Kuala Lumpur’s joie de vivre

Kuala Lumpur loves to whoop it up. Its citizens — Malay, Chinese and Indian — may follow the precepts of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity, but that’s of little consequence. A celebration is a celebration, be it Christmas, Islamic Eid or Chinese New Year, and everyone joins in the revels.

When I arrived in January, the Hindu festival of Thaipoosam was on the horizon and my guide Ramu told me the Batu Temple Caves, just outside the city, would soon be filled with more than 800,000 pilgrims. 

“They will be musicians accompanying  palanquins decked with flowers, peacock feathers and bells, and processions of people carrying brass vessels filled with milk, as offerings to the deity,” he said. 

“Unfortunately, it will be too noisy and crowded to visit during the festival, but you can’t leave Kuala Lumpur without seeing the Batu Caves — they are spectacular!”    

What he didn’t mention was that the climb to the entrance is equally spectacular. My idea of vigorous exercise is walking up an ascending escalator, and I quailed at the sight of a 272-step stairway, which crawled centipede-like up the face of the cliff. My first reaction was to turn around and leave. But then curiosity took over. I took a deep breath and started the ascent.

“Do it slowly,” Ramu said smiling. “There’s no rush.”

I paused after the first 30 steps to catch my breath and look around. The air, a warm, moist sponge, smelled of dust, spices and marigolds. A long-tailed macaque perched on a nearby railing, hoping for a handout, while a steady stream of people filed past him: old women with walnut wrinkled faces, chocolate-complexioned little girls wearing butterfly ribbons in their hair, holy men, their foreheads smeared with ash and red powder and the occasional camera-toting foreigner in shorts and thongs.

The cavern, cool and moist, was filled with the acridity of bat guano and the odour of damp vegetation. I was surrounded by cascading limestone stalactites — pearl grey, brown or copper — intertwined with garlands of tropical creepers. Long dripping fingers of rock glitter in the shaft of sunlight poured through the roof of the cave and stalagmites, some slender and others stumpy, loomed like ghosts in the shadows.

I paused to watch a shaven priest, as he circled a flame-lit lamp in front of the deity. His deep chant resonated throughout the cavern. It was not any cave — it was as mystical as Stonehenge, as sacrosanct as the Wailing Wall or Notre Dame Cathedral. But I was drawn back to earthier surroundings in Kuala Lumpur.

The city doesn’t only party at festivals — it parties every night. The sidewalks throbbed to the rhythm of night clubs and the restaurants and streets came to life after dark. Government buildings and roads webbed through and around Merdeka Square blazed with millions of bulbs whirling, twinkling and curling like ringlets around street lamps, spilling down the front of buildings.

Traffic flowed beneath shimmering scarves of lights or past scalloped diamante necklaces strung alongside the sidewalks. The Petronas Twin Towers resembled jewelled pencils pointing toward a cobalt sky and at the City Centre, fountains performed arabesques in showers of green, rose, blue and orange.

The liveliest night scene, however, was along Petaling Street in Chinatown. After dark, a warren of vendors stalled take over a section of the street and I squeezed my way between bargain hunters jamming the narrow passageways.

The stalls were crammed with brand-name knockoffs —watches, leather goods, T-shirts and electronic gadgets.

“Come lady, what you want? I have Versace sunglasses, handbags . . . I give you best price,” cooed a vendor.  “See biggest selection of DVD’s in Kuala Lumpur,” said another.

Beyond the maze of stalls, Malaysian housewives in baju kurongs (ankle-length gowns) and headscarves, collected around fruit sellers, filling their shopping bags with rambutans, durian, papaya, mango and pineapples. I turned off Petaling and emerged onto a street blasting with rock music and thick with the sizzle of frying noodles, fish and chicken.

Sidewalk cooks presided over flaming braziers, kneading rotis, stirring soup, shredding, peeling, chopping, slicing and tossing slivers of beef and vegetables into woks. Under the garish flick of neon billboards, families sat at outdoor tables, chopsticks in hand, deftly working their way through steaming platters of mussels, prawns and rice balls. The atmosphere was noisy and exuberant. Everyone had a good time. After all it was Kuala Lumpur — the party was on.

Published: http://www.kamloopsthisweek.com/kuala-lumpurs-joie-de-vivre/

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