Feeling Blah about the Batu Caves

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.

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.

Sneaky monkey wants your snacks

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.

A man makes jalebis

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?

Popular in: Malaysia

53 comments Leave a comment

  1. Did you miss the art cave down at the bottom? That was the one that costs 2 Ringgit, I think. Interesting Hindu story of the two brothers who fought over the reign. For the 2 Ringgit, it was pretty interesting. Inside, you could climb up into the cave. Not much there but certainly meaningful to the Hindus as there were lots of people praying inside to the various cave landmarks and statues?

    And, it sounds like you completely skipped the Dark Cave? The Dark Cave (albeit pricey) was surely a highlight for our family. Very well taken care of by conservationists, we found it super educational and interesting. The gal who led us through on the one hour tour was clearly a studied scientist and had lots to say about the cave biodiversity and the ecosystem. Even having visited other caves throughout SE Asia, this one was in a different league as far as the science and education behind it. Fantastic and highly recommended.

    Anyway, next time you get there, be sure to hit the Dark Cave. We learned a lot and were so glad we did it.

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 8:04 am
    1. Kathrin author

      I guess the art cave is the one we thought was the scam cave! I wish it had been more properly signed or more obvious what was inside of it—we really just thought it was some random guy trying to make a few ringgit!

      We didn’t do the Dark Cave because we had just been to Mulu National Park over on Borneo, which is home to some of the worlds longest cave systems and we felt we had already had a good taste of the biodiversity and ecosystems of caves through the guided tours we had done there. We really just went to these Caves to observe the Hindu temple and practices associated with t them, but maybe the real highlight is the Dark Cave…

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:03 pm
  2. It’s perfectly normal and understandable not to like everything we see during our travels. We went to the Batu Caves too while in KL and I personally loved the site mainly because of the monkeys. As you said and seen they were everywhere and it’s true that they were particularly cheeky and looking for food to grab from the visitors, but I still loved them especially the ones with their little baby monkeys, so incredibly cute!

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 8:43 am
    1. Franca author

      Yes, I was definitely thinking of you guys when I mentioned that most people really seem to like them—I remembered that even though you didn’t like KL very much at all you really enjoyed these caves! Again, if we hadn’t been to Mulu AND if we hadn’t gotten to interact with monkeys in Japan, I think our experience here would have been different.

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:07 pm
  3. I, too, am not a fan of monkeys and stay clear of them whenever they are about. I find them creepy and weird.

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 8:43 am
    1. Gillian author

      I don’t find them creepy or weird, but just annoying enough to avoid them nonethless. They’re really like rabid little kids!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:09 pm
  4. It’s been awhile since I went to Batu Caves, and the thing I remember most was the oppressive heat. I get seriously crabby, too! We ended having a wonderful time, no scams, and we just bypassed the monkeys as there were plenty of others that had tidbits to keep them busy. Hindu temples are so colorful and completely different than anything I grew up with or come in contact with on a daily business that I just adore them! Great post!

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 10:23 am
    1. Corinne author

      See, I personally though that the Hindu complexes at the cave (giant statue not withstanding) were kind of a letdown compared to the one we had visited in KL and also in Singapore. If only we had visited the Batu Caves first rather than last, I think we would have had a really different experience!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:11 pm
  5. I looked at going to this the last time I was in KL but a quick flickr search revealed nothing of interest. Seeing too much of a place online before you actually go can take away some of the luster of first impressions, but in this case, it saved me from what I know would’ve been a boring day!

    Plus, as a kid, we would go to Luray Caverns and I think that has satisfied any cave longings for the rest of my life. I’m good.

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 10:48 am
    1. James author

      I agree that doing too much research beforehand can really detract from visiting a place, but I find that especially when guidebooks and even bloggers tend to tend towards hyperbole and unilateral praise, it can be good to verify whether things are actually as cool as people make them sound. Of course, photos can also be misleading… I mean, I’d argue that our pictures in this post make the caves look really nice and a worthwhile excursion, even though we found them the opposite.

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:13 pm
  6. Monkeys may or may not be the reason I have yet to visit Asia. 🙂 Glad you’ve come around! Ha.

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 11:20 am
    1. Trisha author

      I don’t think you should let monkeys stop you from visiting wonderful Asia! They’re fairly easy to avoid, and they’re still generally the exception rather than the rule!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:21 pm
  7. I remember the monkeys there so well. My buddy dropped a bottle of water and a monkey seized it and was attempting to bite it open on the bottom. My friend tried to grab it to twist off the top and the monkey quickly bared his fangs, so we stood back, watched him bite it open, and sadly spill about half of it on the ground — it was hot that day and we figured the monkey was as thirsty as we were, if not more so. I thought the Batu Caves were pretty cool, and I did the stairs a few times to count it as my workout for the day — I was completely dripping with sweat at the end, so it was good that we had planned a pit stop at the hotel anyway for afterward. I remember the heat and the smell well, also not fondly…

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 11:20 am
    1. Carina author

      I suppose the biggest advice that one can offer other visitors seems to be to get there as early as possible because you are the second or third person to mention how ridiculously hot it was there. Not the place to lose your water to a monkey!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:26 pm
  8. I have to agree. I was excited to go to Batu having seen so much about it before I went. Apart from taking photos of monkeys (which was still a novelty to me at that point) I found it a big tourist trap and one that wasn’t particularly attractive or impressive. The only good thing is the Hindu statue, but as you say, the caves were stinky and disappointing.

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 12:16 pm
    1. Julia author

      Well, I’m sorry to hear that you also found the caves a smelly disappointment, but I am secretly pleased to hear we weren’t the only ones! I think if we had to pay a lot of money to reach the caves or to enter them I would have been even more disgruntled, but given that the main caves are free, I was less disappointed than I might have otherwise been!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:28 pm
  9. Well that’s a bit of a bummer. I was really looking forward to visiting these caves! But I guess I should thank you for knocking my expectations down a few pegs. Now maybe I’ll actually enjoy the experience, especially if I remember to pack a scented handkerchief. I was underwhelmed by the Big Buddha in Hong Kong, also reached via a loooong staircase under the blazing sun. Monks were actually pouring bottled water over their heads on the way up! Having already seen much more impressive Buddha’s in Thailand and China, HK’s didn’t excite much interest. But like you said, had I seen that one first it likely would have been a different story.

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 2:46 pm
    1. Heather author

      It’s funny you mention the Big Buddha in HK, because it was one of the things that I was really excited to see while we were there… at least when we were planning our trip initially! But after seeing two MASSIVE buddhas while in Japan, which we visited right before HK, I realized that I was no longer all that interested and we skipped it. Maybe the next time we’re back I’ll be more keen, but I think we made the right choice in that instance.

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:43 pm
  10. I hate those little buggers too after having them steal food, claw my back, and attempt to take off with my sunglasses in more than one country!

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 3:35 pm
    1. Rhonda author

      Yikes! Thankfully we’ve not had any unwanted monkey run-ins, but I’ve seen enough people suffer as you have to realize we’ve been exceedingly lucky!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:44 pm
  11. I have such a healthy fear of monkeys as well! There were some spots on the stairs leading up to the Batu Caves that I had to scrabble up hiding behind Tom because I was sure I was going to get pounced on. I am always completely flabbergasted when I see people petting them and hand-feeding them. We saw one monkey at the Tiger Cave Temple outside of Krabi Thailand sucking on a bottle that it had just stolen from a baby. From a BABY! Irrefutable proof that monkeys are vicious and they prey on the weak.

    Feb. 25 2014 @ 8:56 am
    1. jenny krones author

      Bwa ha ha ha! Love that the monkey stole a bottle from a baby! That really says it all, doesn’t it?!?

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:45 pm
  12. We have done the comparison thing with Mayan temples…our first ever was Tikal and it is impressive, so when we went to Chichen Itza last month we couldn’t help but be snobbish travellers and wonder why everyone else was so enamoured with it. Thank god there weren’t any monkeys to make things worse!

    Feb. 25 2014 @ 2:41 pm
    1. Emily author

      When you’re sitting back home, everything seems so exotic and incredible that you can’t imagine ever getting sick of any of it. But whether it’s monkeys or temples or ruins, you eventually do OD and find yourself more discerning!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:46 pm
  13. We actually didn’t visit the caves when we went to KL, as we heard from a few people it wasn’t really worth it (plus we didn’t have much time in KL anyway). Looks like we haven’t missed much.

    Feb. 25 2014 @ 7:31 pm
    1. TammyOnTheMove author

      As with everything, I suppose it depends on your past experiences and what interests you. Obviously some people really have enjoyed their visit to the Batu Caves… we just weren’t amongst them! 🙂

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:49 pm
  14. Oh dear. I was going to say that this sounds like a good place to work out… well take the heat away and maybe it would be, but then you described the garbage and poop and I was like nope! Never mind.

    Feb. 25 2014 @ 7:37 pm
    1. Colleen Brynn author

      Ha! You’d get a great work out dodging all the monkeys and garbage, I’d reckon!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 9:50 pm
  15. I’m a bit of a fan of Batu Caves. It’s not a world wonder or anything, but it is just one of those small things in most places in the world that are worth going to for an hour or two and then moving on. A little quirky, a little crappy, but cool nonetheless. 🙂

    Feb. 25 2014 @ 10:00 pm
    1. Adam@SitDownDisco author

      I think for us the balance was more crappy than quirky, but I take your point about places not needing to be world wonders in order to be worth a visit. We’ve actually visited and enjoyed plenty of random, out-of-the-way attractions during our time in Asia… it’s just that this wasn’t really one of them! 😉

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:07 am
  16. What a shame, I’ve been to the Batu Caves and really liked it, but then I went there with no expectations, on a moderately warm day, and it certainly wasn’t as busy/smelly/commercialised as it seems to be now!

    As for a place I went which totally underwhelmed me, I have to say the whole city of Chiang Mai in Thailand was a bit like that for me. Comparison definitely IS the thief of joy, and I had been to gorgeous Sri Lanka the week prior, and spent the whole time in Thailand’s “highlands” comparing it to the tea-plantation covered mountains of Sri Lanka. Which is a shame, because everyone else has told me about how much they enjoyed Chiang Mai and surrounds. Boooo!

    Feb. 25 2014 @ 11:19 pm
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Tim, I want to hug you for your thoughts on Chiang Mai because we felt almost EXACTLY the same way. And we hadn’t even been to Sri Lanka yet to compare it (that comes in a few months!)! I do think northern Thailand is exceedingly pretty and lovely, but Chiang Mai was pretty much a snoozefest and not the city I’d want to base myself in for a prolonged period.

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:09 am
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        Hehehe it’s not that Chiang Mai is particularly bad, but it’s not particularly interesting either, and the scenery in the immediate surrounds isn’t exactly breathtaking. I enjoyed walking around the temples and everything, but I wouldn’t rush back – id much rather head straight out into the hills and countryside.

        Feb. 28 2014 @ 6:17 am
  17. 1. Monkeys are the worst. We had one unzipping my cousin’s backpack about a minute after arriving to Angkor Wat. That’s a whole story we’ll get into on the blog, I’m sure. But UGH.
    2. Thanks for the warning. After seeing the Paradise Caves in Vietnam, I think I’m ruined for all other caves. UN-believable.
    3. Why, oh why, do so many of these monuments have to be ruined with garbage? Frustrating for sure.

    Feb. 26 2014 @ 3:22 am
    1. Carmel author

      1. We had monkeys try to unzip our backpack when we were in Japan, but somehow that was more funny than anything else. Maybe because it was Japan where even the monkeys seem polite and were suitably aghast when Tony shooed them away?

      2. I still think you should check out the caves at Mulu at some point, but maybe the key here is that it just wasn’t a good idea to visit the Batu Caves within 2 weeks of having seen those ones. It would be pretty hard to compete with them in any scenario, but having them living so large in our recent memories certainly didn’t help.

      3. Garbage is truly Asia’s curse. It never fails to break my heart to see locals just nonchalantly throw their rubbish on the ground while walking down the street. It’s the things travel photos never show, but seriously, GARBAGE IS EVERYWHERE HERE.

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:14 am
  18. Awwh, those monkeys look like cute, hairy little tramps. Despite this, I have mixed feelings about them too: one blazing row with a monkey is enough for one lifetime. Sounds like we have nothing to regret about not visiting Batu Caves despite ten days in KL – and we didn’t even know about the 272 steps.

    Feb. 26 2014 @ 4:26 pm
    1. Shane author

      I know I would have always wondered if we hadn’t made it to the caves, but having been and seen them, I wouldn’t say anyone else needs to make them a priority even if there weren’t 272 steps to climb!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:18 am
  19. Monkeys can be menacing but its better to just ignore them when they are in huge numbers, feed them when they seem friendly and in small numbers. Living in India, I am used to their presence and still enjoy! The temple itself seems very beautiful 🙂

    Feb. 26 2014 @ 8:09 pm
    1. Arti author

      I am sure that in India you have plenty of practice with monkeys! One of our dive instructors told us a story about holidaying in New Delhi and dining at a rooftop restaurant—he wondered why all the plates and glasses were metal until a monkey scampered over, stole a bunch and flung them onto the street… Mystery solved!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:21 am
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        Haha! What a story! btw, I am hosting a giveaway on my blog, do drop in and participate if possible 🙂

        Feb. 28 2014 @ 8:29 am
  20. We visited last week and felt the same way! I was glad to have visited, but Jason said he could have done without the trip. We arrived before 9am, so before the heat, monkeys and hoards of tourist which was a good thing. I too felt a bit of a let down after climbing all the steps. Im not sure what exactly I was expecting, but a bit more…of something!

    Feb. 27 2014 @ 2:46 am
    1. Simone author

      You know, we very rarely regret making the effort or time to visit something (I mean, how can you know unless you go and see it for yourself?), but at the same time, we will say things like “if I could do it again, I wouldn’t” or we’ll acknowledge that once was enough for a certain thing and we wouldn’t do a repeat visit. Given the low money and time investment it took to visit the Caves, I’m not sorry I went, but I wouldn’t do it again!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:24 am
  21. Hmm, I didn’t really consider visiting Batu while in KL, am in two minds about it – might have been cool but then again it might have not. Sounds like a place that wouldn’t have been a must-see for us. And I got my monkey quotient in at Angkor Wat 🙂

    Mar. 1 2014 @ 4:24 am
    1. eemusings author

      I suppose nearly every place has the possibility to be either cool or not… such is the traveler’s tautology! 😉 If you had any latent interest in the place, I would say go for it, but I don’t think that people who decided to skip it are really missing out on anything either.

      Mar. 3 2014 @ 3:18 am
  22. We had exactly the same reaction to Batu, it was so sad to see a place that could have been beautiful just reduced to a smelly garbage site surrounded by aggressive monkeys. We arrived unfortunately when hoards of buses did and all of the occupants ran straight over to the monkeys, letting them climb all over them – absolute circus.

    Mar. 2 2014 @ 6:25 am
    1. Maddie author

      Seeing how most of these busloads of tourists act is probably the biggest deterrent to us ever joining one. I’ve nothing against tours as I can see how they can make life easier, but I don’t think I could deal with all the fools!

      Mar. 3 2014 @ 3:22 am
  23. Ha! Andrew and I have discussed the monkey issue too; it’s amazing that at the beginning of our trip we eagerly skipped into the monkey forest in Ubud (with terrifying results) but more recently in Battambang, Cambodia, we actually carried sticks with us because we were so scared of the pack of Macaques lurking at the top of a hill! By the way, we wouldn’t have hit the monkeys with those sticks, they were just meant for self-defense! We weren’t overly keen on the Batu caves either; they made for pretty cheap trip out though.

    Mar. 3 2014 @ 8:18 am
    1. Amy author

      I definitely remember reading about a few hikes in China where they warned you to take a stick to ward off monkey attacks; at the time, I thought it sounded exciting and funny, but now I would definitely steer clear. I certainly know better!

      Mar. 4 2014 @ 6:52 am
  24. We visited Batu Caves a few weeks ago, and while we enjoyed it, I agree with you on the garbage issue. One of the things that surprises me most about the places I’ve visited in SE Asia is the amount of litter at holy sites and shrines. I understand lack of infrastructure and gov’t planning with regard to garbage collection, but I don’t understand why people desecrate worship sites.

    I like the phrase “comparison is the thief of joy”. It’s so true. I will compare every beach I ever visit to the beaches of Santorini and the Greek Islands.

    I had never seen anything like Batu Caves before so I was impressed with the statues and the shrines. Also there were lots of Indian families bringing their babies for blessings. Lots of little yellow heads covered in turmeric.

    Mar. 3 2014 @ 8:42 am
    1. Lindsay @ Where Is Your Toothbrush? author

      I think because we have become so accustomed to garbage being literally EVERYWHERE in Asia, it’s really not that surprising that it makes its way into holy sites. I mean, if the parks and beaches are fair game, why not places of worship? :S

      Mar. 4 2014 @ 6:54 am
  25. The monkeys there are insane! We saved two unsuspecting water bottle holders who had no idea why the monkeys were attacking them. Yikes!

    Mar. 6 2014 @ 11:13 pm
    1. Alison Pirtle author

      You are good citizens! I’m not sure I would have put myself between monkeys and a water bottle that wasn’t mine (they really couldn’t figure out that that was what those little thieves wanted?!?), so kudos to you!

      Mar. 7 2014 @ 9:09 pm
  26. Hey! Great shots!

    Dec. 28 2019 @ 6:53 am

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