Niah is one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, but it is certainly one of the most important, and has some of the most unusual visitor attractions. The park’s main claim to fame is its role as one of the birthplaces of civilisation. The oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia were found at Niah, making the park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.
A place in the history of yesterday, today & tomorrow
Yet there is much more to Niah than archaeology. A vast cave swarming with bats and swiftlets; the thriving local economy based on birds-nests and guano; ancient cave paintings; a majestic rainforest crisscrossed with walking trails; abundant plant and animal life – all these and more make up the geological, historical and environmental kaleidoscope that is Niah.
The Great Cave is not the only important archaeological site. The Painted Cave, as its name suggests, houses detailed wall-paintings depicting the boat journey of the dead into the afterlife. The meaning of the paintings was explained by the discovery of a number of “death-ships” on the cave floor – boat-shaped coffins containing the remains of the deceased and a selection of grave-goods considered useful in the afterlife, such as Chinese ceramics, ornaments and glass beads.
Niah National Park is located on the Sungai (River) Niah, about 3km from the small town of Batu Niah, 110km south-west of Miri. The park was first gazetted as a National Historic Monument in 1958, and in 1974 some 3,100 hectares of surrounding rainforest and limestone hills were included, to form Niah National Park. The park has a visitor centre and good accommodation and is very easy to get around, thanks to an extensive network of plank walks to and throughout the caves. A torch (flashlight) and good walking shoes are absolutely essential – the caves are unlit, and the plank walk can become slippery from the constant dripping of water from the ceiling of the cave. A wide-brimmed hat is desirable, for obvious reasons.
If you leave the Great Cave and return along the plank walk around sunset, you will see two great black clouds intermingling. This is the nightly ‘changing of the guard’ – half a million swiftlets are returning to their nests, whilst half a million bats fly out to forage in the forest. Although this is one of Niah’s most spectacular sights, it represents only two small niches in a complex ecosystem. One of Niah’s other notable sights is the unusual number of luminous fungi (which can be clearly seen from the plank walk at night).
The park has two well-marked walking trails, Bukit Kasut Trail that leads to the summit of Bukit Kasut and Madu Trail that takes roughly an hour and passes through both alluvial and peat swamp forest, leading to the foot of Bukit Kasut.