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Spiralling plants at Niah

It’s far too cruel. Our alarm went off at 5:30am to get us up and out in time for our morning flight north to Miri. For some strange reason Malaysia airlines are not yet into e-tickets and with not time to post tickets to us we had to reserve them by phone and pick them up at the airport. We were told to be at the airport ninety minutes before our flight so we got there in time for 6:30 only to be told that the ticket office didn’t open until 7:00. Not a good start to the day, as we could have had an extra half hour in bed or made it down to breakfast (which at the Hilton is too good to miss) before we left!!

We finally bought our tickets and got our seats and had a quick and uneventful flight. We got to Miri just after 9:00 and headed for the Park Hotel, a cheap and cheerful Chinese affair that was well within our budget. Our room was large and clean if a little dated in its furnishings. The beauty of it though was that it is right next door to Tourist Information and also next to the bus station that we expect to have an early start from tomorrow.

We only came to Miri as it is a staging post to get across the border into Brunei tomorrow. With the rest of the day to fill we headed for Tourist Information to see what the options are for things to do. We knew that the Niah Caves was a possible and a quick chat confirmed that unless we wanted to see more markets and shopping malls in town this was also probably our only option for a day trip.

It was a little after ten when we left the information office. To get to Niah we had to go to the Express Bus Terminal a few kilometres north of town. The number 33 bus from the local bus station was nowhere to be seen so we hopped in a cab which for RM10 (less than £1.50) got us there in about ten minutes. The express bus station was smaller than many we have been to but it also had common features. As soon as the taxi stopped people from the bus companies were over at the car touting for business but they were pretty good natured with it here.

We did our usual routine of walking up and down the company offices but with few companies operating from here they all seem to have staggered their departure times so there are a steady stream of buses on the move. We told them we wanted to go to Niah and they all pointed out which was the next bus, which luckily for us left in ten minutes. Stef got the tickets while I stocked up on water and we were soon on board.

It was another comfy bus and pretty soon we were both nodding off, but not before I’d seen that as soon as we left Miri it had started to rain, pretty hard. I’d pondered taking my waterproof before we left the hotel but we had both left them behind so we had the prospect of a soggy day ahead of us. The bus followed what seemed to be the main road south, and the one we would have come along if we had opted for the sixteen hour bus journey to Miri rather than the one hour flight. It was a bit lumpy and bumpy along the way but I only really noticed it because the bus sprayed up all the rainwater that had accumulated in the potholes.

From what I saw of the countryside when I was awake it was pretty full of palm oil trees. The exception was just outside of Miri where there’s a posh golf course and country club. After about ninety minutes the bus pulled in at the Niah rest stop, a small village on the road that really seems to have only built up because it’s where the buses stop. There was a large almost hangar like building with a couple of shops and local eateries on our side of the road. On the other side was a small market and a few more shops.

We stopped for a quick bite of lunch before dodging the puddles to cross the road which is where our bus driver had waved that we could find a private car to get up to the caves. The first chap who approached us seemed to imply we were in totally the wrong place but then January turned up, a chap who used to work for the forestry commission. He was born on the first of January, hence the somewhat unusual name. We were bundled into his minivan and about twenty minutes later we were at the entrance to the Niah National Park.

At the bus stop we had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy plastic ponchos so that we’d be able to keep our backpacks out of the rain, mainly to ensure our cameras didn’t get wet. At the Park Headquarters, we paid our entrance fee and also opted to hire two of their three ponchos as well as a couple of torches because the caves are not lit. We followed the wooden walkway down to the river and then paid another RM1 each to get across. As everyone has to cross by boat you would have thought it was easier to collect this at the same time as the entrance ticket but apparently not.

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Emerging from the ginormous Niah caves

The river is probably only about twenty metres wide and you are across before you know it. There are two wooden jetty’s, both of which have seen better days but they were certainly a lot better than what we saw in Vietnam and Cambodia. We were then left to our own devices. A boarded walkway stretches for three kilometres through the jungle leading up to the edge of the caves. It was raining all the way and the walkway was pretty slippery in places. With it being so wet we didn’t really linger to try and spot any wildlife or to marvel at the local plants, we simply wanted to get somewhere dry. The sound of dripping water was a constant companion.

The first cave you reach is really just a bit of a warmer upper. This is the Trader’s Cave and is more a huge overhang of rock. The main, Great Cave, is home to lots of bats and swiftlets (whose saliva is used to make the bird’s nests used in Chinese soups) and the Traders cave is where the local people traded the bird’s nests and the guano (bird and bat droppings used for fertiliser). The Great Cave is huge. The entrance is 60m high and 250m wide and this then opens into a much larger chamber further inside.

There is an eerie and other worldly quality to the cave and it gave me a bit of a spooky sensation. The only sound you can hear is the birds and the bats flying above you and the smell of the guano is at first quite overpowering. We knew from the register at the Park entrance that there were other people here but until you saw a torch light flashing in the distance there was no other sign of life. If I was there on my own I would have turned around and come back but Stef happily sauntered off along the walkway and down the steps leading to the bottom of the cave.

Above us were what looked like bamboo supports holding the roof up. We only later realised that these were the props used by the local people who come to collect the bird’s nests. It’s a dangerous occupation but the US$1,000 per kilo price tag makes the risks seem worthwhile. Towards the back of the cave holes in the walls and the roof let in the sunlight and give you glimpses of the jungle waiting on the other side.

As well as being a geographical marvel, the caves also hide a long history. Archaeologists have been working at the site since the 1950’s and they have uncovered human remains which are estimated to be 40,000 years old. The caves have seen continuous occupation and burial sites have also been found there with evidence of use from Palaeolithic times up to around 1400AD.

We headed back to park headquarters and whilst we were both glad that we’d had the ponchos to protect us from the rain (both water and of the excrement variety in the cave!) we were both still well and truly soaked from sweat. The rain has caused the temperatures to drop and with a slight breeze there was a cooling chill in the air. We had arranged a car to take us back down to the bus rest stop and fortunately pulled in just behind the next bus bound for Miri. We had a short wait for the driver to have his lunch and then were off.

For the first time since Halong Bay in Vietnam I felt cold and I wished that they would turn off the air con. For most of the way we were the only people on the bus, a unique experience for bus travel for the last nine months! Back at the bus station we double checked the information we had been given this morning about buses to Brunei. Lonely Planet and the people in Kuching said it would be quite a convoluted process, involving several changes of buses, which could take most of the day. At Miri though they said that the Biarama company now offered a service where you only changed bus once. It also had the beauty of enabling you to buy your ticket here all the way to Bandar Seri Begawan, the Capital of Brunei, rather than having to pay for different bits and pieces along the way.

We found the office for the bus company and a very helpful chap managed to get us both pretty confused with his explanations. It turned out that he was agreeing with the information we’d been given this morning but we had to buy our ticket from their “international” office on the other side of the bus station. With tickets in hand we grabbed a taxi back to our hotel and both hit the shower, glad that we could finally get out of wet and by now rather pungent clothes, freshen up and get warm again.

Tourist information had also given us an option of where to go for dinner for good local food. Everything around our hotel closes up in the evening so it was about a ten minute walk down to Taman Seroja, a local cluster of hawker stalls. The food here wasn’t really that good but it was quick, cheap and convenient. On the way back to the hotel we were on the look out for a shop that was open to buy some water. We finally came across one in the block just over the road from our hotel. There was a definite seedy feeling to the area and from the lone ladies standing around on the street corners we are fairly sure that our hotel is in the red light district of town.