Last Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Visited: July 28-31, 2016 and July 22-27, 2022
Site Type: Natural
Background and Opinion: (2016 with a few corrections)
Gunung Mulu is a National Park deep in Malaysian Borneo. It contains dozens of caves including one of the longest in the world, Clearwater Cave. The caves are situated within 530 square kilometers of forest with over 3,500 species of animals and 21,000 species of plants.
One of Mulu’s main attractions is the “bat exodus,” a 10 million strong stream of bats that leave the caves to feed at night. Even if you’re expecting it, nothing quite prepares you for this hour long spectacle.
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 first 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 dominate the landscape. Despite it being only 25 minutes, the bumpy ride makes you forget that this isn’t the highlight. Quite a way to start!
Everything in the park is worth doing. Here is a rundown of activities from easiest to most difficult. Coincidentally, this is also in order of how much preparation you need to do ahead of your trip to Mulu.
Level 1: The Bat Exodus and Self-Guided Walks
The bat exodus happens about 3km from Park HQ and it is free (apart from the park fee). Just walk down the boardwalk straight for about 45 minutes. There is an area with benches and even a concession stand for drinks and snacks. Keep in mind that the bats do not come out if its raining. As this is a rainforest, look up the weather before venturing. Bring a raincoat too. Mulu also has the “Botanical loop” and the “Tree top tower” which are free hikes you can do on your own.
Level 2: “Show” Caves, Canopy, and Guided “Nightwalk”
“Show” caves are those with well maintained paths to and inside the caves for viewing. All require a certified guide. Since these are what most people do, they require no pre-planning. One of the first things you do when you arrive in Mulu is plan your activities in the park with the staff.
The easiest to reach are the Deer and Lang caves. They are toured together at around 2pm to end around 4pm and give you time to see the bat exodus. The majority of the bats exit Deer Cave and as a result, the area with the benches noted above is right outside these caves.
Wind and Clearwater caves are the next two show caves and are also done as a pair. These are done in the morning around 8:30-9am and end around noon. This gives you time to do the Deer caves or another guided tour if you wish to do so. Bring a swimsuit if you wish to swim the clearwater river just outside of the caves.
The Canopy walk is a tree to tree bridge walk to see some of the wildlife on top of the trees. While I did see animals on both trips, the best thing about this walk are the views from the top to the bottom. This is a favorite for families as it is easy but exciting.
Last is the Nightwalk. There is a nightwalk path, but guides have discretion as to where they can walk and many just walk down the botanical loop. This means you could easily do this walk on your own for free if you’d like! However, a guide can point out things you never would notice on your own unless you’re an experienced bug tracker. I did meet a couple who did this walk every night, and enjoyed both doing it on their own and as a guided tour.
Level 3: Adventure Caves
The ‘adventure caves’ are preferred by the adrenaline junkie types. These are caves where you squeeze, balance, dangle, and swim your way through caves. One issue is that most caves require a 3 person minimum to be approved. However, which caves are available is determined by who emails or calls ahead of time. If you just show up, it is likely they will just tell you which caves are coming up soon but not give you a choice. My first visit, Lagang was the only one in the schedule, so I signed up for this one. This latest Mulu trip, I knew how it worked and asked to open up a slot for Clearwater Revival. Last minute though, we changed it to Stonehorse cave and others signed up to join us.
Level 4: Multi-day Trips: Pinnacles, Mulu Summit, Sarawak Chamber Cave
The Pinnacles are a geological formation known throughout Malaysia. It looks very similar to Tsingy de Bemaraha in Madigascar but is less known to outsiders. This 3 day 2 night hike requires pre-booking and a good amount of stamina to complete. Guides can turn people around if they have not reached certain cut off checkpoints in the allotted time. Many people come to Mulu with a single goal in mind, The Pinnacles!
Mulu Summit is considered by some the most challenging adventure in Mulu. This trek is steep and requires you to carry all of your food and camping materials with you. Mulu summit takes another 3 days 2 nights and is also by reservation only.
Sarawak Chamber is also an adventure cave, but the only one that requires an overnight stay. It is considered extremely challenging and you must demonstrate your ability in intermediate caves before being allowed to do any of the advanced caves, including this one. Reservations are required.
Addendum: August, 2022
This was added to the interior of Mulu National Park HQ in 2018 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first expedition. Its leader, Robin Hanbury-Tension, also donated a number of his photographs from that expedition to decorate the museum. But guess what? No caves! Hell, most of the pictures aren’t even about the forest either. What Mr. Hanbury-Tension symbolized in his donation is something I failed to acknowledge back in my original 2016 article and review of this site. The story of Gunung Mulu National Park is not just a story of natural beauty. It is a story of its people. Good thing this time, I took a lot of notes!
The people depicted on the RGS expedition photos are the Penan. Unlike other local people, they were largely nomadic until very recently. Even now, a couple of nomadic people still remain deep in the forest who on occasion come out to trade. They are mostly known for being peaceful and helpful to their neighbors. If you visit Clearwater Cave, part of guided tour includes a visit to Batu Bungan, a village bordering Mulu NP. While this may seem like just another “shop stop” as many tourist sites have, this is different. The Penan were donated this land by the Berawan Tribe (more on them later) to establish the settlement where they could also benefit from the draw of Mulu’s caves. At the same time, they could teach others of their ways and prevent their culture from fading. Brushing up on your Penan may not be too bad an idea, but the locals understand Bahasa Malaysian, and a bit of English too. Their market is interesting, affordable, and not just for show. It is open to nearby locals as well and they even take special weaving requests as their skills in that are well known. Still, most of their population lives in Long Iman, not too far down the river.
On my first trip to Mulu, a group of about 5 Penan guys from Long Iman shared a couple of beers with me. I was a bit reluctant at first, expecting that they would expect some kind of compensation. However, it was nothing like that. Instead, they invited me to visit Long Iman and to join them on the Canoe races later that week. I was unfortunately leaving the next day, but hope to see them again someday.
The Iban and the Kayan are two of many minority groups in the Sarawak area of Malaysia. In the era before the White Rajah Charles Brooke, the “Baram region” participated in a very brutal practice: Headhunting. To show how powerful you were, a tribe would seek out a rival tribesman and cut off their head. The head would be displayed in a spike outside of your tribe’s longhouse as a testament of how tough you were. Living in “longhouses” served as a defense as the entire village would be woken up by living in a single “long” house. When a tribe member got a family of their own, a new unit would be built and added to the longhouse. Constant fighting lead to instability in the region and was bad enough. However, it was the headhunting that the British ruler Charles Brooke couldn’t live with. He cleverly threw a huge party in nearby Marundi town where he proposed an end to the practice and replaced. Now, to show dominance, you would participate in the Regatta Boat Race, a tradition held yearly until this day (recently moved to Kuching). Unfortunately for the Iban and Kayan, recent races have been dominated by the Berawan.
While I didn’t meet any full Kayan people, I did meet guide Nicholas who is Iban. He guided us through the Canopy section of the park.
If you visit Mulu, chances are that the vast majority of your interactions will be with the Berawan. In the time of Mulu National Park’s exploration, the Berawan Tribe controlled what is now the village and surrounding area. In fact, it was on Berawan land that Robin Hanbury-Tension set up camp for the original expedition. Most park guides, staff, and people in Mulu Village today are either fully or partially Berawan.
Young Berawan Nimrod was our first guide to Deer and Lang caves. He later turned out to be our guide into Stonehorse Adventure Cave too! He is a younger guide that represents a new generation of Berawan guides in their 20s. Mulu Village Homestay where we stayed is also owned by Brenda and Berawan member James. He is simply one of the nicest and most interesting people you will ever meet.
1) Completeness / Preservation (15 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 prized 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.
Revision 2022: This is far less of an issue these days as the outside of the park was quite clean. Also, given how often this area floods, it is quite amazing what a great job the park management does.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (15 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 (25 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.
Revision 2022: Looks like I was mistaken and the park does have wild cat species and even bears. Of course, they don’t make a habit of coming near the places where people live, but they have been spotted in multi-day hikes. We even spotted a large animal in the trees during a nightwalk!
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.
Revision 2022: It is rare that I have a strong desire to return to a place like Mulu for a second look. It is even more rare that I enjoy the second time as much as the first. My visit in July, 2022 was as spectacular and would love to come back for a 3rd visit.
5) Logistics (6.5 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 advance, 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.
Revision 2022: The issues listed above have largely been ironed out. It was a new system then but now, it is quite easy to do multiple activities in a day with no real issue. It is still something you should book in advance if you want to do the Pinnacles or a multi-day hike, but for the vast majority of people, it is quite fine. I was able to book adventure caves just a week before arriving by email with no issues. There is still very limited internet, but with the installation of a tower nearby, the signal for credit card purchases is more stable. However, you should still bring cash for purchases in the restaurants, homestays, etc. Furthermore, a flood in 2021 and another in 2022 have destroyed basically all bikes in the village, making getting around a tad more cumbersome.
6) Uniqueness (20 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. Mulu is truly, a special place.
Combined Score: 96.5/100
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