Sunday, May 27, 2007

Cave Man

Anyone who watches the reality television extravaganza "The Amazing Race" would recognize one of Kuala Lumpur's most famous attractions, the Batu Caves. "The Amazing Race" is a scavenger hunt/endurance contest in which teams of two travel around the world in pursuit of a million dollars in cold hard cash. Fans watch the show for the scenery, sure, but most of the fun comes from watching couples, friends, siblings and partners squabble with one another while scheming how to screw over the other teams. It's really all about rivalries and bitchiness.

In the latest season of the great race, "Amazing Race All-Stars" -- which I was unable to watch but followed through updates from friends and the Internet -- the 'round-the-world sprint took racers to Kuala Lumpur and to the Batu Caves. The caves are accessible via a very steep staircase comprised of 272 steps. The contestants, I assume, were captured in all their sweaty, panting glory as they raced to the top of the staircase to receive instructions about their next task or destination.

Halfway to the Caves

The Batu Caves are more than just a scenic location for American television. However, knowing I was covering the same ground as the Beauty Queens, the Midget and Team Cha-Cha-Cha made the excursion more special.

The Batu Caves are a series of caverns in a limestone hillside seven miles north of the city. The caves were discovered, legend has it, by an Indian trader sometime in the 1800s. They were made famous after an American naturalist re-discovered them in 1878. In the late 1800's the first Hindu temple was built inside the largest cavern. Today, there are numerous temples and shrines. The largest and most famous cavern, called Temple Cavern, is open the public and accessible via the aforementioned 272 steps.

Temple Cavern

The interior of Temple Cavern is impressive, with a 100-meter-tall vaulted ceiling and numerous holes letting in light. Still, there is a dankness, a fetid atmosphere with hints of an open sewer, that turned me off as soon as I stepped inside. Nevertheless, the temples and shrines, and the Hindus worshiping there, were enough to take my mind off the stench and keep me interested.

Another series of caverns open to the public is called The Art Gallery. These caverns are lined with paintings and statues depicting Hindu deities. When I visited, there were hundreds of people in Temple Cavern and only a handful in the Art Gallery. Those visitors who passed up this smaller cavern missed out on a psychedelic experience. A multitude of gods is depicted in vivid colors; it's as if Disney's "It's a Small World" had been transported to South Asia, the cute citizens of the world replaced by multi-headed snakes and blue-skinned Krishnas. There are multiple monkey-faced Hanumans and Ganesha the Elephant sits regally at the entrance to the gallery.

Hanuman, the Monkey God

Shiva? Vishnu? Can Anyone Tell Me?

I think the Batu Caves are a worthwhile destination for anyone traveling to Kuala Lumpur. I enjoyed the temples and the artwork, and the caves themselves are an impressive natural phenomenon. But what I will take away from my visit is the number of people who seemed like they were going to expire while climbing those 272 steps.

I walk a lot, especially when I'm in a new city. Sometimes I'll wander for 6 or 8 hours in a day, seeing where my feet take me and stopping when something catches my eye or I get tired, hungry or thirsty. I assume I'm in some kind of shape, my cardiovascular system attuned to the rigors of travel. Also, after about eight weeks in the tropics, I hardly notice the heat and humidity.

I'd heard about the 272 steps and thought it would be a challenge to ascend to the temples. Yet when I reached the top, I was barely winded. Meanwhile, I'd passed a number of people, young and old, clearly suffering from overexertion. Some, I knew from the red and white numbers painted on the staircase, had to rest before reaching 100. One man, he couldn't have been more than 30, lay on the ground, his chest heaving while a friend fanned his brow -- for what it's worth, I think he was putting on a show.

Suck It Up, Dude.

I'm in Malaysian Borneo now, in the state of Sabah. I'll be visiting some real monkeys this week, orangutans and proboscis monkeys to be exact. Next weekend I climb Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia. Then we'll see how tough I really am. Stay tuned.



Blogger briana said...

I'm going with Krishna

3:54 AM  
Anonymous rachelrachel said...

I hope I'm not too late to comment, but the blue-skinned god reclining on the multi-headed cobra is Lord Vishnu. This is a fairly common representation in art.

Lord Vishnu (also called Narayana) sleeps on his cobra Shesha until the people of the world really need him, when he wakes up, when he comes down in some form or another, an avatara.

There are various countings of the avataras, but one tradition has it that they are the fish; the turtle; the boar; the man-lion; the Brahmin dwarf; Parusharama ("Rama with the axe"); the two most important Rama and then Krishna; the Buddha; and coming in the future Kalki on his horse.

The serpent's name is Shesha.

11:14 AM  

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