Our first tourist excursion
On Saturday (6 September) we decided we would go to Batu Caves. (Actually, we had thought about going to the Bird Park, but Micah’s American colleague, who is on the same expat assignment, suggested the caves. Both seemed fun, and travel adventures are more fun with more people, and the Bird Park will still be there.) It’s listed in my guidebook as one of the “Top Sight” Day Trips from KL, and was on my list of places to visit. And by list, of course I mean “folded pages of the guidebook.” Armed with the knowledge of which trains to take to get there, we set out.
The Batu Caves were “discovered” in 1878 by an American naturalist, William Hornaday. (Of course, they were really discovered by indigenous people who used them as a shelter, and they were also re-discovered in the 1860s by Chinese settlers who used the guano in the caves as fertilizer.) In 1891, a Hindu shrine was established. The biggest cave at the top is called Temple Cave, which is where the shrine is. In order to reach the shrine, or any of the caves, one must climb up 272 very steep steps. I have climbed steep steps before, inside various duomos in cathedrals in Italy, so I thought I was prepared for the challenge. These steps, however, where a whole different kind of challenge. The first difference: if I recall correctly, most of the steps to the top of the domes in Italy were very, very narrow, winding, claustraphobic passageways. These steps are wide and open-air, though the riser itself is very narrow. Second difference: the stairs in Italy are so packed with people that you have no choice but to just keep moving steadily up. Here, there is enough space to pause and wonder at the view, play with the monkeys, and have moments of extreme vertigo when you look down and realize you could slip and fall to your death very easily. Third difference: I don’t really remember coming down from the top of the domes in Italy, but I think there was a separate stair case. Here, it’s a free for all: up, down, left side, right side, doesn’t matter.
The guidebook tells you what train stop to use, but doesn’t give very specific directions once you get off the train. The plan was to ask someone for directions once we got there. Surely someone near the train station would know where this (very famous) tourist destination is. And it can’t be that far away, or else they wouldn’t name the station after the caves, right? No need for directions. The statue at the base, Murugan, is 42.5 meters tall. As soon as you exit the train platform, you can see Murugan easily. He is really, really imposing. Even as you climb the steps, the feeling of his presence never really lessens.
The caves are in a limestone cliff. The cliff is covered in a forest. The forest has birds and animals that live there, including macaque monkeys! Because the monkeys are smart, they are all over the stairs and the plaza at the bottom looking for handouts. Some of the vendors outside the train station sell “monkey food,” which appears to be any kind of fruit, coconuts, and peanuts, and it looked like the monkeys were pretty well fed by tourists. We chose not to feed the monkeys, but we did enjoy watching them! I think we spent just as much time watching the monkeys as we did inside the caves.
Almost at the top of the steps (around step 200 or so), is the entrance to another cave called Dark Cave. For RM35 (a little more than $10 USD), you can do a 45-minute guided tour. This cave has unique flora and fauna and the guidebook said it was worth both the time and the money. So we signed up for the next tour. They give you a sweet helmet to wear and a little flash light to carry. The helmet wasn’t really necessary, except to cover their liability, but it makes for a cool photo! The only light that comes in to Dark Cave is through the entrance and at the end of one of the caverns there is a natural skylight. Its name is not a coincidence! It was very dark! It was the kind of dark where you can close your eyes and then open them again and not notice any difference. The tour was interesting, we learned a lot about the cave ecosystem and the various critters that live there, and the formations were beautiful. The book was right: definitely worth the time and money!
The real main attraction is the Temple Cave. There are several shrines and lots of carvings to look at. The shrines were definitely “working” shrines, i.e., there were monks performing a ceremony at one of them, but January is the prime time for worship there during a festival called Thaipusam. While Micah was looking at the artwork on one of the shrines, a monk invited him in and prayed over him! I didn’t even know it was happening at first. I turned around to show him something I was looking at, and there he was, at the altar of the shrine, praying with a monk! It did cost a few ringgit, but it was about the equivalent of 1 USD or less, so on the “tourists paying for a religious experience” tackiness scale it felt about the same as offering money to light a candle in a cathedral. As a side note, I’m never sure what is OK and what is not OK when experiences like this are offered to tourists for money. A shrine is meant for worship, by believers of whatever religion the shrine is dedicated for, it isn’t meant for tourism. On the other hand, pilgrimages to shrines have been big money throughout history. (I have lots of conflicting thoughts about this, which will be covered in a future post.)
We didn’t know how long it would take to get there (over 1.5 hours), and we left later in the day than we probably should have given the commute involved. (That is one thing I am unhappy with Malaysian public transportation about, nowhere on the website or transit maps does it give you an idea of how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B.) So we didn’t have time to spend exploring all of the other things at the caves. At the foot of the stairs is a park called Cave Villa, with a huge koi pond (complete with huge koi) and an aviary. We could see the garden from the outside, though we didn’t go in. There is also a statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, which is about 15m tall. He guards the entrance to another temple and cave area, which was already closed when we made our way over to it.
All in all, a very fun day. It was fun to spend a little more time with Micah’s colleague, too. Since we are all here for the year, I imagine we will do a lot of tourist outings together, so it’s good that we get along!
Here are photos of the caves and shrines.
Here are photos of just the monkeys!