With archaeological findings and human remains dated up to 40,000 years ago, the Niah Cave is one of the important prehistorical site in South East Asia. This is where the ancient “Deep Skull” of Borneo was found. As a Borneo born native, the Niah Cave is something that I grew up with. In fact I’ve visited the cave for about 7 times now – and have yet to get sick of it!
Roughly an hour and a half drive away from city of Miri, Sarawak; the Niah Cave is one of the easily accessible cave system in Borneo. With Miri serving as the main getaway to several notable national parks (mainly the Mulu National Park), a trip to Niah is one not to be missed.
THE NIAH NATIONAL PARK
I would definitely recommend on visiting the Niah Caves before heading over to Mulu. Likewise, if you have no time for Mulu, Niah is a great alternative.
Park entrance would cost you RM20 for adults, and RM7 for children/teenagers aged 6 – 17 years old. Fellow Malaysians are charged at a cheaper rate of RM10 for adults, and RM3 for kids respectively. A map handout will also be given. There is no need for a guide. Niah is really straightforward.
The river crossing is absolutely mandatory, at an additional cost of RM1 per boat ticket (so that’s RM2 for both ways). For such a short crossing, a bridge would be far more sustainable. Up till now I still don’t understand why they decided to charter boats instead of building bridges.
Shortly after you will soon find yourself at the Niah archeological museum. It’s definitely worth a visit; preferably before heading to the caves as it closes early at 4.30pm. Plus it’s free, and there are toilets available too.
From here on you will need to embark on a long journey to the cave entrance, so stock up water at the museum. If you’re traveling with kids, rest assure as the walk is fully boarded, and there are stops in between. It takes roughly 45 minutes to an hour for the 3km walk to the cave entrance.
There is also an Iban rest house along the way, locally run by residents from the nearby longhouse. Feel free to check out local crafts and souvenirs. Snacks and cold drinks are also available, but at a steeper price (RM4 for a bottle of isotonic drink!). Bring adequate water for the trip, or purchase cheaper water from the museum.
I personally love the long walk as you get to observe nature at its best. There are abundance of exotic butterflies, plants and creepy crawlies. Sometimes you’ll spot millipedes mating by the handrails. If you heard a ‘goose-like’ sound in the distant – congratulations you just heard the calls of the hornbills!
INTO THE NIAH CAVES
1. TRADER’S CAVE
Although not exactly a ‘cave’, the Trader’s Cave is your first introduction to the Niah Caves. The rock overhang used to serve as a trading post for guano and bird’s nests traders in the early 50s. Here you’ll find wooden structures made out of belian wood (ironwood), a wood that is impervious to termites and lasts up to 100 years old. It used to serve as shelters for the Niah Cave traders.
Also, if you’re still unsure of the route for the Niah Cave, here’s a full map for reference!
2. THE GREAT CAVE
I remember how amazed I was when I first revisited the Niah Caves several years back (note that my first trip was at 5 years old, and I was that bratty child who cried all the way hahah). Ranging at 60m height and 250m wide, the Great Cave is undoubtedly impressive. The stalactites, overhangs and the surrounding jungle gave it quite a scene.
You may stop by at the Tom Harrison’s house (pictured below) for a lunch break. I would normally pack a sandwich with me to recuperate before venturing deeper into the larger chambers. Travellers with kids may sit and relax here while enjoying the view.
Towards the left you’ll find the restricted archeological site, with recent work carried back in 2001. From here on, make you way deeper into the cave – and the fun part begins!
3. INTO THE DARK
Other caves may have commercial lighting, but in Niah it’s either go dark or go home. This is where torch lights comes in handy, and don’t worry! The paths are fully boarded and easy to follow. Just watch your steps (and snakes, cockroaches and carnivorous crickets!). Speaking of snakes, don’t worry as they’re pretty rare and non-venomous.
There will be a sharp drop into the cave, so watch your steps. Watch out with the railings as well, as it’s heavily encrusted with guano (bat droppings) and creepy crawlies. If that creeps you out wear gloves. You may also heard voices in the deeper caverns, but rest assure as those voices belong to guano harvesters. Sounds like an adventure isn’t it?
As you make your way towards Gan Kira and the Painted Cave, you will find yourself into a pitch black tunnel. Be sure to flash the ceiling once in a while! You’ll find thousands of bats cuddling together (fruit bats mostly) with their gleaming eyes.
4. GAN KIRA
Also known as the Moon Cave, Gan Kira is the main getaway to the Painted Caves. Once you’re out of the tunnel and back into the light again (thanks heaven!) you will find another rest house you can use for a short break. From Gan Kira it’s an additional 500m walk to the next cave.
Depending park maintenance (and sometimes the weather!) the Painted Caves may or may not be closed during your visit. Be sure to double-check with the Park HQ to avoid disappointment.
5. THE PAINTED CAVES
This, my dear friend is the main icing of the Niah Cave! The Painted Cave is also a main burial site, with death ships found at the mouth of Painted Cave B. The painted walls can be tricky, as it’s heavily gated for conservation purposes. It may take a while to spot the paintings, but once you see it, it’s really obvious!
The best part of the painting lies towards the deeper part of the cave (shuffle away from the cave mouth to the very end of the gate). You will see clearer paintings here, and the shot below was shot recently in June 2017! Spot the animals, human figures and longboats signifying the carrying of souls to the land of the dead!
THE ARCHEOLOGICAL FINDINGS OF THE NIAH CAVE. WAS THE DEEP SKULL REALLY 40,000 YEARS OLD?
There were concerns regarding the earlier findings of the Niah Cave led by Tom Harrisson and his wife Barbara to be invalid – because these two were not formally trained archeologists. Modern archeologist dubbed the Harrisons as skilled amateurs instead of professionals (ouch!).
The Harrison’s main findings however; the Deep Skull is an important evidence of modern human occupying South East Asia earlier than Europe. Back then Borneo was still part of the mainland, and Europe was predominantly occupied by the Neanderthals. What’s Neanderthals you may ask? Here is a great article for Homo Sapiens vs Neanderthals. They were the cousin species that died out – and I bet you didn’t know that either.
In 2001 a team of 20 archeologists and scientists were led by Graeme Barker to investigate that claim. It was a joint collaboration with the Sarawak Museum, and you can read about the findings at World Acheology here. Similarly, this is also a great article regarding the Deep Skull. If you’re interested with the academic journal, you may head to the recent Cambridge publication here. As of now, the terminus ante quem of the Deep Skull is roughly 43,000 years old. You could tell how much I miss being a student 🙂
BIRD’S NEST ACTIVITIES
Throughout the Niah Cave you will find long bamboo poles hanging off from the ceilings. These poles were used by collectors to harvest bird’s nest, which is an important source of commodity for the Chinese market. The license to harvest are traditionally own by the Penan community, a nomadic tribe of Borneo. Due to their nomadic ways, foraging is their main source of livelihood.
You may find bird’s nest collectors in action during harvesting season. I’ve had the honour to spot them once, and it is quite a sight to see as them climbing expertly up the poles with no protection.
WHAT TO BRING
Wear lightweight clothing as this is still a rainforest, so expect thick humidity. You will also sweat for no reason. A strong torch is advisable to navigate the dark, but you could also rent a torch at the Park HQ for RM5. Phone works too, but if you drop them in the dark…welp.
Wear good walking shoes, and a cap/hat/bandana to protect your head from unwanted bat droppings. Speaking of bat droppings, pack extra clothes just in case. Bring gloves if you’re icky of holding on to the railings encrusted with bat guano.
FOOD AND DRINKS
There is a cafeteria at the main HQ, just behind the ticketing counter. It is advisable to pack your own lunch. Bring a handful of snacks to munch along the way, and plenty of water. Hydration is the key.
There is also a KFC not too far away from the National Park. Likewise there is a local food court at both the Niah Junction, and coastal road junction.
GETTING TO NIAH NATIONAL PARK
From Miri city it is roughly an hour and a half drive away to the National Park, 80km in distance for one way. Public transport in Miri is pretty much non-existent at the moment, as public buses have stopped running in various areas. I guess most Mirian owns a car at this point, but it still is quite an inconvenient for travellers visiting Miri.
A taxi will take you to Niah for RM150/way (so that’s RM300 both ways). Alternatively there is Uber and Grabcar services too, just be sure to ask your driver to wait and tip them for waiting. I am unsure of Uber/Grabcar rates unfortunately.
For budget travellers there is an option where you can hop on the coach to Bintulu and stop at the Niah Junction. To do this you will first need to get to the Pujut Long Distance bus terminal (Uber/taxi yourself there), and take any buses that is heading south to Bintulu/Sibu/Kuching. It should cost you RM15. From the Niah Junction, hop on to any taxi (mostly locals driving their own car) to the park entrance for RM30/way.
Heading back from the Niah Cave however can be tricky. There is no definite bus schedules back to Miri, but the Niah Junction is a prime stop for long distance buses so chances are you can get a ride…or Uber yourself home.
My personal recommendation? Hire a car. Hiring a car gives you the freedom to explore other highlights such as the Lambir National Park and the elusive Bekenu beaches such as Tusan beach. Car rental normally starts from RM100/day.
FLIGHTS TO MIRI (MYY)
To get to Miri you will first need to get to the Malaysian side of Borneo first. Both AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines offers cheap flights from Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Miri (MYY). Similarly you can get to Miri via Singapore (SIN) and Kota Kinabalu (BKU) as well.
Some may find the Niah Cave to be underwhelming than Mulu, but I personally finds it fascinating. Archeological findings suggested that the Niah Cave is the root of Borneo, and we all should learn something from the past don’t we?
I am personally heading to Mulu this upcoming July so we’ll see how that trip turns out! Hope this helps in planning your journey in Borneo, and until then – safe travels!