Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Malaysia Day Two: Batu Caves, Naughty Monkeys, and Curry Laksa

On our second day in Malaysia, we headed to a food center near our guesthouse to get lunch. I'd read about the food stall in a guidebook, and I was very excited to see what Blue Boy Vegetarian Food Centre had to offer, as the cooks there are supposed masters of southeast Asian vegetarian cuisine. I felt that I might be missing out on some of the more interesting local dishes because I don't eat meat, and I was especially looking forward to trying laksa- a noodle soup that combines elements of both Malay and Chinese food. I was not disappointed. My curry laksa was stupendous. I spent the entire meal raving about how wonderful it was. Bryan ordered asam laksa, which has a strong tamarind flavor, and he wasn't as excited about his food, but in the end he was the lucky one. I ended up paying dearly for the meal I enjoyed so much- but that wasn't until later.After lunch we went back to the guesthouse and asked the receptionist if she knew a good way to get to Batu Caves. I'd read that we could take a bus, but it was slow and out of the way. I'd also read that taking taxis in Malaysia can be a hassle, because taxi drivers are notorious for scamming foreigners by refusing to run the meter and charging them exorbitant amounts. I thought that if I asked the receptionist, she might get us an honest taxi driver, so when she said that there was a driver sitting on the porch, and led us to him, I was thrilled. That is, until he stood up, looked us up and down, and said "35 ringgit". I looked at the receptionist, thinking that she would scold him and tell him to run the meter, but she just smirked and walked away. I wanted to shout "Et tu, Brute?!" at her retreating back, but I'm pretty non-confrontational (and I think my cheesy Latin witticism might have been lost on her anyway), and I didn't want to argue with her or the driver at the guesthouse, so I told him we'd take the bus, and we walked away. We tried to flag down a driver who was stuck in traffic in front of a cop, thinking that it would keep him honest (it's illegal to not use the meter), but he waved us away. We ended up haggling with a couple other drivers, and we eventually agreed to pay 25 RM even though I knew it was supposed to be around 20RM (those are Malaysian ringgit to the right; they look a lot like Singaporean money). The difference was only a couple of US dollars, and it wasn't worth it to keep arguing. We paid the same on the way back, and then took the monorail for the rest of the time we were in KL.The taxi ride ended up being well worth it, because Batu Caves was amazing.

The Batu Caves are significant in two ways- they are a natural wonder because the cave system is about 400 million years old, and has some interesting flora and fauna, such as trapdoor spiders; and they also have religious significance, as a Hindu temple occupies one of the caves, which has become known as Temple Cave. The first view of the caves was really breathtaking. The 130 foot tall golden statue at the entrance is of Lord Subramaniam, a.k.a. Muruga, to whom the caves are dedicated. The top picture provides a little perspective, but I still don't feel like it really does it justice- the statue was huge, and the rockface in the background was even more massive- a photo just can't really capture it.To Muruga's right and a little behind him are the 272 stairs that you have to climb in order to get to the entrance of the cave. The stairs are an adventure, because long-tailed macaques are running up and down the banisters, looking to snatch food from distracted stair-climbers. Here's me, looking excited at the top.The inside of the caves are separated into two parts- you first enter a large cavern that's totally enclosed overhead. The cavern has some Hindu artwork and statues of gods and goddesses, and it also has some railings that I think are set up to manage crowds on Hindu holidays. Some of the artwork is painted directly onto the walls of the cave, which I thought was strange- to me it seemed a little unmindful of the natural beauty of the cave. But the strangest part of all was definitely the chickens- there were chickens and roosters roaming around the caves, and their piercing "cock-a-doodle-doo's" really made the whole experience seem a little surreal.After the first cave is the area with the temple inside it. This area is open to the sky high overhead, but is still surrounded by very steep rock walls. The temple is truly striking against such an unusual backdrop, but it didn't hold my interest for as long as I expected- the resident monkeys had my full attention in a matter of minutes.As we stood looking at the temple, a man started shaking a bag of peanuts. I knew he was trying to get the attention of the monkeys high up in the trees near the top of the rock walls. I felt a little sad- it's bad for people to feed the monkeys and I hate to see it happen, and in Malaysia there are no punishments for doing it (S'pore is one of the only places that actively tries to stop people from feeding the monkeys). But of course, the monkeys came. Watching them run face-first down the steep rock wall was mind-boggling; it looked totally physically impossible. In the video below, you can hear the guy shaking the bag of peanuts, and then you can see a monkey doing some acrobatics to get down to the peanuts, which he eventually takes right out of the guy's hand. And you can hear a rooster crowing, of course.
So the monkeys came and feasted. At the bottom of the caves, stores sell food, and I think it's mostly meant to offer to the monkeys. The monkeys ate peanuts right out of people's hands, drank juice right out of a bottle, munched on bananas and fought over coconuts. The one in the bottom picture is munching on a strand of flowers- I'm pretty sure it was meant for the temple, and not for him, but he doesn't seem to mind.
This video shows monkeys eating Cheezels that a guy is tossing to them, and ends with Bryan and me being threatened by one of the juveniles for no apparent reason. My favorite part of the video is when Bryan says, in a voice pitched slightly higher than usual, "Should we get outta here?!" I've been threatened by monkeys a few times now, and although it's never pleasant, I've learned how to deal with it. This was Bryan's first threat from a monkey, so I think he was probably as freaked out as I was the first time it happened to me.

When people stopped giving food to the monkeys, they started stealing it. Below is a picture that Bryan caught it at the perfect moment. The monkey was the alpha of the group, and he spotted that plastic bag and wanted it. He charged through the crowd, got up on his hind legs, and yanked it right out of that guy's hand. Then he sat down and dug through the bag- tossing aside some flowers and a banana, and getting right to the coconut. Hilarious.The caves are an interesting union of culture and nature, with a crazy combination of Hindu gods, chickens, monkeys, stray cats, pigeons and people. On the one hand, I think that if I were a religious person, being in a place as beautiful as the caves might make me feel especially reverent. But on the other hand, I felt as though the caves as a natural wonder were being exploited in a way. People freely feed the monkeys, which is bad for them, the cave walls are painted in places, and we saw people from the temple casually tossing entire bags full of garbage onto the rocks towards the back of the cave.
After a few hours, we were finally getting ready to head out of the caves, and I started to feel a little under the weather- my stomach was hurting. Bryan also had a headache, so we decided to head back to the guesthouse to take it easy for awhile. In the taxi, I started feeling worse and worse, and what followed were five of the most unpleasant hours of my life. I'm pretty sure it was food poisoning, because I don't know what else would have made my stomach feel like it was slowly turning inside out, and I spent some time cursing the stupid curry laksa that I had thought was so delicious just a few hours ago. Writhing around on a hotel bed with Dora the Explorer in Malay playing on the TV in the background was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life, and one that I hope to never repeat again. Needless to say, I won't be eating any laksa for a long time.

Once the worst had passed, I went to sleep for awhile and woke up feeling much better. We decided to head out to try to find some dinner, even though it was kind of late (around 10 pm). We wandered the streets looking for something bland and familiar- Burger King or McDonald's. It seemed weird to be looking for a chain restaurant, because usually when I'm traveling I go out of my way to avoid the things I can easily get anywhere in the world. To our surprise, we stumbled upon an Outback Steakhouse, and I got some steamed vegetables and was very grateful for the innocuous meal- and although our dinner wasn't exactly a cultural experience, I'm pretty sure it's the only time I've ever eaten at an Outback owned by a guy named Rahjiv.


  1. The local dishes in Malaysia offers are the best, they are implementing new tactics to meet the growing demand from tourists and it has resulted very well.

  2. The local food can be good, but that day was not a high point in my experience with the cuisine of Malaysia.