~ B & K
Guarded by a giant golden statue, with the cacophonous yells of monkeys, you’ll find the Batu Caves looking down upon Kuala Lumpur. Weathered and rugged limestone hills steeply climb upwards, adorned with festoons of jungle foliage, giving way to one of the most popular Hindu shrines in the world outside of India.
Upon coming to Kuala Lumpur, we knew that this was one of – if not the – top things that we wanted to see. It’s very easy to access as you can take the rail line directly to the town of Gombak where the shrine resides for RM 4.40 (~$1.50) from KL Sentral Station. For us however, we had to take an Uber to the caves, as we were in Petaling Jaya at the time, which did not have access. But this was not really an issue, it was pretty cheap, quick, and efficient.
Upon arriving to the caves, the first thing that you’ll notice is the golden statue of Lord Murugan. It towers above you at the entrance to the long staircase. Which brings me to the second part you’ll notice immediately – the stairs. There are 272 concrete steps that will bring you to the cave complex within the hill.
As the Batu Caves are an active religious site, you should come dressed appropriately; which for men means wearing shirt sleeves and covered knees, and for women to cover their shoulders and legs. If you don’t meet these requirement, you will not be allowed to enter – however there are usually attendants at the base of the stairs that will rent you sarongs for only a few RM each. Actually entering the cave complex itself is free though.
We began our climb in the late morning under the surprisingly warm January sun. We took our time going up the stairs, but it only took ten or fifteen minutes to reach the first landing. Along the way, we took time to admire the jungle and local inhabitants of the caves – namely monkeys.
The monkeys will keep their distance for the most part, but as we’ve learned in other locations as well, they are wildly unpredictable, curious, and will take a swipe at food or loose items. On the way up, we saw a baby monkey that had managed to swipe an entire ice cream cone.
We took our first stop at the landing at Dark Cave. The Dark Cave is an undeveloped part of the cave complex, which you can take tours of. You can take the 45 minute guided tour for RM 35 (~$10) which runs every 20 minutes. If you have a larger group and advanced notice, you can book a 3 – 4 hour tour which further explores the cave complex for around RM 80 (~$22) a person.
We didn’t take the tour, mainly because we didn’t have closed-toe shoes, but if you have the time and opportunity it is a great tour. The caves are home to the rarest spider in the world, endemic geckos, and other fauna found only here. The 2 km complex also exhibits a wide range in geological formations with stalagmites, stalactites, cave curtains, flow stones, cave pearls and scallops and other features. So, instead of taking of the tour, we looked at the informative plaques at the entrance to the cave, and watched the antics of the monkeys – very entertaining.
After a half hour or so, we continued our way up the last third of the stairs to the shrine. When you arrive at the top of the stairs you will find a large landing that opens to a large cave atrium. Here, you will actually then need to descend more steps into the main “room” which houses several small shrines.
Various small vendors will sell you trinkets, drinks, and other such items while up here. Keep in mind that the drinks up within the shrine are more expensive than at the base due to the fact that everything must be carried up by hand – no elevator or wheel-chair access here.
You can proceed further into the cave and find another shrine in the back. Here the roof gives way and allows light to enter the cave. This allows for the cave to feel much more open and inviting than many other cave complexes you may encounter.
Batu Caves is actually a rather recent development, in the grand scheme of things. While the caves themselves are estimated to be 400 million years old, and has been used by the indigenous Temuan people, modern day usage of the caves began in 1860 when Chinese settlers began excavating guano for fertilizer. The caves then became famous after being recorded by colonial authorities and the American Naturalist, William Hornaday in 1878.
An Indian trader named Pillai was inspired by the ‘vel’-shaped entrance to the cave and in 1890 founded the Sri Mahamariamman Temple within the cave. Wooden steps to the temple were originally put in, but concrete steps were placed in 1920 to accommodate the heavy number of visitors to the site.
The Batu Caves serves as the premier place to be outside of India for the Hindu holiday of Thaipusam. We are still kicking ourselves for not visiting the temple during the time (we were in Kuala Lumpur during it).
The festival begins in the early hours of the morning and features devotees walking several kilometers from the the city, ultimately winding up at the Temple Cave. During their march, devotees (kavadi bearers) will pierce themselves will large metal skewers, and elaborate shoulder carriers called Kavadi, as a display of their devotion. Priests tend to the devotees and sprinkle consecrated ash over the flesh of the participants.
This display is made to offer milk to Lord Murugan, the god of war within Hinduism – though he also features prominently within some sects of Buddhism in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India as well.
Photo courtesy of: nina.bruja
While the display can come off as extreme and macabre, the surreal experience is viewed as a purifying event that will bring good luck in the coming year. The festival itself is extremely crowded and busy, attracting over a million visitors and devotees on the day (which takes place in late January or early February.
At the base of the stairs, you can also find two other cave temples: the Art Gallery Cave and Museum Cave. Both of these caves feature Hindu statues and paintings. For those interested in the history of the lore of Murugan and other Hindu teachings, these are excellent places to check out – though they are not free like the cave temple.
There are also numerous shops and stalls surrounding the entrance to the cave complex that will sell various souvenirs, trinkets, clothes, food, and drink.
I enjoyed my first of many coconuts on our travels here. Briana also managed to grab some vegetarian food very easily and for a very reasonable price.
We really enjoyed the Batu caves and recommend it for anyone who is visiting Kuala Lumpur. It’s a great activity for most anyone, especially families and active adults.
Things To Keep In Mind
- This is an active religious site, and as such you should dress and act respectful and modest
- The complex is large and will take several hours to properly explore
- The temple requires strenuous physical activity as there is no elevator or wheelchair access
- Pay attention to the monkeys, we recommend not carrying food, and keeping water out of site when not actively drinking.
- Keep all loose items on you or in a bag, don’t let the monkeys grab your stuff
- Monkeys have personalities, some are far more bold and aggressive than others
- Once a monkey has an item, it is no longer yours – don’t get bit by a monkey fighting for an item