Why you should care
If you’re a climber and you haven’t scaled Nyamuk, you’re missing out.
Winding up at a Malay wedding in a village close to the Batu Caves, dressed in Adidas running pants and a zip hood … it’s not how I thought the afternoon would pan out after joining a local climbing group in Kuala Lumpur and completing one of the most challenging climbs of my life. But that’s the Malaysian tradition of hospitality, boleh (“can-do”), an attitude of a carefree spirit. It’s there waiting for you even at the top of one of Malaysia’s best-kept secrets.
The Batu Caves, a collection of limestone grottoes, are a spiritual and historical mecca for many — they’re one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. But what many don’t know is that, hidden close by, the area is home to eight stunning gorgeous limestone faces. And there are no crowds or revelers to compete with as you ascend.
All of that limestone forming the Batu Caves is around 400 million years old. But it wasn’t until 1891, when an Indian merchant saw the value in making a Hindu place of worship here, that the space became a destination. In 1921, steps were built to help pilgrims up to the 400-foot-high temple cave. Today, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 daily visitors, plus 1.5 million during the Hindu festival Thaipusam, come to see it.
But those 272 steps are not near enough altitude for some. And that’s where the climbing comes in. From the Murugan Temple, which can be seen from the highway — it has the commanding golden statue of Lord Murugan at its feet — it’s a 1.5-mile walk or cab ride to the faces. Follow the perimeter of the caves eastward and one of the more popular walls, Damai, is off Jalan Fairuz (street).
Batu is one of the best places to climb in Malaysia for its sheer variety of routes, in terms of difficulty, number and distance.
The eight climbing faces have an estimated 170 routes, ranging from novice to expert. Damai wall is the best for novices. It’s where I grappled with several of around 30 routes, which are wonderfully cracked and pocketed and fall just short of the top, where expanses of forested jungle sit 300 feet above the ground. But you’re likely to see more groups around Nyamuk wall, one of the biggest and most varied crags, which has around 50 routes, including the longest and hardest route, named IMM (Integrated Mosquito Management), an 8a+ rated 131-foot climb with 15 bolts (these are anchors fixed into the wall that the rope feeds into).
“How big the mosquitoes were, oh my God,” recalls Annie Semmelroth of her journey up Nyamuk. “That’s where we did the multi-pitch wall.” Avid climbers and owners of Stone Adventures, a climbing center in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Semmelroth and her husband, Aaron Stockhausen, only recently visited Malaysia after hearing about Batu while climbing in Ton Sai Beach, Thailand, a world-renowned climbing destination. They were drawn by the promise of the same limestone rock that produces deep pockets, steep walls, stalagmites and stalactites as in Ton Sai, but without the crowds and the partying. And they really loved it, says Semmelroth, other than when Stockhausen was hissed back down from the face of Training Day by a surprised snake.
What they found was what locals have known for years. Batu is one of the best places to climb in Malaysia for its sheer variety of routes, in terms of difficulty, number and distance. The rock provides excellent crags to explore and get to grips with. There are quieter areas to focus on your ascent. The barely touched natural scenery of white limestone and rich green forest provide for stunning surroundings — which you can witness via a panoramic view once you reach the top.
For those looking for a more organized experience, there are a couple of climbing companies available, which also offer courses. Otherwise, the area is a free-for-all — just bring your own rope, harnesses, carabiners and climbing shoes. At Damai wall, you can even go up barefoot if, like me, you hate the pinch of rock-traversing footwear. As you climb, some of the local kids may well join you dressed in their saris and baju kurung.
You can also arrange a small or informal group through a platform like Meetup or Facebook and share the costs of equipment. There’s also the benefit of belaying with more experienced climbers who can help you navigate the topos around the walls. The caveat? They may well take you to a local wedding they promised they’d drop by.
Go There: Climbing at the Batu Caves
- How to get there: From Kuala Lumpur, take a free shuttle bus to Sentul Station and then the Komuter train (less than $1) to the caves. From there, you can walk for 1.5 miles or get a taxi for under 10 RM ($2.40).
- Pro tip: Bring a brush to clean the chalk off the routes when you’re done with the climb to preserve the natural beauty of the stone and stop the hold getting too slippery.