BY Fiona Kuo

This February, I visited my Malaysian friend, J, who graduated last year and is now working in Kuala Lumpur.

Though I’ve only been to Kuala Lumpur once, I’ve always had a very good impression from J that Malaysia is a friendly, multi-cultural and lively country full of mouth-watering cuisine. Six months after the trip, I can still clearly recall the wealthy variety of choices for breakfast in the traditional markets - how the durian vendor split the fruit in half right on the street and how nasi lemak needs to be accompanied by a cup of iced milk tea. I could never stop eating in Kuala Lumpur, and I don't think I ever will.

Amongst all the activities we’ve done in Kuala Lumpur, the Thaipusam festival has been the most memorable one. Without knowing anything about the festival, I didn’t expect to be washed away by the culture shock.

Thaipusam is one of the biggest Hindu festivals held annually at Batu Cave. As an outsider, it was so different from any festival that I’ve been to, which prompted us to interview various people on-site and did research further after.

The yellow and orange coloured traditional outfits were the focus of everyone’s camera.

Most observers carried jars of milk and walked bare-footed for miles. Eventually, they climbed the stairs to the Batu cave. As a token of gratitude for God's blessing on them, devout practitioners brought milk as a religious offering to him.

Another custom is that some devotees pierce their skin with sharp hooks. They believe that they will be protected by the god during the parade, so their skin won’t bleed.

We also saw one particularly devout man was hooked with approximately 30 green apples on his back. There were several followers who stopped him every now and then to ask for his blessings. 

It was a sunny day - even from squeezing through the crowds to get the photos, we got too exhausted to follow them to the cave. However, some people carried huge decorated metal frames on their shoulders and performed a dance while they moved.

We guessed the frames could be at least 5-10 kilograms, as they stopped frequently during the march and had a crew to feed them water, massaged them and offered them a seat.

I only had my 50mm prime lens with me at the moment, so most of my photos were really close to the people.

It gave me an amazing opportunity to take journalistic photos at such a close distance, as the festival is open to everyone. There were no fences between the audience and the parade like what we usually see at the Mardi Gras in Sydney. People were so friendly to answer all of our questions. Before we left, we were even interviewed by one of the TV broadcasters about our impression on the festival.

India has always stayed at the top of my bucket list, and the festival gave me a taste of how rich their culture is, which was totally beyond my expectations. If we had arrived in Kuala Lumpur a few days earlier or later, we wouldn't have had a chance to visit the festival at all. It was just a perfect amount of luck to be there - with the right people at the right time. 

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