A significant centre of human settlement dating back as far as 40,000 years ago, Niah National Park was a 31.4km² National Historic Monument when gazetted in 1974, and is an extravagant archaeological site with stunning limestone caves. Most people will find themselves asking for the location of Gua Niah due to its nature as Sarawak’s best kept secret. Located in the Miri division of Sarawak, it is a tropical heaven that contains some of the most important artefacts finding in Malaysia. Although it is often compared to Mulu Caves in terms of popularity and size, Gua Niah has its own charm and appeal which makes it one of the best attraction in Sarawak. Before we can start exploring these amazing caves, find out some of the interesting facts and information that you might not know about Gua Niah.
Stroll along the wooden boardwalk into Niah National Park
In 2010, Niah Caves were nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage status. Even as one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, Niah is perhaps more significant as it was the cradle of civilisation that was occupied from prehistory to Neolithic. Home to the discovery of the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia, Niah emerged as one of the world's most crucial archaeological sites in Asia. Over the past few decades, Gua Niah are gaining the reputation to be the tourist magnet that draws visitors from all over the world to witness the cave paintings and bird nests formations. Aside from that, Niah encompasses a kaleidoscope of cave paintings; the rainforest has an impressive array of flora and fauna with intertwining walking trails as well as large cave inhabited by bats and swiftlets that contribute to the thriving bird's nest and bat guanos industry.
The famous discovery of the Deep Skull by Barbara and Tom Harrisson
The first discovery of Niah Caves was by Alfred Russel Wallace during his Borneo expedition in 1855. He noted it as a potential site for the discovery of important hominin fossils to Charles Darwin and this followed with an excavation of the site by British archaeologists which was unsuccessful. Finally, a successful excavation with significant discoveries was made by Barbara and Tom Harrisson where they discovered the Deep Skull in 1958. From then, came the launch of a joint British-Malaysian expedition called the Niah Caves Project (NCP) to verify further the work of Harrisson. Many articles have been published in the Sarawak Museum Journal by local universities and foreign scientists.
One of the more commonly asked questions is ways on getting to Gua Niah. The two easiest ways to get to Niah National Park is from Bintulu (131km) or Miri (109km). You can choose to either travel from Miri to Gua Niah or from Bintulu to Gua Niah. Just head to Miri Bus Station and catch a bus (approximately RM15 per pax) to Batu Niah (2 hours). From there, you can take a taxi (approximately RM30) or a self-drive car towards Niah National Park. If you rather take a direct route to Niah National Park, you can also choose to take a taxi from Miri City which takes around 1 hour 30minutes (RM150 one-way). For a more memorable travelling experience, organize a road trip to Gua Niah where you can enjoy and stop by along the scenic route that you will be discovering. Upon arrival at the national park, you are required to register at the park HQ. Entrance fees starting from RM 10 per adult will be collected at the beginning of your archaeological journey to the cave.
Niah National Park // Add: Gua Niah, 98200 Niah, Sarawak, Malaysia // Opening Hours: Mon to Fri 0800 to 1700; Sat, Sun & Public Holidays Closed // Tel: (+6) 085 737454 / 737450 // Website: http://www.sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-np-niah.html // Admission: Adults (Malaysian) RM10; Child (Malaysian) RM3; Adult (International) RM20; Child (International) RM7
Hidden within the Borneo jungles, Niah National Park lies only 17km away from the South China Sea. Fortunately, Niah does not experience monsoon and typhoon seasons. Occasionally, the rainforest still receives periods with massive rains. If you are looking to hike around the national park, avoid the period between July and September as that is when it is the driest and can make tougher compared to the cooler months.Other than that, the best time to visit Gua Niah are pretty flexible between October to June.
The remarkably beautiful arch of the entrance to Niah Cave
One of the main attractions at Niah National Park is to explore the Niah Cave, also known as The Great Cave. Niah Cave (or Gua Niah) was nicknamed The Great Cave as its vast area covers 11 hectares, comparable to 13 football fields! Known for its swarm of bats and swiftlets, this extraordinary cave is one of the most impressive cave entrances in the world at 60m high and 250m wide. The journey to the mouth of the Great Cave is along a 3.1km raised boardwalk through a swampy rainforest. Admire the exotic flora and fauna along the way, such as the giant tapang trees with large buttressed roots, humongous pandanus plants, stunning orchids, colourful birds, unusual insects and many others. Be careful as the stairs and handrails may be slippery and covered with guano. This trek takes approximately 4 hours both ways.
The huts of birds' nest collectors left standing in Trader's Cave
The first significant rock formation you will come upon is an extended rock overhang known as Trader’s Cave. This spot is where birds come to nest and guano traders carry out their businesses. The Great Cave lies in a large limestone block in Gunung Subis. Within the cave, follow the trail which intersects around a large central pillar and ends at the same point. Get your camera ready as the breathtaking view at the end of the cave is stunningly picturesque with its unique overhangs, stalactites and drooping creepers. Leading back to 16 to 20 million years ago, during the Early Miocene ages, the limestones are a fraction of the Subis Formation.
Immerse yourself in the eerie atmosphere of the cave as you listen to the screech of the bats and the voices of guano collectors. They carry the guano to Sungai Niah in sacks and the guano is then graded and sold as fertiliser. Further into the Great Cave, you will encounter a large chamber known as Padang, where streaks of sunlight pour down from large holes in the roof like spotlights drawing your attention to the unique rock formations in the Burnt Cave. After Padang, you are immersed in a pitch black passage known as Moon Cave (Gan Kira) where your torchlight will come in handy or you will miss out on some interesting rock formations.
From Moon Cave (Gan Kira), continue on the plank walk leading to a short pathway through the rainforest and towards the entrance of the Painted Cave. The cave was given its name as this is the site for the discovery of the famous cave paintings from prehistoric humans. The ‘death ships’ which are ceremonial burial boats, were also discovered here. However, the part of the cave that holds the cave paintings are fenced up to preserve and protect its delicate nature as the paintings are now very faint after so many years.
To be able to admire the paintings, let your eyes adjust to the light within the cave as you peer through the fence. The paintings are displayed in red hematite and overlay approximately 30m of the back of the cave wall, existing for at least 1000 years. The paintings consist of spread-eagled human figures, animals around the forests and souls of the deceased being carried in longboats on the dangerous journey to the land of the dead, hence the name given to the ‘death ships’. Contents that are found include iron tools, ceramics, pottery, Neolithic axes, glass beads dating back to the Iron Age and many others that have now been transferred to the Sarawak Museum. Another great find is that of a human skull believed to date back to 38,000 years BCE.
The Painted Cave is an essential prehistoric site where human remains dating back to 40,000 years have been discovered and is the oldest recorded human settlement in East Malaysia. Witnessing the ancient paintings have become one of the main things to-do in Gua Niah, making it as an extremely popular attraction for domestic and international tourists alike. Studies that were published have even shown evidence of the first human activity from ca. 46,000 to ca. 34,000 years ago were discovered at the Niah Caves, adding on another reason why Gua Niah is so appealing on its own.
The lush greenery and relaxing scent of Mother Nature as you head towards Bukit Kasut
The Bukit Kasut Trail is one of many activities to do at the Niah National Park.This short 45-minute trail leads towards the foot of Bukit Kasut and can be recognised by its green and white markings. Along the way to the Kerangas forest at the foot of the hill, admire the fascinating rainforest and magnificent cliff vegetation hanging off the steep limestone slopes. The trail up is steep and difficult so caution should be exercised as it can get slippery and muddy as you tread along the irregularly-shaped, detached limestone rocks. The tough journey up is rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of the blanketing rainforest, surrounding palm oil plantations and the bustling town of Batu Niah. Take a moment here to feast your eyes on the beauty below from atop the hill.
This trail also leads towards the foot of Bukit Kasut but is slightly longer—about an hour’s journey—and is through both geotic and peat swamp forest. Just follow the red and white markings and appreciate the exotic wild orchids, enormous fig trees, large pandanus plants and unique mushrooms alongside the trail. This trail crosses over Sungai Subis where you can catch sight of freshwater prawns. Crossing a small creek to the base of a cliff after 20 minutes onwards the muddy trail, keep towards your right where the trail divides.
Among the activities in Gua Nuah that you can experience is to witness at some remarkable limestone outcrops rising from the ground, covered by the chain of roots from the large trees nearby. Amongst two large caves sitting on the cliff face above, one of which is the Macaque Cave (Gua Kusat) and are occupied by bird's nest collectors. 40 minutes onwards, the trail leads up an easy slope into mixed dipterocarp forest and ends with the boardwalk. Follow this boardwalk and in a few minutes, you will be back on the main trail with Pangkala Lobang only 10-15 minutes if you head to your left.
Prized in the Chinese culture, a sample of raw birds nest produced by swiftlets
Apart from the guano collectors diligently earning a living from the cave, bird's nest collectors have also strategically placed themselves there for generations. The bird nest (swiftlet) industry in Gua Niah particularly is well known and has attracted many tourists in Sarawak as well. Witnessing the process of how the precious bird nest is made and harvested is among the activities to do in Gua Niah. The cavern ceilings are occupied by birds roosting and are all privately owned hence only the owners hold the rights to collect the nests of that bird, usually done every half a year in January and June. The bird's nest is formed entirely from their own salivary secretions. The collectors will then climb up a single pole of up to hundreds of feet to scrape off the nest with a flickering candle in hand. After that, the nests are cleaned and cooked as an extravagant Chinese dessert.
On the way back, pay a visit to the now rebuilt Rumah Chang longhouse, now known as Rumah Libau. The change in name of the longhouse has to do with the Iban culture, where the Iban longhouses take their name after the current Tuai Rumah (headman). When the Tuai Rumah has passed on and a new Tuai Rumah takes his place, the name of the longhouse also changes to take after the new Tuai Rumah. Hence, after the passing of the old Tuai Rumah (Chang) in mid-2003, the community changed to Rumah Libau after the newly selected Tuai Rumah.
Even though the longhouse is more modernised now, Rumah Libau is still fundamentally traditional apart from the privilege of electricity, satellite TV and phone lines. The large community lives in two wooden longhouses running alongside each other, each with its own enclosed verandah known as the ‘ruai’, where celebrations and public events are held. The rooms running the ‘ruai’ is known as the ‘bilik’ which is where the families reside in. The arrangement of the bilik is not coincidental but instead dependent on the social hierarchy. Below the longhouses, you will find parked cars amongst fighting roosters, omnipresent village dogs
Breathtakingly gorgeous interior of the Niah Caves
All in all, Niah National Park may not have the largest caves, but it holds one of the world’s most important archaeological sites in its stunning limestone caves. Home to not only an abundance of flora and fauna, the Niah National Park also contributes to the thriving bird's nest industry in Sarawak. With its pending UNESCO World Heritage status, Niah National Park is definitely on every nature lover and explorer’s list as listed on Says.com: Miri for the Nature Lovers. The park’s many amazing attractions and activities are sure to be a nature lover’s dream. If you are itching to explore Niah National Park without hassle, check out Adventoro’s Niah National Park Day Tour that offers a tour amongst many other adventures around Malaysia.