Fortune telling in the temple

Hundreds of turtles clamber over each other to escape the murky pond. The slippery rocks betray them, sending not one but dozens back into the shallow pool. The lucky ones rest in the dry heat, their dark shells cracked like eggs against their stripy yellow skin. The Chinese who maintain the temple had intended the water feature to be a place of quiet reflection, and not the sanctuary for deformed reptiles it had become.

The Buddhist temple of Thean Hou is dedicated to the Queen of Heaven who protects sea-faring people. The animals of the Chinese zodiac are animated in the garden with hopeful visitors flocking to the horn-backed dragon or snarling tiger. Many Chinese tourists head to the dragon, but not by accident – birth rates soar in the dragon years as it is believed to be the luckiest and most prosperous sign. A few dejected tourists pose with the albino plastic rabbit.

Inside the temple courtyard, Buddhist monks create a mist of rosewood that cannot take the edge off the primary colours of the pillars. Metallic sheens mix with the rich patterns on the ceiling to create visions so intoxicating that Van Gogh wouldn’t have needed absinthe to capture it. In the centre, a black smoking cauldron with dragons twisting up its sides has incense burning in its sandy belly. A long gong flies around the corridors and is intercepted by low chants. Piles of shoes lay abandoned on the white stone steps as pink candle wax drips down – their owners inside the shrine are having their fortunes told. Warriors guard the doorway with scimitars that threaten to chop their long black beards. Inside, golden women as high as the heavy doors serenely offer their palm, and miniature statues trapped in glass vending machines wait patiently for the next loyal worshippers with a few Ringgits spare.

A guide leads me to a silver cylinder with a stack of sticks in the centre, and asks me to pick them up with both hands before dropping them. I let go, watching the brown lollipop sticks bounce at different speeds. He catches the stick that remained the highest, and pulls it from the rest. My stick is number 44, which the superstitious Chinese would consider doubly unlucky as the number ‘four’ (四 [sì]) is similar to the word for ‘death’ (死 亡 [sĭwáng] ). The drawer marked ’44’ held my fate on a small card. It told me the usual jargon of being at a crossroads and having to choose between love and work, before damning me to a life without marriage or financial security.

At least I’m a cunning snake and not a docile rabbit or struggling turtle, so I may be able to change my destiny yet.

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Notes

Thean Hou Temple, Kuala Lumpur, http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g298570-d457134-Reviews-Thean_Hou_Temple-Kuala_Lumpur_Wilayah_Persekutuan.html

Fortune telling sticks, http://www.malaysia.com/galleries-thean-hou-temple-4.html

Unlucky number 4, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/01/why-the-number-four-is-considered-unlucky-in-some-east-asian-cultures/

Chinese zodiac, http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/social_customs/zodiac/snake.htm

‘Seven wonders of Kuala Lumpur’ day tour minibus, booked through our hostel Reggae Mansion for RM70.

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