My main motivation for leaving Langkawi after only three days was to get to festival which I heard was supposed to be pretty amazing.
Renato and I checked into the Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel in the evening, a hostel which gave you two free beers a night (booze is expensive in Malaysia!), I suppose to offset the fact that the hostel rooms had a whopping 20 bunks. These are the types of places I stay when I travel with young-ins! We wandered around, got some Indian food and drank at the hostel bar for a bit, but I headed to bed early, as I’d be waking up at 5am to catch the beginning of the Thaipusam festival.
Once a year in Malaysia the Thaipusam festival takes place. I should have learned the backstory more, but its in honor of Murugan, the Tamil God of War and the celebration involves sacrifices to him by fasting for 48 days beforehand and ridding the body of all impurities, physical and mental. The sacrifice concludes on Thaipusam where devotees will carry a physical burden, called a kavadi, which is sometimes as small as pot, but is usually much more elaborate. On Thaipusam the simple kavadis are metal rods piercing through the skin of the cheeks! Some wear portable altars on their shoulders, some have ornaments pierced all over their upper body, some have hooks through their backs, and the most elaborate is an altar attached to the body by nothing but skin piercings!
At 5:15 I managed to find a taxi to take me to where the festival started. It was still pitch black but you could see groups of Indians gathered around a few small fires, offering sacrifices. There were also men being fitted with large altars on their shoulders. Soon the piercings would begin. One man was fitting small bells all around his upper body, attached to the skin by little metal hooks. Another was getting large metal hooks attached through his back. Another was inserting a metal rod between his cheeks. And the most interesting part was that there was no blood and the men looked like almost trancelike, not showing any signs of pain.
After their body had been fully decorated they would head into the adjacent temple for a while, and then begin the five kilometer pilgrimage to the huge temple up in the hills, with an entourage of chanting people in tow. Certainly one of the crazier festivals I’ve seen. This would go on all day and all night. And I would not want to be making this trip in the middle of the day, it was almost 100 degrees in Penang!
Eventually I found the man who was supporting the vel kavadi, an altar supported by nothing but hooks and and pins. He had them everywhere, his face, chest, stomach, back, legs. It took well over an hour to rig up his body for this. Pretty wild! If there’s one thing about Hindus, there’s no shortage of religious fervor!
I went back home and slept for a bit, met up with Renato to check out the infamous street art around the city, which I thought was pretty lame. Then we headed to the Hill Temple, where all the Indians were heading to see what was happening. Basically it was big, crowded party along the pilgrimage route, with music blasting and Indian men energetically dancing with each, as they’re known to do, while women looked on from the sidelines. Yes, there is nothing that looks gayer than an Indian party. We hiked up to the top of the temple, where we watched the men get their piercings removed, both of us hoping they can at least get some action from the ladies after this feat of devotion and endurance, and then dined on a free meal of dhal, vegetables, and rice.
The next day I woke up early to try and find a place to watch the Cardinals/Seahawks game, but to my dismay there was not a single sports bar that I could find anywhere! There’s just not enough Americans around here to generate any interest in NFL playoff games I suppose. Oh well, the game sucked anyway. Then it was off to the capital, Kuala Lumpur for me and Renato was off the Cameron Highlands (which I’ve already been to), so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. So sad! As for Kuala Lumpur I didn’t really do anything interesting, just checked out the downtown and the Petronas Towers, so next up will be Indonesia, a country I’m quite fond of!