Guarded by a monumental statue of the Hindu deity Lord Murugan, the Batu Caves are a Malaysian national treasure and one of the biggest attractions in the entire country. Not only that, it’s also a hugely important religious landmark for the Hindu faith. The limestone caves are home to vividly coloured temples adorned with mythical scenes standing below countless bats fluttering amongst the monstrous stalactites and surrounded by groups of fearless little monkeys preying on tourists as they hike the rainbow-coloured stairway. Batu Caves is a beautiful symphony of nature’s wonders and the devotion of faith.
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A Brief History
The 400 million years old limestone caves were once inhabited by the earliest form of man. The caves would later become home to several indigenous tribes up until the 1860s. By then, Malaysia was flourishing under the “gentle” guidance of their colonial rulers. The caves quickly caught the attention of Chinese settlers that came to the region to find work. They found a goldmine in the form of guano, otherwise known as bat shit. To this day it’s still highly valuable, being one of the most effective fertilizers available. By the late 1870s, the caves were explored by British colonists and the American naturalist and New York Zoo director William Hornaday. They are who brought the caves to worldwide attention.
By 1891, the caves were attracting many visitors, one of which was an Indian merchant and leader of the Tamil Hindu community in Malaysia – K. Thamboosamy Pillai. He believed the cave’s opening resembled the tip of a spear carried by the Lord Murugan, the Hindu deity of war. Pillai then worked to make the caves a place to worship that same deity.
What’s to See?
Scattered about the vast grounds of the 100-year-old temple are a number of individual attractions. They include several smaller shrines, each with their own devotee that grants blessings to visitors as they give donations. Undoubtedly, the star attractions of the temple are its caves, of which there are 4; Temple Cave (or Cathedral Cave), Dark Cave, Cave Villa and Ramayana Cave.
At the top of a multi-coloured 272-step stairway is the entrance to Cathedral Cave, by far the biggest and most popular cavern of Batu Caves. Within the 100-metre-high arched walls are even more colourful shrines with beautifully designed murals of Lord Murugan fighting against the demon Soorapadam. The entire cave serves as a devotion to Murugan, whose 42-meter-tall gold statue stands beside the staircase.
Deeper into the cave is another stairway which is lit-up by beams of light that pour in from an opening above. The stairs lead into another chamber full of shrines and a collection of burning candles. The walls of the cavern are also home to a number of fearless little monkeys that scale down from the opening above. The monkeys are fed several times a day to deter them from stealing from visitors. This gives you a chance to feed them one of the many bananas which are across the floor.
The Dark Cave
Halfway up the rainbow stairway is the entrance to the Dark Cave, an attraction of a different nature. Rather than being a religious landmark, this leans more towards the scientific and adventurous. Within the cave is an ancient animal ecosystem over 100 million years old. It’s even home to the world’s rarest spider – the Trapdoor Spider.
The cave isn’t always open and depends on the availability of guides. Taking a guide is mandatory, both to protect the visitors as well as the cave’s ecosystem. Educational Tours last 45 minutes and cost RM35 per adult and RM25 per child. The Adventure Tours last 3 to 4 hours and involves getting wet, scaling rock faces, and squeezing through narrow holes. This option requires advanced bookings and costs RM 80 per adult and RM 55 per child.
Across a crooked bridge that reaches over a carp filled pond is the entrance to Cave Villa. Colourful lights light-up the two caves which are full of vivid statues and murals of characters from Hindu mythology. Additionally, one of the caves also contains a “reptile zoo” that has a selection of snakes, other reptiles, and various animals. Though every zoo has a depressing feel to it, this one has more so. The animals live in very poor conditions, so it’s best to give it a miss. There’s an entrance fee of RM15 for foreigners and RM7 for Malaysians.
The last cavern – Ramayana Cave – is the most lavish of all. Within are several statues and dioramas depicting a famous Hindu story, Ramayana. Within the cave is a giant figure of Kumbhakarna, who legend tell was a notoriously deep sleeper. Thus, the arrows and cymbals that surround the statue were needed to wake him. The cave also has a special stalagmite that is believed to be the symbol of the God Shiva. At the entrance of the cave, a 15-meter-tall statue of the monkey god Hanuman stands guard – a hero from the story Ramayana. There is a separate fee of RM 5 to visit the cave.
When to Go
Obviously, it’s best to arrive early, before the crowds. As for the time of year, your best option is visiting during Monsoon seasons, namely April, October, and November. These months see the least number of tourists. The busiest time would be between December-January – during school holidays – and June-August – peak holiday season.
Though the caves are a wonderful experience at any time of year, they come into a whole new light during late January or early February. This is when Batu Caves become the centre of the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Thousands, sometimes even millions of pilgrims gather for the 3-day festival, becoming one of the largest gathering of people in the world.
The festival begins the night before as devotees walk to the caves in procession from Sri Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. The crowds arrive at the caves in the early hours the next day. This is when the real celebration begins, lasting for eight whole hours.
Many disciples carry their offerings to the Lord Murugan on large, brightly decorated ‘kavadis’ – two huge semi-circular pieces of wood or steel that’s balanced on the shoulders. These structures often come with metal hooks and skewers which pierce the skin, cheeks, and tongue. The kavadis are decorated with flowers and peacock feathers, sometimes weighing up to 100 kilos. Other disciples simply pierce their bodies with hooks and needles, to fulfil vows they made to the Gods.
The truly amazing feat of endurance is when the devotees climb the agonising 272 steps to the opening of the caves as huge crowds gather around them. Priests wait at the top to sprinkle consecrated ash over the hooks and various piercings before removal. There really is nothing else in the world like it.
Located just 13km north of Kuala Lumpur, it’s well connected and easily reached. The all-round best option is to take the KTM Komuter train from KL Sentral all the way to Batu Caves Komuter Station which is right next to the caves. The journey costs 5.90 MYR and takes about 30 minutes. Another option is taking Intrakota bus No 11D from the Central Market or the Cityliner bus No 69 from Jalan Pudu.
If you don’t like the sound of either of those options, there are also several tour operators that arrange half-day trips to the caves. However, this is totally unnecessary. That is unless you’d like to pay over 50 USD to be quickly ushered around the caves before being herded into souvenir stores.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.