Most people had known about Niah as one of the birthplace of civilization. Modern human remains had been discovered in Niah, and it had become one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. There are plenty of human settlements found in the area such as cooking utensils and ornament made from bones, stone or clay. In 1958, it was gazetted as a National Historic Monument. A team led by Tom Harrisson, a curator of the Sarawak Museum at the time had unearthed a skull which was estimated to be 40,000 years old, and it was the evidence of human settlements there. Another discovery is the large burial site further into the cave that had been used from Palaeolithic times up to the year 1400 AD.
These archaeological findings were found in The Great Cave. While most of the early settlements were found here, The Painted Cave also holds great treasure. It houses detailed wall-paintings portraying the boat journey of the dead into the afterlife. These paintings were interpreted by the “death-ships” (boat-shaped coffins) on the cave floor.
The Great Cave can be reached by walking for about 3.5 km via the plank walk, and you get to view the dense rainforests from the ground. You may see some of the park’s wildlife, such as birds, squirrels, lizards, butterflies and uncommon insects. The first section of the cave that you will encounter is the Trader’s Cave, which is in fact an extended protruding rock, and not the actual cave. The cave got its name when the birds nest and guano traders conducted their business there in the past. Walking a few minutes later, you will be awed by the view of the West Mouth of The Great Cave, at over 60 metres high and 250 metres wide. The archaeological excavations can be seen clearly on the left side of the cave entrance.
Voices of the guano collectors can be heard when you proceed into the cave. Moreover, you get to see local people collecting birds nest, or just the evidence of birds nest collecting which can be seen by the strategically placed bamboo poles and ironwood ladders. Although colleting the nest is a dangerous job, the risk is very rewarding, as the price for the best quality raw bird’s nests are worth over USD1,000 per kilogramme.
Walking through the passage at the back of The Great Cave, you will reach a large chamber known as Padang. Illuminated by the sunlight streaming down the large holes in the cave roof, you can see the bizarre rock formations in the Burnt Cave (Lubang Hangus). Another few minutes’ walk will take you to the dark passage of Gan Kira (Moon Cave), where you need to use the flashlight to see the extraordinary rock shapes and weathering effects.
After that, the plank walk leads to a short pathway under the sun which leads to the Painted Cave. You can see the painting of spread-eagle human figures, some of the animals and the longboats carrying the souls of the deceased with the help of dim light.
Niah Caves is just 1 hour 40 minutes’ drive from Miri or 2 hours’ drive from Bintulu. From Batu Niah, you can go to the Park Headquarters by car, motorised longboat or a stroll for about 45 minutes along the riverbank as it was just 3 km from Batu Niah.