Traffic-choked roads, frenetic food markets and labyrinthine shopping malls – Kuala Lumpur can be a little bit crazy all year round. But you haven’t experienced the city in all its colourful, crowded, celebratory glory until you’ve experienced Thaipusam.
Just like climbing Mount Kinabalu, going on a street art tour in Penang or soaking up some rays on one of Langkawi’s beaches, witnessing Thaipusam is one of Malaysia’s must-do experiences. Having heard so much about this epic religious festival, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
About Thaipusam in KL
Thaipusam takes place on the full moon in the month of Thai, which falls in January or February each year. Held in honour of Lord Murugan and his victory over evil, the Hindu festival is recognised around the world, but some of the biggest and boldest celebrations take place at Sri Subramaniar Swamy – a site of great spiritual significance and more commonly referred to as the cavernous stone space that houses this simple temple – the Batu Caves.
Thousands of devotees and tourists head to the caves every year, dodging the inquisitive monkeys that live in the surrounding jungle and defying Kuala Lumpur’s punishing humidity to ascend the 272 stone steps to the temple’s entrance.
However, it was the opportunity to see the scenes of intense sacrifice and feats of endurance that are only on display during Thaipusam that lured me to Batu.
Barefoot with Kavadi
The 15-kilometre walk from Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the city centre to the caves is no ordinary journey: devotees prepare for Thaipusam days in advance, by fasting and carrying a kavadi – an ornate structure balanced on their shoulders and colourfully decorated with images of deities. The sacrifices made as part of Thaipusam are a very important event within the practices of Hinduism in Malaysia.
Some will carry pal kodum (milk pots) on their heads as they walk, while others display their dedication by piercing their skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers or hanging rows of hooks on their backs.
While it all sounds squeamish, thankfully the scenes at the cave were so magical that I enjoyed every moment of my Thaipusam experience.
It is, however, a long night and the congested steps leading to the caves can feel more than a little claustrophobic at times. If you want to see this spiritual spectacle for yourself, follow my guide to joining the crowds while still maintaining a few creature comforts along the way.
The Prep: Day Before Thaipusam
The starting point for the procession is Sri Mahamariamman Temple, and it’s worth heading here the day before to see what’s going on. Situated on Jalan Tun HS Lee in Chinatown, it’s close enough to explore the attractive blue and white art deco Central Market and the stalls that line nearby Petaling Street – but maybe leave the haggling for another day.
You’ll be thankful you are travelling light later; in fact, I just took my camera, my Rapid KL public transport card and a bottle of water. Needless to say, comfortable shoes and cool clothing are key. It also makes you feel for the men and women taking part in the rituals, carrying heavy kavadis and milk pots in the heat of KL.
Knowing I had a long night ahead of me, I opted for a large lunch above the Central Market at Precious – a cavernous space filled with antiques and serving classic Baba Nyonya cuisine. The tangy, sour Asam prawns, cooked with tamarind and palm sugar, and coconut cream-infused sago pudding with Gula Melaka are indicative of this traditional Straits Chinese cooking style.
The temple is a hive of activity, and there will be great photo opportunities of people making marigold garlands outside and barefoot devotees taking in the almost fluorescent facade of the temple.
When you find yourself getting hot and bothered, cool off with an ice coffee at the tranquil Aku Café & Gallery on Jalan Panggong, or head into KL newcomer Merchant’s Lane on Jalan Petaling where they serve refreshing natural sodas by local outfit The Tapping Tapir – this highly photogenic space has escaped its seedy past as a brothel and is frequented today by the city’s hip crowd.
As the sun sinks into the sky and things cool off a little, it’s the perfect time to check out the Perdana Botanical Gardens – almost 100 hectares of tropical green spaces centred around orchid, bird and butterfly gardens and a picturesque lake – before wandering past the historic Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.
Dating back to 1910, the Anglo-Asian architecture – think archways and intricate columns – looks stunning when lit up at night. And then it’s on to my suggested destination for the evening – the charming The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur. I chose to set up camp in the wood-panelled bar, which channels a stunning colonial aesthetic, and listen to some live music – but there’s also a pool table and cinema screening room in the Smoke House and a relaxed Tea Lounge.
Day of the Festival
I left The Majestic at around 1am, and from there it’s just a short stroll to KL Sentral (or an even shorter taxi ride if you don’t want to cross any roads), where extra trains depart regularly throughout the night. The journey on a direct KTM Komuter train costs just a few ringgits and, 20 minutes later, I disembarked in a whole other world.
As more and more people arrived, the area at the foot of the caves took on an almost carnival-like atmosphere. It’s a time of extreme worship, but it’s also an incredibly colourful and raucous spectacle with the sound of drums and chanting vibrating through the crowd while the heady scent of incense fills the air.
As the sun slowly starts to rise, streams of people begin to trudge up the stairs. It’s a jaw-dropping scene.
After the Festival
Witnessing such a lively and deeply cultural celebration is a moving experience for anyone watching the Thaipusam journey unfold. It is a unique festival that highlights the deep faith elements of Hinduism in Malaysia (and Singapore, India and elsewhere where Thaipusam is celebrated).
Tired but completely buzzing, I returned to the city at around 8am when it was time for me to greet the morning too – so I headed to Organica, a yoga studio and health food cafe in Bangsar, which is one stop from KL Sentral on the red Kelana Jaya LRT line. A lot of stretching and a couple of superfood smoothies later, it was time to see the rest of the city.
Photo credits: Getty Images