Visited: July 28-31
Site Type: Natural
Background and Opinion:
Gunung Mulu is one of two National Parks in Malaysia that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with the other being the far more traveled Kinabalu National Park. It contains dozens of caves comprising one of the top ten longest cave systems in the world (215 km long) and possibly the largest by volume. On top of its impressive caves is a forest (530 square kms) with enough flora (3,500 species) and fauna (21,000 species) to keep nature lovers (especially insect lovers) pleased for days on end.
The 2.5 million strong “bat exodus” every night is as fantastic as it sounds and even if you’re expecting it, nothing quite prepares you for an hour long stream of bats of over a dozen species gushing out of Deer Cave to consume 30,000 kilos of bugs a night.
Enough with the numbers though, here is my not so technical evaluation: It is freakin’ mind-blowing. The best time to go is yesterday, but the second best time is now!
The flight into Mulu Airport from Miri gives you a taste of what you are to expect. As we soared into the park, I remembered the words of the young American guy who told me about this Mulu, “You’ve NEVER seen anything like this before.” The plane just took off and he was already right. Beautiful winding rivers that have clearly redirected and left behind oxbow lakes dominate the landscape. Despite it being only a 30 minute flight, the bumpy ride makes you forget that this isn’t the highlight. Quite a way to start!
Everything to do in the park is worth it, from the easiest to reach Deer and Lang caves, to the ‘adventure caves’ that are preferred by the adrenaline junkie types, to even the free, self-guided walks along the board walk near Park HQ, just do everything and you will never be disappointed.
1) Completeness / Preservation (14 out of 15): It literally has a section called “The Garden of Eden.” One of the things that surprised me the most was not only the great shape of the park, but how clean everything was. It is clear that this is Sarawak’s prize jewel and they take care of it well. My only complaint would be the trash that you can see along the road right outside the park. There really aren’t that many people or visitors, so this shouldn’t be a thing.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (14 out of 15): Even though a single day is worth the trip if you can spare it, it really takes a few days if not more to feel like you experienced it all. I was there for four full days and feel like I just scratched the surface. Directly outside the part I had just as much fun as the side roads are slowly being swallowed up by the surrounding weeds.
3) Natural Significance (24 out of 25): The species by the numbers (above) speak for themselves, but the biodiversity of this rainforest as well as its joint geological significance is unmatched by anything I have ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulu graced its fair share of National Geographic covers in its time. My single complaint, if you call it that, is that there are no large fauna. But, the small stuff more than makes up for it.
4) Personal Impact (15 out of 15): There have been only three places in the world that have made me put down my camera to just take it all in. In these places, it was more important to experience the sight for a moment than to diminish the experience behind the lens. Those two place have been Te Wahipounamu, Bagan, and Gunang Mulu National Park. Not bad company if you ask me.
5) Logistics (6 out of 10): The need to book a guide for every single cave and important hike makes the logistics a bit cumbersome. Many people who want to hike the Pinnacles, or want to try some of the more challenging adventure caves book many months in advance to ensure a reservation. This is due to a new system implemented in November 2015 where they open up caves “on demand” instead of having a set schedule. This caused the unintended effect of having guides freelance their services to outside companies at 2-3 times the price because many visitors to Mulu are not the long term planning types.
In addition, even if you book in advanced, and even if you are willing to pay extra, the rules require at least four people per party at the adventure caves, making it that much more difficult for solo or travelers. On the flip side of that though, despite the activities being expensive by Malaysian standards, if you compare it to equal caving and hiking opportunities in the western world (notably, New Zealand), it is actually quite a bargain. Furthermore, since everything is so close to the airport, getting in, around, and out of town is incredibly easy if you do your homework.
6) Uniqueness (19 out of 20): I’ve been to caves in New Zealand and the US but none come even close to being as magnificent. Also, the setting and separation from society add to its magnificence. The only site which may be similar would be the caves in central Vietnam, but as of now, none are as accessible to the general public as these.
Combined Score: 92/100
Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.
Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.
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