Falling into Thaipusam at the Batu Caves

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‘Look, tourists have come,’ said a small, skinny Indian boy as I stepped foot from the train and made my way into the crowds.

I looked around, he was right. Surrounding me were hundreds of people, all dressed up in bright yellow garments like the sun had exploded and released balls of fiery light across the landscape. There wasn’t another tourist in sight.

My visit to the Batu Caves had coincided with the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a festival that pays particular homage to the Hindu God Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva (the destroyer) and his wife Parvati. It celebrates the giving of a spear (Vel) from Parvati to her son, enabling him to defeat the evil demon Soorapadman. Arriving at this time was an unexpected, but very welcome, coincidence.

The walkway from the train to the iconic gold statue of the worshipped deity, Lord Murugan, was aligned with stalls selling everything from Indian sweets, to multi coloured bangles, saris and masala chai. Bangra music was booming out of the speakers. The sky was a blended swirl of grey and purple, the sun slowly climbing on the horizon. The Batu Caves had come alive with a rainbow of colour and festivities.

I approached the 272 steps and started the climb with pilgrims, old and young, the continuous mantra of ‘Vel, Vel’ drifting through the warm air. My steps subconsciously fell into the rhythm of the chants. The heat was intense, despite the fact that we were still in the limbo of dawn, not yet day, but no longer night.

I made it to the top where a man standing there with a smile on his face informed me that I looked tired, yet I had climbed the steps with only a small backpack. Behind me were Hindu devotees making the same journey carrying very heavy looking, and very large, structures containing images of Hindu God’s known as Kavadi on their shoulders. They, on the other hand, did not look tired. They looked fiercely determined, marching up the steps with adrenaline pumping through their veins. If they were feeling any pain or exhaustion their faces did not show it, they were masked in sheer strength. Thaipusam, you see, is a time for paying penance to Lord Murugan, a time of thanksgiving and some people even pierce their skin and tongues with vel skewers, although nothing as dramatic was visible during my time there.

Inside the cave was full to bursting, as the pilgrims who had made it to the top amalgamated together forming what looked like a lemon spotted sea. One by one they reached the temple to be blessed by the awaiting Brahmin priests. The Hindu followers had ignited a flame and now the blaze was soaring, the heats, chants, the colours, intoxicated the mind, transporting me into a devotional trance.

I stood in awe, feeling incredibly lucky that I was able to observe such a spectacular display of faith. I have never witnessed such an intense, and large, display of devotion. The colours and the emotion that engulfed this famous pilgrimage site will never leave me.

But I wonder if it was a coincidence that I had stumbled into the cave the very moment Lord Murugan’s soul had returned. Or was this spiritual pilgrim, who is fascinated by Hinduism and its many God’s, directed there by a higher power? I may never know the answer to these questions, but whether it was by destiny or chance, I do know one thing, I am glad that I got to be a spectator to something so profoundly magical.

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Tea as far as the eye can see. Exploring the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands.

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Ok, so I suppose I am a typical British girl. There is nothing I love more than a good brew. It’s the first thing I do in a morning and the last thing I do at night. Somehow sitting down with a mug of tea always makes dark skies seem a little brighter and heavy hearts a little lighter.

So of course, while travelling through Malaysia, there was one place I absolutely had to visit. The Cameron Highlands, the countries very own tea producing utopia.

It seemed to appear out of nowhere. One minute I was surrounded by trees and then, like magic, the green ripples through the mountains came into view, the morning misty light creating an atmosphere that shimmered, like glitter was falling from the sky. The beauty of the landscape dazzled me, and made my heart skip a beat. I meandered through the patchwork quilt of tea leaves, a bright luminous yellow butterfly fluttering along by my side. In the distance a white speck amongst the green bobbed up and down, collecting nature’s bounty.

‘Hello!’

‘Welcome to Malaysia!’

The greetings came thick and fast as the locals arrived in their cars for their Sunday morning tea break. My hand was raised in a permanent wave as I headed in the same direction they were going; only I was on foot. Driving through the plantation doesn’t have the same intoxicating effect on you like walking does. On foot you can delve deep into the seams, on foot you are shrouded in that smell. That pure, heavenly smell of thousands of pure, untouched tea leaves. I stood with my eyes closed, breathing in the tea perfumed air, feeling it move through my nostrils, down to the tips of my toes. Wishing that I could capture the aroma of magic and put it in a bottle to carry with me always.

‘Snake,’ someone shouted, followed by an enormous round of laughter.

You’re trying to scare the wrong person, buddy, I thought to myself. Seeing a snake slithering past me would only enhance the blissful experience I was having.

I eventually arrived at the factory. I was given a tour of the old machines that looked like they had been in use since the days when the industrial revolution began. And then, finally, we got to the main event, the tasting. And oh what a wonderful taste it was! It was the best mug of milky, sweet tea I had tasted since I left home, and after months drinking black tea, it was a warm and comforting experience that was received with enormous gratitude.

After hiking miles through the plantations in the highlands, and replenishing my thirst with copious amounts of tea, it was time to leave and return to urban, city life. As I sat on the bus, looking out of the window at the hills that looked like they were covered in broccoli, a little yellow butterfly approached the glass. She had been my companion as I had walked through the Highlands and now it appeared she had come to say her goodbyes, and ensure my safe departure.

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The charismatic streets of Georgetown and the art of making tea.

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The street art of Georgetown, Penang

Frothy white foam crashed onto the windows as we powered through the water. Rocking from side to side the ferry appeared to be swirling around inside a cappuccino. Looking out to the crashing waves made my stomach double flip, and then flip again. My eyes scanned the area looking for something stable to focus on, trying to keep the sea sickness buried deep. The words on the page of my book were jumping around as if they were on a trampoline; I managed to grab hold of a sentence, the same sentence I had read at least five times. I was left with no choice but to close my eyes and try and escape the formidable sea through sleep. I was just drifting away to stillness when the ferry pulled into the harbour at Georgetown on the island of Penang. It was time to set foot on terra firma again, to my extreme relief. I had successfully crossed the treacherous waters of the Straits of Malacca without releasing my breakfast on the floor of the ferry, or worse still on one of its other passengers.

Once stability on two feet had been restored we set off to walk the streets of Penang’s capital. From every angle I was greeted with Georgetown’s unique sense of character. From the street art created by the artist Ernest Zacharevic, to the ancient Chinese clan houses. Even the paint peeling off the buildings, creating a patchwork effect, gave this city a sense of charm that was intoxicating. Hours were spent wandering through the labyrinth streets of history restored to life through modern businesses. Old buildings now revamped into quirky hotels and restaurants. Chew Jetty, where immigrants from China settled in the middle of the nineteenth century, now a walkway of stalls selling everything from bags to mobile phone cases with images of the cities instantly recognisable 3D sculptures on them.

But, it was an afternoon spent in a tea house that really made my time in this city so special. I opened the door to an endless view of tea, in all different forms, and delicate Chinese tea sets. I stood in wonder, as a tea lover I was in my own little version of paradise.

‘Welcome,’ a whisper from behind snapped me out of my trance.

The owner guided us to his small table in the middle of the store and proceeded to pour us an endless supply of the purest tea I have ever tasted, while educating us on the history of making tea in his hushed, melodic voice. I sat with my cup, which was the size of a new-born baby’s hand, sipping and nodding my head to every piece of knowledge he shared. I was no longer in a shop in the middle of a capital city. I was in ancient China, surrounded by fields of tea. Mountains loomed above me and eagles were soaring through the sky. The midday sun was beating down on the fishermen as they collected food for the village. And I, the apprentice of this old tea master, was learning the art of this ancient Chinese practice.

The jingle of the doorbell snapped me out of my daydream. I was transported back to the shop with a mind full of knowledge and a fondness in my heart for this gentle man who had gave us everything and expected nothing. I had gained a whole new level of respect for those green leaves that provide so much comfort and happiness throughout my days. So I left Penang, with all the knowledge my master taught me, and headed to the tea capital of Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands.

 

 

Jungle trekking on the island of Langkawi.

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‘Welcome to the jungle,’ said a petite, dark haired girl with a friendly smile and a warm, giddy personality. ‘What animals do you really hope to see?’

‘Flying lemurs,’ was my reply.

The tour leaflet had stated that seeing these nocturnal creatures was 100% guaranteed, a high claim to make, so I was holding them to their promise. Seeing animals in their natural environment fills me with joy, but there is never any guarantee that you will find what you are looking for on wildlife expeditions. Yet in Langkawi there apparently was. Our young guide giggled. ‘Whoever made that promise is not a guide,’ she said, with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She was another example of the people I had come across in Malaysia, wonderfully friendly with a fantastic sense of humour.

We started our walk into the thick forested jungle. Our heads were bent so far back, looking up to the top of the trees trying to spot animals, that anyone approaching us from the front would have thought they were being greeted by a bunch of headless corpses. It wasn’t long before I heard a rustling sound from the bush to my right, at ground level, pointing out to us novices that animals don’t always stray so far up towards the sky. I tiptoed as quietly as possible over to the noise to investigate. The creature in the bush, however, was more aware of my presence than I had anticipated and it crawled away and up onto the first branch of the tree. I peered through the cloud of leaves and managed to get a good look at my observer. It was a monkey, and not just any monkey, but the cutest little monkey I had ever seen.

‘Wow,’ I exclaimed – probably too loudly – but I was over excited, my typical reaction when I see animals. ‘What sort of monkey is that?’

It was small, black, with grey tufts of fur on its head and stomach and little white patches covering its eyes and mouth that gave the impression he was wearing goggles and white lipstick.

‘That’s a dusky leaf monkey,’ our guide replied, the joy audible in her voice. She was of course happy with my reaction, and also relieved that we had encountered an animal at the beginning of our trek, a lucky sign for the rest of our mission, she believed.

We ventured on, the climb getting steeper and the humidity getting higher. However, we were soon stopped in our tracks when berries came hurtling down from the sky like giant rain drops. We looked up towards the canopy and found a great hornbill, perched majestically on a branch, trying and failing to flick berries into its beak, its lost dinner narrowly escaping our heads. On and on we marched, the siren of the cicadas piercing our eardrums until we finally found what the leaflet guaranteed we would see, the flying lemur. Only they weren’t flying. They were clinging to the trees, sleeping peacefully, waiting for darkness to descend, and probably the tourists to disappear. We zigzagged underneath the canopy, past trees hundreds of years old and cobwebs, empty of their owners, glistening like diamonds as the last remaining rays of light pierced through the leaves. Our wildlife spotting had appeared to come to an end as we made our way back to civilisation, the moon providing just enough light to guide our way. The jungle was silent, even the cicadas had ended their wailing. But then, right at the last moments, we heard the call that brought us all back to life after hours spent drowning in jungle dampness. ‘Look, flying lemurs, they’re flying…’

So we looked. And we saw. The flying lemurs were sleeping no more; they were gliding through the air, from tree to tree, like small furry base jumpers. We huddled together, a bunch of damp and weary trekkers, revived at the acrobatic performance these impressive creatures were displaying for us. Slowly the show dwindled to a halt, yet we stood glued to our spot, unable to avert our eyes just in case another performer decided to fly. Our reluctance to leave was not in vain, from the darkness of the tree tops the outstretched wings of a mother appeared, with her tiny baby clinging on to her, fully visible for us all to see. The smile on our guides face was the same size as the island. ‘Wow, I have never seen a baby before,’ she said, ecstatic. ‘You guys are my lucky charm.’

‘I guess we will have to come back tomorrow then,’ I replied.