Ascension with Monkeys

Day 3 – Sunday, 31 March 2024

The only sensible thing to do, when the heat and humidity mean walking a hundred metres on flat ground leaves you panting and slimy, is instead to walk a hundred metres up a nearly vertical staircase to a large cave, then down some other steps, up some more, then down, up, down the long one, walk a hundred metres on flat ground to a second cave, the climb another lengthy staircase to see a rock, nearly four metres tall, next to a gaudy scrolling sign informing you that you’re looking at the second largest naturally occurring rock penis in the world. Sorry, lingam. It’s spiritual if you say it in Sanskrit.

Only one occupant, a bloke. Perhaps he spoke no English

Batu Caves in Selangor, north of Kuala Lumpur, is infested with monkeys, in a good way. They’re cute, and not too importunate, and look funny when they pinch a tourist’s yoghurt drink, climb to the temple roof, and run along it with the open bottle tucked under one arm, causing a yoghurtfall all along the front of the temple that less energetic monkeys can simply lick off the floor.

The main cave, up a couple of hundred steps with a fairly serious grade, is large and impressive, home to one of many temples on site, with soaring ceilings 20, 30 or more metres up, through which one can see the sky in places. One pilgrim was doing the climb on hands and knees and needing every ounce of support his chanting companions could offer, real pain in his eyes as he looked up to the dozens more steps yet to go.

Stairway to heaven

Back down and making our way to the Sri Ramayana Cave, an elderly woman hailed us, asking from which country we’d come. On hearing that we were Australian, she confided that her sister lived in Adelaide, which of course meant that we told her we were also South Australian and so we chatted. She walked with us most of the way to the Ramayana Cave, despite somebody having pinched her slippers while she was in one of the temples. Seventy years old she was, she told us, but shortly said that she had to stop talking, made an excuse and left us, whether because we were boring or she was offended by our repeated assurance that there was no need to buy us all a drink, I don’t know.

Cave art

The Ramayana Cave, in addition to its megalithic todger, houses a large number – more than a hundred – life sized, full colour statues, telling the tale of Rama’s life, his travels with Hanuman and the fight to recover his wife. The tale breaks off at the final battle without revealing the result. A middle aged man standing in the final chamber asked if we had any questions. “Who won?” I asked. He told us, but no spoilers. He then explained, standing in this country with a sizeable dark-skinned, Tamil speaking population, surrounded by them in this temple complex, that northern Indians were smarter, handsomer and altogether superior to the gods-infested southerners. I could detect no sense of irony in his voice. I also realised that he was no sort of official guide, merely a self-elected expert and freelance racist. Anna told him that she’d lived in Sri Lanka for a time. I walked away.

Wake up, bro, we’ve got an apocalyptic fight for the future of civilisation to do

From Selangor back to the muddy confluence – according to the internet, the translation of Kuala Lumpur – and on to Bukit Bintang, a shopping district distinctly ritzy on one side at least. After lunch in an underground warren of Chinese cookeries, Raf and I strolled while Anna and Seb, the latter knackered after nearly no sleep, made their way home. I popped into an upmarket clothing store to compare prices and weigh my chances of finding a piece of designer luxury at bargain, middle income country prices. By my estimate, they were fifty percent pricier than in Adelaide. After a further poke around, we joined Anna and Seb in the hotel room, where they had just returned, having been told to get out of the rooftop pool to avoid the risk of lightning strike.

It was a day for dick jokes

While the members of the family not principally using this holiday as a gallery of stimuli sufficiently interesting to spur constant walking as a weight loss enterprise stayed in the hotel, I decided to tick off at least one of KL’s architectural must-sees by working out how easy it is to get to the Petronas Towers by train. Dead easy. Not enough walking.

And then we were off to another, the Menara (ie, Tower) Kuala Lumpur, one of those Sydney Toweresque whingwhangs with a giant blob several hundred metres up a tapering needle. It’s the place to see the city, apparently, and the views were wonderful, if slightly obscured by atmospheric conditions. We slowly worked out where the National Mosque was, and the Botanic Gardens, and thus behind which cluster of highrises our own hotel must be. I saw the Petronas Towers again. Then we had to leave because the lightning came back, and being on top of an enormous metal prong pointing straight into the sky hundreds of metres in the air during a tropical lightning storm is clearly something that insurance lawyers love to have kittens about.

KL from on high, day
KL from on high, night

From there, a trip in a taxi, easy despite the warnings of at least one website about the need to haggle and the risk of being ripped off: “How much to Jalan Alor?”; “Twenty” (ie, about $6); “Deal”. Jalan Alor, back in Bukit Bintang, is famous for its restaurants and street food stalls. We saw more white faces than in the entire rest of our visit. The food was, yet again, absolutely brilliant.

Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang. Anna had the fish (not pictured)


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