It took about an hour walking around the city to dub Kuala Lumpur “Shittapore”. To be fair we did not do much exploring of the city (found a temple though) and when we thought of the nickname we were starving and angry we couldn’t decide where to eat. Regardless, for the couple of hours we spent “exploring” the city on our first night it seemed like KL was trying to be Singapore but falling way short — Shittapore. After that first night we knew we didn’t want to spend any time in the city and the next day absolutely did not disappoint.
The one thing I regret about our trip to the stunning Batu Caves (which means Rock Caves, creativity is not a Malaysian strong suit when it comes to names it seems) is not knowing more of the history of the area. Essentially, the cave was discovered and then made into a temple/shrine to a God, whose name I wish I could google right now on the bus. Past the humongous gold statue and ~270 steps later is the Dark Cave. Worth mentioning is the number of obnoxious monkeys everywhere whose sole purpose in life is to grab bags out of the hands of tourists (yes I saw this happens a couple of times). While they are cute for a little or when you see a baby monkey for the most part me and Collin discussed how much we wanted to punt them. The (aptly named) Dark Cave is not a shrine but rather is a conservation site with an entire ecosystem that relies on the 200,000 bats in it and especially all their poop (guano). We took a one hour “educational tour” which was actually incredibly educational. It was fascinating how we would stop in the cave and the tour guide would point his light to a cave structure being formed. He would then explain the process and sometimes touch on the chemistry of how the formation is currently forming. Then, almost every time, he would turn around and point his flashlight to the same type of structure but thousands of years more advanced than the other one and therefore fully formed. The ooh’s and ah’s always came at this point and were definitely the highlight of the tour. Rocks are cool. Pictures are a little difficult in complete darkness but luckily there was a skylight at the end of the walk. Oh and we also saw a Guano pool that was 2 meters deep of unadulterated bat poo.
Sungai Buloh Setllement – The History
We then decided to venture out to Sungai Buloh – a former leprosy settlement. What follows is a brief history, which is fascinating, before I describe what we saw. In the early twentieth century leprosy patients were, more often than not, isolated from society and put in treatment facilities that were rather inhumane. Life as a leprosy patient was hard to say the least. In Kuala Lumpur leprosy patients were put into a leprosarium in Sepatak, Kuala Lumpur. This Leprosarium was described as hell on earth. Those who were unable to flee or who had given up on hope turned to government supplied opium. Dr. Travers, a high ranking health official, saw the conditions in Sepatak and demanded for a more human leprosarium to be built in Sungai Buloh. That was in 1922 and in 1930 the Sungai Buloh settlement was officially opened. Patients were transferred to this settlement and it became the second largest leprosarium in the world. The patients were restored with hope. In fact when a patient stepped into Sungai Buloh he felt hope that one day he would be fully cured and be able to return to society; it was therefore renamed to “The Valley of Hope.” While life was still not necessarily easy, it was an enormous step forward in dispelling the stigma society had against leprosy.
The Valley of Hope – a window into what once was
Today what remains is a shadow of what once was. Walking around the settlement I could stare at a run down building and clearly picture what must’ve been a rather vibrant community. We could see the dorms where the younger patients once lived. The houses where the older or elderly people lived. The church was my favorite building as it still had a petty blue. There was even a school that looks like it was renovated and still functional to this day. The deeper we walked into the settlement the more run down and forgotten the houses were. There was a paper outside the community center describing how they are trying to make this a Cultural/Heritage center in order to remember the hope that this place instilled into so many that yearned for it. The paper was dated to last year and it looked like efforts have dwindled, but I certainly hope that this is not the case. This is something that should not be forgotten, but rather shared. Families still live in some of the run down houses and apparently, I only read this, some elderly former patients have not left including the Secretary of the Patients Council. People go to KL to see the Petronas towers but an hour journey outside the city took us to a piece of history that is truly invaluable.
If we thought that this day could not get any better we were certainly wrong. On the way out we passed a group of local guys (16 – 40 yrs old) starting to play a football (soccer) match. I should preface this by saying that it was clear that tourists are not a normal sight in this part of town since many kids would openly gape at us and while the adults were very friendly they were most certainly confused. Anyway, we walked by and one of the guys that spoke some English asked us to play and I immediately said yes and assumed Collin and Shannon were okay with that, which they certainly were. We quickly split into teams and started playing a game. The fact that football is so international and such an easy way to bring such different cultures together makes it the best sport in the World. When I said I was from Chile, they had no clue where that was but mention Alexis Sanchez or Arturo Vidal and they knew immediately. I am proud to say I was able to show some skills, along with the winning goal. However, as important as winning is it was just the friendly and community we formed after one (rather long) football game that made this night so special. After the game, I asked to take a picture with everyone and the excitement over what seemed like a simple picture was overwhelming. Everyone got together and we took pictures with my camera and I think with every single one of their phones. After mentioning food they happily took us to a tiny local place to eat Malaysian food. The food was spicy and delicious. Everyone was excited and happy to be able to share their culture, thru football and food, with us. Even the “boss” (aka owner of the little restaurant) came out to take a picture with us and we saw him go back in to the kitchen and with the biggest smile on his face show everyone the picture he just took. The kindness and hospitality didn’t stop there as they refused to let me pay with this night being their treat. If only they knew how much of a treat this night actually was for us.
It seems that I have had a quote from Collin in my other blogs so why stop here! We were not sure of how to get to what we referred to, at the time, as the leprosy settlement. Shannon and I had read a little about it so we knew what it was, but Collin had no idea and decided to go ask for directions……
Collin: “Hey do you know where I can find the old Leprosy settlement?”
Confused and bewildered Man: “no…”
Collin: “oh, its supposed to be a town with a bunch of lepers.”
(Don’t worry after ten minutes of laughing we finally explained everything to him)
Kuala Lumpur in a Guanoshell
To be fair we did not really explore Kuala Lumpur town, but we just got the vibe of it being just another big city, and a rather crappy one. However, there are plenty of places to go if you are willing to venture outside the city – just an hour out. Batu caves is an incredibly popular tourist destination and rightfully so. The Valley of Hope should be just as popular and maybe one day it will be but for now it remains a shadow of what it once was. A shadow that everyone passing thru the city should absolutely go see. Also, go around 6:00 to catch a football game that you wont forget.