Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia


We found ourselves in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia for a few days and spent a few hours at Batu Caves. These caves have become a Hindu temple complex and cultural centre.

Murugan statue at Batu Caves

Upon arrival the spectacular golden statue of Murugan, the largest in the world, greeted us. It was absolutely enormous, and behind were tall cliffs and a staircase of 270 steps (so we were told, we didn’t count them). Climbing the steep steps and avoiding the monkeys hanging around, we entered the main cavern area. It was easily the most spacious cave I have ever been in. Walking through were several temples, and statues of Hindu gods and goddesses dotted around. The temples are still very much in use; many Hindus were visiting, bringing offerings such as flower wreaths and milk to the shrines of gods.
We looked around and made donations (it’s free entry) and check out the souvenirs on sale. Fortunately there were no pushy sellers.

Returning to the bottom of the staircase, we paid the small entrance fee to visit Cave Villa, an Indian arts and cultural centre. We crossed a walkway over a koi pond and watched a short performance of Indian Bollywood-style dance, performed every hour on the hour while we were there.

There was a reptile house in one of the caves which made us wish we hadn’t come to Cave Villa. The reptiles were kept in inhumane conditions and cramped tanks and the staff persisted in asking us to have our photo taken with a reptile (for MYR10) even after we had refused several times. Back outside we walked past the aviary where a variety of birds (and, oddly a skunk) were kept. After we had said clearly that we didn’t want our photos taken with a bird, the staff member just dumped a bird on my husband’s shoulder, as if he would want it if it happened to him. He continued to ask for the bird to be removed repeatedly, while I avoided taking any photos so as not to get asked for a MYR10 fee. Finally when the staff member realised that my husband really didn’t like having a bird put on his shoulder, he removed it, and we went on our way.

The redeeming feature of Cave Villa was the art gallery, which is also in a cave. It features statues and dioramas of many Hindu characters, showing scenes from epic tales. This was lit very effectively to make the scenes come to life.

But overall, Cave Villa, which smelt of monkey and bird excrement, was a poorly maintained disappointment. There was a dirty fish spa pool that I would never have dreamed of putting my feet into! The rest of Batu Caves was a fascinating combination of nature, religion and culture, worth a visit if you are in the area.

Outside Cave Villa, back near the base of the Murugan statue, there are several Indian restaurants. We chose the on with the most Indian people eating there, and had a tasty thali plate for MYR8 each.

Worth noting when you are trying to leave Batu Caves by taxi – a driver tried to get us to pay fixed price at double the price of our journey. We went outside the caves complex and within a few minutes hailed a cab that went by the meter.

Advertisements

Churches, Temples and Mosques of Malacca, Malaysia


Malacca has many religious buildings, including some of the oldest ones in Malaysia. Due to being Islamicized, then colonised by Christians, and having a large Chinese community, there is a good mixture of churches, temples and mosques.

Here are five that we found interesting:

1) Mesjid Kampung Hulu

Mesjid Kampung Hulu

The oldest functioning mosque in Malaysia, Mesjid Kampung Hulu was commissioned by the Dutch (who were keen to appease those who wished to practise Islam) in 1728. It has predominantly Javanese architecture, and we were surprised by how small it actually looks.

 

2) Kampung Kling Mosque

Kampung Kling Mosque

This mosque features a high tower, which was apparently inspired by the design of Hindu temples.

 

3) Christ Church

Christ Church

Part of the Stadhuys complex in the centre of the old town (a good focal point, and bus 17 from Melaka Sentral will drop you off here), this church features grave stones from 1800. While we were there a Chinese-language service was taking place, so we couldn’t walk around inside.

 

4) St Paul’s Church

St Paul's Church

This much older church sits on a hilltop over the town. Now in ruins, with no roof, it features graves from the 1600s, and spectacular views out to sea. The former tomb of St Francis Xavier is here (his body was moved to Goa, India).

Graveyard tourist

Some unusual tourism – photo with a gravestone, anyone?

5) Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

This is Malaysia’s oldest traditional Chinese temple (dating from 1646). Its striking black and gold carved wood was totally different to the décor of other temples I have seen, which tend to be more colourful.

Inside Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Penang: A Wander Through Georgetown


Penang, a Malaysian island, is a popular tourist destination. I spent a few days looking around, following in the footsteps of my grandfather, Peter Allen, who often spent holiday time there. He frequently travelled to Southeast Asia for his work as a scientist in the rubber industry, and I remember receiving postcards from Penang (he also visited Bogor, Indonesia).

Temple rooftopsGeorgetown was the first place the British arrived in Malaysia, the beginning of Britain as a coloniser in Southeast Asia, and it’s full of colonial era architecture. Now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are more colonial buildings in Georgetown than anywhere else I have visited so far in Southeast Asia.

Although it rained almost constantly throughout my entire trip, I didn’t want to waste time sitting in my hotel. Wandering through the streets of Georgetown and visiting some of the tourist attractions was still bearable, even if my hand ached from holding an umbrella for several days!

Fort Cornwallis

Fort Cornwallis (RM2 per person) is the site of the first British entry into this region. It is amazing to imagine Francis Light arriving here on his ship and building the original fort, made of nipah palm, and then remember that a palm tree fort was the start of hundreds of years of British rule in the Malay archipelago.

Gunpowder StoreAt Fort Cornwallis today, there are the remains of the old stone fort walls (that were built after the initial nipah palm construction), as well as the gunpowder store. Cannons point out to sea. Some of the tunnel-like rooms have been made into a museum that traces the history of the fort.

Padang

Across from Fort Cornwallis is the Padang, or “field”, a large open grassy area. There is a foodcourt here, called Medan Selera Lapangan Kota, where we enjoyed a tasty mee goreng (fried noodles) and coconut shake. On the opposite side of the Padang are some large and impressive colonial buildings, including the town hall.

the Town Hall buildingPenang Museum

Another short walk and we arrived at the Penang Museum (RM1 each). This was actually very interesting, adding to the knowledge we had gleaned from the Fort about Penang’s history. Each ethnic group has its own room displaying cultural items, furniture, clothes and so on, that are considered to represent the ethnicity. Upstairs are displays about old Penang. Outside in the museum courtyard is a real old-style funicular train carriage, that was used at the Penang Hill funicular railway.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Then we walked on to Pinang Peranakan Mansion (RM10 each). Peranakans are found in Malaysia and Singapore, and are mixed-race people. The term is most often used to describe people of Chinese-Malay mixed race ancestry. Peranakans have their own distinctive culture, from wedding traditions to home décor. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is indeed a mansion house, where items of peranakan furniture, clothing and household items are displayed. The furniture is stunningly elaborate and highly ornamented with mother-of-pearl details and it fills an opulent house. There was not much information available about the items on display, but it was worth a visit to experience such extravagance.

mother-of-pearl benchEthnic Enclaves

Penang has its own ethnic enclaves, and we wandered through Little India, filled with colourful fabric shops. A man rushed up to us, trying to sell us a Bollywood DVD. We saw Sri Mariamman temple, but it was closed by that time.

We did see an interesting Chinese ancestor temple which had been recently refurbished and had amazing detail in its brightly painted carvings. Chulia Street and Campbell Street, parts of Chinatown, were filled with Chinese writing on shop signs.

Chinese temple paintingGeorgetown is a great place for randomly finding yourself somewhere interesting. It’s small enough to walk around in a day, including visits to museums and temples. And it’s bearable in the rain.

Singapore Chinatown in Pictures: Pagoda Street, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Gallery

This gallery contains 18 photos.


Singapore Chinatown is a vibrant, colourful neighbourhood, with plenty of eye-catching sights to be photographed. These images stood out from my recent visit to Pagoda Street, the Chinatown Heritage Centre and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.

Chinatown in Singapore: Museums, Temples and Cheap Souvenirs


We stepped out of the MRT station on to Pagoda Street, right in the centre of Chinatown in Singapore. This pedestrianised street is lined with souvenir shops in the ground floor of colonial buildings. The atmosphere is instantly different to other parts of Singapore I have visited, touristy, yes but in a fun way.

Pagoda Street

Pagoda Street

Despite having visited Singapore several times, I had never been to Chinatown. Perhaps I assumed it would be the same as the Chinatowns in other cities around the world, and of course there are similarities. However, Chinatown in Singapore has a great atmosphere and is a fun place for wandering around, browsing for very cheap and tacky Singapore souvenirs, and cultural tourism.

Chinatown Heritage Centre

A little way down Pagoda Street is the Chinatown Heritage Centre. This museum, set in two adjoining colonial buildings, tells the history of Chinese people in Singapore, from the hardships endured by the first immigrants to the success stories of Singapore’s Chinese business people. Combining personal biographies with historical reconstructions of living conditions it was fascinating to think that we were standing in the very area being described.

I learnt a lot about Chinese culture in Singapore, from clan names and their significance to Chinese foods and festivals. The authentic reconstructions of cubicle living and shophouses also reminded me that in other parts of the world, people still live in these conditions, that here in Singapore can be shown as a museum’s historical exhibit.

Me in a historical kitchen reconstruction

Me in a historical kitchen reconstruction, but outside Singapore this is not so different to the kitchens people use every day.

At S$10 per adult the Chinatown Heritage Centre is not cheap but we felt it was worth the ticket price.

Perfect for a Wander

Walking back out on to Pagoda Street the old buildings around us had a new significance thanks to what we had learnt at the museum. We wandered around for a while and came upon a public dance aerobics session with people of all ages joining in.

Food stalls and endless souvenir shops continued to line our path, and there were a fair number of Chinese medicine shops selling remedies for everything as well as traditional Chinese teas.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Although I don’t know much about Buddhism, I had been intrigued by this temple since I first heard its name, and as we approached from a side street, passing table upon table piled high with offerings, we knew we would see something special. In my brief temple-visiting experience, the peaceful but friendly atmosphere is a welcome retreat from a bustling cityscape.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Fortunately we were not wearing very short shorts or hats and so we were allowed to enter the temple. Chinese Buddhists were arriving for a ceremony, mingling with tourists like us. We walked around the sides, where thousands of Buddhas are displayed. Information about the displays is given in English as well as Chinese.

We learnt about the Imperial Life Protectors who protect followers according to the animal of the year of birth. For example, I was born in the year of the pig so mine is Amitabha Buddha. Followers can pay to consecrate their Imperial Life Protector.

Upstairs in the Temple

We went upstairs to the top floor where we saw the Buddha Tooth Relic, which the temple is named after, along with many other Buddhas. To enter this room we slipped off our shoes. Platforms on either side were reserved for meditation and there were some people meditating, despite the tourists coming to see the relic.

Climbing the last flight of stairs we came out at the roof garden, a square with lush, green plants and in the centre, a prayer wheel. We watched the people in front of us walk round, pulling the prayer wheel until it had rung three times, and we did the same.

Buddhist Prayer Wheel

Buddhist Prayer Wheel

A Buddhist Ceremony

There are more floors in the temple, between the ground floor and the tooth relic, but it was closing time. We made our way back down to the ground floor and were just in time to watch a ceremony taking place in the front courtyard.

Buddhist monks chanted and played percussion instruments and the congregation, wearing black robes, joined in at certain point. The rich aroma of incense filled the air.

Temple Ceremony

Temple Ceremony

Heritage and Religion of Chinatown

The combination of visiting the Chinatown Heritage Centre and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, although the most touristic places of Chinatown in Singapore, really gave a flavour of the area, showing us the history and religion of the area.

Wandering around the narrow streets and alleyways gave us a taste of modern Chinatown in Singapore, and now we know where to go for cheap souvenirs!

Dieng Plateau (Dataran Tinggi Dieng), Central Java


Located at a height of over 2000m above sea level and surrounded by mountains, the Dieng Plateau (Dataran Tinggi Dieng in Indonesian), is an amazing area – breathtakingly beautiful and both geologically and historically fascinating, but off the main tourist trail.

We took a public bus from Solo (Surakarta) to Wonosobo (six hours though we were told it usually takes four, ticket price: Rp. 27,000), an angkot (little yellow minibus, Rp. 2000 each) from the bus terminal to the market, and then a microbus from Wonosobo to Dieng (one hour, Rp. 8000 each). When we got on the microbus we took the two remaining seats, and so in my mind the bus was full and would depart. Not here. We waited as more and more passengers got on, taking up all available space, sitting on the edges of seats and standing. Bags of rice and other goods were places under the seats. Eventually the bus departed.

The area around Dieng is extremely hilly and the roads are typical mountain roads with hairpin bends. I was amazed this tiny bus, full to bursting, could pull its load up the steep hills.

Fortunately more passengers got off than on, and we arrived in Dieng in one piece. We checked out one of the hostels mentioned in my outdated Lonely Planet book and decided to stay there (see previous article). It was already 5pm and we were shattered from the journey, so we had a quiet night in. I ventured out to buy some water and saw that (or rather couldn’t see because) Dieng was completely misty, the clouds had come down, and it was hard to see more than a few metres in the darkness.

The next day we got up early and, after breakfast, set out on foot to explore. Brandishing our little map from the Lonely Planet we walked first in the direction of Telaga Warna (Coloured Lake), while taking in the breathtaking views around the village. The land is heavily farmed – mainly vegetable-growing, especially potatoes – and all except the steepest land is planted. The hills are terraced, often right up to their peaks.

We arrived at the ticket booth for the Dieng sights and bought our tickets (Rp. 12,000 each though the advertised rate for foreigners is Rp. 40,000). The countryside that immediately surrounds Telaga Warna and its neighbour Telaga Pengilon (Mirror Lake) is not used for agriculture and has been left forested. Due to the high altitude, the flora of the area is totally different to that across most of Java, and unless you are into mountain climbing, you are unlikely to see some of these trees and plants anywhere else.

First we walked up a hill to the left of Telaga Warna, from which we could see both lakes. It was a beautiful view, with the greens of Telaga Warna clearly visible and contrasting with the bluer colour of Telaga Pengilon. After walking back down the hill, we followed the signs around Telaga Warna in the direction of Goa Semar (Semar Cave). The smell of sulphur from these volcanic crater lakes was quite strong, and we could see little areas of bubbles where the water was being boiled by magma underneath. Semar is a popular character in Javanese wayang kulit (traditional shadow puppet theatre), and this cave named after him is used for meditation. Unfortunately the cave was locked, as was nearby cave Goa Sumur. We asked a passerby why it was locked and she said that there was usually a keyholder present to open it. Goa Jaran was open, but looked very slippery (this is the rainy season) so we didn’t go inside. Despite not being able to enter the caves, the walk around the lakes gave us stunning views across the mountains, and although it is a touristic area with some paved footpaths, the countryside has largely been left alone in its natural beauty.

Telaga Warna

Telaga Warna (Coloured Lake)

We walked back to the main entrance and were about to leave when we were told to walk up to Dieng Plateau Theatre and watch the film. We weren’t particularly enthusiastic about this, as we wanted to get on to see the temples. But it turned out to be a very interesting film about the Dieng area, its volcanic activity, and traditional culture, in Indonesian with English subtitles.

The plateau was created by a huge volcanic eruption, which led to the formation of the small mountains that surround the plateau. We learnt that the whole area is still extremely active. The last major eruption from one of the craters was in 1979 when hundreds of villagers lost their lives. Some of the craters emit poisonous carbon dioxide while others give off steam.

One of the more unusual traditions of the area is that the children grow dreadlocks in their hair, which is either considered a good or bad omen. The dreadlocked hair is then cut off in a special ceremony and floated down the river in order to release the child from evil.

The Dieng Plateau Theatre is built at the peak of one of the hills surrounding the lakes. There is a spectacular view across to Sikidang Crater, which continuously belches steam/gas. We ate chips – the Dieng area is one of the main producers of potatoes, so chips (kentang goreng) are sold everywhere and are the most delicious I have tasted in Indonesia.

Sikidang Crater

Sikidang Crater emitting gas/steam

After walking down the hill from the theatre we inadvertently walked the wrong way and ended up at Sembungan village – this is apparently the highest village in Java. After walking back the way we came, we made the correct turning towards Candi Bima (Bima Temple).

The temples in the Dieng area are Hindu and date from around the eighth century, when this area was thought to be the starting point for Hinduism in Java, and one of its strongest areas. Interestingly, today the Dieng area is strongly Islamic; the vast majority of women wear the jilbab and the mosques are large and lavish for such a rural area.

We looked at Candi Bima. Bima is one of the characters from the Javanese wayang kulit tradition (shadow puppet theatre), and in modern times the Dieng temples have all been named after wayang characters. Candi Bima is thought to be one of the first of the temples to have been built and is characterised by the stone faces that peer out, as if from windows, in the upper part of the structure.

Candi Bima

Detail on Candi Bima (Bima Temple)

We continued walking to Candi Gatotkaca (another wayang character). I was pleased that all the temples are still open to visitors – you can walk right up to them and even go inside. The Dieng Museum is near Candi Gatotkaca. I was expecting some kind of run-down disappointment but the museum had been recently refurbished and was full of fascinating information about the local area, the temples and geology, and cultural traditions. It was interesting to compare the temples with those in other parts of Java and also with Hindu temples in India. Unfortunately the text was exclusively in Indonesian, unlike that at many other museums across Java which feature some sort of English explanation.

Siapa gendong? Siapa digendong?

From the museum: Who is carrying and who is being carried? A local form of entertainment

From the museum a footpath led straight across the flat area of the plateau to the Arjuna Complex, the largest group of temples in the Dieng area. There are five temples arranged in a small area: Semar, Arjuna, Srikandi, Puntadewa and Sembadra. All have been named in modern times after wayang characters. The Arjuna temple closely mirrors the design of Indian temples, and as the temples become more recent they take on a more Javanese design, further removed from their Indian origins. Also near the Arjuna Complex are the remains of a Dharmasala, a raised platform used for preparation for ceremonies, and a wooden replica.

Candi Arjuna

Candi Arjuna (Arjuna Temple) that resembles those found in India

We wanted to buy some purwaceng tea as a souvenir. This plant is grown in the Dieng area and said to have aphrodisiac and stamina-improving qualities. We stopped at one shop and looked at the varieties on sale: tea, coffee, dried plant, powdered plant. Then we were shocked to see the price – Rp. 50,000 for ten tea bags – this is the same price as imported tea in Java, and normal tea costs less than a tenth of that. So we decided not to buy any purwaceng.

We then headed for Candi Dwarawati (named after a kingdom in the wayang tradition, not a character like the other temples). This is located on the other side of Dieng village up a hill. The views once again, were amazing. I particularly liked seeing the hills which are completely terraced, right up to their peaks. Imagine the daily walk to work though! Candi Dwarawati is quite large compared to some of the other temples. On the steps were the remains of incense sticks and inside the temple we saw evidence of Hindu offerings which show that the temple is still in use, despite being located in this strongly Islamic area. This is a good sign that it will continue to be protected and preserved, not only as an ancient monument to the past, but by those who continue to worship here.

Terraced Hill 

 

This hill and many others have been terraced right up to their peaks for agriculture

Returning from Candi Dwarawati the rain began. Actually it had been raining on and off all day, but nothing compared to this downpour. Our feet got soaked inside our shoes as we walked back into the village. We found a nice-looking warung (cheap cafe or food stall) and had a well-deserved meal. The rain eased off and on our way back to the hotel we stopped at a fruit stall. On sale was a fruit we had seen growing on a tree earlier and we wanted to find out what it was. It turns out it is called carica (pronounced “karika”). While growing it’s green and then it turns yellow as it ripens. We tasted some and it was sweet with some bitterness. After peeling the fruit, the fleshy part next to the skin and its heavily seeded insides can be eaten. We bought a jar of prepared carica to take home, happy to have found a suitable souvenir of our trip

One day of looking around Dieng was enough for us on this mini-break, so we headed home. We had seen a lot in a very short time, from sulphurous craters and lakes to ancient Hindu temples and unfamiliar plants and trees. The views were breathtaking and the weather refreshingly cold.