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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, pilgrimage, Southeast Asia, Travel

The Batu Caves and Thaipusam



I arrived in KL about an hour late and rushing to meet up with my friend Lauren, who I used to work with in New York. She had spent the previous week in Singapore for work, and we had made plans to meet up and spend the weekend in KL. I went through immigration, where they told me they had no more arrival cards. (Does that really happen? Will Malaysia have any record of me coming and going?) Oh well! I grabbed my bags and then began to scour the airport for any sign of Lauren. After doing a thorough enough search, I realized that Lauren wasn’t there. But where was she? Thank God for WiFi. I managed to log on to my email and learned that she had flown into a different airport altogether. Dur. We didn’t even account for the fact that there are multiple airports in KL.

I didn’t have to worry- I know Lauren is street smart, and it wasn’t long before I saw her wheeling her suitcase towards me, laughing at the confusion. Luckily, the international airport was only a 20-minute taxi ride away. Needless to say, we were glad to get to our hotel and settle in for the night.

Saturday morning, we woke with no set plans, but learned that it was Thaipusam, an annual Hindu holiday, where people set out to make a pilgrimage for penance. This is a holiday celebrated throughout India, Singapore and Malaysia, and one of the most popular places for a pilgrimage is just outside of KL at a place called the Batu Caves. Obviously we were going to make a trip there!

We spent the morning chatting to David, a tour organizer, who along with sharing his heartwarming stories of family with us, also hooked us up with a driver for a 4-hour tour of KL. This included a trip to the King’s Palace, a Chinese Temple, the war memorial, the National Mosque, Petronas Towers and the Sky Tower. A chocolate factory was also included in the tour, but I think our driver just wanted to stop there for the free samples.

KL is a pretty big city, not one I can imagine navigating on foot. Parts of it look and feel like Singapore, but a little less clean, but there are also some dingy and old areas. Once it goes through its growing pains, I imagine it will develop into another Singapore-like city.

After our whirlwind tour, our driver dropped us at the train station so we could make our way to the Batu Caves, along with what felt like everyone else in the city. We realized we were amongst the thousands of Hindus on their pilgrimage. We arrived at Batu and looked at the 300 steps that lay before us. These led to the cave temples, where Hindus were carrying their wishes as well as their sins. We began the trek up the steps and looked on in disbelief at the people around us.

Many people making the pilgrimage for Thaipousam partake in masochistic acts, like piercing their skin with hooks, or putting spears through their cheeks. To them, it’s a sort of penance, but to the western world, it’s a miraculous thing to see. Apparently, doctors from all over the world come to watch, baffled by the fact that these people don’t bleed and claim to feel no pain during these acts. They claim their faith prevents them from feeling pain. To this day, doctors around the world have yet to come up with a logical reason why, and call it a miracle.

I felt so fortunate to be able to witness this. It was such a coincidence and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It really couldn’t have been planned any better and was the highlight of my time in KL. It was especially gratifying to see a modern city that has remained steeped in years of age-old traditions that are still being kept alive despite its growth and westernization.