I’ve totally given up trying to predict my work life. It seems chaos and uncertainty are this year’s watchwords. In an attempt to retain sanity, gratitude, and joy, I’m going to focus more on things I can influence and enjoy. This week that means cherry blossom soda, cherry blossom beer, cherry blossom frappuccino and of course cherry blossom viewing. So until I can write about all those blooms in Korea, here’s another tale from Malaysia, and a much happier one since Kuala Lumpur is less scary by daylight.
The morning after my late night and less than welcoming arrival, I woke up early, scarfed down my leftover convenience store sweet buns and took off to find the train station that would lead me to the Batu Caves. In recent years, the Malaysian government has added a train stop at this popular tourist attraction, and now it’s much easier to get to. The train itself was a new experience. When you purchase a ticket, you are given a plastic token with an RF chip inside. When entering the platform, you hold the token up to a pad to be read and it opens the gate, but hold on to that chip! When you disembark, you need to feed the chip into a slot to pass through the exit gate.
I met a tour group on the train platform and we chatted during the train ride. I hung around with them and their guide to hear a few of the explanations offered about the caves. The guide rushed us past the dozens of sales stalls (saving us from souvenir swindles), gave a brief presentation under the statue of Hanuman (the Monkey King) and landed us in the main square at the base of the stairs and the giant golden statue of Murugan (a god of war, made of concrete and painted gold colored). There was a tremendous flock of pigeons in the main square and it seemed to be a major tourist attraction to stand in the flock and have them hop onto your hand to get some food. Occasionally construction in the background caused a loud boom that set all the birds a flutter, which was surprisingly pretty.
After a few obligatory photos with the tour group and the giant statue, we began the climb. The stairwell is not insanely long, a mere 272 steps. They were so popular as a form of exercise that the government had to ban fitness use of the staircase to keep it clear for tourists and worshipers. With my kryptonite-like response to humid heat, the staircase became a long haul obstacle, but there were plenty of interesting things to stop and look at on the way up, like the expanding view of the courtyard and city below, the rock formations on the cliffs along side, and of course the hordes of monkeys roaming freely through the grounds. Given that the monkeys are wild, I was totally happy to keep my distance, but they were not shy and enjoyed coming right up to tourists or even forcing a showdown over who got to use the hand rails. At one point there were two monkeys perched on twin posts on either side of me and I managed to get a cute double monkey selfie, checking off a bonus square in the Batu Caves tourist bingo.
When I finally got to the top, I was greeted with a large cave mouth opening that led to an even larger cavern. The entrance of the cave had small buildings installed for souvenirs and police. Once all the way inside, I could see that although this huge open space was graced with a few decorative statues around the edges, it was largely left in its natural state. The cave mouth was wide and there was a natural sky light further on, so the cavern was well lit. There were a few artificial lights in strategic places and an area of worship off to the left. Finally, there was another short staircase leading through to the open area beyond. At the top of those stairs was the rearmost chamber of the cavern, another broad space; however, the roof had long since fallen in and the walls soared up into open air, creating a round room with no roof.
Here a few more monkeys wandered around the main area of worship and some wild roosters serenaded us with late morning greetings to the sun. While the monkeys weren’t looking to steal any watches or cell phones, they were out to grab any food or drinks they could find, and had no problem at all photobombing everyone. I decided to step into the little shrine in the center of the chamber, donating a small amount and lighting a candle in gratitude. I am not Hindu, but I like to donate to historical sites and there is no entrance fee to the Batu cavern. The symbolic gesture of the candle was a good way for me to donate to the preservation of the site and to solidify my own expression of gratitude for getting to live a life where I can have experiences like this one.
I spent a little more time in the cave, just enjoying the surroundings and watching other tourists interact with the monkeys. Responses ranged from the insanely forward to the blatantly cowardly, but the monkeys themselves were so bold that they would simply walk where they wanted to go, trusting the humans to get out of the way.
As I exited the temple section to descend the stairs again, I detoured off to the right to investigate a “dark cave”. The Malaysian government has taken this side section of limestone cave and created a conservation space. The limestone quarries and careless unregulated tourism of the recent past had wiped out a lot of the cave ecosystems. Efforts to restore the guano based ecosystem of living limestone caves are now underway in many parts of Malaysia and this cave was for both preservation and education.
I couldn’t pass up a chance like that. The cost of entry was 35myr (less than 8$US) and while it was the most expensive thing there, the entry fees all went into the environmental conservation efforts, so I don’t mind. I signed up for the next tour and sat down to wait in the cool cave mouth.
The cave has 3 chambers, but only 2 are open to view. The third is closed off as part of The Science (micro-climate study). The Dark Cave is the most studied cave in the world (they claim). People are only allowed in with a tour guide to prevent damage to the cave and it’s creatures. There are no lights inside. We were each equipped with a flashlight and helmet before entering, but the lights were not needed for most of the tour because of the amount of sunlight that makes its way far into the cave. Our guide was very knowledgeable, talking to us about the history of the cave, the near extinction of the ecosystem and the restoration projects. She then taught us about the ecosystem which is based almost entirely on the bat guano. Bats are the only thing that leaves the cave to bring nutrients in from the outside, so their droppings become the source of a tiny but thriving pile of life.
Nearly everything that lives in the cave is so tiny you wouldn’t even notice it if no one stopped to show you. When we see nature documentaries, there’s often nothing for scale, so it’s easy to imagine the animals as being similarly sized to their daylight counterparts. When our guide showed us a picture of the little white snail that lives on the rocks, I imagined a tiny snail, but not nearly as tiny as the ones we found! The biggest of the snails was about the size of a grain of rice, but there were smaller ones dotted around.
On our journey through the dark, we got to see a number of beautiful cave formations as well. These are similar enough to the limestone formations found just about anywhere there are limestone caves, but they were 4-5x bigger. Photos do not do a good job with scale, and my photos in the dark are a little meh, but if you think you don’t need to go because you’ve seen it before, can I just say, no. We passed some adorable spiders (although we didn’t get to see the trapdoor guy who is superfamous there), and met the Godzilla of the cave ecosystem. Nearly every creature in there was ultra teeny (even the spider really only had a pea sized body), but this cave centipede was massive. An average currency bill would have covered his body but not his legs. In comparison with his rice grain sized prey, he was a leviathan. Our last fauna sighting was a nearly microscopic troglobite that was about 2mm, but still had a distinctive spiky pattern that made it stand out from the rock on which it sat.
Our entire trip was serenaded by bats. The bats were mostly resting, hanging from the ceiling above us, but they were not silent sleepers. Because of the need to preserve the bats’ environment, we were asked as a group never to point our lights above our own eye level. If you go late in the afternoon, you may even get to see the bats waking up for dinner, but I was there around 1ish, so it was a purely aural experience.
At the end of the path, the cave had another skylight, revealing the bats’ back door and creating a stunning lighting effect as a single beam of light pierced the blackness of the cave from high above. With just a little light, photosynthesizing algae had coated the rocks and gave the entire area a soft green glow.
The walk back out was much faster, since we were simply retracing our steps. If I spent more time talking about the Dark Cave than the temple, it might be because I was greatly impressed. It has not been long since developing economies were not able to give resources to research and preservation that didn’t directly lead to feeding more humans. In the recent past, these caves were unprotected and used as places for who-knows-what, leaving the land covered in litter, cigarette butts and graffiti. Not that long ago that the monkeys were fed potato chips and soda, while today they are given nuts, fruits and flowers. It’s amazing to me what a society can achieve toward a relationship with nature and our past when we make it a priority. As I watch the power and funding of US national parks and the EPA come under fire, it gives me some hope that other countries will take up the stewardship.
As I descended back to ground level, I passed still more monkeys, several sets of mother and baby wandered around, and some tourists were feeding them peanuts (despite the do not feed signs). I noticed that the dominant males were very protective of their snacking rights and would drive off the mothers aggressively. Of course, no trip to a monkey colony would be complete without a little fornication. I happened to be standing right next to a female when a male walked up, took her butt in both hands and peered at it closely, then proceeded to mount her, much to the shock and amusement of tourists from 6-7 different countries. No, I did not take monkey porn pics.
At the base of the stairs, I detoured into a little shopping area where I was able to get some much needed water (bring more than you think you need!) and a little snack. I wandered through a shop selling Malay and Indian styles of clothing that was just to die for. It was all overpriced because Batu is such a tourist location, but it was still fun to look, and gave me a strong desire to return to Malaysia one day with a bigger suitcase!
There were more attractions along the walkway between the stairs and the train station. I passed the “Cave Villa”, but a short search on Google advised me that this area (which had once been an art gallery and museum) was now hosting a sad number of mistreated animals for paid photo ops. I wish this were outdated information, but I found another one while writing this that was written since I got back. It’s very disappointing, considering everything I just wrote about the good steps that Malaysia is taking toward environmental preservation, but sadly, animal rights and animal welfare are another area that humans at large have only recently started to be concerned with. Animals often have a link to one or more deities in Hinduism and may be involved in rituals or (as in the case of the monkeys) given free reign at a temple. However, it is NOT a tenant of Hinduism to mistreat animals, and this display is likely merely a tourist attraction since visitors toss money into the small cages and pay to pose with the snakes and birds. I didn’t go in, and I hope if enough tourists reject this treatment of animals, the government will upgrade the Villa to a cruelty-free art gallery.
Farther on, beneath the looming statue of Hanuman we passed at the beginnging, was the Ramayana Cave. This attraction was much more highly reviewed and was only 5 ringgits to enter, so I decided to give it a shot. There is a stream inside the mountain that comes out and is used as part of a beautiful fountain depicting the chariot of Rama and Sita. If you’re not familiar with the Ramayana, it’s a very popular dramatic tale from the Mahabharata (one of the most important Hindu religious texts). In addition to being a big part of the faith, the Ramayana is a soap-opera-esque tale of love and betrayal that is to this day one of the most popular television series ever aired in India. Kind of like if the Iliad were still relevant and cool today.
The cave had two entrances (or more probably one entrance and one exit, but there were so few visitors that it wasn’t enforced). I first found myself in a section of the cave that appeared to be preserving the graffiti of the recent past or maybe even inviting new graffiti, giving visitors a place to scrawl to spare the other areas? Escaping the graffiti tunnel, I discovered the main chamber of the cave to be filled with larger than life depictions of scenes from the story. I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten most of the plot, since I read it longer ago than I want to admit and only once, but there were a few informative signs to help out.
There was a stone arch leading up some stairs that gave a closer view of the cave’s internal waterfall, as well as a bird’s eye view of the main cavern, complete with birds. There was a LOT of graffiti in the cave, but most of it seemed to be on smooth walls rather than on the cave formations, and it was clear in any case that with all the electric lights and colorful statues that the cave was not likely to grow any further (all the more reason to be supportive of that Dark Cave!). I can’t hold the modern Malaysians totally responsible though, because evidence suggests that humans had been using these caves for centuries, and the modern laws prohibit building or excavating in living ecosystems. All in all, I consider the Ramayana cave worth the visit for both the cave and the man-made additions.
Batu Cave is often depicted as the giant golden statue and sweeping staircase, but there are plenty of other things to do there. I visited 3 of the 4 “attractions” at Batu. Only the main temple cave is truly free; however, I think it is worth the less than 10$ I spent to visit the Dark Cave and Ramayana Cave. On the other hand, the prices of souvenirs is high and the quality is low, so unless you really need something from Batu, it’s best to do your shopping elsewhere. On the way out, climbing the train station up a couple stories, there’s a nice view of the temple complex from the air as well.
There are times in a journey when the universe just opens a path. I was ridiculously hungry by the time the train got back to KL but didn’t know where to get food because I’d only eaten at convenience stores since arriving. Instead of taking the same path out of the station that I’d come in by, I followed a beautiful sky-walk that lead out and around, giving me a nice view of the city and of the river swollen with rain that had fallen while I was coming back from Batu. The sky-walk ended in a large, clean, and above all air conditioned building of indeterminate function. I think it may have been an office building, but the main floor had a few shops and restaurants. I pulled into the first one I saw and confessed my massive ignorance of Malaysian cuisine, asking the staff for a recommendation. Moments later I had a heaping plate of some kind of fried rice dish that was smokey and pleasantly but not overwhelmingly spicy. Sometimes you just gotta walk on the road that looks more interesting.
Having discovered that Kuala Lumpur was not actually a rat-infested cess-pit, I had a very nice time. I wish the heat did not affect me so adversely because Malaysian cuisine is unique and delicious and I too often had mild heat exhaustion related nausea that kept me from properly enjoying it. If this trip taught me one thing about travelling in tropical climates it’s to plan an indoor/air-con activity every other day. For more photos, please check out the full album on Facebook, and stay tuned for the next chapter which includes some up close and personal with animals in the city’s wildlife sanctuaries/gardens. As always, I hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading!