Climbing in Malaysia: A Journey through South East Asia

Malaysia sits in a beautiful part of the world, with the country split between two areas, one on the Malay peninsula and the other on the island of Borneo. Malaysia is well known for its delicious cuisine and being one of the most culturally diverse countries in South East Asia. Rock climbing in Malaysia has been established for some time, with historical routes going back several decades. We chose Malaysia as the starting point for our trip to South East Asia, the country has a lot going for it and the climbing is high quality. As the next leg of our journey would take us northwards to Thailand, we spent all of our time in Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysian Borneo is famous for its mountains and is home to Mount Kinabalu, the countries highest mountain at 4,095 meters. However, the peninsular contains the greatest density of sport routes as well as many mountains of its own, with several over 2,000 meters.

Looking out of limestone cliff with tufas dripping from the steep roof. Looking out over the rice paddies with some jungle covered mountains in the background.
Amazing rock at Bukit Keteri

Weather and Climbing Conditions

Malaysia is an equatorial region with a tropical climate, Kuala Lumpur sits only 350 km away from the equator. The weather is hot, humid and often wet. The monsoon seasons in Peninsular Malaysia vary a lot depending on where you are. The eastern side of the peninsular has its monsoon season from October to March, while the western side has its monsoon season from May to October. The climbing areas we visited were all in the western side.

Despite these seasons, the conditions on the western half of the peninsular are reasonably consistent throughout the year. Malaysia’s equatorial location means the temperatures and humidity don’t fluctuate that much throughout the year. The rain is also very different to that of northern climates, in Malaysia the rain usually arrives in the early evening and lasts for an hour or two, but it is extremely heavy. Unlike Northern Europe were it can rain for days on ends, there are normally plenty of dry hours each day for you to get out and about before the rain comes. When the rain does come you won’t want to go out in it!

Tree trunk with bobbled, green jackfruit growing out the side of it.
One benefit of the tropical climate is you get amazing fruit, such as this jackfruit

For climbers the conditions are sub optimal and if you come from a northern climate it will take a lot of getting used to. We drank over 2 litres of water per person when at the crag for ~5 hours. If you are at all exposed to the sun then remember to wear sun cream and wherever there are trees you will need insect repellent, specifically for mosquitos. One of the best pieces of advice we read was to take an old towel to dry your sweat off, we found it invaluable. After a climbing session it is preferable to have a wash and change your clothes before you do anything else…we were so sweaty and smelly we felt we couldn’t inflict it on anyone else! One small surprise was that despite the heat and humidity, our skin didn’t wear out as quickly as we thought. A lot of the rock is smooth flow stone and while it feels greasy it isn’t sharp or taxing on the tips.

Small group of monkeys sat in a white limestone cave high up in the climb taking in the view
Monkeys hanging out and enjoying the view at Bukit Keteri

Guidebooks

There is a guidebook called Climb Malaysia, which contains the majority of routes in the areas we visited, bar some recent developments. However, as far as we can tell the book is out of print and the last edition is from 2007, some 15 years ago. We tried to buy the guide, but we couldn’t find it available anywhere. Some friendly locals at Gua Damai Extreme Park let us have a look at their copy of the book, but they didn’t know where to get hold of it either.

The best source of topos and informations for climbing in Malaysia is The Crag. Almost all of the routes in the country are listed on The Crag and quite a large number of areas have photo topos which can be accessed for free. We found the information on there to be well detailed and frequently updated, it covers pretty much everything you would need as a visitor to the area. Sometimes it can be useful to cross reference with Mountain Project, although it has less extensive coverage.

Climbing Areas

Batu Caves Area

The most popular climbing area in Malaysia is close to the famous Batu caves, it is actually on the same mountain, but there isn’t any climbing at the caves themselves. The area is in the northern suburbs of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. There are around 270 routes here, spread over several different crags. There is a good spread of grades throughout the area, with anything from 4 to 8b+.

Orange white limestone cliff around 70 metres tall with black strikes. There is a yellow staircase leading up to a cave half way up the cliff.  On the left there's a small cave with a massive boulder chockstone jammed in the back.
The main wall at Gua Damai Extreme Park

By far the most popular sector is the Damai wall, which lies within the Gua Damai Extreme Park. The park manages the climbing here and there is a small fee to climb of 10 Malaysian Ringgit (~€2), it is cheaper for locals. The popularity of the crag is down to easy access and modest grades, with 54 of the 61 routes being below 6c. Damai has some nice short pitches and a handful of better, longer pitches in the low 6th grade, some of which have 2 or 3 pitch extensions.

Climber bridging between a tufa and the wall on orange and white limestone
The classic 6a ‘Bad News’

Initially we thought the crag wouldn’t be worth a visit, but upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur, we had a change of heart! The proximity to the equator gives very high temperatures and humidity, so for our first time climbing in Malaysia we decided to take it easy and try to adapt to the weather, which turned out to be both a wise and necessary decision. Damai is popular with beginners and groups so expect it to get busy at peak times with ropes up on many of the shorter, easier routes. It is common for people in KL to climb indoors a lot, and many people who have been climbing indoors for a while have their first outdoor experience at Damai. We found Damai to be a nice place to meet local climbers and find out about other climbing areas and things to do nearby.

Clean vertical limestone cliff at Nyamuk in Kuala Lumpur city.
Beautiful rock at Nyamuk

The best crag in the Batu area is Nyamuk, which means mosquito in Malaysian…bring some repellent! Nyamuk has lots to choose from in the mid 6 to mid 7 grade range, including some multipitches. There are just under a hundred routes here in total. The rock at Nyamuk is great quality, lots of lovely textured tufas and flowstone full of unique features. Nyamuk is surrounded by trees at the bottom so it can get very humid and the routes seemed slower to dry than those at Damai. However, Nyamuk is a much quieter crag which is mainly visited from active local climbers that have projects there, rather than any first timers. We thought Nyamuk was an impressive crag, with high quality rock, plenty of great routes and a nice location considering its urban setting.

Climber using the tufas on the bottom of the wall with the face extending upwards
The superb, long and varied ‘chess’, 7a, at Nyamuk wall

The other main crag in the area is Nanyang, which is a cool looking wall with some beautifully striped orange and cream coloured limestone. Nanyang appears to get much less climbing activity than the other areas and the location is quite odd. The crag is near some sort of water/sewage treatment works and is also near several miscellaneous buildings, behind a car park. There are 34 routes here from 5c to 7c, some of which are amazing lines, others are short and barely 8 meters long. There are two other small crags nearby, Comic wall and Roadshadow wall, both of which seemed quite neglected, even compared to Nanyang. Ultimately, this part of Batu is worth knowing about, but unless you’re based in the area for a long time then we would recommend visiting Nyamuk and Damai instead.

Short and steep limestone wall covered in tufas. Some of the tufas are free hanging.
Cool rock at Nanyang

Bukit Takun

Bukit Takun is an impressive mountain, just outside Kuala Lumpur and around 15km from Batu Caves. One of the things that makes Bukit Takun so interesting is its geology. It is predominantly limestone but it sits atop a granite base, with routes often climbing the first half on granite and the second on limestone. One great example is a route that climbs a granite dihedral in its first half, but the karsty limestone above has seeped calcium rich water down the back of the corner, forming flow stone and tufas. You quite literally climb with your handholds on limestone and your footholds on granite, adding an extra dimension of quality to the route.

Climber bridging at the start of the crack which climber the corner where two walls meet at Bukit Takun.
Climbing a quality 6b at sector Granite Base

Bukit Takun is a big crag, with only a small amount of the potential currently developed. This isn’t surprising when you imagine how hard it would be to clean and bolt routes here. Currently there are around 150 routes, ranging from 4a to 8c. The crag is considered to have some of the best mulitpitch climbing in Malaysia and has routes up to 9 pitches long. The rock across the crag is superb, although occasionally the routes have been somewhat reclaimed by the jungle. Multipitching here requires a bit more thought than in other places, you will need to carry plenty of water to deal with the heat and be prepared for any sudden downpours. We got caught out in torrential rain and we were only saved by some steep rock above the belay giving us a tiny bit of cover. Rain like this can come in with very little notice and we found the weather on the day often bared little resemblance to the forecast.

Pure white limestone cliff which massive dripping tufas and a distinct crack splitting the wall apart
A stunning 6c line at Bukit Takun

Another thing that makes Bukit Takun so special is its location in the jungle, and we really mean jungle! There are primates swinging through the tree canopy and screeching, massive beetles flying around, insects everywhere and a stunning variety of plants. Although it only takes around 20 minutes from leaving the dead end road to arriving at the crag, it is amazing what nature can achieve given some space and the right conditions. Of course, this is a far cry from a journey through the Amazon. However, for us this is a great example of what makes climbing so special. We went to this crag just with the intention of climbing some routes, but by happy accident we got to experience some beautiful flora and fauna.

Climber with green helmet under a steep section of rock at Bukit Takun
Adapting to the heat on ‘Cita Con Zita’, 5c

The crag sits at the back of posh gated community and before you climb you must sign in with the security guards at the entrance. The guards are very friendly and happy to see you, it is also interesting to see the book as you will know how much climbing activity has gone on recently. The housing estate is quite unobtrusive and you soon forget it exists once you have started the approach to the crag. Part of the local etiquette and access agreement is that climbers will leave before dark so as not to disturb the residents, take this into account when planning your day.

Bukit Keteri

Bukit Keteri is an amazing pair of mogotes, rising out of the rice paddies like the humps of a Bactrian camel. The crag is situated in a semi rural setting and has really straightforward access whilst still maintaining a nice atmosphere. There are 59 routes at Bukit Keteri ranging from 4a to 8c+ and there is a pretty even spread throughout the grades. Of the two stunning walls, only the one on the left (as you approach from the road) has been developed. The wall on the right is absolutely incredible, and unless access is restricted, is bound to be a future gem.

Two limestone cliffs erupting from the ground. The cliff in the background is grey with a white section in the middle and is heavily featured with vertical cut outs and tufas. 
In the foreground is the climbing area at Bukit Keteri which has some eye like caves in the upper half.
Enormous potential at Bukit Keteri

The rock at Bukit Keteri is really nice and climbs on a variety of features like compact grey stone with water worn pockets, tufas, flowstone and runnels. The crag has a really unique shape with lots of caves that are connected with several passages, some of which contain a lot of bats! There is a ‘Via Ferrata’ that climbs a rickety wooden ladder, taking you to the upper tier where you can explore the crag and you will probably find a troop of monkeys chilling out on a ledge.

Climber on white pocketed limestone using water eroded runnels for hand holds and extending right leg outwards for balance.
Climbing the quality and technical ‘Fay’, 6b

Bukit Keteri sits in the very north of peninsular Malaysia, near the town of Kangar, close to the border with Thailand. It is a really nice part of the country, much less frequented by tourists or anyone other than those briefly passing through. The location is also extremely convenient for anyone travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand as the road more or less passes by the crag.

Limestone cliff covered in vegetation and caves. In the background is another cliff raising up from the flat rice paddies.
Beautiful rock at Bukit Keteri

Bukit Jernih 

Just down the road from Bukit Keteri is another impressive Mogote, visible in the distance of the photo above. The mountain has a huge and very impressive face that has been ascended before, although there aren’t any documented routes on it. The earliest ascents are said to have been from locals collecting bat guano from a cave on the face for use as fertiliser. The sport routes here are around the corner at a small overhanging sector with some tufas and interesting cave passages. The routes themselves aren’t great quality and the routes at Bukit Keteri are much better. However it is an interesting place to visit and there is a campsite near the crag.

Large cliff of orange and gray rock in a hump shape.
The impressive main wall of Bukit Jernih

Rest Day Activities

Batu Caves

The Batu Caves is one of the most well known attractions in Malaysia and for good reason. The caves have many interesting aspects, with a giant gold statue of Murugan over 42 meters tall and a very steep set of 272 steps that takes you to the impressive Temple Cave. The architecture of the rock is awesome and the caves would be worth visiting even if they were on their own. The fact that the area is home to several Hindu Temples makes it even more special. The caves are a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, particularly the Tamil people of Southern India and Sri Lanka, as Murugan (also known as Karttikeya) is considered to be the chief deity of the Tamils.

Large golden statue of Murugan, an ancient Hindu God towering over a colourful set of stairs leading to the temple cave at Batu Caves in the side of a large limestone cliff.
The statue of Murugan and the stairs leading to the Batu Caves

It seemed that most non Hindu visitors didn’t enter the temples and only walked around the caves, which is a great shame. We thoroughly enjoyed going inside the temples which was one of the best and most authentic parts of our visit to Batu. The people inside were happy to see us and share their space with us, just remember to follow basic etiquette like dressing appropriately, removing your footwear and not taking photos in certain areas. If you take your time walking around the area you can begin to learn more about Hinduism, which is a complex and fascinating religion. There are other places of interest nearby such as the Ramayana Cave, which contains statues depicting the ancient epic poem of Rama, which contains an astounding 24,000 verses!

Set inside the cave is a large colourful temple with a door and behind is a set of stairs leading to another temple in a cave with an opening in the ceiling allowing light to flood in.
The amazing Temple Cave at Batu

Visit a Market

There are loads of great markets to visit in Malaysia, where you can pick up high quality local produce, street food and all sorts of different goods. If you are in Kuala Lumpur then we would really recommend the Chow Kit market as the perfect place to get an authentic experience and good prices. The two most popular markets in Kuala Lumpur are Petaling Street and Central Market, which we visited but wouldn’t recommend as they were quite touristy and a little bit rubbish. By comparison Chow Kit was perfect and had a completely different atmosphere. If you are in other parts of Malaysia, such as Kangar (near Bukit Keteri), then you will find plenty of great markets and street food vendors and you won’t have to be so concerned with them being touristic as you would in Kuala Lumpur.

Piles of exotic fruit at the Chow Kit  market in Kuala Lumpur with the Malaysian flags behind.
A stall selling Salak (Snake Fruit) in Chow Kit

Take in The Nature

There aren’t many places around that are as biodiverse as Malaysia. The vast quantity of animal and plant species is remarkable, you could study it for a lifetime and only cover a fraction of what’s there. The best way to see what it’s all about is to get off the beaten path, in the jungle, somewhere that not many people go. There are lots of minor hiking trails and paths throughout Malaysia, if you can avoid the popular routes you will see a lot more. Crowds of people and the disruption they bring can scare the wildlife away. Amazingly, Malaysia is home to the largest population of black panthers in the world. They are incredibly wily and well camouflaged, so you probably won’t see one and perhaps that is for the best! Instead you will see all kinds of amazing invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals. Walking on a jungle path that hasn’t been used for a year or more and has been partially reclaimed is quite an experience, an assault on the senses at first. This was actually one of the most enjoyable experiences we had in Malaysia, once we got over the arachnophobia! The symbiosis between the flora and fauna is blindingly evident in this environment and it really gives you an appreciation for the power of nature.

Small gecko balancing on a thin branch in the jungle
A startled jungle inhabitant

Of course there are many, many more things to do and see in Malaysia, those are just a few of the things we enjoyed and would recommend. We saw lots of great stuff during our 2 weeks in Malaysia, but above all we really enjoyed getting stuck into the climbing. We ended up spending so much time at the crag that a lot of rest days required a cold drink and staying still!

Food

Malaysian food is fantastic, full of amazing flavours and combinations. Use any time you have in Malaysia to eat as much local and traditional food as you can, for goodness sake do not be that westerner that eats pizza and pasta in Asia! Below we will mention a few of the best and most famous Malaysian dishes, but of course there are lots more. We couldn’t mention everything or we would run out of space!

Nasi Lemak is a beautifully flavourful rice dish, made by cooking rice in coconut milk and pandan leaves. Sometimes you see it wrapped in parcels, the leaf wrapping there is a banana leaf, not pandan. Pandan leaves are long, thin blade shaped leaves that wouldn’t work to contain rice. instead they are used when cooking to impart their fragrant flavour to the rice. Nasi Lemak is a staple in Malaysia and you can find it in pretty much any restaurant or street food vendor.

Sambal is a traditional accompaniment to Nasi Lemak, and the base of the dish is a chilli paste. There are many variations of Sambal, with other ingredients such as shrimp paste or galangal being added in varying amounts to change the flavour. One thing is for certain, Sambal packs a punch. We like spicy food, but even if you don’t you should try it and have it the way local people do, don’t change the nature of Sambal to try and make it less spicy. Although it goes great with Nasi Lemak, you can add sambal to a huge variety of dishes for that extra boost of heat and umami flavour.

Otak Otak is a grilled fish cake, but the fish is turned into a paste which gives the dish a very delicate and smooth texture. Herbs, spices and aromatics are ground down into the paste giving deliciously flavourful fish. The paste is wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled, which traps in the moisture and imparts more flavour to the fish.

Satay is a famous dish known to many, and found in several parts of southeast Asia including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. In Malaysia satay is made with chicken or beef, as a majority muslim country they do not eat pork. In Malaysia the meat is marinated and grilled, and served alongside a superb peanut dipping sauce. Best bought from a street vendor and eaten alongside Nasi Impit, which are cubes of compressed rice with a wonderful texture.

Summary

We really loved Malaysia and think it was a superb place to begin our trip in South East Asia. The climbing in Malaysia is very under hyped, many people on climbing trips in Thailand won’t have even considered Malaysia as an option and have never heard of the climbing areas on offer. This is a shame for Malaysian climbing, whose climbing scene would benefit from more visitors. However, the flip side is you can climb in peace and solitude at most of the venues, often the only other ‘climbers’ around are furry and have long tails! Aside from climbing, we found Malaysian people to be incredibly kind and friendly, some of the warmest and chattiest people we have met. The food is just as good and the landscape is wonderful. It is interesting that despite all this, Malaysia doesn’t seem busy with the ‘backpacker’ type crowd many other South East Asian countries have. There are of course still many tourists, but they are more grown up and less party oriented. For us, it made the country feel more authentic and less effected which is a real bonus. We genuinely enjoyed the place and the climbing and think Malaysia more than holds its own in comparison to its neighbours.

You can read more about the climbing in South East Asia here.

Relevant Links

https://www.thecrag.com/en/climbing/malaysia

https://www.mountainproject.com/area/106072512/malaysia

4 thoughts on “Climbing in Malaysia: A Journey through South East Asia

  1. Christian 1st Jan 2023 / 8:18 AM

    Another brilliant read…happy new to you both!!

    Like

    • TheCragJournal 1st Jan 2023 / 8:21 AM

      Cheers Christian, all the best to you and the family for 2023!

      Like

  2. Lizzy 2nd Jan 2023 / 8:55 AM

    Wonderful pics, fantastic nature. Such an interesting culture.

    Liked by 1 person

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