Two weeks ago Anne and I joined a free walking tour of Kampung Bahru, laid on by KL city hall. We were very impressed and realized that we needed to continue to be tourists in our own town or we’d end up missing out. I said in my last blog post that we’d heard the Brickfields tour was soon to end and so we were determined to catch it and catch it soon.
On Saturday morning we met at the Vivekananda Ashram slap bang opposite the Shell office, just a 20 minute walk from our own front door. It was shameful that we’d not got round to it earlier.
This time our guide was Wong, and like Jane on the trip before, he was knowledgeable, patient and great at English. Like Jane, he stopped at lots of eating places and let us sample the wares on offer.
Brickfields is so named because back in the 19th and 20th centuries and with so many immigrant workers arriving in Malaysia they needed houses. The government had decided that instead of wood, new houses needed to be constructed from bricks and to have tin rooves. With the Klang river running alongside this area became the site of at least six brick factories. Typically, the Chinese had come to work in the tin industry, the Indians in the rubber and tea. Now the Indians were working in the brick factories too. It was inevitable, then, that this patch of the city became increasingly populated by Indians. Slowly, the Chinese residents moved out, but their legacy remains in the form of two beautiful temples. And that was what was so striking about this walk – Brickfields is all about religious tolerance. There are churches, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples. You can eat Malay, Chinese and Indian food, but more than that you can eat Indian Muslim food and Hindu vegetarian, banana leaf meals from Chettinad, Chinese seafood and Malay nasi lemak and nasi kandar. There are stalls selling cendol, the shaved ice, coconut milk and red bean dessert, served with lurid sweet jellied rice and palm sugar syrup that looks sickly and garish but tastes fab. There are places selling roti and dosa, brightly coloured Indian sweets and deep fried bananas. We could hear the squawk and shriek of chickens coming from a wet market I had never known existed and smell the fish stall. I am not surprised, with all this food around, that it gets a bit whiffy in Brickfields.
The walk, though probably just a kilometre or two, was held in the morning and as the sun swelled we began to melt. Luckily, fresh coconut was there to cool us down. Though Anne and I shared one, it seemed impossible to finish. Do those things hold a litre of juice? It seemed so. They say fresh coconut is the most rehydrating of drinks.
Over on Jalan Scott, three Hindu temples stand cheek by jowl, two of them moved here recently to make way for the monorail. Indians, splendid in their saris and sarongs, removed their shoes, bought clay bowls of scented oil to light and garlands to offer to the gods before entering inside to pray. Thank goodness they had insisted they built in brick! The air was scented with incense.
We were able to go inside the most splendid of them all , the Sri Lankan Tamil Sri Kandaswamy Temple. We were not to speak, had to cover our legs, remove our shoes and wash our feet before entering. A truck was parked outside and several men worked furiously making bags of fresh milk for workshippers to buy and use to bathe the deities. Fresh coconuts could be purchased and smashed just outside the threshold to signify the splintering of their egos before they entered.
Observing protocol we stopped to scoop dark scented smoke over our faces before stooping to touch the threshold beneath the doorway and entering the temple. The temple’s layout represents the body, with the threshold being the feet and the altar the head. Once inside we were instructed to walk only clockwise round the perimeter and take no photographs. The interior was infused with calm. Cool grey marble on the floor, pale painted pillars and pastel gods and goddesses decorated the walls. People sat around the edge, cross-legged in peaceful, prayerful contemplation, birds sang and swooped between the statues on the frieze beneath the roof. Alcoves held a series of smaller altars and worshippers stood before them hands raised in prayer, lips murmuring. Priests, bare-chested, daubed in chalk, enrobed in white cotton sarongs tended to the gods and handed out fruits and flowers. In one corner, five people walked in circles round a raised plinth that held small stone statues that were dressed in white. Many carried clay bowls aflame with light. One man stood and prayed before an altar, holding a lighted coconut before him.
Once more outside Wong led us to a beautiful garden where more statues surrounded a lotus and lilypond and peace fell on our shoulders.
After the serenity of Sri Kandaswamy our next stop, a Chinese temple, was a huge contrast. Sam Kow Tong is known as the ‘tree teachings’ temple because it does not confine itself to the philosophy of Confucious, Tao or Buddha, but instead teaches all three. The radio inside played John Lennon’s Woman, we could take photos and retain our shoes. Red plastic chairs sat round a table where a man quietly drank tea. Here colours were predominantly red and gold, lanterns hung from the rafters, orange trees and black and white photographs adorned the walls, alongside some beautiful tiles that represented Confucionist morality tales. Here the air was scented not with holy oil but joss sticks.
Wong showed us the wooden kind of divining rod that the temple medium would hold as she entered a trance and offered messages to those who came in search of answers for their failing health. For us, there was a simpler way of having our fortunes told.
Ian knelt on a wooden block and shook out a tube of fortune sticks, like Spillikins. He had to think of a question and note the number of the stick that emerged first. In order to check whether he had picked the right stick he next had to ask two pieces of wood that rather looked like they had been modelled on a mouldy banana, but in fact represent ying and yang. They had to be dropped onto the floor; if they landed with one piece right side up and the other right side down he was safe.
That done, he had to simply locate the wise person on site who would find his answer in a large book. Our wise woman, dressed in a purple tee-shirt and trousers, wasn’t quite sure of the meaning of his answer, or was it just that she could not translate it accurately into English? Or maybe she didn’t want to give us bad news? She asked Wong to step in and he looked at the script but shook his head.
“No need to worry about money,” she said eventually. “You will always have enough. It will come.”
We put a donation in the slot and moved on, somewhat soothed by the prophesy.
After more temples and churches and eating stations and with the sun higher and hotter than ever we were delighted to land up in the Temple of Fine Arts where Ian could put his name down at long last, for sitar lessons. Not only is this the place to learn cultural dance and music but it’s the place to watch it too in their auditorium. But today it was the Analakshmi restaurant that caught our weary attention. At 16 MYR (just over £3) a head, their Indian vegetarian buffet was irresistible. We sat down gratefully and ordered cooling lassi for us all. While most tables were filled with Indians, I noticed another where two Buddhist monks sat down beside two Chinese tourists and tucked in.
Brickfields is on our doorstep and we most definitely will be back, though sadly without a guide next time.