Sunday, August 17, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Miri rest stop

Koompassia excelsa. [IMG_4813]
Tapang tree [Enlarge]

On the drive from Belaga to Bintulu Isla began to feel like she was coming down with a cold. We just managed to get checked in at a hotel before it turned into a nasty cold and throat infection, and pretty much wiped her out. But as there was a distinct lack of places to find Western comfort food in Bintulu, she dosed up on paracetamol (Tylenol) and we caught a bus up the coast to Miri hoping for something better.

In Miri we checked into a reasonable hotel with a TV and wi-fi, ate a decent pizza and settled down to watch the Olympics, at which Great Britain are doing quite well!

After a few days' rest Isla's cold had gone except for an annoying cough and we finally felt like doing something different. So we took a guided excursion to Niah National Park (pronounced NEE-a). Sarawak has several national parks, each with a different selling point. Niah's main draw is its caves, once home to the oldest human settlement in Malaysian Borneo—a human skull 40,000 years old was found there in the 1950s.

The caves are fittingly huge. We say fittingly, because it seems that everything in this part of the world is huge: the insects, the trees, the leaves, the rivers, the rainstorms. The Great Cave at Niah is particularly impressive, its roof rising as high as 75 metres. We can't find a figure for the size of the mouth of the cave but we reckon it must be around 100 metres wide by 30 high. As you enter, a long wooden walkway disappears back into the endless blackness, countless steps rising up and away from you. You are hit by the cool and musty air, and the only sound is the clicks of the swifts for which this cave is famous: their nests (or rather the binding cement for their nests, which is made from their saliva), are prized for the curious Chinese delicacy bird's nest soup. Until visiting Niah, we thought it was just called bird's nest soup—we didn't think it was actually made of bird's nests! Maybe we're strange. But anyway, we now know the soup is the real deal. And it's expensive! The nests retail at around USD 2,000 (GBP 1,081) per kilogram.

Great Cave, Niah National Park [Enlarge]

The swifts have an annoying habit of building their nests on the roof of the cave, out of reach of predators, and all but the most determined human collectors. The locals here are licensed to harvest a certain number of nests each year, and they still do it in the traditional way: by climbing up a 75 metre tall bamboo pole and precariously scraping them off the ceiling with a scraper. Slips are usually fatal. As we walked through the darkness by torchlight we could see little points of light in the far distance. Sometimes the points were on the cave floor: they belonged to collectors of bird and bat guano for fertilizer. Mostly they were ascending or descending the ropes and poles, as the day's quota of nests was steadily filled.

Stalactites and stalagmites grow more quickly here than they do back home, but less gracefully. The hot sun evaporates the water on one side faster than the other, which causes the formations to grow out of the cave towards the sun. In the painted cave (named after the ancient cave paintings found there) the ceiling is almost completely level and smooth, apart from the crazy formations growing downward from the cracks. However the floor is rough and undulating, made that way by water flowing across it for millions of years. There's a good vantage point—a natural balcony—against one wall of the cave, about half way between the floor and ceiling, and when you stand here and look across the cave you feel like the world has been turned upside down.

The day after our trip to Niah, Isla was finally feeling near normal but Glenn inevitably came down with the evil cold; and it rained all day. So we were back in the hotel room, but with Olympic sport on the telly and fairly reliable internet we didn't mind too much.

We like Miri. It's got everything we need, it's pedestrian-friendly, the natives are great, the food is too. In a day or so we'll get moving again, continuing our trip north-east up the coast into our 26th country: Brunei.

Map of Day 626

Day 626
Bintulu to Miri

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

1 Comment:

Chaeles Bagli said...

mann i love bird's nest soup too even IF its made from spit!!! <333

i eat it like once every monthish and used to bought from website sometimes, my mom went back to hong kong and bought a full suitcase of it cause its cheaper there XD