The vast, majestic limestone caverns of Niah National Park are one of Borneo’s most impressive natural attractions. Although it often plays second fiddle to Sarawak’s famed Gunung Mulu National Park, Niah cemented its status as one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia when the remains of prehistoric humans were unearthed back in 1958.
1) The limestone caves and cliffs are absolutely breathtaking
The three caves which make up the highlight of Niah National Park are the Traders Cave, the Great Cave, and the Painted Cave. Each one will take your breath away with their sheer, immense scale and eerie Martian-like landscape.
Formed approximately 1.6 million years ago, the Great Cave is definitely the showstopper of the three. Perched atop a cliff overlooking the pristine jungle below, the mouth of the cave measures 60m high and 250m wide, with jagged stalactites hanging from the ceiling’s edge making for a dramatic frame for any photo.
Venture deeper into the cave chamber and you can see various limestone formations. A torch is essential, as the cave is dark and unlit, but when the sunshine streams down through openings in the ceiling, the rays create an ethereal spotlight on the rock, making for a great photo op.
2) Indiana Jones fans, prepare to geek out
For archaeology buffs, Niah has a lot on offer. The park’s main claim to fame is for being the site where the oldest remains of Homo Sapiens were discovered anywhere in Southeast Asia. In 1958 archaeologists unearthed the 40,000-year-old skull of an anatomically modern human, confirming Niah’s archeological significance. The excavation of the Great Cave revealed plenty of evidence of early human settlements including tools, cooking utensils and ornaments made of bone, stone or clay.
While most of the artefacts are kept in Kuching, some of these items are on display at a small museum near the park headquarters, en route to Traders Cave. If you’re keen on visiting the museum, it’s worth noting that it is closed on Mondays, even though the rest of the park remains open.
The Painted Cave – although closed to the public at the moment due to a fallen tree obstructing the walkway – is known for its prehistoric red paintings depicting human figures and the animals of the surrounding forest. Several small canoe-like coffins, dubbed ‘death ships’ were found in the cave, indicating that the site was used as a burial ground in more recent times, offering insight into the development of the indigenous religions of Borneo.
3) Vibrant lush rainforest, teeming with life
There is much more to Niah than archaeology. The rainforest surrounding the cave complex is verdant and teeming with life. Along the trail leading to the caves you can see plenty of wild orchids, bizarre mushrooms, giant pandanus plants twice the size of a human, and tapang trees with their enormous buttressed roots. Colourful birds, squirrels, lizards, butterflies, and all manner of unusual insects are common. If you are lucky, you may see monkeys and the occasional hornbill.
The caves themselves host a staggering number of bats and are an important nesting site for swiftlets, which create the highly-prized ingredient for bird’s-nest soup. During the harvesting season (August to March), nest collectors can be seen on towering bamboo structures wedged against the cave roof. Collecting the nests is a dangerous job, but the price of raw bird’s nests is so high (over US$1,000 per kilo) that the risk seems worthwhile.
Find the time to get away…
Although one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, Niah is well-worth the journey. Despite its historical significance, the place never feels over-touristy. On weekdays, it may feel like you have the whole place to yourself. Prepare to walk at least 12km on the trail – a relatively easy and pleasant trek suitable for most levels of fitness.
Niah is completely doable as a day trip from Miri, Bintulu or Brunei, but I would recommend overnighting in Miri, you’ll need the rest after several kilometres trekking through the caves and jungle! It is worth calling ahead to see whether the park is open, it sometimes closes due to bad weather conditions.
GETTING THERE: Niah National Park is just a two-hour drive from Miri, a coastal city in northeastern Sarawak, located near the border with Brunei. Visitors from outside Borneo can fly into Miri Airport via Malaysia Airlines, MAS Wings, Air Asia, or Malindo Air.
A number of tour operators can arrange transport and guided tours to the park, or you can catch a bus or shared taxi from Miri Bus Station. If you choose to drive yourself, most hotels can arrange car rental. You will find the 110km drive to Niah straightforward and fuss free.
ACCOMMODATION: While there are small, simple chalets at the park itself, most travellers prefer to stay in Miri where there is a wide range of accommodation, starting from backpacker hostels and BnBs, to more swanky digs such as the Miri Marriott and Pullman Miri Waterfront, located in a new upmarket development called Marina Parkcity.
BRING: A torch-light and good walking shoes are essential. The caves are unlit, and the wooden walkway can become slippery from the constant dripping of water from the cave ceiling. Wear a cap or hoodie if you want to avoid getting guano in your hair.