for directions. Christine even jumped out of the car while we were stuck in heavy traffic, ran into a classy 4 star hotel and posed as a guest and scored a paper map for us. Not even that could help us, though, so we headed north to try to find an internet cafe that could give us some more ideas for plans for the evening.

Looking out over Kuala Lumpur from the top of the Batu Cave steps

We were in luck, as a shady and secluded public rainforest educational center called Kuala Selangor was only an hour and a half northwest of the city, near the ocean. We roared away in our little Proton through the palm tree plantations and misty mountains surrounding the city and were able to hike for an hour before the sunset, finding the park with only a little difficulty. The place was completely deserted, as it seemed to have closed for the day a half hour earlier, but we found the gates unlocked and unbarred so we helped ourselves to a free hike. The macaque monkeys knew that the tourist time was over, so they were in the process of retreating back into the jungle as we entered, but they turned and stared at us in curiosity as we followed them. Don’t tell on us, fellas!

“Wait, we thought the tourists had left for the day…!”

The mosquitoes were quite nasty near the edge of the forest, so we journeyed deeper in, past a small lake and into a rather eerie swamp. A raised concrete and wood walkway was set up through the swamp, but it looked like the wood fence sections were rapidly succumbing to the moisture of the jungle and dozens of areas had completely collapsed and chunks of it were visible, sticking up from the mud a couple meters below us. It was dark and the sun was barely visible through the thick stands of bamboo all around us. Water snakes (or something like that, we only saw glimpses of their dark shapes gliding quickly through the murk) hissed below us.

Far in the distance, the exit to the swamp glows like an exit light. Don’t fall in.

We would have liked to have stayed longer and hiked until dusk, but we had a final miniature adventure planned – we had heard that near Selangor there was a little private firefly sanctuary called Kampung Kuantan, for a very special type of firefly called Kelip Kelip. I was initially skeptical as to what our 50 ringgit would buy the four of us – a 20 minute boat ride into the darkness to see fireflies? But we joined a few dozen other tourists (mostly Japanese and Chinese from the look and sound of them) at the four-person pole-boats and paid the 50 ringgit for four seats. Although we couldn’t see them at first – as we drew closer to the unseen mangroves on the far side of the water, we saw clouds of fireflies, all blinking in perfect unison for each other. It was so unbelievable that I thought at first that the crafty Malaysian guides had just draped Christmas light nets over the bushes, but our guide may have suspected that I’d think that, and poled us right to the bank, where a few fireflies dropped into our boat and crawled about in a daze, still blinking in sync with their brethren on the trees. It was, to be honest, pretty magical after all.

The next couple days in Malaysia, which we just returned from, was a trip to the island of Penang, 4 hours to the north of Kuala Lumpur. It was just Farahnush, Christine and I for this part of the trip, and so I got to experience driving in the British-Malaysian style. It was slightly nerve wracking at first, and not only because of the opposite side of the road driving…the little Proton handled a bit like a large lawnmower, and kind of sounded like one when in lower gears. I found out later that the Malaysian government taxes vehicles based on engine capacity, so Protons and Perduas in particular (as local manufacturers) did their best to make the engines in their cars as tiny as possible and still work on the insanely-fast toll highway system.

These guys were hogging all the pumps at most gas stations, leaving only 1 out 6 for the cars to access.

It was about $18 USD each way to get from Cyberjaya to Georgetown, the capitol of the Penang Governorate, but it was worth it, even despite some hilariously bad luck that seemed to have its epicenter at our first hotel stay of our trip, at the An-Nur Hotel in Georgetown. We had only just crossed the 14km long bridge and reached the hotel (me, pumping my arms in exuberance for driving 350 km without killing us on the motorcycle-swarmed highways) when we found out that the reservations that Christine had made for us at the hotel using Hotwire hadn’t gotten through. The hotel managers and the owner, in fact, had never even heard of Hotwire.com and refused to accept the receipt that Christine showed them from the website. They offered us a room at double the rate that she had already paid, but Christine merely booked another room online, this time at Expedia, a website the hoteliers trusted. Even then, the receipt took half an hour to arrive in their inboxes, so we had been about to go to an ATM and withdraw the cash when they shouted to us that they’d let us in at the Expedia rate. So much for a “relaxing” hotel stay instead of a hostel.

It was New Year’s Eve, so we walked around the city listening to loudspeakers blaring party music in the distance, stopping at a few temples and mosques on the way. Malaysia is such an interesting country of religious tolerance, and the colonial-era Georgetown is an excellent example of it – in a single city block, we saw a Buddhist shrine to Kuan Yen, a Hindu shrine of Sri Mariamman, the Mosque of Kapitan Keling, and St George’s Church. Despite Malaysia having a Muslim king (as required by their constitution in fact) and a 60% Muslim population, it’s obvious that its citizens widely enjoy a freedom of religion.

The three of us found a little expat bar attached to a hostel on the shady Love Lane (apparently a popular hangout with voyeurs and prostitutes, hence the name) and some Americans and Brits to celebrate the new years with us. The 10 of us walked back to the city park with the biggest party with only minutes to spare, and watched 2013 arrive. Amusingly, the huge billboard with the countdown apparently had some software problems, and froze at 6 seconds to go. None of the Malays surrounding us seemed to notice.

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Unfortunately, we had limited time on Penang, as the car needed to be returned to Ajnan by 9pm on New Years Day. So despite the entreaties of our new expat friends to stay and party the night away, the three of us returned to An-Nur for some sleep to sightsee the next day. However, disaster nearly befell us when we discovered that I had left the headlights burning on the Proton all night long (the cheap Saga brand doesn’t have a headlight alarm warning, apparently) and the battery needed to be jumped. I paid an associate of the An-Nur named Ansari to help me jump the car, and I have to admire his dedication – we must have worked for an hour and a half on getting the car working and I finally told my female companions to just go to breakfast down the street and wait for me. All hope seemed to be lost and I was about to give up and shell out the USD75 for a new battery when Ansari called a mechanic buddy of his, who told him to remove the battery from his own car and directly press the poles onto my dead battery’s poles, something I’d never heard of before. To my amazement, it not only worked, it didn’t arc the hydrogen and blow us all up. I accidentally thanked him in Arabic and found out completely by chance that he spoke Arabic just as “fluently” as I did, having gone to a madrasa in Yemen for school. At least this way I was able to use Arabic to artfully describe how thankful I was to him.

Ansari prepares to pull the battery out of his car, and transplant it into my white Proton Saga

I couldn’t turn the car off for an hour, so I careened down the street and left the car running in the street while I dodged into a cafe to pick up Christine and Farah, telling them to toss their food into a sack and leap into the car so I didn’t block traffic for too long. Finally, our hectic morning had a chance to slow down when we stopped first at Tien Kong Than temple, a quiet and relatively untouristed Buddhist shrine at the foot of Penang Hill, the tallest place on Penang. We passed dozens of joyful Chinese who shouted Happy New Year at us and waved lucky bells in our direction while banging on gongs. Those lucky Chinese love parties so much, they have the Gregorian new year and their own Chinese New Year to celebrate in a few weeks! We wistfully thought about paying the 15 USD to take a modern-looking funicular up the side of Penang Hill, but we knew there wasn’t much up there but a view of the island, so we elected to visit Kek Lok Si temple instead, a massive multi-building Buddhist temple dedicated to Guan Yen another few kilometers to the south.

They might all be made of wood, plaster, and paint – but Buddhist statues are still dangerously pointy!

One thing is great for budget travelers like this – if you stick to temples and other religious sites, you’ll only have to pay for your car parking, and you’ll see some pretty amazing architecture. Kek Lok Si is built into the side of the far slopes of the range of hills that includes Penang Hill, and also affords an excellent view north of Georgetown and the channel beyond it, all the way to the mainland port city of Butterworth (who names these places?) on a very clear day (which it wasn’t).

What happens when two turtles get unlimited food and attention from tourists? They make more turtles.

Christine, who knows quite a bit about Buddhism, explained a lot of what we were seeing to Farahnush and I – how Buddhism was created as an offshoot of Hinduism, and how Hindu priests responded by trying to reincorporate the Buddha back into Hinduism, and how modern Buddhism is a melding of ancient Confucianism and spirit worship. I certainly wonder what the Buddha himself would think if he saw the massive solid gold idols dedicated to him and his saints, like Guan Yen. Humans certainly do like to twist around the mantras of their Gods, regardless of the religion – it seems to be the one thing we all have in common!

The crowning temple to Guan Yen has a huge statue of her. The pillars aren’t yet finished; when completed they’ll be covered in the typical Buddhist multicolored tile. Gray colors in an Eastern religion? I think not!

The long car ride back to Kuala Lumpur was slightly more hair-raising then the ride up. We now had easily three times the number of motorcycles buzzing around us thanks to everyone returning home after the New Years Eve celebrations, and their gangs would clog up the highway gas stations, where they would do wheelies in circles, rev their engines (most of them had removed their mufflers for extra loudness) and on the roads they would do tricks like lying on their seats with their legs out behind them or in front of them, often at speeds in excess of 160 kilometers per hour. In the daylight it wasn’t so bad, but as the sun set and my depth perception of headlights in my rear view mirror dropped, my nerves started to fray a little bit. I felt intensely relieved when the huge towers of Cyber Homes appeared in the distance and I was able to return the car.

Farah found us a new room at her Russian neighbor’s place, and we packed our bags for camping tomorrow. We’ll have to be up really early tomorrow to meet our guides, Kevin and Amos, at the train station, where they’ll be taking us out into the mountains for a two day camping trip. This is one of the things that Christine and I have been looking forward to the most; as for me, I’m looking forward to not being behind the wheel and being able to relax a bit!