The great thing about travelling on a budget (read: semi-sarcasm) is that plans change. All the time. When price is a bigger concern than convenience, you have to be willing to sacrifice comfort and adapt to a new plan. Zap. Not for the faint of heart.
Right before I headed to Singapore, my hard work and frantic “How-Can-I-Avoid-Going-Home?” campaign finally paid off — an opportunity came up in Australia, and I needed to head there within a week.
I was beyond excited to not have to head back to the states quite yet, but this change of plans meant that I only had a week to travel, and needed to book a few flights. I had been planning to head to Singapore via bus from Malaysia, but at the last minute flight prices changed and flying out of Malaysia saved me over $100, so it became my last stop before heading south.
After spending time in both of the countries that border Malaysia — Thailand and Singapore — I had completely unrealistic expectations . I expected Malaysia to be similar to Thailand, with a little dash of Singapore’s posh city culture, and a lot of influence from the Thai Islands just north.
I had absolutely no idea that Malaysia is a predominantly Islamic nation. Now, I’ve done extensive research on every other location I’ve visited, but because I knew I would only be in Malaysia for 2 or 3 days, I hadn’t bothered to buy the Lonely Planet book. I thought I would just wing it.
My first stop after passing through immigration was a giant shopping mall in Johor Bahru — the city that lies along the border. There were hundreds of women wearing hijabs and abayas, but I just thought, “Hmmm. I wonder if there’s a convention in town or something.” (Really.)
In fact, it wasn’t until I went to get a smoothie and saw the posters in the photo above all over the shop that it clicked. A quick Google search confirmed that yes, Malaysia is 62-70% Muslim –depending on who you ask.
You won’t find religious hate on this blog. More power to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever else anyone believes in or worships. I find all religions endlessly fascinating. But walking into a heavily religious country with no prior knowledge or preparation is like going to friend’s house for dinner and finding out they live in a nudist commune with a victory garden.
As a budget traveller and general penny pincher, I’ve spent weeks of my life on buses and trains to save a few bucks. Instead of booking a bus to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore, I took a train and shuttle to the border, and then a public bus to the regional bus center in Malaysia, and then boarded a bus to KL. Doing this saved me $60, but it was definitely not the easiest route.
By the time I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, I was f***ing tired. It was after midnight. All of my devices were dead. Haruki Murakami (the author of “Kafka at the Shore” and a bunch of other fucked up twisty novels) had just killed another cat. The Tuk-Tuk guys tried to convince me that my guest house was really far away and would cost me 50 Ringitt (about $15 USD — absurd in SE Asia) — but thanks to my unwillingness to pay $15 USD for just about anything in Asia, I went to a local restaurant, powered up my devices, and found out that my room was only a few blocks away. Lesson learned: Always be skeptical of Tuk-Tuk drivers.
I settled into my room, slept for a few hours, and then woke up with the biggest craving for a nice cold beer. I spent at least an hour looking for a liquor shop before I realized that being in a Muslim country, I was pretty much out of luck. I gave up and, upon venting my frustrations to the front desk guy, spent the evening chasing down a hole-in-the-wall hookah lounge in Bukit Bintang, a stylish central ‘hood with some seriously intense shopping bait. They even had freakin’ Sephora.
My priority in Malaysia was simple: I wanted to see monkeys.
I was promised wild monkeys in Cambodia, but there were none. Not even at the Angkor Wat temples, which many people have since told me is unheard of and that they had monkeys crawling all over them during their trips. I just wanted to see adorable primate creatures pick fleas out of each other’s fur and throw things at obnoxious tourists, and I’d be damned if I was going to leave Asia without that experience. So, when I read about the Batu Caves and the plentiful resident monkeys, I knew I needed to go there immediately.
Accessing the Batu Caves is extremely simple — it’s connected to the KL train line. They even have a Batu Caves Station which lies conveniently at the base of the site — which is great, because you need all the energy you can get before travelling up to the caves.
Approaching the gate, local women sell beaded jewelry, water, snacks, and…. MONKEY FOOD. This is the point where I started to get really, really excited.
One of the reasons I was drawn to the Batu Caves, aside from the monkeys, was this large statue of Lord Murugan. It is the second tallest statue of a Hindu deity in the world, and in person it’s even more gorgeous and impressive.
To get to the caves themselves, you have to climb a very, very, very large set of stairs. Two hundred and seventy-two steps, to be exact.
But, you barely even notice the crippling physical exhaustion because these steps? They have monkeys!
And not only do they have monkeys, but they have dozens upon dozens!
They wander about the steps and surrounding trees and bushes from the beginning, warding off tourists by stealing water bottles and showing their teeth when anyone gets too pushy.
I was thrilled to see the caves and monkeys, but at the end of the day, I was more excited about my approaching flight to Australia and what was ahead.