There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Batu Caves and North to the Cameron Highlands: Part 3 of The Malaysian Peninsula

With an 8.30 start we had an early-ish breakfast, but not so early we expected to have the breakfast balcony to ourselves again, but we did. I went for the local option of spicy noodles, Lynne preferred pancakes and bananas.

A new driver, a young man with a pleasant manner and a good command of English, arrived on time and we set off through Kuala Lumpur’s rush hour traffic.

Working our way out of central Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia has spent money on infrastructure, so once beyond the central area we made good time and….

The road out of town in the morning rush hour
...reached the Batu Caves before 9.30. The 400 million year old limestone caves were used for shelter by the area’s earliest inhabitants but they only came to the notice of the modern world in the 1860s when newly-arrived Chinese settlers used them as a source of guano. They were recorded by the colonial authorities only in the late 1870s.

In 1890, observing that the cave entrance resembles a vel, the symbol of Lord Murugan (aka Kartikeya and Subramanian, the son of Shiva and Parvati and brother of Ganesh), the influential and energetic K. Thamboosamy Pillai (we met him yesterday, twice) built a temple to Murugan inside the cave.

Murugan was given his vel (a divine javelin) by Lord Shiva so that he could kill the demon Soorapadam. The gift is commemorated in Tamil Nadu and throughout the Tamil diaspora at the festival of Thaipusam in late January/Early February. Thaipusam has been celebrated at the Batu Caves since 1892, wooden steps being built in 1920 to increase participation. The location proved popular and they were replaced by the concrete steps seen below.

The Batu Caves guarded by Lord Murugan.
Seeing the cave entrance as the same as his vel requires some imagination
The 43m high statue of Murugan at the base of the steps was completed in 2006. It is the largest statue in Malaysia, the largest of Murugan in the world and the second largest of any Hindu deity.

At the base of the steps with one tourist, one local, four macaques and a pigeon, Batu Caves
Below Lord Murugan's pedestal is a green wheelie bin. We travelled half way round the world to find a bin identical to one that sits outside our own back door!
We set off up the 272 steps – no I didn’t count them, that is the official tally. They are extraordinarily crowded at Thaipusam, but on an average day there are a few pilgrims, a healthy crowd of tourists and more monkeys than people.

Climbing the 272 steps, Batu Caves
The caves were once well outside the city, but from level with the top of Lord Murugan it is easy to see that KL’s urban sprawl has lapped around the foot of the caves.
Kuala Lumpur stretching out to the Batu Caves
The first cave is vast and was still laid out for the recent Thaipusam festival.

The first of the Batu Caves
 So we took the steps up to the second cave…

Up more stairs to the second cave, Batu Caves
 …which is open to the sky. A small temple occupies one side….

Temple in the upper cave, Batu Caves
 …while the other has been left rough and rocky and is the domain of the large and unruly macaque population.

Macaque, Batu Caves
Descending to the car park, we located our driver and returned to the motorway and our northward journey.

Heading north from the Batu Caves
A couple of hours later we pulled into a service station. From the half dozen food outlets, little more than stalls, we acquired a snack lunch of a crispy pie (spicy sweet potato, we discovered), fried vegetables on a stick (mostly cabbage) and coffee.

A little later we turned off onto a smaller road rising into the Cameron Highlands.

Todays journey from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands

We stopped where a stream cascades down the hillside over a series of granite tiers. Lata Iskandar is a modest waterfall but the final 25m slither (I cannot call it a ‘drop’) drags in the weekend crowds who sit around, or in, the pool at the bottom. On a Wednesday afternoon there were fewer visitors.

Lata Iskandar, Cameron Highlands
A path climbed up the side of the falls. I thought it might open up a view of the higher sections though Lynne was sceptical. I won the argument about going up, but Lynne was right, there was little to see beyond a close-up of the water smearing itself across the granite.

Lata Iskandar higher up - not really worth the climb
Back at the car our driver had discovered that he had parked beside the biggest spider he, and certainly we, had ever seen. This was not, I thought, a moment to leave my camera on auto so, to Lynne’s growing impatience, I played earnestly with the extensive variety of settings and modes.
Lynne photographs me fiddling while the driver thinks I am about to fall
Lata Iskandar

For all my efforts, the best picture was taken by the driver using Lynne’s phone. It was a handsome beast (the spider, not the phone), black with gold trimmings, a body two of three centimetres long and legs that went on for ever.

Handsome beast, the spider in its web, Lata Iskandar
I had another go, and despite its imperfection I think my picture catches something of the creature’s sinister menace – no, I am not particular comfortable with spiders, especially huge spiders.

Sinister spider, long, scary, grasping legs, Lata Iskandar
The Cameron Highlands, named after Sir William Cameron who surveyed the area in 1885, are 712km² of gently folded uplands 1,100m to 1,600m above sea level. Cameron suggested the area with its cool climate would make a healthy hill station, but no action was taken until Sir George Maxwell, Chief Secretary of the Federated Malay States visited the area forty years later and set up an experimental agricultural station. Once an access road was opened in 1931 tea planting and vegetable growing soon became established. Growth paused during the Second World War and the subsequent Malayan Emergency, but has continued unabated since 1960.

The once remote uplands are still home to several thousand of the peninsula’s aboriginal inhabitants known as Orang Asli (Original People) who mostly speak Mon-Khmer languages – suggesting they are related to the people of southern Burma and Cambodia. Their forebears either assimilated with or retreated from multiple waves of immigration over the last three thousand years. Although now specially protected by the constitution, the Orang Asli have a higher infant mortality rate and lower life expectancy than other Malaysians and the majority live in poverty. In the Cameron Highlands some still live traditional lives while others survive on the margins of society and yet more are well down the road to assimilation.

Orang Asli man and his roadside dwelling, Cameron Highlands
A regrettably fuzzy picture but it was a 'drive past shooting' (to coin a phrase).
The road continued to rise through the small but interestingly named town of Ringlet, the centre of vegetable and flower growing in the south of the highlands.
Ringlet, Cameron Higlands

As the picture suggest the weather was dull and overcast and compared to the last few days distinctly cool. Ten minutes further on we stopped at the Bharat Tea Plantation. We did not visit - a different plantation was scheduled for tomorrow - but enjoyed the view over the tea bushes. The average daily high in the Cameron Highlands is 22 or 23° all the year round. This sounds pleasant, but it is the average - ie some days are cooler - and it is the maximum - so temperatures for much of even an average day are below that level. As we stood looking down on the tea I was toying with the word ‘cold’ rather than ‘cool’. And then the drizzle started.

Bharat Tea Plantation, near Tanah Rata

We continued through Tanah Rata (lit: Flat Ground), the highland’s largest town and unofficial capital. A little way beyond we turned off the main road and wound our way up to the Strawberry Park Resort, a large, well-established hotel with tiers of accommodation blocks climbing the hillside above the reception/bar/restaurant building.

Accommodation blocks, Strawberry Park Resort, Tanah Rata
 Our room was large, light and airy, ideal for hot weather, indeed it was so suited to hot weather it had no heating. Now with no doubt about using the word ‘cold’ we looked out the clothing we had put away at Birmingham Airport imagining we would not need it until our return.

It was raining heavily and our balcony, which was far too cold to use, looked out over an area of drenched jungle – or rain forest (there is a clue in the name!). I had checked the temperatures before leaving home, but I had neglected the rainfall. It is, I now learned, similar in pattern and quantity to the English Lake District. That would account for it.

Rain forest, from our hotel window, Strawberry Park Resort
A lull in the rain allowed a brief exploration. In Bangkok in Nov 2012 we visited the house of Jim Thompson, a former CIA operative who had become the saviour of the Thai silk industry and ‘the best known American living in Asia’.  In March 1967 while visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands he set out for walk after lunch and was never seen again. Despite SE Asia’s largest ever manhunt, his disappearance remains a mystery, though given his CIA connections lurid conspiracy theories abound. He was staying at ‘Moonlight Cottage’ two hundred metres from our hotel on the next hilltop. Now the Jim Thompson Hotel, the original ‘Elizabethan’ cottage has been surrounded by hotel buildings.
Jim Thompson's House
The rain resumed and at the appropriate hour we skipped over the puddles down to the hotel bistro for a dinner from which most of the spices had been omitted in deference to perceived European tastes.

The rain battered down throughout the cold dark night. We have been to hill stations before, most notably Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka and Ootacamund in India and wondered what it was that drove our colonialist predecessors to seek out places with such dire climates. In the absence of air conditioning the heat of the plain was doubtless oppressive, but what is the attraction of cold and drizzle? We were staying at a ‘resort hotel’; the whole of the Cameron Highlands is sometimes referred to as a ‘resort’ – why?

[In fairness I should add that Lynne’s parents stayed in the same hotel in the 1980s. Photographic evidence suggests it was shorts and tee-shirt weather. Lucky them.]

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