monkeys

The Dangers of the Ubud Monkey Forest

The Monkey Forest is worth wandering, but perhaps not with children. It’s fitting that the Great Temple of Death lies within this sanctuary, where people get bitten by monkeys every day.

Gorgeous stonework and mischievous macaques abound in the Monkey Forest

Gorgeous stonework and mischievous macaques abound in the Monkey Forest

Things might have been much worse if we hadn’t had a somewhat scary encounter the night before we planned to visit the Monkey Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

We were wandering down Monkey Forest Road, right at the turn, near one of the entrances to the forest. A large macaque monkey scampered down a power line and stopped a few feet in front of Duke.

He was looking up at another monkey on the roof of a shop and I snapped a photo. And then, in a flash, the monkey jumped onto Duke, grabbed his water bottle, hopped off of him and scurried down the road a bit. It all happened so quickly, Duke didn’t even have time to react.

The monkey opened its mouth and sank its teeth into the girl’s shoulder, before darting away.

The girl screamed and screamed, yet her banshee-like wails failed to draw the attention of any staffers.
The moment right before the monkey jumped onto Duke and stole his water bottle

The moment right before the monkey jumped onto Duke and stole his water bottle

We watched in astonishment as the monkey unscrewed the lid, poured some water out onto the street and scooped it up with its palms to drink.

As cool as it might be to get a selfie with a monkey, we can’t advise it

As cool as it might be to get a selfie with a monkey, we can’t advise it

The last time I visited Bali, 17 years ago, I let a monkey crawl onto my back, and that picture became a now-legendary Christmas card. I might have done so again — but this incident was enough to put the fear of God — or perhaps the fear of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god —  into me.

The statue by the Monkey Forest entrance hints at what could happen to unsuspecting tourists!

The statue by the Monkey Forest entrance hints at what could happen to unsuspecting tourists!

Entering the Monkey Forest: It All Starts Innocently Enough…

So it was with a newfound sense of caution (and, let’s face it, downright fear of these creatures) that Duke and I wandered into the Monkey Sanctuary. The setting is epic: a glen of primordial trees, bridges that criss-cross a ravine with a river below and not one, but two pura dalems, or temples of death.

The setting, with banyan roots, bizarre statues, lush foliage and wild monkeys, is quite epic

The setting, with banyan roots, bizarre statues, lush foliage and wild monkeys, is quite epic

We headed to the right, down a path that leads to one of the bridges that span the chasm below. There are a few landings here, with metal railings where monkeys like to hang out. This is a good spot for photos. The monkeys here seemed to know they’re models, and you can snap some shots at a safe distance.

Down the path to the right is a landing where monkeys strike a pose

Down the path to the right is a landing where monkeys strike a pose

Hindus, like those on Bali, revere monkeys, in part because one of their main gods, Hanuman, is simian

Hindus, like those on Bali, revere monkeys, in part because one of their main gods, Hanuman, is simian

According to the park, there are about 600 monkeys in the area!

According to the park, there are about 600 monkeys in the area!

A path winds along the rock face at the edge of the river. It’s narrow and crowded and ends abruptly without a payoff. You might as well skip it.

Banyan roots have taken over parts of the sanctuary

Banyan roots have taken over parts of the sanctuary

Wally, who was scared the entire time he was in the forest, thought these were real lizards at first

Wally, who was scared the entire time he was in the forest, thought these were real lizards at first

Following the main path takes you over another bridge and walkway above the ravine before leading you to a temple. Duke and I were delighted to notice the strange, monstrous statues out front. We had arrived at Pura Dalem Agung Pandangtegal, or the Padangtegal Great Temple of Death. Demonic sculptures, including those of the witch Rangda, adorn pura dalems.

The main temple of death in the forest is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva

The main temple of death in the forest is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva

Rangda personifies evil — and loves to eat babies

Rangda personifies evil — and loves to eat babies

What are these naughty babies doing?!

What are these naughty babies doing?!

Statues of demons surround the temple of death

Statues of demons surround the temple of death

A young macaque with a mohawk posed on a ledge near the temple’s entrance, nibbling on what appeared to be a yam. While we were taking some pictures, a big lug came up beside us and smiled. “Cute,” he said, before telling us that he had just been bitten on the arm by one of these critters. He was just standing there, and a young monkey jumped onto his shoulder, supposedly unbidden. Before he knew it, she had sunk her teeth into his arm.

This little macaque was hanging out on the temple entrance

This little macaque was hanging out on the temple entrance

I could tell by his accent that he was French, but I still spoke English to him. “You need to go to the doctor!” I told him. He just laughed, and I said, “I’m serious! You could get rabies! You could die!” But he just kept chuckling like I was telling him the funniest bit of nonsense he’s ever heard, before wandering away.

There supposedly haven’t been any cases of rabies from monkeys in the sanctuary, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk — especially since my doctor told me that rabies is 100% fatal. If you get bitten at the forest, don’t take any chances and get rabies shots at the Toya Medika Clinic down the street.

They might look innocent — but they’re not

They might look innocent — but they’re not

Reality Bites: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Bit

Not long after the French guy told us about how he been bitten, we saw a family allow a small monkey to crawl onto their young daughter for a photo op. It was like a train wreck — we couldn’t look away. When the girl wanted the monkey to get off of her, she tried to shake it off. Sure enough, the monkey opened its mouth and sank its teeth into the girl’s shoulder, before darting away.

The girl screamed and screamed, yet her banshee-like wails failed to draw the attention of any staffers.

We also saw a monkey grab a stack of cards from a woman’s open bag. The man with her literally pounced at the monkey and tried to retrieve the cards from it. We shook our heads in disbelief. It seemed wiser to let the monkey grow bored with its prize and drop it, once it realized it wasn’t edible.

Statues in the Monkey Forest tend to be grotesque — which Duke and Wally love

Statues in the Monkey Forest tend to be grotesque — which Duke and Wally love

It’s no exaggeration when I say that I was in a mild state of terror the entire time I was at the sanctuary. Any time we passed by a monkey, I’d freeze up and scooch past it as quickly as possible, my heart pounding through my chest.

Down from the temple is a bathing pool, and it was fun to watch the monkeys swing into the water and splash about — from a safe distance, of course.

Delightfully horrific statues pair nicely with the monkeys

Delightfully horrific statues pair nicely with the monkeys

Beyond this is a ring trail that’s more sparse. The trees aren’t as tall and I felt more exposed. We hurried along the path, horrified, when, at one point, we saw a monkey that had stolen a bottle of sunblock from some tourists. It unscrewed the top and was trying to drink the thick white liquid. The couple watching this were laughing, but we didn’t find it amusing.

At the end of the ring path, we saw a small building with a group of the sanctuary’s staff just hanging out smoking. We couldn’t help but think they should be in the more populated areas, stopping people from doing stupid things and attending to the kids who have been bitten.

You can skirt around the exterior of the pura dalem and admire the bas reliefs

You can skirt around the exterior of the pura dalem and admire the bas reliefs

Frieze frame

Frieze frame

We circled back to the Great Temple of Death, bummed that tourists aren’t allowed to enter the temple grounds. We skirted around the exterior, though, peeking over the wall to see the courtyard within.

The Great Temple of Death inside the Monkey Forest isn’t open to tourists

The Great Temple of Death inside the Monkey Forest isn’t open to tourists

Another trail leads away from the temple, and we followed this down to another area of the nature preserve.

En route, we passed a woman squatting down to allow a monkey to climb onto her lap. When it started tugging at her braid, we had to go. We weren’t in the mood to see yet another person get bitten.

When you’re ready for the monkey to get off you, it might not be — and if you force it to move, you’ll probably end up getting bitten

When you’re ready for the monkey to get off you, it might not be — and if you force it to move, you’ll probably end up getting bitten

We ended up walking through a creepy tunnel lit by an eerie purple and green light. I kept praying we wouldn’t encounter any primates in that dark expanse, and thankfully, we did not.

The entrances to the tunnel by the parking lot sport giant faces

The entrances to the tunnel by the parking lot sport giant faces

The tunnel led to a parking lot, so we had to double back and head through it again. We followed a sign that pointed to a cremation temple and found ourselves at another end of the sanctuary, wary of a pack of monkeys nearby but eager to explore the small pura dalem. We couldn’t enter this temple of death, either, but admired the demonic statuary, while keeping an eye out for roving macaques.

The cemetery near the smaller temple of death is where bodies remain before a mass cremation, which takes place every five years

The cemetery near the smaller temple of death is where bodies remain before a mass cremation, which takes place every five years

At this point, we figured we had seen everything we could and decided to leave the Monkey Forest the same way we had come. We were on the home stretch, the exit about 100 yards away, when a particularly brazen monkey made a jump for Duke’s tote bag. He turned away, clutching it tightly to his body. The monkey made some rude noises and gestures to show its displeasure. But we were safe at last, having emerged from this ordeal with a healthy fear of monkeys. –Wally

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkey see, monkey do

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Jalan Monkey Forest
Ubud, Kabupaten
Gianyar
Bali 80571, Indonesia

I was in a mild state of terror the entire time I was at the sanctuary.

17 Surprising Things About Brazil

From the bizarre beach culture of Rio to the urban sprawl of Sao Paulo, here’s a list of things that will shock you about Brazil travel.

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

“What drew you to Brazil?” I asked first off. I’m always interested in knowing what draws people to destinations. The exoticism of Southeast Asia and Morocco appeal to Duke and me, but we have yet to visit South America together.

“Cheap airfare,” my friend Ben replied without a moment’s hesitation. He and his boyfriend Derrick subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights, a mailing list that informs you of airline deals. It’s well worth paying $30 a year for the premium version.

(I signed us up, and we’ve already received a few emails that have inspired us try to figure out a creative way to use a long weekend.)

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.

Ben pointed out that within 24 hours of booking, airlines are required by law to refund your money, unless it’s within seven days of the flight. So you call jump on a good price — and back out the next day if you’d like.

“We booked three trips almost immediately: Japan, Brazil and Spain,” he said, “And it all cost less than our trip to Australia the year before.” The trip to Brazil ran them only about $400.

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

Neither of them had been to South America before, and “another upside was that it was their summer and our winter,” Derrick said.

The fellas stayed about five days in Rio and two and a half in São Paulo.

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

They chose a different neighborhood each day, deciding upon a site or two to see — like the steps where Michael Jackson danced in the controversial “They Don’t Care About Us” music video, directed by Spike Lee, for instance — and then wandered around.

Here are their observations about Brazil, a country they found to be more complicated than they ever imagined.

 

1. Rio has a huge beach culture — but hardly anyone lays out or goes swimming.

People flock to the beaches in Rio, where they engage in athletic activities: volleyball, soccer or paddleball.

“But almost nobody goes in the water,” Derrick said. “It’s not the thing to do.”

“People aren’t laying down,” Ben added. “They’re all standing, and maybe sitting a little bit.”

The beaches are very large, but after you walk about five minutes, you’ve got the gist, because it repeats itself, Derrick said.

There’s a pretty black and white tiled path that runs the entire length of the seaside. And all along it, you have different restaurants and vendors, where you can get, say, a 5-pound coconut.

The waterfront is divided into different sectors, called postos. Each is known for different things, Ben says: One might be where the models hang out, one’s where the gay guys are, and another’s for families.

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

2. It’s super cheap to drink in Rio.

By the sidewalk are the officially sanctioned snack kiosks, but as you go 100 yards or so onto the sand, you get unofficial tents setups, or guys with insulated backpacks peddling fried cheese, beer and drugs. A lot of people had caipirinha-making kits, and you could buy a drink from them for $3.

A bottle of cachaça, a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice that’s the national drink of Brazil, could be bought at a store for $2.

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

3. Christ the Redeemer could be lost in the clouds.

When Ben and Derrick went, the 125-foot-tall statue of Jesus that overlooks Rio atop Mount Corcovado was shrouded in fog the entire time they were there. Be sure you take advantage of a clear day and see the sites that are on the 1,000-foot-high rocky outcroppings above the city.

The 125-foot-tall statue stands atop the massive granite dome of Corcovado hill and, since its erection in 1931 has become one of the most famous landmarks in the world.

You take an incline railway up Corcovado. “As we were going up, we were like, still nice, still nice — and then, bam! Fog,” Ben says.

It killed them a bit that they couldn’t get the iconic money shot — but to make themselves feel better, they joked that it was like “seeing Jesus in Heaven.”

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

4. Brazilians are beautiful — and parade around in next to nothing.

They’ll go from the beach to a food stall, wearing a speedo, shoulder shawl and flip-flops. They all wear Havaianas, the super-trendy, colorful plastic flip-flops created by a Scotsman in 1962.

 

5. But the people aren’t all that friendly.

For a city with a reputation as a party city, Ben and Derrick didn’t find the locals to be that outgoing.

“I’d always been under the impression that Brazilians were super nice, super willing to engage in conversation, that if they recognize an outsider, they’ll talk to them, but that wasn’t the case,” Ben says.

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

6. The crime is, unfortunately, as bad as advertised.

When they got to their hotel, they were given cards with the hotel’s contact info and were told to leave their wallet and everything else locked in the room’s safe when they left the premises. “Carry this card and a copy of your passport, and that’s it,” Derrick advised.

They took what money they felt they needed and kept it in their front pockets. “Don’t take out more than you can afford to lose,” Ben said.

“It was a bummer,” he continued, “because I love taking pictures, and my go-to mode is walking around with my camera. Everything I read said, take a photo and then put your camera away immediately in a nondescript bag.

“One afternoon we went out, and within five minutes of leaving the hotel, this guy tapped me on the shoulder and told me, ‘You need to put that away. Don’t have it out,’” Ben said.

He did feel fine using a cellphone as a camera, though. Just don’t draw too much attention to yourself, he added. Expert tip: Use your work phones — just in case they do get stolen, heh heh.

A lot of banks don’t even let you access their interior ATMs after 8 p.m. because of the fear that people will force you to withdraw money, Ben said.

Derrick moved the money he planned to spend on the trip from his checking account into a savings account.

“There’s definitely a feeling of crime,” Derrick says. Someone told them not to have bags facing the streets because bikers could ride by and swipe them.

Kids beg for money, and it’s the second-highest country in terms of child prostitution, next to Thailand, Ben informed me. (He does his research.)

Both of their Kindles got stolen out of their hotel room — the one thing they didn’t put in the safe.

 

7. Brazil is an extremely sexual country.

Prostitutes are everywhere, especially in São Paulo. “You get propositioned all the time,” Derrick says.

There are bathhouses for days, along with love hotels, similar to those found in Japan.

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

8. Rio didn’t get rid of its favelas (the slums built into the hillsides) for the Olympics.

Instead, they’ve had the police go in and take control, Ben said. “It’s like going into a war zone,” he added: police in body armor, SWAT vehicles, guns. They’re trying to drive out the drug dealers and crime lords.

Thousands upon thousands of people live in these communities, and they don’t have running water all the time or reliable electricity.

“They’re very vibrant communities, but are riddled with crime and corruption,” Ben said. The pieced-together shacks are, ironically, very brightly colored and pretty.

“Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts,” Ben said. “You can see the favela as you pass the Maserati dealership. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.”

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

9. Rideshare companies like Lyft are a convenient way to get around.

Ben and Derrick have found rideshare apps to be a better option in many parts of the world than taxis — some of which can be corrupt. This way, you’re going through an app, your route is mapped out, and no money exchanges hands.

“Brazil is a country where you definitely don’t want to rent a car,” Ben advised. “They have one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities.” (I told you he does his research.)

“Stop signs are suggestions,” Derrick added. “And so are stoplights.”

“There’s a lot of honking and screaming,” Ben said.

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

10. There are some neighborhoods in Rio you can explore during the day — that turn into wild parties at night.

One day, the boys wandered through Lapa — a neighborhood in central Rio that’s easily identifiable by the aqueduct. Then they took the historic tram up the hill to Santa Teresa, a charming artists’ community. There’s an old mansion that burned down that’s now an art event space.  

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

They also checked out Lapa at night, and saw about 300 people hanging out in the Shell gas station parking lot. This is known as the bohemian and samba district. “People are dancing right in the streets. It’s mayhem,” Ben said.

Lapa is directly downhill from a favela, and there’s a lot of pickpocketing on weekends.

A local girl told them that she survived Carnaval without getting anything stolen cuz she had a fanny pack that she wore under her clothes.

“While I’m sure that tourists are more targeted, it also happens to Brazilians,” Ben said.

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

11. You’ll see monkeys running around everywhere in Rio.

They’re marmosets and they’re cute and like to scamper over power lines. From Ben and Derrick’s experience, they’re didn’t seem dangerous.

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

12. There’s not a lot to do in São Paulo.

Despite being the most populous and geographically largest city in all of South America, São Paulo doesn’t offer much for the tourist, according to Ben and Derrick.

“Unless you want to eat really good food and drink really well, there’s not a lot to do during the day,” Ben explained.

Of course, they did find a couple of cool museums to explore: MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand) and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.

Altarpiece No. 1-3  by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

Altarpiece No. 1-3 by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

13. São Paulo is like the gritty parts of New York — but without the visual appeal.

It’s one rundown, dirty storefront after another, Ben said. Mile after mile of urban sprawl.

They would be walking around and feel safe, and then turn onto a street that felt super sketchy. It was block-by-block.

 

14. There’s a shoe shine scam to watch out for.

In a scam that’s even used here in Chicago, a man will approach you, squat down and smear something all over your shoes. “It looked like a brown sugar mixture,” Ben said.

Then the man will make a big deal about the mess will start to clean it up — wanting, of course, to be paid about $30 for his trouble.

When this happened to the fellas and they declined, the man stood there, cursing them out.

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

15. The cuisine consists of lots of meat and lots of beans.

Beef, cow, goat and seafood are omnipresent. Vegetables? Not so much.

You might want to try a dish Brazil is famous for: feijoada, a stew loaded with different types of slowly braised meat that takes five days to make.

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

16. Distances can be deceptive in São Paulo.

You can look at a map and think, That’s not too far away — and it’ll end up being an hour Lyft ride, Derrick explained.

Ben’s friend told him that it takes about three hours to drive from one end of the city to the other.

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

17. Overall, Brazil is a difficult country to navigate.

Ben and Derrick have traveled all over the world — and they found Brazil to be one of the more confusing countries. “If you don’t know somebody, if you’re not part of a tour group, if you don’t travel a lot, or if you’re not street smart, it definitely requires a higher level of awareness,” according to Ben.

“In a lot of ways, our trip to Brazil was unremarkable. Brazil is really about being in the moment, taking advantage of what’s there,” Ben said.

“Yah, if you’re a person who likes to go go go, or go out at a reasonable hour, Brazil’s not the place for you,” Derrick concluded. –Wally

Batu Caves: A Hindu Pilgrimage Site Infested With Monkeys

Brave the steps, stench and wild macaques at one of the most interesting Kuala Lumpur attractions.

The Batu Caves is a major pilgrimage site just to the north of Kuala Lumpur

The Batu Caves is a major pilgrimage site just to the north of Kuala Lumpur

The first thing you notice when you visit the Batu Caves — aside from the giant gold statue and all the monkeys — is the smell. It’s a pungent mixture of body odor, guano and garbage, all stewing in the oppressive Malaysian heat.

Hindu shrines are built into the limestone cliffs

Hindu shrines are built into the limestone cliffs

What are the Batu Caves?

This site, nine and a half miles north of Kuala Lumpur (often shortened to KL), has been a place of worship for Hindus for over a century. The limestone hills are 400 million or so years old and were once shelters for the indigenous Temuan people.

The Batu Caves are described as the most holy Hindu temple outside of India.

During the Thaipusam Festival, hooks and skewers pierce the skin, cheeks and tongues of penitents. Eww.
A depiction of Kamadhenu, the Mother of All Cows

A depiction of Kamadhenu, the Mother of All Cows

Hindu statues tend to be awash in bright colors

Hindu statues tend to be awash in bright colors

The iconography around the site can be a bit of a shock — especially if you've never visited a Hindu shrine before. Churches tend to be less flamboyant, even those awash in a gilded glory. And mosques are often understated, austere, devoid of excess ornamentation, in part because of the absence of statues — Muslims believe it’s sacrilege to portray their holy personages.

Not so Hindus. In fact, you'll find numerous statues of their deities and the animals associated with them throughout the Batu Caves. They're painted in bright rainbow colors. This was the first time I had seen this style of Hindu statuary. It surprised me how cartoonish the bizarre figures were. It struck me as more of something to decorate a theme park than a temple.

At the base of the stairs, vendors sells floral offerings to the gods

At the base of the stairs, vendors sells floral offerings to the gods

Food and flower vendors peddle their wares at the base of a dauntingly long set of stairs.

To reach the main cave, you have to climb a lot of steps — 272, to be exact

To reach the main cave, you have to climb a lot of steps — 272, to be exact

Duke and Fatima found that going down was a lot easier than going up

Duke and Fatima found that going down was a lot easier than going up

Maybe the smell got to be too much for Vanessa, though our hostess Angie, who lived in KL, seems used to it

Maybe the smell got to be too much for Vanessa, though our hostess Angie, who lived in KL, seems used to it

How many steps are there?

272. In fact, they’re numbered for your convenience, though I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Everything in the caves is cast in an eerie yellow glow

Everything in the caves is cast in an eerie yellow glow

What’s inside the caves?

The reward at the top of the stairs is Cathedral Cave, the main cavern. You’ll find various shrines to Hindu deities scattered throughout the interior. There’s nothing impressive about the shrines; they’re quite small and, if I’m being honest, sad-looking.

In one nook of Cathedral Cave, a man wore a snake

In one nook of Cathedral Cave, a man wore a snake

A lizard lounging in the caves

A lizard lounging in the caves

Small groups of worshippers sit in rows in front of the shrines, and when we visited, there was a man with a snake around his neck and a large lizard perched on a stick.

The artificial lighting casts an eerie, jaundiced glow to everything.

We only explored the main cavern, though there are other caves at the foot of Batu Hill: Art Gallery Cave and Museum Cave, which feature Hindu statues and paintings. The Ramayana Cave is a newer addition and is said to have psychedelic paintings and a 50-foot statue of the monkey god Hanuman (appropriate for a site teeming with his brethren).

The Batu Caves are popular with Hindu worshippers, especially during the Thaipusam Festival, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend upon the temple

The Batu Caves are popular with Hindu worshippers, especially during the Thaipusam Festival, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend upon the temple

Who visits the Batu Caves?

The caves are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Kuala Lumpur area. It’s also a major pilgrimage site for Hindus during the festival of Thaipusam. The number of devotees who descend upon the Batu Caves is said to reach 1 million. I can’t even imagine how crowded and claustrophobic that would be — not to mention the gag-worthy stench.

Cows are revered in Hinduism

Cows are revered in Hinduism

What’s the Thaipusam Festival?

It’s held at the end of January or beginning of February, with a procession that starts in the evening at the Sri Mariamman Temple in KL. Worshippers arrive at the Batu Caves in the wee hours of the morning.

It’s not unusual for Hindu deities to have multiple faces and arms

It’s not unusual for Hindu deities to have multiple faces and arms

To make the festival even more intense, the devotees carry large wood or steel frames called kavadis (literally, “burdens”) on their shoulders. They’re brightly colored, decorated with flowers and feathers and can weigh over 200 pounds. The kavadis carry offerings of containers of milk to Lord Muruga. Hooks and skewers attached to the kavadis pierce the skin, cheeks and tongues of those carrying them. Eww.

The gold statue of Lord Murugan rises 140 feet into the air

The gold statue of Lord Murugan rises 140 feet into the air

Who’s the huge statue of?

That’s Lord Murugan, the milk-loving young god of war in Hinduism. He’s the son of Shiva and Parvati, who meditated until a giant fireball formed that eventually became a baby with six faces. Primarily worshipped in Southern India, Murugan led an army of devas, or divine beings, in a successful battle against demons.

The statue stands 140 feet tall, its framework of steel bars and concrete covered by 300 liters of gold paint from Thailand that can be blinding in the sunlight.

Wild macaque monkeys roam the grounds of the Batu Caves

Wild macaque monkeys roam the grounds of the Batu Caves

What about those monkeys?

There are long-tailed macaques everywhere at the Batu Caves. They’re mangy-looking and can be quite aggressive in their scrounging for food. I don’t recommend getting too close to them — which is why I was somewhat horrified that Duke decided this was when he’d get over his fear of monkeys.

The monkeys at the caves rummage for food — be careful!

The monkeys at the caves rummage for food — be careful!

The macaques clamber about the stair railings and pick through the garbage that’s scattered throughout the complex.

Standing at the top of the steps on a hazy day, looking toward KL

Standing at the top of the steps on a hazy day, looking toward KL

How can I get there?

The KTM Komuter Train from KL Sentral downtown will take you right to the Batu Caves. –Wally

Batu Caves
Gombak
68100 Batu Caves
Selangor, Malaysia