Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
After a while, you get used to the monkeys. Running up the steps, sliding down the banisters, fighting in the trees, running across the tiles if they spot food. The monkeys are as much a part of Batu Caves as anything else – but they’re not the main attraction, just an interesting sideshow.
Thankfully the monkeys tend to leave the human visitors alone. Perhaps they know that we’re here for something else.
Well, two other things, to be precise. Batu Caves is about the natural formations… and it’s about the religion that has taken them over.
The caves themselves have been here for a long time – experts estimate the limestone is about 400 million years old. And, besides the monkeys, there are lots of other animals here.
Thankfully the bats mainly stay hidden in undeveloped caves and, even more thankfully, so do the local spiders. Batu Caves claims to have the rarest spider on earth living here.
You won’t see most of the animals in the caves with the temples. For that, you can take the guided tour through the Dark Cave where you’ll also see some rather impressive rock formations further down the darkened tunnel.
Although you might expect there to be a long history with the Hindu religion here, it actually wasn’t until 1890 that the religion arrived. It was an Indian trader called K Thamboosamy Pillai who established the first temple here, just a few years after the area had become well known from colonial explorations.
He put a sacred statue of the deity Murugan in one of the most beautiful spots he could find. Batu Caves has been dedicated to Murugan ever since.
A visit starts with a climb up the steps, 272 of them. I look up and begin. The climb is necessary – to get from the ground up to the entrance of the main caves – but it also brings a spiritual elevation to the experience, closer to the gods.
Guarding the staircase is an enormous golden statue of Murugan. At 43 metres tall, it is the largest statue devoted to him in the world and needed more than 300 litres of gold paint.
Once I get to the top, the enormous main cave opens up in front of me. There’s some water falling lightly from the ceiling, incense burns at some of the shrines, floodlights give colour to a few of the crevices, and people mingle on the vast floor beneath.
It is relatively quiet in here today. Even with quite a few tourists, the huge space stretches out further than they could come close to filling.
But there is a time each year when every spare bit of space is taken – the Thaipusam Festival.
The annual festival has been held here at Batu Caves since 1892, just two years after the first temple was founded, and takes place around January of February. It can have hundreds of thousands of worshippers taking part – and tens of thousands watching.
The reason there are so many spectators is because it’s a slightly strange ceremony. One of the things that people do is pierce their skin, mouth and tongue with things like hooks and skewers. A bit gruesome but quite the spectacle!
Through the main cave, there’s another flight of steps (and plenty more monkeys jumping all over it). I walk up them and arrive at the final cave, different to the previous one.
Here, there’s a large hole above me where the sun streams in. There’s no need for artificial lights, nature is doing the job for us.
The tiled floor is wide and in the middle is a temple. It’s rather simple for what you might expect in a complex that is so grand.
Small candles burn around the outside and, in the middle, someone is praying.
This is the original spot where the first tribute to Murugan was placed. It’s the whole complex’s reason for being but it seems rather sedate. Just one worshipper – everyone else walking around are tourists.
I stay awhile and watch. One of the men from the temple walks over to the side of the cave and throws food to the monkeys. Other ones come running from different areas.
I decide it’s time to leave and retrace my steps, out through the main cave and down the 272 steps into the warm air of late morning.
The Batu Caves is one of the best things to see from Kuala Lumpur and it’s worth your effort to head out to see them. If you would prefer not to organise the logistics yourself, one of these tours might be the perfect thing for you:
As I’m leaving, I walk past a smaller temple at the base of the cliffs. I hear music, simple sounds with drums and metal percussion – but rhythmic and hypnotic.
I take off my shoes and go up to look. There’s some kind of ceremony going on and I can see people being blessed.
I guess it’s part of some wedding celebrations but, without a large crowd, not the main ceremony.
It’s a reminder that Batu Caves is not just a tourist attraction and it’s not just the site for large festivals. It’s also an everyday place of worship.
Perhaps this is why the monkeys show so much respect to the humans who come here – they can sense there’s a higher power at work.
You can catch it from KL Sentral station and the ticket costs RM2.60 (US$0.60) and takes about 25 minutes each way.
The stop is called Batu Caves and it's the last one on the line.
The Dark Cave is Monday - Friday from 10:00 - 17:00.
And on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 - 17:30.
The Dark Cave environmental tour can only be done with a guide and it costs RM35 (US$7.80) for an adult and RM25 (US$5.60) for a child.
There are two other cave areas on the ground level that have small entrance fee. The Cave Villa for RM15 (US$3.40) and Ramayana Cave for RM5 (US$1.10). Both of them are quite touristy and have colourful attractions and displays. They could be fun for children but don't think you're missing out if you don't go in.
For a cool and comfortable budget hotel, try The Mesui in the main shopping district.
For a really funky but very affordable boutique hotel, have a look at Bello & Bella.
And the best value splurge for something really nice is at the Hotel Stripes.