The Niah Caves are ranked the second best cave complex in Malaysia after Mulu Caves. It is the best place to go in the Miri area of northern Sarawak.
Unlike Mulu, which requires taking a flight, Niah is easily accessible by road from Miri or Bintulu. You will find the Niah caves to be a spectacular place to visit and an enjoyable day-trip.
After purchasing your ticket you proceed to the river jetty where a small boat will ferry you across the river.
Niah archaeology museum
Once safely across the river you will immediately see the Archaeology Museum.
Admission is free and it contains information on the history of the Niah caves and their pre-historic inhabitants. It is open from 9.00am to 5.00pm.
Walk through the rainforest
The trail to Niah caves begins next to the museum. The distance to the first cave is about three kilometres and takes around 45 to 60 minutes depending on your walking speed.
The trail is mainly a wooden boardwalk built on concrete posts above the floor of the jungle.
It is enclosed on both sides by dense rainforest giving you a good chance to observe nature at close range. Birds and monkeys can be heard but are difficult to spot. Exotic butterflies are abundant.
The terrain is mostly limestone providing a challenging habitat for plants with thin, fast draining soil making vegetation prone to drought despite the frequent heavy rain.
The mountain in which the Niah caves complex is located in is called Gunung Subis, with its highest point at 394m.
1. Traders’ Cave
Traders’ Cave is really a rock overhang rather than a true cave. There are some wooden structures here which are the remains of huts constructed by birds’ nest collectors.
2. Great Cave complex
Five minutes’ walk away is the massive 10.5 hectare Great Cave which you enter through the gaping 250m wide West Mouth.
The cave contains evidence of human habitation going back as far as 40,000 years making it one of South East Asia’s most important archaeological sites.
The pole ladders used by birds’ nest collectors reach up 60 metres into the highest crevices of the cave and demonstrate the determination and courage of the harvesters.
The floor of the cave is covered in a thick layer of brown bat and swiftlet guano, which, complete with craters, gives a strange lunar feel to the cave.
As you travel deeper into the cave complex it becomes pitch black and a torch becomes essential.
The trail is on planks and it is in complete darkness but you will find direction signs from time to time.
As long as you stick to the path you cannot get lost. You only have screeching bats and insects for company here, and the floor is slippery in places.
3. Gan Kira Cave
Finally you will reach daylight in another large cave called Gan Kira. Neolithic burial sites, pottery, ornaments and so on were discovered here when the cave was first explored in 1959.
4. Painted Cave
The final cave, the Painted Cave, is another 420m away. Ancient paintings and boat coffins were discovered here. The drawings are fenced off as their condition is deteriorating and fragile.
- Start early as the trip, including travelling time from Miri and back, takes about eight hours. It can rain at any time but this is more likely in the afternoons.
- Bring a change of clothes. Even if it doesn’t rain you will be soaked with sweat after the long walk in the humid caves.
- A torch is essential, even better if you have a headlamp, a hand-held torch and a couple of spare batteries.
- Proper footwear. The plank walk can get very slippery and the mounds of bat guano are also slippery. Proper footwear with a good grip is essential.
- A hat. There is a fair amount of bat and bird droppings raining down so it is best to wear a hat.
- A pair of gloves. The handrails are encrusted with bird and bat droppings so do wear gloves.
- Water. Bring ample drinking water with you. It is hot and humid and you will get very thirsty.
The National Park office is open from 8.00am to 5.00pm.
This article first appeared in Malaysia Traveller