- 2003/10/06 A glimpse at Kuala Lumpur's surreal side

In one of Malaysia's oldest cemeteries, tour guide Francis Nantha gazes at hundreds of headstones blanketing a hillside, made visible tonight with the help of a van's headlights.

"This is where you can commune with the spirits," Nantha says, while his listeners exchange nervous glances. "They're usually harmless -- so long as you don't go traipsing carelessly all over their resting places."

The cemetery is the centerpiece of the "Asian Spooks Experience," a privately run, nightly tour of sites notorious for spectral sightings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city.

Supernatural folklore might seem incongruous in a country with the world's tallest buildings and one of Asia's most industrialized economies. But ghost tales have captivated people here for centuries, making this predominantly Muslim nation a place where superstition still resonates.

Nantha, a former public relations executive who strongly believes in spirits, started the spooks tour recently to offer Malaysians and foreign visitors a glimpse into Kuala Lumpur's surreal side -- with the tantalizing prospect of spotting a ghost.

The three-hour $44 tour kicks off with a seafood dinner, which Nantha says makes participants "spiritually stronger" and less susceptible to demonic possession. Participants are also offered talismans to ward off any evil spirits.

"Don't wave, don't smile, don't stare too long if you see a ghost," Nantha warns sternly as participants cram into a van. "Such behavior might attract the spirits to move toward you."

The first stop is a nearly 150-year-old tree believed to be the abode of a serpent spirit. People seeking guidance and luck place milk and eggs under the tree, which was planted by 19th-century Indian migrant workers.

S. Mahendran, a resident in the area, said the tree was almost chopped down a decade ago by construction workers. But when the tree's branches ominously began leaking water, the project's developers feared potential misfortune and left the tree undisturbed, Mahendran said.

Next, Nantha drives visitors to a deserted cemetery, with no streetlights or noise except for cricket chirps. Visitors can walk on pathways amid seemingly endless tombstones or stand at a chilly spot believed to be a gateway where spirits enter and leave the graveyard.

Image: Tombs in Malaysia's oldest Chinese cemetery Image: Tombs in Malaysia's oldest Chinese cemetery
Tombs in Malaysia's oldest Chinese cemetery

Nantha claims one of his tour groups saw the cemetery teeming with spirits earlier this year when lightning briefly illuminated the area. Whether or not this is true, the mix of Nantha's shrewd storytelling and the creepy atmosphere transformed a recent group of skeptical journalists into wide-eyed scaredy cats.

On the next stop -- purportedly the most dangerous -- Nantha won't even allow passengers to leave the van. The location atop a hill is a stomping ground for "pontianak," or beautiful female vampires who prey on men.

Other highlights include a former railway station, reputedly haunted by people who committed suicide, and a disused jail where inmates tried to escape allegedly by using black magic to open doors to other dimensions.

The eerie excursion ends with a "cleansing ceremony" _ participants rub lime juice on their foreheads, lips and fingertips, while Nantha uses a digital camera to take an instant snapshot of the group.

"If there's a red or purple aura surrounding you in the photograph, you must visit an exorcist immediately," Nantha says. "It means that evil spirits became attached to you during the tour."

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