Borneo on a Budget: Niah Caves National Park Guide

Forty thousand years ago, Niah Caves was a home and burial ground for early humans. Archeologists have found skeletons, boat shaped coffins, and cave paintings making Niah the oldest known site of human existence in South East Asia. Today, you can discover Niah National Park’s fascinating history and spooky caves.

How to get here
We took a bus from Sibu to Batu Niah Junction. You can easily buy bus tickets to Batu Niah Junctiom from any bus operator even though it isn’t clear online. Any bus going from Miri to Kuching or Kuching to Miri direction will get you there. Either book in advance at the ticket office in the major city or buy straight from the bus driver, may be a bit cheaper this way. Around 40RM

Around Batu Niah / Getting To the Park
The bus will drop you off on the main road at the Batu Niah Food Junction in an area surrounded by palm oil plantations. It is bloody hot in the plantation area! From here it is 9 Km to the Batu Niah village or 11 km to the National Park Headquarters. To get to Niah Caves National Park, you can take a taxi, arrange a minibus or hitch a ride. Our version of Lonely Planet said you could take a longboat from Batu Niah village for 15RM. This isn’t the case anymore. When we asked the locals they said “no more no more”. If you call the National Park they can arrange for one of their minibuses (meaning friends with cars) to pick you up for 15 RM per person. Taxi one way is 50 RM and all the taxi guys are very pushy standing around the food court. We went for hitchhiking. We walked down the road to the turn off heading towards the village/National Park and waved down cars. We were picked up in 3 minutes.

Arrival at the Niah National Park Headquarters
We get to Niah in the late afternoon and no one is 2015-09-02_18-16-45there. The place is actually pretty abandoned and I’m a bit scared. We walked around looking at all the buildings wondering what is happening here. Three of the old main buildings are falling apart with plants growing through the rotten floor boards. The toilets are a complete wreck in one building with rat feces. There is a new building just across that is meant to replace these buildings and it’s huge with 30 outdoor ceiling fans, a canteen, and nicer newer toilets here. A security guard arrives for the night shift. I am surprised but feel a bit safer.

Niah Caves National Park: This building is totally abandoned. 

Then things start to get weird…
The sun is setting and a hornbill flies into the trees. Wow, a hornbill! I point it out to Jonas who holds his zoom lens in his hands; he stares at it, watching it fly in front of us and says “that’s not a hornbill”. (It was!) Back to the story… Big trucks pull into the park, motorbikes, locals on bicycles, and some families. Workers from the neighboring palm oil plantation and loggers unload and head towards the park cabins and hostels. They live here. The whole park accommodation is filled with the workers in orange jumpsuits from the neighboring palm oil plantation and other oil enterprises. I can’t believe it, so I snoop around the park, peering into cars. One truck has a truck bed full of yellow work helmets and on the dashboard, a little bobble head of a monkey sitting on a log. The whole picture is disturbing. As darkness falls, some more workers and two American men come from a trail in the park that extends from Batu Niah village and Park headquarters. One of the American men yells at the local “I need you over here!”.

Accommodation
Park hostel, camping, or local guesthouse in nearby village.

  • Hostel:
    At park headquarters you can rent a room with four bunks for 40RM, 10RM per bed.
  • Local Guesthouse/Longhouse:
    You can stay in one of the nearby villages of Batu Niah. I would call ahead of time so they can arrange to pick you up.
  • Camping:
    Camping is permitted for 5RM per person fee. However there isn’t a lot of regulation and we didn’t pay this fee because the park is not taken care of and I wasn’t sure if our money would even go to the park. At headquarters the grass is overgrown, the buildings are rotten, shops are closed and the toilets are a mess. There really aren’t any working facilities. It is safe and at the end of the day you can take a quick shower.

National Park Entrance Fee and Boat Ride
Register at the new building, cost 20RM. Again this isn’t regulated. To access the park you have to cross the river by boat from one side to the other. There could be a bridge across but instead you take a motorized boat for 1 minute across. Cost 1RM each way per boat ride. Operates 8am-3pm (last ride across). If you want to see the bats leave the cave at night, talk to the boat driver on your way across to let him know you will be needing a later ride. Beware of crocodiles!

The Caves
We underestimated the walk. It is about 3-4 KM to the first cave, Trader’s Cave. We walk slowly and quietly to listen to the sounds of the jungle and to spot wildlife. It is an easy plank walk to the caves and there is a lot of wildlife out here! We saw a green tree lizard, hornbills, red centipedes, and many other creepy crawlies. The plank walk is currently being rebuilt so there’s a few holes along the way.

2015-09-03_13-27-55Niah Caves National Park: Cute little green tree lizard

The caves are really cool. I read so many articles online like “Niah Caves…they’re just caves (whatever that means)… go to Mulu”. But we were really impressed. There is some really fascinating history to the caves. First off, the swiftlets are the birds that make the edible bird’s nest in bird’s nest soup and these swiftlets make Niah caves their home. In these caves you can see to what great heights people will go to harvest and eat birds nest soup.

2015-09-03_09-55-09Niah Caves National Park: The beginning of the caves

Traders Cave
Traders Cave is a great limestone overhang. In this overhang are the remains of roofless huts made by the birds nest traders.

2015-09-03_09-46-02Niah Caves National Park: The birds nest trading huts

There is no plank through this cave and you walk through the remaining wood structures of the huts until you reach the…

Great Cave
Wow, and people say this cave is small in comparison to Mulu. It is huge! And stinky. It is filled with swiflets and bats. The cave has a lot of moisture and the rocks are very mossy, the rocks, walls and ceiling are green, purple, orange and shades in between. Bring a torch! Upon entering you walk past an archeological dig site that has been barricaded with chicken wire and you start to see all these wooden fixtures and wooden poles connected with rope way way way up in the cavern’s ceiling. We cannot understand how in tarnations they managed to set this up and how they climb to get these nests! It is really remarkable if you take it all in. We start to walk through the cave for what seems like hours. It is at least one kilometer to reach the end. On the plank walk you can branch off to another cavern where we found a long snake and many creepy crawlies. The biggest crickets with the longest feelers! Woah, they are harmless but they will come out of the cracks unannounced. We keep walking as bats and swiftlets screech. There are huge formations and holes where light streaks in. Throughout the great cave there are these wooden structures and wooden poles for bird nest harvesting. We keeping walking on the plank towards painted cave. The path becomes narrower and the cave becomes tighter until it is pitch black. We walk carefully on the slippery planks and shine our lights on a huge funky cave centipede scurrying past us. A few locals work in the cave collecting bird manure for their crops in huge white bags. We walk past a father and his sons each carrying a huge bag on their backs and heads.

2015-09-03_10-53-33 Niah Caves National Park: The GREAT cave 

Painted Cave
We make it through Great Cave in about an hour and find ourselves in the jungle again, making our way towards Painted Cave 1, a separate cave in limestone. Here in the painted cave they have found 40,000 year old human remains as well as beautiful cave paintings and wooden coffins shaped as boats called “death ships”. This cave is believed to be used as a ceremonial burial ground. The cave paintings are very vibrant in natural red. We have seen Maori cave paintings in New Zealand and they don’t compare to these. You can clearly see the story and drawings of these paintings. There is a massive fence and barbed wire around to protect these paintings. The paintings depict the dead going off in these death ships to the afterlife. Walking a bit further, we reach Painted Cave 2 where there are the wooden remains of the death ships laying in a pile in the open as well as another archeological dig site.

2015-09-03_12-08-07Niah Caves National Park: Cave paintings!

Don’t forget

  • Torch
  • Water
  • Sturdy hiking shoes
  • Lonely Planet recommends a wide brimmed hat to protect from the bird and bat dropping above but to be honest, you should be fine.

Don’t litter and don’t dispose of batteries into nature!

Canteen
There is a canteen that is open to sell water, chips, and cup of noodles at marked up prices. We went for a meal in the afternoon and at night and the chef wasn’t there. When he is there we heard he can whip up some stir fried noodles with veggies. My advice BYO food for the day, the canteen isn’t super reliable. You can grab some food at the Batu Niah Junction. If you’re on the hike to the cave, a local lady sells water and drinks on the path along with handicrafts

Overall
Niah National Park is home to some interesting caves, history, jungle treks and wildlife. My favorite is that you can discover the caves at your own pace, completely unguided. The downside is that the park isn’t taken care of, the facilities aren’t too great, the landscape surrounding the park is destroyed by palm oil and there is quite a bit of litter throughout the jungle and in the caves. That being said, we are glad we made the trip to see and experience every bit of it. The reality of Borneo and our world, what happens when tourists stop visiting places and the beauty, nature and history within. We felt as if we had this little piece of nature all to ourselves and are very grateful for the experience. In recent news, the Sarawak Forestry has proposed to invest in renovating Niah and even lighting up the caves. Once this happens the fun of exploring in natural light and pitch black will cease but maybe this park can be better preserved.
Our total: around 107 RM for 2

I was here September 2 and 3rd 2015

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