Who would have thought that walking down run down streets and saying good morning to a local rat could make two people so happy?! It’s as though we never left! It’s definitely a little more than the wildlife that made us smile. The bright colours, the diverse culture, the smell of wonderful food at all times of day and the buzz of the markets had both of us feeling quite content on our first day in Kuala Lumpur. Added to this, was the realisation that we were no longer paupers, but actually quite well off despite the fact Malaysia is one of the more expensive destinations in South East Asia.
KL was a mixture of tourist site seeing and heatwave pool lazing for us. Much needed as we were still recovering from mountain climbing a few days earlier and also readjusting to carrying our backpacks long distances and not chucking them into the back of a van! From here however, we ventured to Penang, an island on the West coast of peninsular Malaysia, and we very quickly wore ourselves out all over again.
We arrived in Penang slightly later than anticipated after a slight mix up at the airport. The mix up being that we had in fact arrived at the wrong airport in KL and subsequently missed our original flight. Whilst sitting in departures waiting for our next option, we realised that had we opted for the equally-priced 8 hour bus instead, we would have actually arrived earlier. Ah well, we got a Maccies and a fair bit of Netflix in whilst we waited.
Penang was altogether wonderful. An onomatopoeic mixture of idylic beaches and 5 star resorts sat close by to the hectic and busy local’s homes and backpackers paradise of Georgetown. Aside from sampling some incredible Malaysian food and accidentally stumbling across a cat cafe for a coffee (honestly, we just found it I didn’t look for it!), we arrived just in time for the famous Hindu celebration; the annual Thaipusam festival. This post is centred entirely around that, as it truly was one of the best things we have done on our entire trip.
Trying to describe our time at Thaipusam is quite a difficult task but I’ll do my best. In short, it was incredible. We have been lucky enough to experience some outstanding hospitality in our time away, but nothing yet compares to how welcome we felt amongst the Hindu community. The streets were lined with food and drink that was free to all and far from wishing to invade a religious ceremony we kept our distance initially but it was impossible! The people were wonderful. They called us over to give us food and drink, invited us into their temples and took pleasure in explaining their culture to us.
The festival lasted three loud and happy days. On the first day, a golden carriage carrying one of the Hindu Gods made its way from the province of Little India, 15km up to a hilltop temple. Along the route worshippers smashed coconuts in it’s path whilst making wishes. We learnt that this was meant to provide good luck and cleanse the road, as well as symbolising the people smashing their own ego to be a better person. At this point, I thought those pulling the carriage were devoted to their religion to spend near to 20 hours walking, singing, dancing and cheering with the crowds as it weaved through the streets, but the next day we realised we had seen nothing yet.
Once the carriage had reached the temple, it was the turn of certain devotees to make their way along the streets. The event is a famous pilgrimage for the Hindu religion and people had travelled from half way across the ocean to witness and take part in it. The devotees gathered early to have themselves pierced, speared, hooked and laden with kadavis to begin their barefoot walk in the sweltering heat to the temple. It sounds mental as I type it, but that’s really nothing on the atmosphere we experienced. People of all ages and abilities attempted the pilgrimage, some carrying extra gifts to present to the Gods upon their arrival at the temple. Not being religious myself, it was difficult to understand the devotion and belief these individuals must feel in order to put themselves through this ordeal. That said, many of them seemed to embrace the experience rather than see it as that. Despite a 5km walk, we stood at the road leading to the temple in a crowd full of people still cheering, dancing, throwing themselves around and continuing to be so embracing of others, like ourselves, that had come along merely as spectators. If anything, that was the most magical part of the experience and something that I love about Malaysia in general; the acceptance of such a huge variety of beliefs, cultures and backgrounds. It was a mesmerising moment to be stood in this busy street whilst watching Hindu people dance by to thumping music and having Chinese locals bringing incense wishes to the devotees and blessing them as they passed, whilst simultaneously hearing the echo of the call for prayer at the Muslim Mosque round the corner. If only the Western world could become less judgemental and more like the community we experienced in Penang. What a dream that would be.
The third day of Thaipusam saw the golden chariot return to Little India, and still people were just as enthusiastic as day one. It’s such a (excuse the phrase) “travel wanker” thing to say – you know like, “My gap year changed my life” sort of statement, but this experience truly opened my eyes to a completely new world full of such diversity and yet such happiness. It’s a feeling and a moment that I’m certain will stay with me for a long time and although it came with a pang of sadness that the world we live in can actually be quite awful, it was beautiful to see how much good there still is; particularly from those who on paper have a lot less than most of the Western world. If the Hindu belief around good Karma is true, the people we met at Thaipusam have nothing to worry about in their reincarnated afterlife and I certainly wouldn’t mind joining them on that journey.