Batu Caves

October 27, 2014

Just 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur is a most wondrous site (and sight) made especially amazing for its close proximity to the city. 

Less than a fifteen minute drive from the Petronas Twin Tower-dominated steel landscape of the city is a landscape as contrasting (man made vs. nature) as it is vaguely similar (a sprawling hamlet guarded by its own towering overlord; one of steel and the other of gold): Batu Caves, a 400 million year old limestone hills with a series of caves filled with Hindu temples, guarded by a 142 foot high gold statue of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war. The parallels, juxtaposition, and close proximity between K.L city and Batu Caves was not lost upon Henry (who unlike my jaded self was seeing Malaysia for the first time) whose eyes lit up and reflected the gold of Lord Murugan's statue---the tallest in the world---as we pulled up towards one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. 

During Thaipusam, of which Batu Caves is the focal point in Malaysia, Batu Caves is rammed with pilgrims from all over the world, kavadi (chariot) bearers with hooks and skewers in their flesh carrying on their shoulders milk containers as offerings to Lord Murugan making the arduous climb up 272 steps to the temples in the caves. Happily our timing was perfect. We went yesterday, just a day after the end of Deepavali (that's Diwali to us) and there were next to no crowds or even tourists, just worshippers and art students practising their photography. Even the infamous  macaques monkeys who harass people for food on the precarious, slippery steps were nowhere to be seen! As we entered the caves at the top of the steps, the wail of ceremonial music blared out, fragrant smoke filled the air, and hordes of barefoot worshippers made it apparent that we were witnessing a religious ceremony of sorts. I suppose the monkeys knew that the day was of some holy significance and kept away out of respect, or maybe they were terrified of the loud noises, or maybe they didn't bother as it was slim pickings with no tourists around. Either way we lucked out: arriving right after a storm to calm surroundings, no tourists nor monkeys, yet we were privileged enough to see the Hindus worship.

I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts. Henry drinking real coconut water. I assured him it tasted nothing like Vitacoco, which he says tastes like 'cabbage water', and he agrees that Malaysian air kelapa muda (young coconut water) is superior. Want to know what else he drank? Milk that was supposed to be offered to the Hindu god of war. I blame myself. I wanted to take a photo of flower garlands but thought it was more polite to buy something from the stall before snapping away. Knowing that Henry likes milk I bought him a bottle which he drank on the spot to strange and curious looks from the Hindus. I only found out while fact searching for this blog post that the milk is actually offering to Lord Murugan! "So that's why the milk tasted sour! I thought it was off but maybe that's just how Malaysians like it, so I didn't say anything." Poor thing had a tummy ache. Is Henry now cursed, having drunk from the milk meant for the god of war? Or does that make him the new god of war, you know, since Hindus believe in constant reincarnation? Either way, stay tuned for more khaki and safari suit-wearing, colonialist, oafish Brit misadventures. We're going to the Islamic Arts Centre today, God help us.

Oh well, at least these photos were worth it.

Climbing 272 narrow steps up to the caves is no small feat, especially when the steps are slippery with moss and rain. And to think the steps were once wood, build just less than a hundred years ago...I wood not like to climb century old wooden steps up to a cave a hundred metres from the ground. 

The arduous climb is rewarded with interesting sights. Every other nook and cranny hosts either a deity of some sort, or animals in unusual locations (why are there cocks and hens on the sides of a limestone hill?), and if you dare look behind you, a sweeping view of Gombak district from above.

Even halfway through the ascend (stairs numbered for your counting convenience) the majestic caves ahead inspires one to soldier on. I suppose the alternative would be to climb back down and that walk would've been all for nothing, haha.

Thousand year old stalactites reach down from cathedral-high ceilings, some so close you could walk into them and others barely touching the tops of the temples inside the caves. The stalactites and stalagmites spend thousands of years forming intricate curtains, flow stones, cave pearls and scallops. The caves are undeveloped, and home to a diverse range of cave fauna including some unique species, such as Liphistiidae spiders and Eonycteris and fruit bats. Even more impressive to the budding naturalist is  the Dark Cave (just below the Temple Cave), a two kilometre network of pitch-black untouched caverns heaving with rock formations and a number of animals found nowhere else. 

After the loud bangs and whistles of the religious ceremony, the macaque monkeys came out to play, looking for people to steal food from. A small crowd gathered to watch this silly monkey stick its head inside the coconut and even went as close as inches away to try and photograph it. This Korean girl walked right up behind the monkey and posed with him, she was lucky he didn't startle and try to grab or worse bite her. Macaques are known to be territorial and have bitten children for getting too close. And here I am, with a prime lens that doesn't zoom, having to inch ever so carefully forward and not provoke the macaques into biting my face off...oh the perils of being inquisitive.

The most sublime sight of Batu Caves: a cave wall covered in foliage, snaking all the way up to an open skylight in the ceiling, sunlight beaming down onto one of the temples below, casting some colour on statues depicting Lord Murugan's war victories over the demon Soorapadam that would be otherwise hidden away in dark platforms of the cave walls. Henry loved our visit to Batu Caves "I feel like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom!" (well, sweetie, you are doomed now that you've drunk the sacrificial milk of the Gods) and I'm certain everybody would. If not for the religious significance nor natural wonder nor the wildlife, maybe the sport? Batu Caves is the centre of rock climbing development in Malaysia, and some companies offer abseiling and spelunking trips. For the less physically-inclined but no less adventurous The Malaysian Nature Society organises regular educational tours and adventure trips to the Dark Caves, and I hear you even get to stick a candle on your helmet! x


  1. Macaques are my favourite type of monkey, love that photo of him with his head in the coconut!!! You look stunning in that dress btw

    Rosie xx

    1. Macaques look cute but the ones at Batu Caves are VICIOUS! I like them better with their heads in coconuts than fingers in my bag. xx

  2. Beautiful photos! This is definitely being added to my 'places I want to go list!' xxx

    1. You definitely should, especially during Thaipusam (late January - February)! x

  3. It's the rainy season now, quite a bad time to be climbing those steps covered in rain water and moss. But I'm glad you made it! :) I thought I saw you the other night at The Peak's 25th Anniversary Ball, but that was your mom – you look just like her at a glance!