Making Batman Jealous.

The Batu Caves are one of the easiest ‘natural wonder’ sight seeing hotspots to reach from Kuala Lumpur. Get on a train, pay roughly half a US dollar to stay on that train until the very end, get off the train, and follow everyone else.
Hundreds of people visit the caves every day so they’re not quite as natural as they once were. From the exit of the train station to the steps up to the caves, the road is lined with stalls selling everything from scarves to bootleg DVDS to neon squares of sweet desserts… Oh so many, and oh so good.  Music blasts from several of the stalls, so loud it makes your teeth ache worse than the desserts, you look at the other stall holders and wonder how, how can they stand it?
The smell, as is the habit of smells in hot countries, is disagreeably pungent: overheated bodies mingling with uncollected garbage and sweating plastic, occasionally masked by an attractive sneak of incense, a whiff of fresh flowers, a puff of coconut and sugar.
It must be said that I am here only a few days after a massive Hindu festival. It can take some time to clean that up. Thousand of devotees come to the Batu Caves as part of a pilgrimage during the three days of Thaipusam, a festival which falls on the full moon between mid January and mid February. It commemorates the occasion when the god of war, Murugan, was given a spear by his mother to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. This is your quintessential good triumphs over evil story, but Murugan got a spear from a parent instead of a light sabre from the friend of a parent… practically identical.
Devotees pray to Murugan, and then do penance at the festival as a demonstration of gratitude that their prayers have been answered. Penance comes in the form of kavadi: enduring pain to greater or lesser degree. Some devotees will choose to enter a fasting period for the 48 days prior to the main event, which is hard core at the best of times, and all the more impressive given that on the main day of the festival they will walk in the unforgiving heat, 9 miles from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, to the caves and then up 272 steps to the cave itself. They do this barefoot by the way, on hot asphalt and concrete… 9 miles. Oh and they’ll be carrying something. It might be something simple, like a deceptively heavy, metal jar filled with milk. Or it might be something decidedly more complex, like an ornate piece of artwork sculpted from metal, attached to their bare flesh by hooks and spikes. If you google this thing you’ll find pictures of guys pulling ornate Cinderella style carriages (if Cinderella had increased the bling factor by a hundred) attached to the skin on their back by hooks, for 9 miles, in 35 decree Celsius heat, up a hill at the end. It’s not uncommon for people to lose their wits after completing this arduous trek. Some call it euphoria, religious ecstasy; I would hazard a guess at delirium brought on by exhaustion, food depravation, and dehydration.
You might ask, why do people do this? Why put themselves through this? To prove they can I would guess. In the same way triathletes push themselves to become not just triathletes but an Ironmen/women ; or hikers decide to risk life and limb climbing K2; or swimmers push themselves from lapping the pool to traversing the Channel; these people wear a badge of endurance that once gained cannot be taken away from them.
It’s not my cup of tea, but neither is running a marathon, and now you know why you won’t find me in the Guinness Book of World Records… ever.
Back to the caves.
The Batu caves are a series of chambers dotted in amongst limestone cliffs. After rather a lot of steps (not an excessive amount though, if you’re even a quarter in shape you’ll be fine), you enter directly into the main Batu cave known as Temple or Cathedral cave.
First impressions?
Batman would have a serious inferiority complex.
It’s enormous. The floor has been laid with concrete, and temples and shrines have been constructed within the cave that appear rather diminutive compared to the gargantuan limestone walls and the scary stalactites that could crush you to a pulp should they fall. The back half of Temple cave is open to the sky, lighting up the entire cavern.
Actually, whilst we’re nearly on the subject of Batman, has anyone ever thought how ridiculous it is that the huge mansion that is Wayne Manor is built on limestone, riddled with caves? Surely someone – the surveyors, the engineers on site, the construction crew, Alfred – should have picked up on this. It is not a suitable foundation for a mansion… Is it? Astonishingly, my knowledge of mansion construction health and safety issues is somewhat limited.
The limestone forming the caves is around 400 million years old, records of humans using the caves date from the mid 19th century when bat guano was being excavated for fertilizer. They were designated a place of worship in the 1890s, and today an enterprising lady sits at the foot of the stairs renting out sarongs for 3 Ringgit to cover your bare legs.
Halfway up the stairs is the entrance to The Dark Cave, a 2 km network of limestone tunnels that have been explored and protected by conservationists. It is possible to go on tours and witness first-hand the ecosystem that supports a multitude of bats, centipedes, spiders and scorpions, and one or two snakes; provided you’re okay with being underground, in the dark, for 45 minutes. If the thought of that makes your throat itch and your team heart beat ever so slightly faster, you can always stay outside with the little macaques that will steal the drink out of your hands.
Batman didn’t have to deal with thieving monkeys.

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