Lambir Hills National Park might have been my favorite Borneo destination but Niah Caves National Park was by far the most physically impressive place that I visited. It is much more than just a cave. It is a nice place for hiking, it has significant archaeological relevance and it is part of an extremely profitable bat guano and bird next collecting industry.
In 1958, a team of archaeologists discovered a 40,000 year old human skull which conflicted with the then accepted fact that Borneo was settled much later than that. Evidence of continual habitation over the last 40,000 years continues to be unearthed at the caves. The most fascinating find are the death coffins for transport to the afterlife. It’s always fascinating to learn about ancient civilizations that shared some sort of mythology despite never interacting with each other. The boat coffins are no longer at the caves but you are able to see them at a museum in Kuching, Malaysia. Click here for a photo link to a boat coffin.
The hike starts at the headquarters and requires visitors to first cross over a river using a small ferry boat costing 1RM (about 30 cents). It’s a little puzzling why a National Park with as many as 1000 visitors per day couldn’t build a small bridge but the ferry adds a little charm to the trip. Shortly after the ferry the trail becomes a slightly elevated boardwalk through a swampy area. I was never really confident that the boardwalk would support my weight (170ish lbs) due to the weathered state of the boards. I never saw any broken planks or evidence of recently fixed planks but I made sure I was walking on the support at all times. I was also on the lookout for crocodiles since Niah National Park is known for crocodiles although they probably live in the larger river that you take a ferry across. It’s a 3 kilometer hike through a beautiful rainforest with interesting trees, rock formations and potentially some wildlife. It’s flat and it should be relatively easy for most but everyone needs to be careful since the heat and humidity can be a factor.
Traders Cave is the first cave that you reach. It actually isn’t a cave but it is rather an overhang in the side of the mountain. Until 40-50 years ago this cave was used by the bird nest and bat guano collectors to both live and to trade their products with merchants.
Opposite the Great Cave (pictured at the top) is another mountain that I think has another cave in it. If you have more time (probably a 2nd day) you can also explore this and do a couple of other short hikes. Long before Niah Caves became a national park it was the source of two valuable products. Bat guano is commonly collected in caves all over the world to use as fertilizer but they also collect bird’s nests. Bird nest soup is very popular in China and other parts of the world. Swiftlets use saliva to create the nests and these nests are very valuable. Some sites report it as 1000USD/kg but this Borneo Post article says 30USD/kg. Unfortunately this is another area where Chinese tradition is impacting the natural world. Swiftlet numbers have declined from 1.7M in 1930 to 100,000 at Niah Caves. Read more about bird nest soup here.
The Great Cave doesn’t actually go down but rather it is a horizontal cave in the side of a small mountain. There are 3-4 exit points in addition to a skylight. The hike inside the cave is at least 1 kilometer in length but it never gets narrow. About 200 meters past Niah Cave (see map) there is a second cave. Painted Cave is a second smaller cave with cave paintings and where the boat coffins were found.
The cave is at least 50 meters high and I think he was going to free climb this metal pole to collect either bird nests or bat guano. I actually have no idea how they collect either of them but it must be incredibly hard and dangerous work.
Here is a video (not mine) of bats in flight at the other amazing caves in Malaysia (Mulu). Every night millions of bats leave the caves and fly like a school of fish wiping out the mosquito population. I have no idea how any mosquitos survive the sheer numbers of bats. We wanted to stay at Niah for this but I had mistakenly booked an evening flight back to Kota Kinabalu and I had to be the reason that we missed this.