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BATU CAVES post image


I trade a day of work for a day at the caves.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- My wife and kids were heading out the door. They were going to a place called Batu Caves.

I was going to stay in our highway-landia-choke apartment and work. I had articles to finish for Forbes and Tech in Asia. The work-world had my day thoroughly pinned.

But then it kicked in: life.

I wanted to go too.

So I went.

Today is Friday — a bad publishing day anyway.

KL’s commuter rail system is clean, comfortable, orderly, and slow. Very slow. The thing appears modern but it creaks…slowly moseying from station to station.

And there are not that many trains. If you mistime your arrival you’re going to be waiting for forty minutes until the next train.

No complaints, just surprise — if you’re going to bother building a modern commuter line, why not build one that at least moves?

There were all kinds of caves that cut through the towering limestone cliffs. One was free, so that’s the one we choose.

It was a religious site. A Hindu temple sat inside of a massive cave at the top of the cliff. A steep set of stairs lead up there.

A work crew was working on a temple at the foot of these stairs. They had a big pile of bricks that they wanted transported to the top. But instead of making multiple trips carrying backpacks full of them themselves, they Shanghaied the procession of tourists walking by to do it for them. They tried to hand one brick to each tourists, who would carry it with them to the top and deposit it with their coworkers there.

An Indian guy shoved a brick into my wife’s midsection. “Help,” he commanded. She said no and tried walking by. She was already carrying a backpack and had a two-year old. “Help,” he commanded again.

“No,” I told him.

He then tried to make me carry a brick. He was again wasn’t requesting assistance, he was demanding it. “Help, help,” he kept saying, as though he was going to be offended if I didn’t take it.

I didn’t take it.

Guy passing out bricks to tourists.

While carrying a brick up a cliff wouldn’t have necessarily have taxed me physically, travel kind of makes you develop this reaction where if someone is pressuring you into doing something — into doing anything really — you automatically say no. You don’t think about what they want you to do, you don’t reason the situation out, you just say no and walk away. You learn very quickly on that if someone needs to pressure you to do something then it’s probably not something you want to do — and you always learn this the hard way.

While I didn’t think carrying a brick up a cliff would have had any pernicious side effects, my emotional bookmarking triggered a very rapid negative response.

The guy appeared a little angry, but just turned and tried to thrust the brick into the hand of the next tourist who tried to walk by.

Tourists carrying bricks. 

It’s interesting to me how Indian Indian Malaysians are. I was talking with an Indian Uber driver about this the other day. He told me that the culture was exactly the same, that Malaysian Indians were the same as those in India. He said that the one time he went to India he didn’t feel as if anything was any different.

“The Chinese in Malaysia, they are different from in China, but Indians, we are the same.”

I would normally have argued such a position — how can a culture by separated for so long and still remain similar? — but I’ve seen no evidence yet that counters this sentiment. The Indians here do seem exactly like Indians in India. The dress is the same, the food is the same, the way they tend to act is the same.

That situation with the brick reminded me of dozens of similar situations that I was in during my big India travel phase (2005, 2006). There is just a way that people treat you there that is unlike anywhere else in the world …

The cave was massive. It looked kind of the Castle Grayskull from my youth, complete with colossal stalagtites hanging 70 meters. Then the cave opens up on an open area, in the middle of which is a small, rectangular temple that comes off like a hawker stall when compared with the other incredibly ornate Hindu temples of Southeast Asia. It was just some pillars and a roof that maybe extended for twenty meters at its longest length, but there was something about this that I liked. In the center was a table that was covered with religious ornamentation and supplies for the various rituals that were taking place. Visitors would stream through, lighting candles and getting blessed.
Standing next to me was Petra. She looked up at me and I asked her if she wanted to go and light a candle as well. She nodded. I gave her five ringgits and she hesitantly walked up to the guy sitting before the payment desk at the front of the little temple. He waved over to me a couple of times, trying to get me to accompany my daughter. I declined.

You learn and feel more when you go into new and uncomfortable situations on your own in the raw than you do accompanied by your dad.

I knew that someone would show her what to do. I would have been little use — I had no idea what to do either.

The guy at the desk and the temple priest took Petra around and gave her a gold patter and placed a candle on it, which they lit. They then brought her to the front of the line of worshippers at the front of the temple, and the priest inside of the alter instructed her what to do as the music played.

Monkeys. Monkeys everywhere. Tourist were feeding them, messing with them, they were messing with the tourists, trying to steal their food. They would fight each other. The tourists would laugh.

Click on the thumbnails for larger images and a slideshow. 


Filed under: Malaysia, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

2 comments… add one

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  • Trevor September 9, 2017, 6:02 pm

    Hate the idea of this 10RMtourist tax per day, across the board ..glad I’ve seen most the Malaysia has to offer, in my 10 visits over 12 years

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    • VagabondJourney September 10, 2017, 9:09 am

      Yeah, it’s the idea behind it that really stinks. You know, I would like to see it as a way of killing off the backpacker travel industry and discouraging the foreign driftwood from washing up on its shores — i.e. us — in kind of a “high income, low density” kind of modernization move, but it’s just not. The original tax was for Malaysians as well but was reformed to be just for foreigners. It’s just to net some extra cash from people who they seem to think they can take money from at will. A very third world mentality.

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