Tag Archives: Malaysia

Thaipusam–The Ultimate Sensory Experience

Imagine trying to describe the smell of a fresh-cut rose or the taste of a superb French meal–words alone cannot do it justice. This is the problem writing about Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Lord Subramaniam.  The holiday is observed throughout the Hindu world but nowhere with more exuberance than Kuala Lumpur.  About 1.5 million people attend the day-long festivities, which occur in late January or early February.  Everyone is welcome to join in although, because of the huge throngs, you may wish to reconsider if you have enochlophobia–fear of crowds.

The celebration lasts 24 hours but due to the heat and humidity most tourists attend at night when the weather is less oppressive. My wife and I boarded a bus at 11:30 PM for our trip to the Batu Caves, the site of the festival, about 8 miles from the city center.  Because of the crowds the trip takes over an hour,  and we must walk the last half-mile as the vehicle can’t navigate the throngs of revelers, penitents, and sightseers. As we step off the bus everyone’s reaction is identical:  “What in God’s name did I get myself into!”  There are people everywhere, deafening music, strange smells, loud chanting, lights, noise, fireworks–a combination state fair, tent revival meeting, and hard rock mosh pit.   One man likens it to Dante’s seventh ring of Hell. The driver wishes us good luck and reminds us the bus returns at 5:00 AM sharp so leave enough time for the Herculean effort that will be required to get back to the parking lot.

Thaipusam is a time for the devout to cleanse themselves of sin. Pilgrims wash themselves in the nearby river and cut off their hair at one of the dozens of “barber shops” lining the walkway to the festival. The newly shaven head is then smeared with sandalwood, a pale yellow powder holy to Hindus.

A Penitent Carrying His Ceremonial Kavadi

After the ritual bath and haircut the penitents put themselves into a trance-like state.  Through prayer, as well as rhythmic music, drumming, and chanting, they become hypnotic, almost catatonic, and unconsciously bump into people around them.  Once entranced they are pierced with skewers, knives, and other sharp objects–mostly through their cheeks and lips.  More intense participants put hooks through the skin on their stomach, tie them to ropes, and drag a ceremonial chariot, called a kavadi, using only their flesh.  The kavadi is a wooden frame carrying incense, fruit, feathers, milk, honey, and other gifts for Lord Subramaniam.  The penitent drags this chariot through the madding crowd screaming and chanting prayers, all the while helped along by friends should he fall down or faint from exhaustion, ecstasy, or pain.  Within the site are tens of thousands of worshippers, hundreds of thousands of helpers/musicians/dancers, and countless sightseers, touts, vendors, and assorted hangers-on taking in the multitudinous sounds, sights, and smells. There is also a carnival area where thousands of vendors set up stalls selling food and Hindu “tchotkes,” such as sandalwood and incense, while fortune tellers are offering to predict your future.

Throng of Penitents Climbing The Steps to Cathedral Cave Temple

The place where pilgrims bring their gifts, Cathedral Cave Temple, is at the top of a steep hill. An enormous gilded staircase (40 feet wide, 272 steps) snakes up the mountain to reach the temple and its gilded statue of Lord Subramanian. Tens of thousands of people, carrying torches to light the way, drag their chariots up the many steps. Tourists can join the procession, but we decline as we can’t face yet another teeming throng. Instead, we opt to watch the torchlight parade of pilgrims and marvel at this awe-inspiring demonstration of religious fervor.  I also began plotting our strategy for returning to the bus–a non-trivial operation since pilgrims and visitors are still streaming in.  We return to our apartment at 6:30 AM, so wound up in the evening’s experiences that sleep is impossible.  I also smell (reek is a better word) of incense, sandalwood, curry, sweat, and mud, and stand under a hot shower for a very long time.

I am not sure if it is proper to say one has “enjoyed” such an experience, what with the pushing, screaming, heat, and crowds. I can say,however, that I was totally mesmerized, thoroughly awed, and utterly fascinated–an evening unlike anything I have done before or since.

(Read more about our adventures living and working in Malaysia, all at no cost, in my travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

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So Far, But Yet So Near

Skyline of the Modern City of Kuala Lumpur Where I Worked For One Week Prior to Going to Japan

In the spring and summer of 2001 Ruth and I spent eight months in Kuala Lumpur, the longest of any of our fourteen working vacations.  We had a superb time, and our stay was filled with fun adventures, trips around SE Asia, even political intrigue–check out Chapter 10 of the book for those rather unusual details.  However, because of the length of our stay we saw much of what the country has to offer, and when I accepted the invitation to be an external examiner and return to Malaysia some of my friends were a bit surprised.  What they didn’t understand is that sometimes you accept a posting not only because of where a place is but also because of where a place is near.

In 1991 I spent a month in Japan (described in Getting Out of That Rut) but, sadly, without my wife–the only extended trip I have taken without her.  I promised her that someday we would return so she could see what she missed from twenty years ago.  This trip to Malaysia was the perfect opportunity.

The Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, One of The Few Building Standing After the Bomb. It Is A National Historical Monument.

The air route from Minneapolis to Kuala Lumpur is via Tokyo.  Once I accepted the school’s offer I asked my hosts to extend the layover in Tokyo on the return trip from four hours to twenty-one days!  They were happy to oblige, and I ended up with a free ticket to Japan. I did the same thing a few years later when I accepted a six-week working vacation in Mongolia that included a glorious fourteen-day stopover in China

So, when planning a working vacation don’t just think about places you want to see but also places that are nearby things you may want to see.  This way you get a “two-fer” all for the price of none!

I’m Back…

Hello again, dear readers.  I just returned from four glorious weeks in Malaysia and Japan ready to renew blogging and eager to again share with you my techniques for finding no-cost, short-term travel adventures.

The Faculty of Information Technology at MMU Where I Spent One Week As External Examiner

I was in Malaysia as the external examiner for the Faculty of Information Technology at Multimedia University (MMU) in Cyberjaya, a new, high-technology city about 25 miles from Kuala Lumpur.  (Note: An external examiner is an artifact of the British system of higher education.  The examiner goes to the school, reviews the program, and makes recommendations for improvement.  It is like an accreditation visit.)  I previously had worked at MMU for eight months in 2001 as a Visiting Professor under the auspices of the U.S. State Department Fulbright Scholar program and, because of their familiarity with my work,  was invited back as an external examiner.  My airline ticket, all living and travel expenses, and an honorarium were included, and it was sufficient to allow me to add a three-week stopover in Japan on the return trip at little cost to myself and my wife who met me in Tokyo.

The Luxury Resort Where I Stayed in Malaysia. Trust Me, I Don't Usually Travel LIke This!

This experience highlights one of the best ways of locating a working vacation–keep in close contact with institutions where you have previously worked.  Assuming you did a good job the first time, and assuming that money is available, there is a high likelihood they will invite you back for a second visit–working vacation redux!   It worked for me, and it can certainly work for you.