Eli Orzessek makes a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves and then retreats to the sanctity of the mall.

This monkey, sitting on what looks like a carved melon, is the perfect selfie prop.

Climbing up the 272 stairs to the entrance of the Batu Caves is a sweaty pursuit, to say the least.

As I reach the halfway point, panting, I'm starting to realise why my tour guide opted to wait at the bottom.

One of the most popular Hindu sites outside India, the Batu Caves, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, are dedicated to Lord Murugan, who is represented by an immense statue that watches over the entrance to the steep staircase. At 42.7m high, this giant golden guard is the world's largest statue of the Hindu god of war.


He's an impressive figure. Other figures here are less imposing.

A macaque monkey resting on a pillar gives me a good excuse to stop — it's the first monkey I've seen up close in Kuala Lumpur and I'm going to photograph it . . . conveniently catching my breath at the same time.

But it's complicated. If there's one thing I've learned about the people here, it's that they really love taking selfies. And this monkey, sitting pensively on what looks like a carved melon, is the perfect selfie prop. So every time I try to take a picture of just the monkey, someone jumps in and poses in front of him.

My breath regathered and my monkey (plus random tourist) shot in the bag, I continue to the top of the stairs, which is almost 100m above the first step. The limestone shrine consists of three main caves and a few smaller ones.

The largest cave, located at the top of the staircase, is aptly nicknamed the Cathedral Cave, or the Temple Cave — with its high ceilings and colourful shrines, walking into this vast space is a religious experience in itself. Especially when you've worked so hard to get there.

The Hindu god of war watches over the entrance to the steep staircase that leads up to the Batu Caves. Photo / Kevin Tao
The Hindu god of war watches over the entrance to the steep staircase that leads up to the Batu Caves. Photo / Kevin Tao

Inside the Cathedral Cave, the Hindu faithful share the space with tourists — some of whom have had to hire garments to cover up before entering — as well as photographers waiting for the perfect light to shine on the shrines. And of course, more monkeys. This is where they congregate, hoping to score a snack off a willing — or unwilling — tourist.

Macaque mothers with tiny babies hanging off their underbellies are a particular hit with visitors and each time one wanders through the caves, there's a flutter of snapping shutters.

The caves are also popular with rock climbers; there are more than 160 climbing routes on offer. However, the stairs are enough of a climb for me and returning to the ground is also an awe-inspiring experience. Looking out from the entrance of the main cave gives a stunning view of Kuala Lumpur — although it would probably be a bit terrifying if you're scared of heights. While it doesn't bother me that much, I still make sure I'm aware of each step as I cautiously head back down.

After being out in the heat for the morning, I'm ready to make my own pilgrimage to a temple of another kind — the mall. Kuala Lumpur is known for great shopping, in particular its epic shopping malls.

I've been told Malaysians spend a lot of time in shopping malls because the air conditioning offers a respite from the heat and humidity. I decide to check out The Pavilion mega mall, a short monorail ride from KL Sentral train station — which is directly across the road from my hotel, Le Meridien, and happens to also be home to another mall.

I'm excited to ride the monorail — but also trying not to think of that Simpsons episode where the brand-new monorail goes out of control in Springfield — and it turns out to be a great way to see some more of the city, as it winds its way towards my destination.

During the six-minute walk from the station to the mall, I'm already fantasising about that air conditioning. Walking into the entrance and that refreshing wave of cool air is like another almost religious experience — with seven levels over a massive dining area, it's another type of cathedral.

With more than 450 shops on offer, it's also quite overwhelming. I use the opportunity to stock up on clothes at my favourite Japanese chain store Muji — noting that the Malaysian price is about half of what you'd find at the Sydney branch.

Malls can feel like you're in a different time zone and, before I know it, I've spent four hours wandering around — the last hour of which was spent failing to find somewhere to get a foot massage.

Luckily, on a later visit to KL Central Market — housed in a historic art deco wet market near Chinatown — I find a fish spa, where weary travellers can place their bare feet in a trough full of garro carp that nibble off the dead skin.

The woman behind the counter asks me, "big fish or little fish?" but one look at the larger fish and their big, sucky mouths has me scurrying to the little nippers. As I tentatively hover my feet above the water, they teem at the surface for a nibble. While it's extremely ticklish at first, you soon get used to the strange sensation — by the end of it, I was opening up my toes so they could have a go at a blister.

One evening, I decide to return to the church of the Pavilion for a meal in the food court — it looked pretty incredible on my first visit, but I was overwhelmed. However, there's another religious experience taking place when I return — an appearance by Korean actor Kim Rae Won, star of the drama series Doctors.

Where there once was a food court is a now a screaming mass of Malaysian teenage girls, with thousands of phones held high in the air. Even more are hanging over the edges of mezzanine levels. I'm a bit bummed out my dinner plans have been thwarted, but in this kind of situation, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em — so I get in among it and get a video for my Instagram.

Getting there: AirAsia X flies from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.

The caves are 13km north of Kuala Lumpur and can be reached by a short — and very cheap — train ride from the city.