Big and monkey-filled
Published/Last edited or updated: 29th December, 2017
The epicentre of the annual Thaipusam procession, Batu Caves is famous for the festival, the almost 43-metre tall statue of Lord Murugan and the main cavern behind it—combined they form one of Malaysia’s iconic images.
The first sight that hits you when you approach the complex is the massive (at 42.7 metres the world’s tallest) statue of Lord Murugan. A son of Shiva, he is known by umpteen names around India, but his worship is most associated with the Tamil people of the deep south. As Tamils make up the bulk of ethnic Indians in Malaysia (and Singapore too) it should come as no surprise that Lord Murugan is particularly important to the local Hindu community.
Before the statue are 272 steps leading up to main caves of the temple complex. The steps are steep, and can be slippery after rainfall, so it’s best to take them at a reasonable pace. Avoiding the midday sun is probably a wise idea too. After the ordeal by steps, you are faced with the 100-metre high Cathedral or Temple Cave. Quite apart from its natural splendour, the cave has number of Hindu shrines dotted around. After another set of steps is a smaller cave, which is bathed in light from the tree-lined gap in the ceiling above. There are macaques all over the place here—exercise caution.
The terrace by the Dark Cave (see below) offers superb views of central KL, even on a hazy day. It also has a prominent sign, which everyone seems to ignore, requesting that people not feed the monkeys. One of the features of Batu Caves are the cheeky macaques, stuffing a variety of food into their mouths. Don’t get too close, as they have been known to bite the hand that feeds them.
Harder to spot, and much less brazen, are the attractive langurs, who also hang round the complex in the hope of a free meal. Hanuman, the monkey God, is one of the most popular Hindu deities, so it’s fair to say these guys are likely to remain part and parcel of the Batu Caves experience.
Although the limestone caves are believed to be 400 million years old, their association with Hindu worshippers only stretches back to 1890. In little more than a century however, the complex has become an important pilgrimage site.
The best (and worst) time to visit Batu Caves is during the predominantly Tamil festival of Thaipusam, when the site is thronged by several hundred thousand worshippers. The caves are the climax of a procession from Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Chinatown, with a silver chariot carrying a statue of Lord Murugan at its head.
The imaginatively named Dark Cave, is on your right as you start your return journey to ground level, does live up to its name however. It comprises more than two kilometres of surveyed tunnels and caverns and is home to a fascinating guano-driven ecosystem that you’re able to experience for yourself through a roughly hour-long guided tour through one section of the cave.
Probably first used by Chinese farmers, who mined the caves for guano, the cave systems were officially “discovered” in 1878 by two Europeans and in the following years they were surveyed and written up. In 1892 the Hindu temple within the main cave was first established. In the decades that followed the limestone outcrop developed in two primary ways: the Hindu temple grew and became easier to access and limestone blasting and guano quarries damaged the surrounds. Both continued to some degree till 1980 and the statue of Murugan wasn’t completed until 2006.
What makes the Dark Cave fascinating is the ecosystem within. The cave is believed to be at least 100 million years old and the limestone that surrounds it was originally formed from shells and coral, from when this entire area was underwater. Home to millions of both fruit- and insect-eating bats, their guano supports the entire ecosystem, with teeming cockroaches, spiders, crickets, snakes and other creepie crawlies living off either the guano, the bats themselves or each other.
The first part of the guided tour takes you under one of the main roosting spots; thankfully it’s covered as the guano is falling continuously on it. The aroma is very special—you won’t forget it. Further into the cave you’ll find spectacular stalactites and stalagmites and after one bend the guides will most likely have you turn off all lights so that you can experience perfect darkness. Throughout the walk you’ll see evidence of the guano mining and the guide will most likely point out the “guano high-tide mark”, indicating just how much had already been taken out.
The tour has a heavy emphasis on the environment and opportunities for photographs are quite limited as they’ll politely ask you to refrain from taking them—the flash can stress out the bats we were told. This was in stark contrast to our experience in Taman Negara, where flash photography of the bats was almost encouraged.
The guide will highlight some of the stalactites and stalagmites with small hand-held torches though and they are just beautiful—glistening and often with a rapid stream of water dripping off. Some sections of the walls are terraced almost like paddy, with icy pools of water slowly overflowing and running down the wall’s edge.
The tour concludes further into the cave in a towering final cavern (but not at the end of the surveyed system), where shards of light pierce the darkness and you are allowed to take photos. From there you backtrack to the cave entrance.
The Dark Cave is open Mo–Fr: 10:00–17:00, Sa–Su 10:30–17:30. The Educational Tour leaves regularly throughout the day and costs 35 ringit (children cost 25 ringgit). The admission cost is perhaps a little steep, but it’s a worthwhile experience. For more information, a photo gallery and further details on available tours, see the official Dark Cave site.
Back at ground level there are a few other sights, of which the Ramayana Cave is probably the most interesting. The cave has been decorated with gaudy statues depicting tales from (you guessed it) the Ramayana and some of them are pretty photogenic. The cave is worth the five ringgit admission—other ground level attractions, like the “Cave Villa” are not.
Batu Caves is pretty close to top of the hit parades when it comes to “must sees” is Kuala Lumpur, which means two things, it gets very busy and is a bit over-rated. Pick the wrong time (outside of festivals of course) and you can be sharing the site with literally dozens of tour buses and hundreds upon hundreds of tourists. Our advice is to get here early to dodge the worst of the crowds. Yes, the statue of Lord Murugan is impressive, but the site overall is a bit tacky, especially the ground level secondary “attractions” and, as already mentioned, there are macaques everywhere which really take away from the overall appeal of the site. Is it worth making the trip out here? Yes, especially if you plan to visit the Dark Cave, but you probably won’t be returning for a second visit.
Every man and his dog offers a tour to Batu Caves, but there is really no need to do one as Batu Caves can easily be reached from downtown by catching a Batu Caves-bound train on the KTM Seremban line—the trip takes about 30 minutes and costs 2.30 ringgit. The station is right by the main attraction.
Address: Batu Caves, 30 minutes by train from Kuala Lumpur
Coordinates (for GPS): 101º40'59.24" E, 3º14'14.65" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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