Monday, June 7, 2010

Backpacking Borneo: Niah Caves

We arranged a tour with Highlands, our accommodation-cum-travel agent for a hefty RM60 each. We were picked up by our guide, a Miri local who speaks fluent English with an Aussie accent at exactly 9:00 AM. There were five of us: Shervin, me, Keran (Scottish), Toby (British) and his French girlfriend.


Niah National Park is located in Batu Niah (literally "Niah Cave" in Bahasa Melayu), a quaint Sarawak town, 13km west of the highway between Miri and Bintulu. To get there, you can take Syarikat Bas Suria from the Miri Bus Station. Travel time, 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours. Less than 1 hour 30 minutes if you hire a taxi.

A permit is needed to visit the Niah Caves, it is issued at the Niah National Park Headquarters for RM10 (opening hours 8AM-5PM).


From the headquarters, the caves are across the river (RM1 for boat ride) and then a further 3km along a wooden boardwalk.



It is an interesting one hour hike, as you are guaranteed to see various species of insects, slugs and caterpillars on the handrail along the way. Also check out the gigantic trees!


The first of the 'chambers' is the Trader's Cave. Before the area became a national park in 1975, bird nest traders once inhabited this cave. The original structure of their roofless huts are still intact.


Up the stairs on the other end of the chamber, a trail leads to the west entrance of Great Cave.


A fenced area to the left, facing the cave, is where archaeologists have found evidence that early humans lived here some 40,000 years ago (oldest recorded human settlement in east Malaysia). The Great Cave is one of the largest caves in the world.
To the rear of the Great Cave, flights of wooden stairs take you to the Padang or Large Chamber. Sunbeams from the holes of the cave's ceiling illuminate your path as you go pick which direction to take (a la Choose Your Own Adventure). One boardwalk will lead you to the Moon Cave, after passing through a pitch dark tunnel.

You may direct your torchlight to the stalactites as you walk, but don't be too caught up marvelling. Shervin kept swinging his flashlight left to right unaware that the boardwalk makes a sharp left. I told him to halt, just in time he was right at the edge.

We walked in the dark for more than half an hour. It was pretty creepy. I was relieved when we reached another exit.

At the covered shed where the other three were waiting, we found another trail leading to the Painted Cave. We also saw a woman in heels with a local guide emerging from the Moon Cave. Toby called it 'fashion caving'.


We were disappointed to see a deteriorating cave painting. Understandable though as these drawings were discovered back in 1958 by Barbara Harrisson. The motifs are mainly of human figures and boats, that could possibly be the burial rites documented by the early dwellers as several 'boat coffins' were found nearby.

We didn't take much time in the last cave. We told our driver we'll be back by 2:00 PM at the park headquarters. It drizzled for a few minutes, which was perfect for it wasn't too hot to hike back.

We took tons of photos once more of unknown insects on the handrails while we trekked. Toby noticed two caterpillars who seemed to be (slowly) racing. He said, "I bet five bucks on that sprinter". Keran reminded, "Oh, remember no gambling?". We all laughed (except the French chick who's not good in English)

Read the park regulations at the headquarters, you'll know what I mean.

[This blog is part of the South East Asia in Six Weeks series which took place May-June 2009. Price of goods, transportation and so forth may already be different.]


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