About Richard
The Journey
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Report: #08
Date: Sun, 27 Sep 1998 16:24:29
Subject: Of Buddhas and Blood and, of course, a Bit of Biking
Location: Kuala Lumpur

Dear All,

Thanks to Malaysian hospitality, for them freely televising all of France's World Cup (though I only saw England's and Japan's matches and, weeks after, the final) and for hosting the Commonwealth Games, and heavily in part due to the uncommon kindness given me by the Raja Lope family and by AMEX big-cheese John Williams and family in providing bases for yoyo-ing in and out of Kuala Lumpur; thanks to all this, I'm still here.

And yet again I'm on your screen and in your face. And I'm able to tell you tales of treading ancient jungles, mixing with timeless flying foxes eating mangoes, and flippering in warm prehistoric seas watched by the old, old eyes of unchanging reef sharks, turtles, rays and their food; and popping out occasionally to tune into the Pentium satellites and focus on split milliseconds. But I won't...

Though I will tell you......

Where The Hell I've Been

Well roughly anyway. Since Penang, I rode determinedly to Kuala Lumpur to find my long-overdue-for-sending-back mail in the GPO there. I settled into the easy going Travellers' Station Guest House [email:-] in the fine, moorish, minaretted railway station building. Upbeat Indy, the owner, introduced me, some backpackers and a Uruguayan cyclist, Roberto, to the nocturnal side of the city and to 2-in-the-morning roti pisang (a kind of addictive fried banana pancake).

But the call of the wilder tool me north-east across the forested heart of Malaysia back to the areas bordering Thailand, to the frontier town of Kota Bharu and to the un-leavable islands; Perhentian Kecil (small) and Besar (big). Two brief crossings into Thailand relieved the strain on my Malaysian visa.

Eeeeeeeeeeventually I cycled back to KL and then with sudden urgency bussed it to Melaka to not see an annular solar eclipse because of torrential rain. But the Indian food and the Navy museum were quite good.

To KL again and out again to the 2000m+ jungles, coolness and tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands further north, where there was a cool, lovely Spring out of the permanent summer lower down.

And back to KL once more, where I now find myself trying to catch up on the e's I owe those of you who've mailed me, but whom I've regrettably neglected over the last few months.

What I most want to tell you about is..........

The Kuala Krai Chinese Temple Experience

Malaysia is a modern country. But in some respects the mixed peoples have allowed time to stand still by not discarding some long held traditions that at first glimpse may seem incompatible with a progressive society. As much as operating in parallel with modernity, they are resorted to when modernity fails or can't be afforded.

The north-eastern, strongly-Muslim state of Kelantan had held me long enough and I was beginning my ride back to Kuala Lumpur from Kota Bharu. My first night stop-over was my 3rd time in the sleepy little town of Kuala Krai, and I was welcomed back by Chinese tailor, Odeon, and given floor space in the office behind his shop. Odeon and his friends, David Cheong (part-time masseur at the Genting Highlands casino resorts and herbal medicine man) and Peter (a mechanic, I think) were, and still are, keen mountain bikers, so we had a common language.

One humid evening they took me to one of the towns' two Chinese temples, where preparations were underway for a three-day festival during which the gods special to that temple would visit. The temple sparkled brightly in its blaze of bulbs, especially highlighting the upcurved eaves of the roof topped with two painted dragons, splendid against the night sky.

The harsher light from bare flourescent tubes gave the impression of more business-like proceedings going on inside. The air was simultaneously heavy and light with incense from large, hanging spirals and bunches of sticks in big, ash-filled jars.

Shoes off, I followed my friends into the hall of the temple. At the far end stood the main Buddha statues, nothing very large, and models of gods, some with long beards, in their niches on a platform, beyond a large slab-top table which dominated the middle of the hall. It was filling up with offerings of fruits and gaudy coloured sweets plus small, floating-wick, cooking oil candles, all but overwhelmed by the strip lighting. At the near end was a desk backed against the large table, and indeed, the hall was part office, with filing cabinets in this front corner to my right. Odeon introduced me to the temple "president", a man successful in the logging trade, and then went about topping up candles and paying respects to the gods. I wondered around absorbing and examining.

The route south in Thailand was punctuated by punctures, exclamation-marked with generosity, and entitled Amazing Thailand 1998/99 from a huge nationwide promotion campaign . And coloured in by English Premier League football shirts of Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle and Spurs; often the ehthnic dress of choice for the young and stylish. It's odd to be so far away from home, but find that the footy teams and stars, such as McManaman, Owen and Beckham (who apparently married a "spy gir"?), from there, are household names. In someways it emphasises the distance by bringing it to mind.

Odeon took me outside again to point out one or two things and look over a stage being prepared for music and song the following two nights. He also explained that the ramshackle house we could see just adjacent the stage area, belonged to Malay people who owned the temple land. Though the Chinese temple was pretty old, it couldn't be owned by Chinese Malaysian people. Young girls kept opening the door of the house to look at me, closing it giggling.

He also said that tomorrow night "people mountain people sea", literally translated from Chinese, meaning many, many people, would fill the temple grounds for the festivities.

Anyway, Odeon suddenly ushered me back into the temple saying that a god had come and had entered into a man to answer people's questions about the future and to pave the way for the arrival of the gods the next day. I stood by the filing cabinets and watched the gathering of mainly men, a few women and boys of student age, three or four of whom were rhythmically banging gongs, cymbals and drums. Some small children ran amongst their legs, in and out, undisturbed and unnoticing.

In a space by the desk, a small man with a mustache was convulsing and quivering, especially his right leg, in a trance, while three men undressed him down to his shorts and then dressed him in the gold satin trousers and red bib, adorned with two dragons, of the god who now possessed him.

He continued to twitch and they let him go and gave him a long double-edged sword and a cobra-head handled whip. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that this might be a mistake. He postured and grimaced, staring up to the red roof and sticking his tongue out rigidly. By the way, the god-man was also in the logging trade, I learned.

He cracked the whip twice to the sides and then made as if to chop up the desk. But he just struck it a few times with the flat side of the sword before applying it to his tongue. He ran the length of both sides of the sword down the tip of his tongue. I couldn't tell how deeply he sliced his tongue, but as the blood flowed he hurriedly wrote with his tongue like a pen, painting what-looked-like large Chinese characters, one each on airmail-thin yellow sheets of sacred yellow paper, as he bent over the desk.

At that point I glanced at some folk peering in through the window. I noticed a brother and sister pair I'd met the previous day at the market. Their mother was English and their father, Malaysian Chinese. They were from Milton Keynes.

Like when you're on a train or bus, looking at a reflection in glass or mirror of the scenery passing by, and then look directly out of the window to make your mind flip at the instant, apparent reversal of motion; my mind bunjee'd. This all suddenly seemed impossibly far away from Milton Keynes, yet my mind was encompassing both.

When he ran out of juice, people moved in on the god-man and pressed him with questions as he continued to shake. Odeon asked me if I wanted to ask him about the future, but I couldn't think of anything about the future that I would like to know, though I wouldn't have asked in any case.

Then they gave him a black flag with a gold emblem, and a bunch of smoking incense sticks, and he went urgently outside followed by the people. He paced about giving instructions which Odeon translated loosely; dig here, place earth there, move that car from that spot, burn sacred papers on this spot; indicating where the gods would "land", according to Odeon, tomorrow.

The followers and still-banging percussionists alike, were dressed like any ordinary people in any high street across the world; you know, jeans, Michael Jackson or Cool II T-shirt, checked shirts, casual slacks, Mercedes golfing shirt, Asics training shoes etc, though maybe a larger proportion of sandals. I stood with the Milton Keynes pair and asked them about their understanding of this half of their cultural background. They were about as bemused as I was. I distorted our frame of reference a bit, surmising as to whether this god-man had a sponsor; Nike, for instance. The girl joked back, that the god might hurl a thunderbolt down on me. "Or he might come down and say, 'How did you know that I was Michael Jordan?'" I said.

We all followed the god-man back inside the temple where more people questioned him. Odeon told me that, depending on which god possessed the man, the man would speak in different dialects of Chinese that he couldn't possibly know himself. I asked if he could speak English. Odeon said no and then also joked that there were no English schools where the god came from.

The god-man finally signalled for the people to stand back. He faced the desk, shaking still, then slammed his palms on it and recoiled, fighting, into the arms of a man ready behind.

The same three men removed his god-clothes as he came round, and it was then that I noticed he was wearing turquoise Adidas shorts. When he was himself again, he sat on a stool smoking a cigarette.

It was time for us to get away to bed for an early morning drive to a mountain bike race.

I learnt the next day, from Odeon's wife, Elyssa, that the god-man is often consulted on problems with which the doctors have failed, such as a child persistently crying because of the darkness of nightfall. The god-man may perhaps give a blood-written page to be burnt and the ashes mixed with water, which, after filtering, is drunk by the child. The fear of the dark will then leave the child.

I watched this event with my western eyes, but, perhaps because they are travelled eyes, feeling no need to judge it. I took no photos. First glimpses are not enough. I still don't really comprehend it, I've just tried to reconstruct it in words for you.

And lastly, as it happens, the next days music turned out to be karaoke and high power amplified rock and pop music performed by accomplished professional dancers in revealing leathers; mostly 2 ladymen and 2 girls; loud enough to wake the gods and split the ears of the kids present, and keep those ears ringing through a few nights.

Where To Next? Briefly; south, roughly.


If you're cycling by Kota Bharu, or are there but bikeless, and want to ride the byways with a club of locals who'll make you feel like one of them for a while, then contact me and I'll put you in touch with Ironman Razani's mountainbiking club.



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