Niah Caves in Sarawak:
history, bats, and bird nest soup
On the east side of Sarawak, near Brunei, the Niah caves are conveniently located a bus ride a boat trip away from the city of Miri. In these caves, the oldest archaeological human remains in Southeast Asia are found. Moreover, the caves, decoratively located in the jungle, are home to million of bats, and it is where the bird nests are harvested for the Chinese delicacy of bird nest soup.
The White RajahFrom Brunei we move on to Sarawak in order to cross over to Indonesia on the other side of Borneo. The strange history of Sarawak starts when James Brooke lands in the area currently known as Kuching in 1839. At the time, there was a local rebellion against the rulers of Brunei. Brooke helped to put down the rebellion, and as a thank you he was appointed the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Via different treaties in the years that followed, Brooke and his men were able to extend the area until its current size. After the second World War, it became an English colony, and in 1960 Sarawak became part of the Malay federation. The state, however, always kept a certain autonomy, shown by the separate visa we get at the border. But also its policies differ from the rest of Malaysia.
The first city we encounter in Sarawak is Miri. Here, we try to catch the bus to the Niah caves, but it doesn't leave for a few more hours. So we stay the night in Miri, which appears to be just another Asian town, where the Chinese run the shops, and our small hotel. But Miri is also part of the oil industry, so there are a number of European people here as well. In the evening we eat at what seems to be a western restaurant. But they don't serve pork or alcohol, so it is Muslim after all.
Niah CavesFor tourists, Miri is the hub to travel to Mulu National Park or Bario. Both are located in the interior of Sarawak and can hardly be reached overland. So we move on along the coast by bus to Niah Batu, where we hire a boat to bring us to the headquarters of Niah Caves.
The headquarters look nice and we move into a room at one of the hostels. There are 4 beds per room, but the other 2 remain unoccupied. The park seems deserted, but we don't mind. But then they inform us that we can only stay here for one night. All hostels are rented to a school for the weekend. We will have to take a chalet for the next night, shared with another couple. We end up paying more for less.
In our search for food, we find the restaurant to be closed. But luckily, just outside the park is a small bistro where we can get nasi and bami. It is not the best prepared meal we got, but at least our stomach is filled.
The Niah Caves are located in the jungle 3 kilometers from the park on the other side of the river. A long boardwalk through the jungle leads the tourists to them. At the end of the afternoon we decide to have a walk in the jungle this way. Other than some butterflies, lizards, and squirrels, we don't see much wildlife. But the jungle with all its noises keeps fascinating us. Underway, we also meet a local who is busy collecting his fishing nets. He asks if we would like to stay in his longhouse homestay, but we decline.
Bird nest soupThe next day we follow the complete boardwalk to the Niah Caves. When we finally arrive there, we are impressed. A huge cave complex appears and once inside, it gets pretty dark. With our flashlight we see the bas hanging from the ceiling, and the bird nests with some of the birds still on them. We also see the tall constructions used by the locals to harvest the bird nests. These are the nests used for the Chinese bird nest soup. It is a delicacy for which the Chinese pay a lot of money. Also collected here is the guano, bat dung which is sold as fertilizer.
On the other end of the caves, we arrive in another piece of jungle, where boardwalks are leading us to the caves where rock paintings are found. But we cannot see much of these paintings, they are very vague and a large fence is keeping us at a distance. So it's back to the big cave and through the jungle to the Park head quarters. Underway, we see a hummingbird, a snake, and a flying lizard in the jungle.
At the entrance to the park is a small museum about the Niah caves. It shows the excavations made in the caves. These have shown that human life existed on Borneo for over 40.000 years, something previously considered impossible. There is also information about the different tribes in the area, and about the people that started collecting bird nests and guano here. Very informative, and we leave the museum knowing a lot more about the area.
Culinary disaster Niah Caves national Park is a lovely place to enjoy the jungle and the caves. The facilities in the head quarters are good as well, and we would have spent some more nights here. But the second night we find out that the bad meal from the day before was no coincidence. Our culinary standards are not very high, but apparently a decent meal cannot be found in or near the headquarters.
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