Richard Winter does it again and makes us all want to go off exploring the world with his descriptive whistle stop tour of Malaysia and Kuala Lumpar. Read on…
“Off. Everybody off” yelled the coach driver. It was 4am, and I climbed down the narrow stairs onto the dark streets of Kuala Lumpur.
I had just spent hours leafing through a guide by torchlight, while other passengers of the overnight sleeper coach dozed. But, at this time in the early hours, reading was an exercise in futility. Nothing stuck and I wasn’t getting any sleep. The back of the coach had been pitch-black. I had been staring out the tinted window at the silver outline of the moonlit jungle, when the lights flicked on, and were replaced by a man staring back at me. He had bloodshot eyes, tangled hair, and wore a grey cotton blanket up to the neck with a witless expression. After a long journey south, I had been greeted by my reflection.
We had travelled from Thailand yesterday evening, leaving its golden sandy shores and green mangrove forests behind us. Later this week, we had tickets to fly to Borneo, for its abundance of wildlife and tropical rainforest. But in the meantime, I had no idea what to expect of Malaysia.
This cape country has historically been a stopping point for seafaring travellers. It is the juncture of east meeting west and as a result, Malaysia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures. As though the cultural chef threw the best that the Middle East, India, and China had to offer, spiced with a variety of South-East Asian societies, and served with a side of historic European imperialism. Nowhere embodies this mystifying multiplicity better than Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s futuristic modern metropolis.
All these residents have brought their religion with them and it is a magnificently diverse; devoutly Muslim, but also home to some of the most sacred Hindu shrines outside of India. You’re never far from beautifully crafted mosque minarets, but could just as easily stumble into a statue of Hanuman, the monkey god.
At just 200 miles, this is the closest I had ever been to the equator. From 7am, you can see the heat rise off the tarmac streets, and at this time of year it would soon reach 35C. For now, the humidity was fresh, and a gentle breeze sailed through the tall leafy palms that lined the street. We stopped in a small bamboo clad Kopitiam off of a quiet main road. This sweet little breakfast café captured our travelling mantra that had kept us safe for months: ‘eat where the locals eat’. The tables were surround by a crowd of Malaysians ready for another day at work. We sipped at rich roasted Javanese coffee, and left with a box of freshly steamed dim sum for breakfast.
KL Tower is a tall thin white spire, that stretches into the hazy Malaysian morning sky. It would dwarf the skyline, were it not for the former title holder of ‘world’s tallest building’ the twin Petronas Towers. The walk to KL Tower takes you past the fringes of Bukit Nanas National Reserve. At this time in the morning, the city dwellers run the trails and well-dressed children make their way to the local schools. Their white shirts standout against the lush foliage. When the heat rises, the trees begin to hum with the awakening buzz of Cicadas hidden in the dense canopy.
You step into an elevator at KL Tower, and minutes later, you are hundreds of meters above the city. The spectacular cityscape that stretches beyond the windows is dominated by the twin towers. We slowly ambled the loop of the KL Skydeck, in awe of city’s variety. The space between skyscrapers was broken up by mosques with minarets, domed stadiums, and a swath of tamed jungle. We’re the only people here, and we stop to take it all in. Sitting next to a death-defying drop, with views of the city, we opened our bamboo box of steamed prawn Dim Sum. These neatly made doughy little parcels hide a mince of fresh prawn, zesty spices, and hot red chillies. Each spicy mouthful is a wakeup call, and two or three of these soft chewy treats are enough to dodge hunger until lunch.
Above each of the SkyDeck’s huge panoramic windows are signs that point out the city’s sights. We read them one-by-one until the last was simply titled Dark Cave, and at once we knew exactly how we would escape the midday heat. The bus ride to Batu caves was long enough for us to leave the city centre, and see what Kuala Lumpur offered its citizens. The dusty grey pavements were lined with brightly coloured restaurants, neon electronic shops, and busy grocers selling spiky Durian fruit the size of beachballs.
The bus arrived in a car park lined with aluminium railings. The caves are deep inside a limestone cliff. The 272 steps to Dark Cave’s entrance are overlooked by a 40 meter tall statue of Lord Murugan, a golden Hindu God. The entrance is shrouded in trees, where Long-Tailed Macaques live and play – often to the misfortune of the cave’s visitors.
The aptly named ‘Dark Cave’ sits at the top of these stairs, and burrows 2km deep inside the limestone hill. The walk into the network of lightless tunnels is hazardous: fraught with loose stone paths, worn boulders, and cavern walls that appear as if out of nowhere. Overhead slow growing stalactites reach down to meet their eternal stalagmite partners, and cave curtains shimmer as the torchlight reflects off running water that has found a way through the cavern’s cracks.
When the torch goes out, we stand in complete darkness, shared with utter silence. Our only companion is the sound of our breathing, and the occasional chirp from sleeping fruit bats high above our heads.
Insects deep in the cave systems have specialised into something found nowhere else in the world. Crickets no longer need camouflage in the darkness, so under torchlight they stand out bright white on the grey rock. Centipedes use their legs like a visually impaired person would use a cane, resulting in dozens of extremely long legs. Coiled on a nearby boulder, sits the stripes of a rare Cave Racer Snake.
A glow appears in the darkness, and as you get closer, you see a column of sunshine that lights the jagged cave walls. Deep inside the network, a collapse in the cavern’s roof creates a pillar of light hundreds of meters long. With the light behind you, the walk back into the darkness seems less intimidating.
At the top of the staircase back to bus, a troupe of Macaques jump from the railings into the trees and back again. A view through the jungle reveals the roads back to the city, with a reminder of where we had spent that morning. As we marched down the steep steps, a younger Macaque was climbing in opposite direction. I stood tall and made an effort to ignore him as we passed, but I had caught his gaze. In the blink of an eye he jumped from the step onto the handrail and then rapidly onto my backpack. I made an indistinguishable noise and froze. In front of me lay hundreds of hard stairs, and behind me a hungry Macaque was desperately tearing at my bag looking for breakfast leftovers. Sara turned and yelled, “Drop the bag!”. I did exactly as I was told, and in an instant the Macaque scurried up the staircase. Sara burst out laughing, and after my anxiety levels returned to normal, I joined her.
Back in the city, our dinner options spoil us for choice. This meeting place of cultures is a haven for food lovers. We choose a table at a Malaysian ‘Steamboat’ -a fire is lit under the table, and a boiling a pot of broth is placed over a hole at the centre. We are served fresh fish and vegetables and steam them with chopsticks while we reflect on our first day on the peninsula. Every addition adds more flavour, and eventually you share the pot like a soup. The meal is light, but hearty and warming. After months away, it’s a reminder of my Mum’s home cooking, and for a moment I feel a brief twinge of homesickness.
Sara picks up a flyer for a weeklong international surfing competition that has just started and asks, “I can’t stand to be this far away from the sea. How far away is Cherating?”. I smile and reply, “Let’s go find out…”