More Malaysia & Thaipusam Festival

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Downtown Malaysia is so very modern, spotted with high class restaurants and shopping centers. The high rises here are spaced out, even more than Los Angeles, making them rise from the ground with prestige and independence. The shopping is repetitious and endless. One mall, with it’s envious name of “Times Square” is the largest in Asia. Ten stories of shopping and eating, with an amusement park in the center. I visited the mall with a Taiwanese kid who said his name was Kevin. I asked his real name and made an effort to use it, but now unable to remember it, I understand why he says to call him Kevin. We rode the rollercoaster, ordered Japanese food in Malaysian from a waitress who only spoke Burmese and got our heads massaged and hair cut at a stylish salon for $6.


Most foods I’ve eaten here are cooked at outside eateries arranged haphazardly, like a crowded flea market. Deciding where to eat is an attack on the senses. While trying to read the Malay-English signs, hawkers hound you to choose them over their neighbor, cars and motorcycles whiz by within inches, and smells of fish, curry and sewage trade with the breeze taking your appetite on a confusing ride.

The culture shock definitely peaks when it’s time to eat. It would have been easy to pop into KFC and point to a counter top picture menu, curing a befuddled hunger and putting this off until next time. It was not without some inner struggle and time on the pot, but I’ve tried new foods and discovered some great new taste buds.

I found a new fruit to love. A Mangosteen’s shell is intimidating, dark with an ugly bumpy stem, but inside is a soft white fruit that falls apart in your mouth and is so sweet with a good bit of sour. Roti Canai, the Malaysian staple bread is like the Indian Nan, but lighter and flakey. It’s eaten alone, with curry and I even enjoyed it as a desert like a crepe, with banana and a chocolate mix. Doufu, a Malaysia prepared tofu was pleasant as were the many different chicken and rice meals I’ve had. Last night I got a sadly short-end-of-the-stick share of my table’s “chicken fish”. Blackened like swordfish and chewed like cod, there was nothing chicken about it except easy ingestion.

While on the topic of food; that reminds me of something I noticed yesterday I wanted to tell you about. I was walking back from the Thaipusam Festival and considering the small bits I know of Hinduism. I know they love cows like the Christians love Jesus, so I enjoyed the democracy in Malaysia when I saw local steakhouses share walls with Hindu shop owners. There is a healthy mix of many religions here and from what I’ve seen, they live in complete harmony. Mosks share streets with churches and temples, just like in the states.

So the festival. I don’t know enough Hinduism to write anything strikingly informative about it, but I promise to learn some things before I post my video footage. For now I’ll say my white skin felt very out of place when I walked with hundreds of thousands of Hindus two hours before sunrise on Saturday morning. I never really felt threatened. The only threats I faced were my own insecurities, confusing friendly or curious looks with something else. Everyone was so focused on the beat of the drums, the chanting, and dancing, the piercing, pain and penance and the worship of Lord Murugan, that one backpacker from the states with a camera in each hand wasn’t about to cause much of a distraction.

I stepped into the procession that flowed like a quick and disorderly parade being constantly pushed from behind. If I had wanted to stop I’d need to find a gap in the crowd that lined both sides of the muddy path, which stretched from a highway lined with parked cars to the limestone mountain ahead. While being bumped and pushed with words I couldn’t understand, in a battle between security and insecurity I neurotically moved my backpack from back to front to back to front; finally settling on cameras in hand and backpack behind.

I walked with the Hindu’s who’d walked for hours from the city center. They were tired, many bleeding from self inflicted torture, and full of faith. I was alert, curious and struggling to believe. We trekked through the night soaked fields; my blue puma’s sinking into the brown. Drums banged banged banged and chants followed their rhythm. A Ferris wheel spun in the distance and hawkers that had camped over night sold yellow bags of bananas and coconut to be smashed on the ground and carried into the caves. I bought one for three Ringlet, only to later set it down among a pile of other seemingly discarded bags, not feeling comfortable with giving an offering to God I didn’t know or believe in.

The stairs to the caves were high and hard to climb, even for me having not walked the 7 or so miles before. I was up early and my insides were empty due to a new food I’d tried the night prior. As I neared the top, at one step my sure legs wobbled and knees buckled, but with luck I caught the stone railing. Having faced the challenge of the climb, the sweating and huffing by children through elderly was easy to understand. Many, especially those covered in hooked piercings and white ash, had legs fail them and thus turned to dragging their bodies by their arms.

Near the place of offering inside the superdome sized cave, trances climaxed. The pierced and faithful yelled, twitched and flung their bodies about, foaming at the mouth, spitting. I watched one teenaged Hindu notice his estranged state frighten two small children. He turned around again, throwing his blood and powder covered face at them and yelling like he was acting a roll at a haunted house. This tested my belief in the trances being supernaturally imposed and at best left me seeing him as an immature enactor.

Hours after I arrived, the sun finally rose, bringing with it white sky and skin. When the light came, hidden colors exploded into blazing yellows, reds, and every shade between. Expressions in the distance became visible and the massive size of Thaipusam was real.

I shot images constantly with my new, unfamiliar camera. I missed many shots, but having little time between sand at death valley ruining my old camera and my quick purchase of a new one before departure from LA, there wasn’t much time to do any better. On top of this, five hours after I arrived, but two hours before things even began to wind down, my only battery died. At this I put my gear away and wandered in circles watching what I struggled to not see as madness through my western eyes.

I believe the mind and spirit can do more than science speaks about and I don’t question that was happening here in Malaysia on Saturday. I’ve don’t find faith in worship of symbols or stories, but to see the intensity with which millions do was moving to say the least.

5 Thoughts on “More Malaysia & Thaipusam Festival”

  1. gert Says:

    dang bro.

  2. Kaleigh Says:

    Hello Counsin Uncle.
    Kaleigh wants to know if the poeple always look like the pictures and what the black dot on the kids head is all about. Ben wants to know how tall the highrise buildings are and why the people are so funny looking.
    Nan baby sat last night and they watched March of the Penguins. Are you going to Antartica? It’s a blizzard here today 9-18″. K, wants to know if it snows there.

    Take Care of yourself.

    We love you,
    Kaleigh, Ben, Aunt Zeth and Uncle Tim (making lunch)

  3. -eric- Says:

    The photographs are amazing man, keep up the good work. I like some of the different angles you’re shooting at, it adds to your usual compositions. Good stuff!

  4. Kevin Says:

    hey John,
    I’m Kevin. I’m back to Taiwan. Your blog is full of attractive pics and interesting stories. It’s awsome! Keep on going. If you have chance to visit Taiwan, just leave me a message. I’ll take you to explore this amazing country! peace!

  5. Lisa Says:

    JOhn- these photos are great.. love the close ups. better than some of the stuff people are doing here. so inspiring John…look forward to seeing more!

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