Niah Great Cave is alive with 40,000 years of unwritten history, because it was inhabited by humans at at least 40 millennia ago. The caves are the site of some of the oldest human remains discovered in Southeast Asia. You will not be the only visitor to this magnificent cave. It is the haunt of local Penan tribesmen, who make a living collecting edible birds nests built high in the cave walls by swiftlets. The birds’ nests are prized by Chinese gourmets around the world.
After the Lubang Padang you enter a totally dark passage known as Moon Cave (Gan Kira). It is essential to bring a flashlight,- not only to find the way but also to admire the remarkable rock shapes and weathering effects.
In the Painted Cave (GuaKainHitam), ancient human figures drawn on the wall by prehistoric inhabitants watch over gravesites where the dead were laid out in boat-shaped wooden coffins. The graves and artifacts of those ancient inhabitants have been carefully preserved for visitors to see. If you are lucky, you might see rare naked bats shooting out from the cave into the gathering gloom, their passage heralded by their peculiar loud whooping wing beats.
Take your eyes from the sky and search the ground and you could find the Niah Cave gecko, a lizard found only in Borneo. End your evening with a romantic walk in the moonlight accompanied by the symphony of sound that is the rainforest at night. The park also has two well marked walking trails, the Bukit Kasut trail and the Madu trail.
To take in all of Niah’s wonders will take more than a day trip. To appreciate all its attractions, stay a night or more in the park’s chalet or hostel accommodation. Then, at dusk, you will witness thousands of roundleaf bats flying around the cave ceiling before streaming into the forest canopy. At the same time, huge, swirling flocks of swiftlets return to the cave to roost.
The park headquarters is a two-hour’s drive from Miri or Bintulu. From the park headquarters you need to cross the Niah River in a motorized boat and then take a one hour walk on a walkway to reach the entrance of The Great Cave. The walkway also links to an Iban longhouse homestay.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The most convenient way to get to Niah National Park is by taxi which takes about 1 hour 30 minutes from Miri city.
Take Bus No.33A from the city centre to Pujut Corner Bus Terminal. From here, one can take any bus that goes to either Bintulu, Sibu or Kuching. Get off at the Niah Rest Stop.
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 motorized 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.
Park Opening Hours:
8.00am to 5.00pm
Monday – Sunday including Public Holidays
Niah National Park
Tel: (+6) 085 737450/736648/737454
Tel: (+6) 085 737918
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.
A permit is required for professional photography or filming, which should be arranged in advance with the National Park Booking Office.