Batu Caves

In the northern suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, a 40 minute bus ride from Sentral, lie the Batu Caves. A Hindu shrine that features the world’s tallest statue of Lord Murugan (140 ft/42 m), it is one of those things you just have to see in KL. So I did.

There are 272 steps leading up to the main cave, called Temple Cave. During the three days of Thaipusam (the Hindu Festival of Atonement), those steps are jam packed with worshippers. You ever seen photos of Hindus with their skin, cheeks or tongue pierced by hooks, wire and metal rods? They were probably making the pilgrimage to this cave. Inside, it is completely paved, with a couple of temples toward the back, and any cave ecosystem that used to be there is long gone. However, once you exit Temple Cave and start back down the steps, on the right about a quarter of the way down is the entrance to Dark Cave. Home of the rarest spider in the world, the Trapdoor Spider, it is still a real cave, with real bugs, real bats and real bat guano. It is quite pungent in there. The cave was completely open to the public a few decades ago. There were lots of benches and that, combined with the dark, made it a very popular site for couples looking for a bit of privacy. But all of that groping (pun intended) and stumbling around in the dark was leading to some significant damage to the cave, so the government stepped in and handed control over to a nature preservation society. Apparently, the Sri Maha Mariamman Board that manages the Temple Cave really wants this one too, and is willing to pay a lot of money for it, but the government, recognizing the ecological significance of the cave, has resisted the pressure so far. Now access is tightly controlled and limited to guided tours and research teams.

There were two tours offered – an educational tour that takes about an hour (~10 USD), and an adventure tour that takes around three (~35 USD, including overall and boot rental). I would have loved to do the adventure tour that goes further back in the cave system, but I didn’t get there till late and there wasn’t time for another that day. I did see one of the adventure groups come out of the cave though, hard hats in hand, smiles on their faces, and completely filthy. Looked like fun if you’ve got the time. Sadly, I didn’t and my educational tour was running late anyway because there had been a minor freakout by one of the guests on the previous tour, so they had to send someone in to escort the freak-ee out, throwing off the schedule a bit. But we finally got going and the guide was a very animated Malaysian man with a good sense of humor and a definite passion for caving. As he took us back along a single narrow paved path, he filled us in on the history, geology and the ecology of Dark Cave and showed us a few of the creepy crawlies that were brave enough to come out and greet us, like a particularly large centipede, a spider (not a Trapdoor one though – those have the good sense to stay well off the path) and some cave roaches. Believe it or not, there were even some of those familiar cockroaches from back in the States as well. Not native to the cave, the preservation society is looking for ways to eradicate them without disrupting the rest of the ecosystem. Fondly referring to them as “Americanos”, the guide said that they were the one thing we were welcome to step on if we had the chance. It figures:-) We were given flashlights, but asked to keep the beam no higher than eye level. In other words, no shining the bats that we could hear above us, but I sure was tempted. Estimates put the population at around 250,000! That’s a lot of bats, and when you have that many bats, you also have tons and tons of batshit. The foundation of the cave ecosystem, all of that guano feeds cave creatures great and small. I’m sure Disney will be making a movie about that circle of life any time now.

So…huge statue, temples, spiders and bat poop. What more could you ask for? Oh, I know! Monkeys! They hang out in the trees and along the steps, alternately delighting and harassing the tourists. I may not have have been able to get many photos inside the cave, but my camera got a workout when the monkeys showed up. You aren’t supposed to feed them but, of course, people do. They are a lot of fun to watch, but you need to keep a close eye on your stuff. They have about as much respect for personal property as the thieves in Barcelona (but I’m not bitter.)

I’ve posted a collection of my photos from that day here and a short video of the bats swarming around Dark Cave openings here. Check them out, and if you have the chance, stop by Batu Caves next time you are in KL. Just remember to wear a hat!

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