Dozens of macaque monkeys ushered visitors up the 272-step staircase to the Temple Cave. Actually, saying that they were “ushering” would be sugarcoating it. Not only did some of them follow visitors around, a few also found themselves on one end of a mini-brawl when they start getting territorial or when they just try to snatch food from unsuspecting tourists.
It was the last day of our week-long trip across the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and there was no better way to end this journey than a stop at one of the most visited sites in Kuala Lumpur — Batu Caves. A 4-million year old karst hill, it is a network of caves and chambers. There are three big caves but the largest is the Cathedral Cave or Temple Cave, so called for its high ceiling and a number of Hindu shrines it houses. Located 13 km north of the Malaysian capital, Batu Caves is actually in Gombak, Selangor. It was named after the nearby river Sungai Batu.
While the site had long been known to Chinese settlers in the area, it wasn’t until 1878 that it received worldwide attention when colonial authorities put them on record. In the coming years, the site would be converted into a place of worship for Hinduism.
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All Things Tall and High
The 50-foot-tall statue of Hanuman, a deity who is an “ardent devotee” of avatar Rama, stand right beside the nearest train station. Behind it is a temple dedicated to him and just around the area is the Ramayana Cave.
But even the Hanuman statue is dwarfed by a much taller, more commanding structure that stands right before the caves — a Statue of Murugan, an important deity especially to Tamil Hindus. At 42.7 meters, it is the tallest in the world. The shiny statue towers at the base of the staircase that leads to the mouth of the Temple Cave. About 24 million rupees were spent to build and erect this humongous gold-painted statue.
We arrived at around 1pm. The sun was trying to fry everything under it. The scorching pavement also did not help. It was a hot, hot day, but we still could not help but pause and take pictures of every structure in the area. When we finally reached the entrance to the Temple Cave, we were greeted by a flock of birds (doves or pigeons?) that were just flying around the site. But even the number of these avian friends was nowhere near as arresting as the Murugan Statue. It was just impossible to ignore. Under the torturous heat of the sun, we spent a good amount of time just standing before the structure taking photos of it at all possible angles.
When we finally reeked of burning skin, we decided to make our way to the Temple Cave. The 272-step staircase can be pretty discouraging especially upon first look. It looked steep and dizzying. Even the long-tailed macaques that are scattered around the area can be intimidating, too. But shame on me if I back out because there were so many elderly men and women, and children who were climbing with us
I expected the climb to be exhausting. And it was exhausting, alright. But it wasn’t that bad. Actually, it wasn’t bad at all. More than a few times, I stopped and turned around to admire the view from the steps, and it did not disappoint.
The Dark Cave Conservation Site
Before reaching the Temple Cave, we noticed another trail stemming to the left from the stairs. It leads to the so-called Dark Cave, a conservation site that, according to its website, is composed of “2km surveyed passages with 7 major sections,” that house a rich number of flora and fauna that can be found nowhere else. More rock formations can also be admired inside. I bet they were breathtaking but I can’t be sure because we weren’t able to enter the cave. The entrance fee was RM35 for adults and RM28 for children, which I found too steep. I know it may be worth it but we just did not have enough cash at the time as it was our last stop.
The Temple Cave
It’s definitely one of the largest cave chambers I have ever seen thus far. There’s plenty of space for the cool air to breeze through, sweeping away all the stickiness and sweatiness I felt earlier. There was really an abrupt change of temperature upon stepping into the cavern. The high-vaulted ceiling did remind me of a cathedral but I guess since it is a Hindu site, “Temple Cave” is a more appropriate name.
Souvenir stores were the first to greet us but we just passed them because we really did not have any more cash with us. We proceeded immediately to the elaborate shrines that adorn the walls of the chamber. The ground inside is totally paved, which somehow made me sad a little bit for I was expecting a more “natural” experience. Much of the place is artificially lit, except the smaller chamber at the far end, which bathes in sunlight that leaks into the cave from an opening above. More ornate shrines can be found here. Sadly, there are also some noticeable graffiti on the walls of the cavern.
If you’re visiting Batu Caves soon, here are some tips you might want to consider to have a more enjoyable experience:
- Bring a bottle of water. It’s pretty tiring, especially the climb. There are many stores in front of the cave selling coconut juice and ice cream if you’re interested. We tried them and it was such a refreshing treat since it was really hot and sunny during our visit.
- Take the Dark Cave Tour. I know it’s pretty expensive but I’ve been reading a lot of rave reviews about it. If I had the money that time, I would have taken it.
- Bring protective eyewear. I ended my visit with strained eyes because I had to take photos under the sun and I kept looking up for my subject are mostly tall. The sudden change in brightness as you come out of the cave also needs some getting used to.
- Do not feed the monkeys. If you do, you’re contributing more to the modification of their behavior, which most of the time backfires to tourists. It’s not unusual to see some of them get naughty and try to snatch away some food from unsuspecting visitors. We met another tourist who gave a monkey a popsicle but then others started following him everywhere he went. At first he was amused but he got a little worried as he climbed.
Before I climbed down the stairs, I stopped and let my eyes wander around the surrounding landscape. Batu Caves is the last stop of this week-long trip around West Malaysia. The first time I heard about this place was when it was featured on The Amazing Race All Stars a few years back and it was the imposing limestone cliffside that first registered on my memory. I had never set foot on another country at the time and I promised myself that I would one day visit this place. As I began to take my first steps down, I let my heart drown in the realization that I was slowly making my dreams come true. Painfully slow, yes, almost glacial but still moving forward.
Opening Hours: Daily – 6am-9pm
Entrance Fee: None
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 10am-4pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30am-4:30pm
Entrance Fee: RM 35 (adult), RM 28 (child)
How to get there: From the city center of Kuala Lumpur, take the KTM Commuter Train to Batu Caves Station (RM2). The site was just a short walk away from here.