It’s almost impossible to have a bad meal in Malaysia — something brought home to me as I waited under leaden skies by a roadside, waiting for my bus to Batu Niah. Despite my unpromising surroundings, I had managed to breakfast superbly — throw together some glutinous rice, garlic, spinach and prawns, a cadaverously thin and henpecked chef, his bossy spouse barking orders, a large wok and change out of the equivalent of £2,and you have one of those life-affirming experiences that many of us travel for.
Batu Niah is a sweltering low-slung town and the gateway to one of Sarawak’s great glories — the Niah Caves. A geography teacher once described the area to me as Niah’s Ark on account of its extraordinary diversity and tangible links to early human history: earlier this year a 37,000-year-old human skull was discovered there — said to be oldest remains found in South-east Asia — while cave paintings depict the dead voyaging into the afterlife. Come late afternoon, I made my way along a boardwalk and explored the interior of the Great Cave. At 60 metres high and around 250 met res wide, it’s possibly one of the few caves that a claustrophobic person might be able to tolerate.
The same may not apply if you fear the onset of vertigo. Staring upwards into the distant recesses, I saw pinpricks of human beings perched on bamboo poles. Wobbling gently, they were retrieving segments of small cup-shaped bundles from the dizzying extremes of the cave. These were the nests of the black-nest and white-nest swiftlet, which comprise a glutinous solution excreted by the birds’ saliva glands. This quickly solidifies into a cement-like substance long favoured by the Chinese. The nests are processed into a soup that turns up in fancy restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. At times they have been worth their weight in gold, which is why nest harvesters are prepared to take such extraordinary risks to retrieve them. Then, as dusk arrived, the show — the main reason people come here — began. In a thrilling tide of hundreds of thousands of wing beats, the swiftlets returned to roost, triggering a similar number of hitherto unseen bats to twitch into action, peel off the walls and swoop for the exit.
In no time, it was as though the air turned full of soot. I was outnumbered on a Hitchcockian scale. Mid-air collisions were narrowly avoided a thousand times every second. A similar spectacle occurs at dawn when the swiftlets dash out as the bats clock in. Show over, I wandered back in the darkness, accompanied by unseen hooting and scuttling and the whizzing of bats cutting through the air. With my breakfast success still on my mind, I chose a pavement restaurant in town. I couldn’t see bird saliva anywhere on the menu — but just in case, I steered clear of the soup.
MULU CAVES – Isolated by dense jungle, Borneo’s Mulu Caves are a place to channel your inner explorer. Trek along tracks that fight their way through thick, primary rainforest via the thrillingly named Headhunter’s Trail, or arrive by air (no roads here), your light aircraft following the twists and turns of tropical river systems to the South China Sea. It was this movement of water and the primordial heave of the earth some 500 million years ago that started to form Mulu’s limestone and sandstone caves and peaks. Sarawak Chamber is the subterranean centrepiece here — the world’s largest cave chamber by surface area, which at 1.66 million sq ft could house 40 Boeing 747s. Deer Chamber next door could fit in five St Paul’s cathedrals. Riverboat rides and easy treks take tourists between the four main caves, while the 480-metre Mulu Canopy Skywalk travels into the trees. For a more challenging journey, hike to the Pinnacles, 45-metre high, razor-sharp limestone spikes that dominate the slopes of Mount Api.
BATU CAVES – The smell of incense is strong as Hindu families gather inside the Batu Caves to pray. One of Malaysia’s holiest and most impressive natural structures, the Batu Caves and temple complex is just seven miles north of the capital Kuala Lumpur. A 42.7-metre high concrete statue of Hindu deity Murugan stands guard at the entrance, painted with 300 litres of gold paint. To reach the caves and temple complex, visitors must hike up 272 gaspingly steep stone steps—but this doesn’t tend to put anyone off. Monkeys provide a distraction on the humid ascent.
Once inside, the dampness cools the heat of the day. Cathedral Cave is the biggest, crammed with ornate gold Hindu shrines. At the base of the steps are two other cave temples, the art gallery cave and the museum cave, littered with paintings and statues. The caves are as craggy and magnificent as you’d expect, with mellow lighting to highlight the stalactites and bats’ nests metres and metres overhead.