So you could probably see Niah National Park in a day trip from Miri but we were heading this way anyway so we figured we’d just go there and stay overnight. It turns out it’s ridiculously easy to book accommodation at Sarawak’s national parks, there’s a website, you can just use that to reserve anything from an air conditioned chalet to a fan cooled hostel room, or even a campsite if you’re sure your tent is really fucking waterproof.
Getting there is easyish, we ended up on the same super comfy bus that we took to Lambir Hills NP at 7.15am and just under two hours and RM10 each later we were dropped at Simpang Niah, or Niah Junction, which is where you need to find a bloke with a car willing to take you the rest of the way. A group of men outside a hairdressers just over from where we were dropped waved us over and asked us where we were going. I braced myself for an argument, I knew it should be RM30 and I never trust drivers not to overcharge. I hate catching taxis or tuk tuks or tricycles and will avoid them where possible, I even walked four kilometres in the blistering Jaipur heat once just so I wouldn’t have to haggle with a driver.
“Niah National Park,” I told him. He nodded.
“It will be thirty ringgit,” he replied. I opened my mouth. Then shut it. Then opened and shut it one more time like a demented goldfish before saying,
“Yes, perfect, thank you.”
So check in time isn’t until 2pm but you can leave your bags at reception and go for a walk clutching the world’s most useless map. It turns out it doesn’t need to be a good map because it’s also the world’s easiest national park trail. We paid for our room plus the RM20 each park entrance fee and off we went, quite aware that we needed to get back before reception closed at 5pm to get our room key and collect our shit. This particular park is all about the ancient caves where humans once lived, it’s a very important place from an archaeological point of view and there’s one trail leading to the caves then a loop around the attractions themselves. All in all it’s a 9km walk and I know how bastard unfit I am.
You have to take a boat over the river unless you fancied your chances against a crocodile, it’s only RM1 per person each way or RM1.50 after 5.30pm. It was 9.50am when we reached the museum and decided to keep on going, we had no idea what kind of state the trail would be in, we didn’t know if it was flat or if we’d have to claw our way up and down hills. So yeah, it’s flat. Not only is it flat it’s a board walk all the way to what they call the West Mouth, the entrance to the caves. It doesn’t make it any less stunning though, it’s a beautiful walk past trees and caves and some epic rock formations. We passed a couple of women selling tasty cold beverages, snacks and souvenirs, it’s only polite to buy a few things off them really. In our haste to get to the caves and back before 5pm we’d utterly failed to eat anything more than a bit of toast and I didn’t want to get the kind of hungry where Tarrant had to restrain me because I was trying to fit bats in my mouth.
It didn’t even take an hour to get to the cave entrance even at my laughably slow pace which meant we could just take it easy from now on in. Oh yeah, don’t forget to bring some manner of torch, if you don’t have one you can rent one for RM5 where your ticket is checked at the boat jetty. You’ll need one unless you have magical night vision eyes or are, in fact, a cat. The first cave you come to is naturally lit though and is full of the wooden remains of roofless huts where workers used to live. They were in there collecting birds nests for bird’s nest soup because yes, this is a thing and it’s a thing that people pay a fuck tonne of cash monies for. The next cave is massive and that’s where the birds’ nests are. It turns out that in 2001 a compromise was reached between the people who rely on the edible nests of the little swiftlets for an income and the people interested in the conservation of the species.
Basically they can only harvest the nests four months of the year after a full breeding cycle is complete and this ensures that the swiftlet populations increase. Fuck being those guys though, you can see the thin poles hanging from the ceiling. We did drop into the museum later that day and there were photos of the guys climbing a shit tonne of metres up this wooden poles to get to the nests. Apparently if you want to buy these edible nests you’re looking at north of RM600 per gram. I’m not even shitting you. And who the fuck even decided that this should be a thing? Who looked at a swiftlet nest and though, ooh yeah, that’d go good in a soup with a nice, crusty roll. Probably the same dude who looked at a cow’s tits and wondered if he could drink what came out of them.
Anyway. These caves have apparently been near-continuously inhabited from 40,000 years ago until 2000 years ago and they’ve got the bodies to prove it. In 1958 they found cranium fragments which, after extensive study, they determined to be the oldest evidence of a homo sapien (that’s what you and I are) ever found in South East Asia, and that’s where the 40,000 year old proof comes in. Pretty impressive. When you pass the archaeological site you can either go straight ahead along the boardwalk or turn left to climb up the dirt and we went for the latter. It does eventually become another boardwalk. They fucking love their boardwalks here.
The cave is stunning. Not only is it ancient and important and impressive it’s really photogenic. There are steps involved and there’s bat shit everywhere, you don’t want to be having your trap open whilst looking up. There’s guano all over the handrails too so brace yourself for that delight. At one point we came to a huge rock formation which was directly underneath a gap in the ceiling with a shaft of daylight streaming through. I was in awe. I picked my jaw up, brushed the bat shit off it and proceeded to take a million photos. I could barely tear myself away.
You have to walk through some genuinely pitch dark areas to get to the painted caves at the end, if you don’t have some manner of light you’re fucked. We turned our torches off just to see and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. The painted caves are cool though but they’re fenced off, probably because humans can’t fucking be trusted. People had carved their names into rocks all over the place. No respect. They’re very very faint, these paintings, but you can still make them out. They think they have something to do with the journey of the dead to the underground world.
There’s a second painted cave you can get to down a steep bank but despite the name there’s no artwork. It’s actually where they found several bodies dating back 2000 to 3000 years thus indicating it was a burial site. The one female they found was buried with her head pointing to the cave entrance and the seven males were pointing inwards. There were burial boats found at both caves, you can still see the remains, though buggered if I know how they’d fit a human in one of those bad boys.
We headed back at a much more chilled pace now we knew we didn’t have to rush and the women we’d bought drinks off suggested we go and see their village, Rumah Chang, a fifteen minute walk away, so we did. There’s a couple of longhouses there you can have a look at too and a little sign up saying there’s a homestay there. That would have been interesting though I’ve literally no idea how you’d go about booking a stay there. I’m also weird about homestays, I’ve never been comfortable about staying in someone’s home unless they’re a mate. I’ve stayed in homestays and it’s always been fine but I always think I’m imposing despite the fact I’m giving them money.
After a quick look at the small but interesting museum we made our way back to reception where we grabbed our stuff and a room key and headed to our hostel room which was actually fucking massive! Aside from the big leak in the roof that looked like the Eye of Sauron it was really comfortable, and the cold shower was utterly gorgeous after a sweaty day mincing around the caves. I swear, we were dripping by the time we got out of the caves, I think I lost more fluid through every single pore in my body than I’d actually consumed, we might as well have been caught in a rain storm. It’s ridiculously humid in there and whilst it’s a very, very easy walk you’ll still need a small tanker of water to stop yourself from dehydrating into a withered sack of dust and hair.
Niah National Park, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Hostel room at Niah National Park
Useful shit to know…
- The long distance bus terminal in Miri is called Pujut Corner and is a few kms north of the city. You can catch a bus to somewhere close to there for RM1.60 but you’ll need to check with your guesthouse where from, or you can take a Grab for RM7. You can take a normal taxi of course but I think you’ll be looking at double that.
- There are a few bus companies that run buses that go past Batu Niah Junction. We took one that left at 7.15am. There’s definitely one at 7.30am and one at 8.30am run by different companies. You’ll be approached by people as you enter the terminal anyway, you won’t have a problem finding a bus. It should be RM10 or RM12, depending on the bus company.
- Once you’re at the junction you’ll need to find a private car to take you to the national park, there are no buses or proper taxis. There’ll probably be some blokes sat on benches over from where the bus drops you, one of them will be able to take you for RM30, in fact they’ll probably approach you.
- To get back to the junction just ask at park HQ, they’ll find someone to take you for RM30.
- Hostel rooms have three or four beds and you have to book the whole room, you can’t seem to just book a bed. It’s only RM40 for the whole room though so it’ll not have your bank account curled up in a dark corner, crying.
- There’s only one website that Sarawak’s national parks recognise for booking accommodation and that’s right here behind this clickable link.
- There didn’t seem to be any cooking facilities but there’s a reasonably priced canteen near HQ.
- If you go to the caves at sunset you can apparently see swarms of bats leaving but we met a couple who said it wasn’t great so we didn’t bother.