A surefire sign that you’ve acclimated to Asia is when spotting a wild monkey fills you with dread rather than joy. Monkeys are to Asia what skunks are to North America—menacing little scavengers that you’re best off giving wide berth. I don’t need to be sprayed by a skunk to know I wouldn’t enjoy it, and in a similar way, after catching a glimpse of a monkey’s incisors, I know I’d really rather not be bit by one and should steer clear of them. Early on in our travels, spotting a wild monkey would cause me to shriek or clap my hands with glee, but having witnessed enough nearly feral monkeys scrabble, pounce and scratch at people, I recognize and respect them for the little menaces that they are.
You don’t see wild monkeys running about downtown Kuala Lumpur (thank god!), but you don’t have to travel very far to find them. Just a short 1 MYR (~33¢) ride on the KTM Kommuter train spits you out at the Batu Caves.
And where there are caves, you’d better believe there are monkeys.
The Batu Caves are home to one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India and seem to be universally beloved by all who visit them. Given how much I unexpectedly enjoyed Kuala Lumpur during our second visit, I was fully expecting the Batu Caves to be the highlight of our visit; in fact, apart from seeing the Petronas Towers, the caves were probably the thing I was most excited to visit in the city.
Things did not start off well when, almost immediately upon exiting the train station at the caves, we spotted one monkey after another rustle and pop out of the bushes or hop down from a the roof of a minor temple where they had been lazily snoozing in the hot midday sun. Well used to visitors with food, our presence caused a curious posse of primates to gather round in anticipation of tasty treats (whether they would be freely given or snatched greedily was yet to be determined).
Monkey fatigue or not I’ll admit these guys were cute from afar… but far less so when we noticed them scrounging through piles of trash for food, or when a scrapping brawl broke out complete with hissing and shrieking after some other tourists began tossing them peanuts (bad idea!). Once the monkeys identified the source of the peanuts, they surrounded him and rather than putting the food away and immediately leaving, this adult instead thrust the treats into his child’s hands and pushed him toward the monkeys who were slowly stalking forward. That is some good parenting, I tell you.
The sun was beating down and was incredibly hot, which only added to the tension of the moment. Rather than witnessing or becoming victims of an easily avoidable bloodbath, Tony and I opted to dart off to the side where the dark, cool, monkey-free opening to a cave beckoned. Entering the cave, our slowly blistering skin sighed in relief as the temperature dropped immediately. We likely would have hid out in that cave for a good deal longer than it warranted had a man not slinked from the shadows and demanded a 1MYR entrance fee to visit the cave. From the mouth of the cave, we saw a few gold icons and statues, but nothing that really looked worth paying an admission fee. Having just recently been scammed at another Hindu site in Kuala Lumpur, we were on our toes and suspected this might be some random dude who simply hangs out at a free cave and attempts to make a little money off of it, so we rebuffed his advances and said we’d go check out the main cave and come back later. Turns out this was the right choice because the main shrine cave is 100% free and the one cave that does charge a fee for a guided tour has very official signs clearly posted with all the rates listed.
So, it was back out into the blazing heat for us. There’s a real lack of trees or buildings at the base of the caves, so we did our best to dart from one shady patch to the next as we made our way to the massive gold statue at the base of the steps up to the cave. This gilt and glittering figure was blinding in the bright sunlight, and at 140 feet high, it truly felt as though we were standing at the feet of a god. Only fitting as the statue is a depiction of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war & victory.
And what a war it would prove to be, for the real battle had only just begun: having dodged gluttonous monkeys and had our skin scorched, we had to now climb up 272 steep steps in order to reach the actual caves.
The climb was daunting to say the least, especially in the heat (have I mentioned how HOT it was???), but we channeled our inner tortoises and made our way up, slow and steady, confident that by taking it one step at a time, we’d eventually reach the top and our efforts would be rewarded.
Well, we were half right. About 15 minutes later we climbed our final step, only to wonder whether the climb had been worth it. As we stepped into the cave, I was struck not so much by the size of the cave but the stench of it—the smell of fetid, rotten garbage smacked us in the face, and the further in we walked, the more pervasive and pungent the odor of raw sewage became. I never thought I would encounter something that smelled worse than the guano-carpeted caves of Mulu, but I’ll take the acrid smell of bat droppings over whatever was decomposing in the Batu Caves any day of the week.
Thank goodness the human body adapts rapidly to prolonged exposure to an unchanging stimulus and our noses soon deadened to the awful stench allowing us to make our way to the back of the cave where the more popular shrine is housed. Alas, this too was a disappointment as garbage littered the area and rather than the area bustling with life, most of the shrine’s worshipers seemed to simply be milling about listlessly. The whole thing just felt so lackluster and underwhelming. I had expected glittering grandiosity, but instead I felt completely underwhelmed. You’d think that taking two cool things—a temple and a cave—and pairing them would make for something truly spectacular. Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen here. We probably spent more time climbing to and from the caves (after all, what goes up must come down) than we did in them, and I just couldn’t help but wonder what about them had pleased so many previous travelers.
Maybe it was the monkeys (so many monkeys!), maybe it was the heat (seriously, when I get hot, I get crabby), maybe I’m just a contrarian, or maybe what C’est Christine said about comparison being the thief of joy is entirely true (it really is!). I think that it’s entirely possible our experiences touring some of the best caves in the world while at Mulu have ruined us for all future caves. I feel pretty confident that if these were the first caves in Asia that I had encountered, I likely would have been quite impressed by them, but the thing about traveling as long as we have and doing as many things as we have is it makes you more particular and the bar is raised in terms of what will impress you. All I could think about the Batu Caves is that they were much smaller and far smellier than I had hoped.
I can safely say the highlight of the day, apart from seeing the titanic Lord Murugan statue, was finding the Indian restaurants that are peppered around the foot of the caves. Armed with enough sugary sweets to rot our teeth and trigger diabetes in one fell swoop, we dashed past the quickly enclosing monkeys and settled in for the ride back into the metropolitan heart of the city.
The Batu Caves may have left us saying Bah Humbug! but now it’s your turn: If you’ve visited the caves, what did you think of them? Have you ever visited a popular attraction only to find yourself really underwhelmed by it?