4 Malaysian caving adventures

Malaysia is blessed with an extensive network of limestone caves, both on the main peninsula and in Borneo. Most were first surveyed in the last century, and some have been developed into important religious shrines for Hindus and Buddhists in Malaysia. The popular caverns that don’t have a cultural angle are famous for their sheer size. The more rugged caves are located in national parks and can be explored on guided tours. In some cases, you can book spelunking adventures from the nearest cities.

Malaysia’s ‘caving adventure’ scene is still in its infancy, but that’s a major part of the attraction. Tours are well-planned, but there are moments in which you’ll feel like you’re part the charter group of explorers.

These are some of the best-known caves in Malaysia:

Batu Caves
Only seven miles north of Kuala Lumpur, Batu Caves are Malaysia’s most accessible. They are part of a network – three larger caverns and a few smaller ones – and they host a troupe of monkeys. You can buy peanuts and bananas from local vendors, but be warned. These primates are con artists, and they’re not above snatching your purse or satchel to see if you’re holding out.

The entrance to Batu Caves.

The entrance to Batu Caves. Pic: Redtigerxyz, Wikimedia Commons.

The caves double as a sacred Hindu grotto, with shrines and temples on site. Early every year, hundreds of thousands of Hindus flock to the caves for the Thaipusm festival. The festival falls on the tenth month of the Hindu lunar calendar and usually takes place in late January, though the actual dates vary.

If you’re lucky enough to be in KL for the festival, you can join the processional at Sri Mariamman Temple in the city center. Devotees carry burdens (usually a symbolic, brightly colored jug) that are connected to their bodies by hooked piercings.

Perak Tong
Another sacred cave, Perak Tong attracts Chinese Buddhists rather than Hindus. There are actually 30 caves located in the area around Ipoh, but this is the most famous. Buddhist priest Chong Sen Yee started the development here in the 1920s and contributed some of the murals and calligraphy on the walls.

A mural on the walls of Perak Cave, Malaysia.

A mural on the walls of Perak Cave, Malaysia. Pic: Hannah 50, Wikimedia Commons.

This is a complex network of limestone caverns. Shrines and altars abound, reflecting an eclectic fusion of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist influence. The latter is borne out of the Buddhist beliefs that arrived on the peninsula several centuries ago, while the former arrived with Chinese merchants and laborers during the British colonial era.

Enter the main cavern and you’ll find a flight of stairs behind the central altar. This winds deeper into the cavern and ultimately delivers you to an opening on the opposite hillside. Continue on and you’ll reach a pavilion overlooking Ipoh and environs. In all, something like 450 stairs will deliver your to this vantage point.

Deer Cave
Leave the grottos of Peninsula Malaysia and head to Borneo for something a bit more rugged and raw. Just outside of Miri in Sarawak, Deer Cave is a gaping cavern that was first surveyed in the 1960s. Tour guides like to point out that the main chamber is big enough to accommodate London’s St Paul’s Cathedral – five of them, actually. Needless to say, the journey inside is a scaled-up exercise in humility.

Deer Cave is the star attraction of Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is Borneo at its unspoiled finest. To visit the caves, join a tour group at the park’s headquarters in the early afternoon before setting out on a two-mile trek on a gangway through the forest. Tourists aren’t allowed to visit by themselves, but this is part of what preserves the forest’s rugged edge.

While you’re in park, consider stopping by Gua Nasib Bagus (Good Luck Cave) as well. It houses the largest known underground chamber in the world.

Gomantong Cave

Another Borneo attraction, Gomantong Cave lies in the Malaysian state of Sabah in a rainforest reserve. The closest major city is Sandakan, and getting here requires two hours’ transport, one way. With that in mind, a proper visit takes the whole day.

Gomantong Cave, Malaysia

Gomantong Cave, Malaysia: Pic: Laura, Wikimedia Commons.

Gomantong Cave is famous for its colony of swifts, which fuel the highly lucrative bird’s nest soup industry. Time your visit just right (late March or early September), and you’ll see men scaling 300-foot scaffolding to collect nests from the cave walls. The bird’s nest soup craze is one of China’s more sustainable culinary pursuits. Nests are collected before any eggs are laid, and the parents just end up building another one.

The luckiest visitors may spot an orangutan in the area.

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