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NIAH NATIONAL PARK

INTRODUCTION

 

Niah is one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, but it is certainly one of the most important, and has some of the most unusual visitor attractions. The park’s main claim to fame is its role as one of the birthplaces of civilisation. The oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia were found at Niah, making the park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Yet there is much more to Niah than archaeology. A vast cave swarming with bats and swiftlets; the thriving local economy based on birds-nests and guano; ancient cave paintings; a majestic rainforest criss-crossed with walking trails; abundant plant and animal life - all these and more make up the geological, historical and environmental kaleidoscope that is Niah.


EARLY HUMAN SETTLEMENTS

 

Niah’s importance was first realised in 1957. The curator of the Sarawak Museum, Tom Harrisson, led an archaeological dig at the West Mouth of the Great Cave. The excavations revealed plenty of evidence of human settlements in the area; tools, cooking utensils and ornaments, made of bone, stone or clay. The types of items found suggested a long period of settlement reaching back into the Palaeolithic era (the earliest part of the stone age).

In 1958, a discovery was made which confirmed Niah as a site of major archaeological significance. Harrisson and his team unearthed a skull which was estimated to be 40,000 years old. The find was at first ridiculed by the scientific community, for it was the skull of a modern human (homo sapiens sapiens), and it was widely believed that Borneo was settled much later. However, as dating techniques improved, and as more evidence of the settlement of Southeast Asia and Australasia came to light, Harrisson was proved right.

What is most interesting about Niah, however, is the continued human presence over tens of thousands of years, and the sophistication of the societies that gradually developed there. A large burial site further into the mouth of the cave had clearly been used from Palaeolithic times right up to the modern era, as late as 1400 AD. The earliest graves, found in the deepest levels, were simple shallow graves without adornment. Yet moving up through the layers, coffins and urns appeared, along with grave goods such as pottery, textiles and ornaments, and even glass and metal items, which came comparatively late to Borneo.

The Great Cave is not the only important archaeological site. The Painted Cave, as its name suggests, houses detailed wall-paintings depicting the boat journey of the dead into the afterlife. The meaning of the paintings was explained by the discovery of a number of “death-ships” on the cave floor - boat-shaped coffins containing the remains of the deceased and a selection of grave-goods considered useful in the afterlife, such as Chinese ceramics, ornaments and glass beads. The death-ships have been dated as ranging between 1 AD and 780 AD, although local Penan folklore tells of the use of death-ship burials as late as the 19th century.


VISITING THE PARK

 

Niah National Park is located on the Sungai (River) Niah, about 3 km from the small town of Batu Niah, 110 km south-west of Miri. The park was first gazetted as a National Historic Monument in 1958, and in 1974 some 3,100 hectares of surrounding rainforest and limestone hills were included, to form Niah National Park. The park has a visitor centre and good accommodation, and is very easy to get around, thanks to an extensive network of plankwalks to and throughout the caves. A torch (flashlight) and good walking shoes are absolutely essential - the caves are unlit, and the plankwalk can become slippery from the constant dripping of water from the ceiling of the cave. A wide-brimmed hat is desirable, for obvious reasons.

The Great Cave

The Great Cave is approximately 3.5 km from the park headquarters, and is easily reached via the plankwalk, which is enclosed on both sides by dense primary rainforest. The stroll along plankwalk is fascinating in its own right, as you pass close to giant tapang trees with their enormous buttressed roots, padanus plants twice the size of a person, exquisitely formed orchids and tree fungi.

It is worth taking your time and walking quietly along the way, as you may well see some of the park’s wildlife. Colourful birds, squirrels, lizards, butterflies and all manner of unusual insects and invertebrates are commonly seen. If you are lucky, you may see monkeys (you will certainly hear them), flying lizards and the occasional hornbill.

The first significant rock formation you reach is the Trader’s Cave, which is really an extended rock overhang rather than a cave proper. This is where the birds nest and guano traders conducted their business in days gone by, hence the name.

A few minutes later, the West Mouth of the Great Cave comes into view, and you are left in no doubt that this cave deserves its name. At over 60m high and 250m wide, it is one of the world’s most spectacular cave entrances, leading to an even larger chamber within. On the left of the cave mouth, the archaeological excavations are clearly visible. Photographers should come prepared, as the view from the cave mouth out over the surrounding jungle is quite unique, and the jagged stalactites, overhangs and dangling creepers of the cave mouth make a dramatic frame for a very memorable photo.

Proceeding into the cave, the sound of disembodied voices mingles with the squeaking of millions of bats and swiftlets to create an eerie atmosphere. The voices belong to the guano collectors, who toil by the light of paraffin lamps to collect the guano (bird and bat excrement) covering the cave floor. The guano is then carried in sacks to the Sungai Niah, where it is graded and sold as fertiliser.

BIRDS NESTS

The guano collectors are not the only people who earn a living from the cave. Strategically positioned bamboo poles, and ladders made from ironwood (belian), are evidence of the birds nest collectors, local people who have practised this dangerous occupation for generations. The half million swiftlets that live in the cave make their nests purely from their own salivary secretions, and when the nests are cleaned and cooked they produce the famous birds nest soup, which is as highly regarded in Chinese cuisine as caviar is in the West.

Collecting the nests from the cave ceiling is a dangerous job, and fatalities are not uncommon, but the price of raw bird’s nests is so high (over US$1,000 per kilo for the best quality) that the risks seem worthwhile. Obviously such a valuable commodity is a magnet for poachers, and over-harvesting is a constant worry. Therefore the caves are constantly monitored by park management to deter illegal collectors.

NOTE : Visitors cannot be sure of seeing birds nest collectors in action, as harvesting is a seasonal activity, and is subject to temporary bans by Sarawak Forestry to protect swiftlet populations.

The passage at the back of the Great Cave leads to a large chamber known as the Padang, where shafts of sunlight stream down from large holes in the cave roof to illuminate the bizarre rock formations in the Burnt Cave (Lubang Hangus). This is another excellent spot for taking photos. After the Padang, you enter a totally dark passage known as Gan Kira (Moon Cave). This is where the torch (flashlight) is essential – not only to find your way but also to admire the remarkable rock shapes and weathering effects.

 
The Painted Cave

Shortly after the Gan Kira (Moon Cave), the plankwalk emerges into daylight and a short pathway through the forest leads to the Painted Cave. This is the site of the famous Niah cave paintings and the place where the ‘death-ships’ were found. The contents of the death-ships have since been transferred to the Sarawak Museum, but the cave paintings and some of the empty death-ships can still be viewed on the wall behind the fenced-off burial site.

The paintings can be difficult to see unless you allow your eyes to become accustomed to the light. They are rendered in red hematite and cover a long narrow strip (approximately 30m) at the back of the cave wall. They portray spread-eagled human figures, probably representing warriors and hunters, some of the animals of the surrounding forest, and - most importantly - longboats carrying the souls of the deceased on the dangerous journey to the land of the dead.

Although the burial site at the Painted Cave is far more recent than those at the Great Cave, it is no less important as it offers a clear insight into the development of the traditional religions of Borneo. It is worth spending some time at the Painted Cave, as the atmosphere of the place is very tranquil and relaxing. It is easy to understand why Niah’s earlier inhabitants felt it was a suitable resting place for their ancestors.

WILDLIFE AND THE RAINFOREST


If you leave the Great Cave and return along the plankwalk around sunset, you will see two great black clouds intermingling. This is the nightly ‘changing of the guard’ - half a million swiftlets are returning to their nests, whilst half a million bats fly out to forage in the forest. Although this is one of Niah’s most spectacular sights, it represents only two small niches in a complex ecosystem. One of Niah’s other notable sights is the unusual number of luminous fungi (which can be clearly seen from the plankwalk at night).


TREKS AND TRAILS

 

The park has two well-marked walking trails, Bukit Kasut Trail and Madu Trail.

Bukit Kasut Trail
This trail (green and white markings) leads to the summit of Bukit Kasut. The 45 minute walk passes through beautiful primary rainforest before moving into Kerangas forest at the foot of the hill. You will also see some fascinating cliff vegetation clinging tenuously to life in the steep limestone slopes. The trail is a little steep but the view at the top is worth it, offering a sweeping panorama of the rainforest canopy.
 
Madu Trail
This trail (red and white markings) sticks quite close to the banks of the Sungai Subis, a tributary of the Sungai Niah. It takes roughly an hour and passes through both alluvial and peat swamp forest, leading to the foot of Bukit Kasut. There are plenty of wild orchids, bizarre mushrooms and giant pandanus plants along the side of the trail.

TRAVEL NOTES

Entry Fees & Permits

There is a nominal entry fee for all National Parks in Sarawak. Check with the National Parks Booking Offices in Kuching or Miri for the latest fee structure. Entrance fees are paid upon arrival at the park HQ. A permit is required for professional photography or filming, which should be arranged in advance with the National Parks Booking Office in Miri.


The Park Headquarters

Upon arrival visitors are required to register at the Park HQ. There is an information centre where video films about Niah are shown nightly (upon request), and a cafeteria serving a range of local and western food and drinks.

 

Reservations & Enquiries

National Parks Booking Office
c/o Visitors Information Centre
Lot 452, Jln Melayu, 98000 Miri,
Sarawak, Malaysia.

Tel: 085-434184 Fax: 085-434179

 

Opening Hours
National Parks Booking Office Monday-Friday 0800 hrs – 1700 hrs
Saturday, Sunday& Public Holidays Closed

 

Further Information

SARAWAK FORESTRY
Tel: (+6) 082 610088 Fax: (+6) 082 610099
Toll free line: 1 800 88 2526
Website: www.sarawakforestry.com
Email: info@sarawakforestry.com

 

 
Getting There

Niah is within easy reach of both Miri (109 km) and Bintulu (131 km).

From Miri: Syarikat Bas Suria has a regular bus service to Batu Niah from the Miri Bus Station. The journey time is 1 hr 40 mins. Share taxis from the Bus Station are available, as are regular taxis, which can usually be chartered on a daily basis. A number of tour operators can arrange guided tours to the park. Self-drive cars are also available - ask at your hotel counter or check in the yellow pages.

From Bintulu: Syarikat Bas Suria has a regular bus service to Batu Niah from Bintulu Bus Station. The journey time is 2 hrs. Share taxis from the Bus Station are available, as are regular taxis, which can usually be chartered on a daily basis. Self-drive cars are also available - ask at your hotel counter or check in the yellow pages.


From Batu Niah to the Park Headquarters: the Park HQ is about 3 km from Batu Niah. Chartered taxis and tour buses will take you straight there, but if you arrive by bus or share taxi, you have three choices. A motorised longboat from Batu Niah to the Park HQ brings you through delightful jungle scenery. A taxi from Batu Niah is not so interesting but a good idea if it is raining. If you are not too heavily burdened with luggage, the Park HQ is a pleasant 45 minute stroll along the river bank.


Accommodation

Accommodation facilities consist of chalets units and hostel-style rooms, all with electricity and hot showers. Unlike some of the other parks there are no cooking facilities. Please contact the National Parks Booking Office in Miri for the latest room rates and to make reservations.

If you need to stay in Batu Niah (to catch an early bus, for example), there are a range of lodging houses and small hotels. Batu Niah is a bustling little township and is well provided with coffee shops and restaurants.

 
Copyright © 2006 SARAWAK FORESTRY. All Rights Reserved.