March 1, 2019: Sarawak province of Malaysia is home to some spectacular cave systems and we were lucky enough to get to experience two of them.
Originally, I had planned to combine our caving adventures into one blog post, including both Niah Caves and the more extensive Mulu Caves. But I quickly abandoned that idea and decided that each deserves its own stand alone account, which is merely another way of saying we took way too many photos and I’m having trouble paring them down to a reasonable number for one post.
So, let’s start with Niah Caves.
Niah National Park is located about 80 kilometres south of the marina in Miri, so we planned this as an easy day trip, setting off early. What seems easy to begin with doesn’t always turn out that way. I popped Niah National Park into Google Maps and off we went in our little Perodua rental car. As we got closer, driving along the coastal road, we didn’t spot any signs for the park. That’s when Google Maps sent us skirting around the southern and eastern sides of the park to some northern access point. Once we got to the turnoff, we discovered that Google Maps had been sending us on a wild goose chase. The entrance was well back in the other direction. There was no road access from this side. That meant turning around and backtracking a fair distance. Tip number 1: search for Gua Niah (Niah Caves) Entrance in Google Maps, not Niah National Park.
By the time we finally arrived at the park entrance around 10 am, I was starving but the canteen was closed. There was nowhere to buy food or drinks except well back up the road at the closest town. Tip number 2: eat breakfast before you go and pack snacks.
After buying our entrance tickets, we had to cross over the small muddy Sungai Niah river by boat. Tip number 3: bring small change to pay the boatman.
From the other side, it’s a fair hike to the caves through the jungle along an extensive raised boardwalk. There are several huts along the way if you need to stop for a rest.
At an intersection just before the gate to the cave complex is a series of handicraft stalls where local women sell snacks, cold drinks and trinkets. There are also washrooms here. From here, you can take the side road down to a long house, but given our late start we opted out, instead making our way straight ahead through the gate and continuing towards the caves.
The limestone escarpment within Niah National Park contains three caves: Traders Cave, Great Cave and Painted Cave.
First on our route was Traders Cave. Here, we found a series of roofless huts used by birds nest collectors and their families during collecting season. These were still in use up through the late 1970s. Archaeological excavations began in the 1950s and continue today. Traders Cave is fairly shallow, so light from the outside reaches into all but the furthest reaches.
Next was the massive Great Cave. We entered through the West Mouth, first recorded discovery in 1880. Excavations here started in 1954 and have unearthed a pre-Neolithic habitation near the mouth and a Neolithic cemetery further in. According to park signage, “It is among the most important sites in Southeast Asia as it contains evidence for long-term human habitation and near-continuous occupation from 40,000 – 2,000 years ago and the best series of dated human remains in the region.”
Major archaeological finds have included early Homo sapiens cranium fragments, a jade earring thought to have originated from Taiwan, Neolithic pottery, stone tools, shells, bones and more than 200 human burials.
Great Cave is extensive and extends well beyond the West Mouth. It quickly got dark as we made our way past men working with long handled sticks to collect birds’ nests from high overhead. Further in, we came across bat guano collectors working in the dark. The guano was alive with all sorts of insects. The boardwalk continues through the caves, with steps up and down, low overhead sections and pitch black areas punctured by occasional shafts of light from openings high overhead. The smell was overpowering. There was an amazing array of bug life in the caves and we could hear the birds and bats in most places. The caves are definitely alive. Tip number 4: bring a flashlight with fresh batteries for each person.
On the far side of the Great Cave, we passed through another gate and continued along the boardwalk to the Painted Cave. This is a separate, smaller limestone cave formation with ancient paintings on the walls and originally also containing boat coffins on the floor. Excavations revealed stoneware, shells, glass beads, metal items and local pottery. More than 100 individual drawings ranging from boats, human figures, abstract designs and geometric motifs extend over the rock walls. This area is now fenced off to prevent vandalism and further deterioration. These days, the paintings are hard to make out, but the caves are still worth a trip to explore.
From here, we retraced our steps through the Great Cave and Traders Cave. I couldn’t get enough of the jungle views through the various cave entrances and the shafts of light from the overhead openings.
We grabbed a snack and a cold drink at the handicraft stalls and continued to the river crossing, where there is a small museum that is well worth checking out. Along with numerous historical artifacts found in the caves, there is also a lot of information about the geology and history of the region and early photographs.
Back across the river, we wound our way back to the coastal road and stopped at the first small restaurant we came across for a late, late lunch. We were starving, the food was excellent and the friendly ladies who served us, but didn’t speak any English, shyly agreed to pose for a photo with me. Tip number 5: consider bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy in the park.
Next up, we head further inland to explore Mulu Caves, an even more massive and extensive cave network designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Could it be more impressive than Niah Caves? Stay tuned to find out.