Considered as the entry way to national parks such as Gunung Mulu, Niah Caves and Lambir Hills, Miri is the second largest city in Sarawak, next to its capital Kuching.
Although there are quite a number of tourists in Miri, not much has been written when it comes to commuting from the city center to some of the parks. It may be attributed to the fact that the state of Sarawak is not as heavily flocked by backpackers as the countries of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Skimming through blogs and TripAdvisor reviews from independent travelers, it was way easier to find very detailed directions in going to and from different tourist spots in Bangkok, Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur than in Miri.
Another reason is availability of public transportation. It can be a bit heavy on the budget if you rely on hiring private cars or taxi to get you to the national parks but believe me, this option is more convenient. If you do not mind waiting for about 15-30 minutes for buses to pass by the national parks, then by all means travel by bus. The fare is cheaper as well.
So, my travel buddy and I decided to visit Niah Caves on our first day in Miri. Equipped with the knowledge we got online, we took the taxi from the city center to take us to the Pujut Terminal (this is the long distance bus terminal in Pujut Corner). Any bus going south (Bintulu- Sebu-Kuching) will pass by the the Niah Junction. But it wouldn’t hurt to still ask the bus driver if the bus will pass by Niah Junction, just to be sure. The fare is at 10 RM.
Normally, buses stop at Niah Junction to pick up passengers or for a quick toilet break but it is safe to let the driver know beforehand that you will get off at the Junction. It was a long ride, about 1 hour and 40 minutes and we had reminded the driver about thrice to let us know if we have reached the Junction. It is important to keep this in mind because if you missed the Junction, you will probably have to walk a long way back. The road going to Niah Cave National Park is different from the bus’ route. Also, there isn’t a distinct trademark apart from the green sign at the highway that says Niah Junction and the bus will move into a right curb lane. There will be lots of other buses and parked private vehicles and the place is like a market with different food shops and fruit stands. Those are the only things I can remember about the Junction.
Once we were in the Niah Junction terminal/ stop, this is where it got confusing. From the information we got, it says that the Park headquarters is just 45 minutes walk from the Junction. Nope! It is still 11 kilometers away from the entrance of the Park’s headquarters. We tried to ask around but since the people in the area were not as well-versed in English as the people in Kuala Lumpur, they had a hard time explaining. But they were soooo nice and patient to explain (and even sketched us a map) on how to go there from the Junction.
As you can see, the route to Bintulu (south) is just straight ahead of the highway. Going to Batu Niah however will turn right. You will see a signage a few meters walk from the bus terminal in Niah Junction. The map they sketched has been marked 15 minutes to Niah Cave (but this wasn’t the case, as you will find out later) so we went ahead and turned right.
It was almost 11am and we were walking on the grassy side of the highway under the scorching sun. We had no idea where we were going, we were just hoping there would be a big sign “To Batu Niah”. We were leisurely taking pictures of the highway, aware of the attention we were getting from the vehicles passing by. I don’t think there should be people walking at the grassy side of the highway. (Most of the locals own a car, the petroleum is cheap. Lucky!)
The heat started to be so unbearable when a van with a guy driver and a guy passenger stopped by and asked us where we were headed. My friend told them we were going to Batu Niah and the driver said “Batu Niah? It’s 40 minutes drive from here. Just get in the car and I’ll take you there.” Paranoia kicked in so I jumped in the conversation and politely declined. “No, Sir. I think we’re good.” And the two of them stared at us and said “No, I’m telling the truth. It’s 11 kilometers from here. There are no buses going there. I’ll take you both to Batu Niah and you can give me 20RM- 10 ringgit each person.” I was about to decline some more but the heat of the sun was unbearable so I looked at my friend and we both knew it was time to concede.
You see, I try to look at the good side of people as much as I can. But I couldn’t help thinking that it was kind of reckless to ride with people you are not familiar with. It is uncommon in my home country to hitchhike and me and my friend haven’t done it before. Plus, we were at a foreign land so we had no idea about the place apart from the information we researched online.
As I got in the car, I noticed that the windows were down. I checked the two guys- the driver was dark and well-built while the other one is just okay. But my friend and I are short and slim. I was half- assessing our chance of survival in case the two guys were not as nice as we thought. Then the driver broke the silence and asked us questions and after a few minutes into the conversation, I felt a tinge of relief.
I was not able to take a picture of the ticket because we lost it inside the cave. When my friend tried to get his headlamp from her bag, the tickets accidentally fell into the crevice of the wood plank.
Part III: What to Expect Inside the Cave
Part IV: Getting to Niah from Miri