We were on the Island of Penang, just off the Malaysian coast, in the old quarter of Georgetown, a UNESCO world heritage site.
We’d spent a day and half walking around this amazing place; so much to look at with every step we took. So many colours, street stalls, and people from every part of the world. It was beautiful, bustling and sometimes breathtaking, but boy was it busy. On the bigger roads the traffic was horrendous – you took your life in your hands every time you tried to cross, and giving way to pedestrians definitely hasn’t made it to this part of the world. And….in trying to cross the roads, beware the three foot deep storm drains that line both sides of the road waiting to catch the monsoon rains or the unwary traveller. We found these deep open storm drains lining the roads along many parts of our travels, thank goodness we missed the rainy season.
We needed to find a little peace and quiet, so we decided to head to the botanical gardens for a couple of hours “chill” time. We took a “Grab” car, the Malay equivalent of Uber, but as we neared our destination, traffic was gridlocked so we decided to walk the last couple of miles.
What a cacophony of noise and colour and smells and tastes assaulted us over the next few hours as we milled about enjoying the religious festival and everything it had to offer. We spent much of our time just watching the people and the happy families walking through the festival, and we marvelled at the beautiful women in their beautifully coloured dresses and saris. Such a colourful, chaotic celebration. we were made to feel so welcome, with everyone who looked at us giving us genuine warm beaming smiles. We had fabulous little parcels of food and drink pressed into our hands all afternoon and evening. And all the while we were being blasted by hundreds of watts of speakers placed every 30 metres along the street, each playing their own choice of music, and each set competing with its neighbours to be the loudest with the heaviest base beat.
No wonder traffic was at a standstill – We found ourselves in the middle of one of the biggest Hindu celebrations of the year, “Thaipusam”, a thanksgiving to the gods for prayers that have been answered.
But, amidst all the fun and gaiety, it was a religious festival, and were in awe, and sometime shock, as the religious disciples walked by, holding their offerings to their God. Many with pitchers of milk, but some with brutal piercings through their faces and torsos, from swords, and hooks, and some carrying large artistic shrines attached to their bodies with over 100 sharp skewers.
The religious highlight of the procession was the golden chariot making its way slowly along the festival route stopping every short while for people to submit their offerings. We’d seen piles and piles of literally thousands of coconuts lined up along the side of the streets, and as the chariot arrived, out came the coconuts. In organised batches the coconuts were smashed onto the road, in a frantic five minute frenzy by teams of excited youngsters just ahead of the chariot – to symbolise “the breaking of one’s ego to reveal purity inside”. When the coconuts were smashed, teams of sweepers came along, pushed the empty husks into the gutters, the chariot moved forward twenty yards and then the next batch of coconuts were smashed – this happened all the way along the procession route. By the end of the evening the streets were literally running with coconut milk.
We eventually made our way back to our digs, full of food and drink, our ears buzzing and whistling from the volume and beat of the music, and a great feeling of wellbeing from having been allowed to have attended such wonderfully warm and friendly occasion.
All in all, an amazing six hours. Purely by accident we found ourselves at the right place at just the right time – Our quiet garden walk turned into an incredible experience we’ll never forget.