This past Thursday ushered in the Chinese New Year, which I’ve just found out is a very big deal to a great many of local inhabitants. Essentially this is the major yearly celebration for people of Chinese descent and Malaysia has a large population of Chinese descendants. This afforded me a two-day break from the work week to get over my jet lag and most importantly, get out and explore the city. One of the many things I’ve learned about the Chinese New Year is the importance of family when celebrating it. Most of the Chinese population will head back to their hometown to spend a few days or even several weeks visiting with their family. The respect and importance of family that is evident here in Southeast Asia is very touching.
On Thursday morning I decided that I would go check out a famous temple in KL called the Thean Hou Temple. The temple is for Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist worshippers and was about a 20 minute subway/monorail ride there followed by a 45 minute walk from the monorail station. This is as good of a time as any to note how inexpensive transportation here is in KL. The public rail transit which includes a subway system, monorail, and light rail are all very affordable and reliable. Today I would spend around 8 ringgit on public transit which works out to just over 2 USD. After disembarking from the monorail station headed out on my 45 minute walk to the temple, I heard a call from across the street. A small, young Chinese woman was crossing the street towards me, asking me if I knew where the temple was. I told her that I was on my way there and she was more than welcome to join me on my walk. With time to kill during our walk we began to learn more about one another. She told me her name was Jessica (though I later found out most native Chinese have their given name and then an English version of their name, Jessica was obviously the English version). She was from Guangzhou, China and was visiting KL for three days and was then off to Penang, Malaysia for a week. Through our conversation she informed me that Chinese New Year was the main time for her to travel and she had a friend that lived in Penang, hence her trip to Malaysia. I have to admit that I was impressed by this small woman’s independence and drive to go and explore KL on her own, especially in light of her challenges with wayfinding (she later acknowledged this fact several times).
So after a brisk 40 minute walk (translation: hot, uphill, sweaty hike) we arrived at the absolutely colorful Thean Hou Temple. As Jessica had predicted, there were several hundred Chinese in attendance to pay their respect and praise for the start of the Chinese New Year. We made our way to the main courtyard and the picture at the top of the post is of the beautiful lanterns hanging throughout the courtyard. Below is a picture of Jessica and I in that courtyard.
From there we walked in to the main temple, leaving our shoes at the base of the staircase. Once inside, several people were lighting incense and praying to the different deities within. Set up along the front were these cylindrical structures containing 50 or so wooden sticks. When it’s your turn, you go up and grab these sticks with your hands, raise them up within the cylinder and then release them at once. You repeat this until one stick is standing higher than the rest. You pull this stick out and it will have a number on it. You then look for the corresponding numbered drawer below and pull out your fortune for the year. I couldn’t resist, and have included a picture of my fortune. For me it’s a bit tongue in cheek (though I discovered many take this very seriously) as I don’t think I’d agree with the career assessment, but they were pretty spot on about change of abode!
After we had checked out the temple it was time for us to make our way to the exit. As we both stopped to grab a drink of water and plan our separate paths, Jessica asked if it was okay for her to tag along with me for the rest of the day as she thought it was good luck to start the New Year with someone who knew their way around. I really had Google Maps to thank for my ability in getting around but I said I’d be more than happy to continue exploring the city together. We decided our next stop would be the National Mosque which was only about a 30 minute walk.
During our time together I learned a great deal about what life is like in China and thoroughly enjoyed getting real insight into an upbringing so unlike my own. She told me how during primary school, the students would get to the building by 6 am so they could clean the classrooms and hallways before each day. They would then have an hour of exercise and the school day would begin, lasting until 5 pm each day. She told me that English was taught at a young age for her and most all other Chinese students. I was thoroughly impressed by this, though I had heard Asian schooling was far more rigorous than our own. She went on to talk about her work as an assistant manager for a factory in China where she works 6 days a week and around 14 hours a day. I was blown away by this and honestly quite thankful for my own career path. Thinking about her significantly more arduous school and work days made me think about the productivity per capita comparisons between China and the US. China has a very robust economy that while more than likely overtake the U.S. for total GDP output in the coming years, however there population more than quadruples our own. They appear to go to school for more hours and work more hours than we do, however their productivity per person is far below our own. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but I wonder if part of that is based on the importance of having a healthy balance between working and living.
We arrived at the National Mosque, which is the primary place of prayer for the city’s Muslim Malay population. The architecture was relatively simple but did feature this striking blue roof. We planned to go inside and take a look around as the mosque is open to the public when not in use during the day, however in order to gain access we needed to rent robes to cover ourselves up before entering (I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and Jessica the same). They had a kiosk where you could borrow a robe to visit but it was long and we decided there were other things we’d like to see. So we made our way over to the nearby KL bird park.
We were getting hungry so we stopped to eat at the Hornbill cafe which was located within the KL bird park. We decided to eat on the back porch overlooking the bird park, despite the very welcome A/C the inside had to offer. And I’m glad we chose the outside as through our lunch we were greeted by many visitors such as the one below! We ate our lunch (I had the Malaysian Fried Rice with a side of satay) and then wandered around for a bit longer. By this time it was a little after four and we decided we would make our way back to our respective hotels to rest and then get ready for the evening. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up for drinks and dinner later on.
Later that evening I headed over to a bar located on the perimeter of an area called the Golden Triangle which is full of restaurants and bars. We had decided to meet at a particular place called the Heli Lounge, which I had recommended to me by several sources. During the day it was a functional helipad and in the evening it was converted to a cocktail lounge. So I took the elevator up to the 37th floor, then hiked up two flights of stairs to get to the open air Heli Lounge roof deck. The view was stunning. I secured a table and waited for Jessica and her friend to arrive. She brought along a fellow Chinese traveller, Ming Yo, that was in town for the week also taking advantage of his days off for Chinese New Year. Like Jessica, Ming spoke very passable English and I enjoyed hearing more about their day to day experiences back in their homeland
. After we finished our drinks, we were ready to grab something to eat. We walked over to Julun Alor which is a well known street filled with food vendors. There are plastic chairs and tables lining the street with an assortment of Chinese, Malay, and Thai food vendors.
We ended up selecting one of the Chinese food vendors and grabbed a table on the busy street. My new Chinese friends wanted to select the dinner menu and I was more than happy to oblige. They selected four dishes that we all shared. The range of flavors from spicy to bitter, pungent to sweet was impressive. I would consider myself a person that enjoys spicy foods, but the level of spice here is far above what I’m used to in the States. I relied pretty heavily on my Tiger beer to cool down my burning mouth. I will say that not everything I tried was to my liking. My new friends had purchased a Durian which I’ve hyperlinked to the Wikipedia page for those not familiar with this fruit. It is apparently very popular in Asia and I can say pretty unequivocally it is not a fruit I would go out of my way to purchase. I’m glad I tried it, but that will probably be the last time.
The next day I decided I would make my way over to the Batu Caves, a popular Hindu shrine, which is situated just outside the city to the North. The public transit made the journey very easy and affordable. I would have to take the LRT (a branch line of their subway system) to KL Sentral which is the primary transportation hub in KL. From there, I would take the KTM Komuter train that terminated at Batu Caves. At the station the crowds swarmed out of the terminal, filing through a single gate providing access to the caves. There were a number of vendors hawking their wares while walking to the entrance of the caves. The KL economy truly is based on shopping and eating.
While making my way over to the cave there were a few smaller temples and attractions such as a cave museum and art exhibit, which frankly was a bit odd but I have quickly learned to just go with the flow. I noticed behind one of the small temples there was an alcove which people seemed to huddle in. I made my way over and found a group of macaques along the wall, heartily consuming all that was left for them by the human observers. I caught this scene which I like to call, Brother can you spare an orange?
After spending a few minutes and chuckles with the macaques I continued on to the base of the cave. At the base of the cave sits a small temple and then a huge statue of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war. Directly next to this huge statue are 272 steps leading into the cave, so I made my way directly over.
By the time I reached the top I was both winded and sweating pretty heavily so the shade and coolness of the cave was welcome. Within the cave was an assortment of deities and smaller temples. Housed inside these smaller temples were shirtless holy men providing blessings to the long line of patient Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
As I made my way further back into the cave there was a large chamber open above. It housed another small temple with a cascade of light blanketing the ornamental figurines atop the temple.
While walking around this beautiful little temple in an open cavern I noticed there were a few additional, smaller visitors milling around.
I have to say, it is scenes like this that I truly enjoy about travelling to such a different part of the world. The thought of seeing a chicken walking around the grounds of the Vatican or even at my home church, Christ Episcopal, is pretty hard to imagine. But here, nobody was phased or even interested in their presence. As I was exiting back through the cave I noticed a rooster nested in a small diety, crowing away as if he was calling out to his own God. Walking back down the steps was far less arduous and the macaques made their presence here known.
When I got to the base I had worked up an appetite and heard there was a good vegetarian Indian restaurant just past the entrance to the steps. I found the restaurant and saw it was filled with Indian faces, definitely a good sign. I grabbed my hot plate of assorted Thal dishes and a cool water, all for around 7 ringgit (2 USD) and made my way to a communal table. While eating this tasty and surprisingly hearty vegetarian food I struck up a conversation with the young gentleman sitting across from me. His name was Raghu, and like me, he had just moved to KL a week ago, though he was coming from Chennai, India. When I told him that my next stop would be in Mumbai, India a big smile came across his face and he was eager to tell me all about his home country. In my limited journey, meeting people from such varied backgrounds all with a genuine enjoyment in sharing the human experience has become one of the most enjoyable aspects of my travels.
Later in the weekend, two of my colleagues, Rini and Zam, invited me to experience a typical Malay lunch. Because of the fusion of Chinese and Indian cultures into Malaysia, the Malay style of food incorporates those influences making it their own. So Rini picked me up in her car and drove us to Bangsar, a suburb of KL, where a popular Malay restaurant was located. She was good enough to order the entire meal, I just had to bring the appetite. To fully immerse myself in the experience, I ate as they did, just using my right hand. I’ll admit it felt a bit strange at first, but I quickly got over that and rather enjoyed just getting into the meal.
Afterwards we went to Menara KL which is the tallest single tower in Southeast Asia. The view really helped me to put KL in perspective as I was able to identify everything from the project site to my hotel. I’ll get into the layout of things more in a later post, because right now I’m beat. Off to take care of the more mundane things such as laundry and prepping for a busy work week, because it’s not all excitement and adventure here in KL.