By D and S
Mulu is freaking awesome. Like in Kuching, we felt that there was so much more we could have done given more time (and more money, it really isn’t cheap). But, those are the limits of traveling the world with a set amount of time and a set amount of money.
Some background: Mulu is a Malaysian National Park and a World Heritage site located in eastern Sarawak (Borneo). It is best known for its vast cave system, including Deer Cave, the largest cave passage in the world, and Sarawak Chamber, the largest enclosed space in the world (these designations seemed arbitrary to us as well). As we mentioned in a previous post, we have a new goal of becoming spelunkers. Well, there aren’t many places better than Mulu to start working toward that goal. Outside of caves, Mulu is also known for The Pinnacles – pretty Limestone rock formations only accessible via a guided multi-day hike (which we didn’t do) – and for it being in a jungle.
High level. We flew.
Detailed. There are no roads to Mulu National Park. Your two options are:
1. Headhunter’s trail. This is a 7-day (or so) boat/hike into the park using the same river/trail the natives used to access this area in the not so distant past. It is called ‘The Headhunter’s’ trail since the natives were known as prodigious headhunters. As in, they killed people and kept their heads as trophies. Morbid, but also fascinating.
2. Fly. Malaysia Airlines operates flights from Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, and Miri. Short flight. Good price – $55 USD for both of us.
D’Cave Homestay. We had booked a room at Mulu Village, but we couldn’t find it when we got off the plane. We read decent things about D’Cave, so we checked it out. Overall, meh. The reviews online seem like all of those people stayed in a different place than we did, so I’m not sure what we missed. The room was fine, but the fan didn’t work. I stole one from the common room (which was also where the dorm beds were) since no one was staying there. The bathroom was an interesting experience as well. It was outside and mostly all open. I saw the biggest bugs I’ve seen in my life (to that point in our trip, anyway) coming out of sink fixtures and just hanging around everywhere. It was a mixture of awesome (big cool bugs!) and terrifying (where I’m brushing my teeth and exposing my bottom!). We also didn’t get the positive vibe from the lady that owned it that everyone else seemed to be getting. Anyways, we decided to check out after one night and find the place we had originally booked.
Mulu Village. On day 2, we found our original booking. It was about a mile further down the road after the National Park (right next to the fancy pants Marriott hotel). It was a bit more expensive, but the rooms are nicer (with fans that worked well) and an attached basic clean bathroom (with no bugs). There was also free coffee, tea, and biscuits any time of the day. James, the owner, was one of the highlights. He was extremely friendly and chatted with us multiple times throughout our stay. He seems to be a huge asset to the community of Mulu. Also, he cooks a mean traditional Malay breakfast each morning. Finally, he has a collection of bicycles (5 or 6) you can use to get yourself back and forth between park headquarters and the lodge.
Despite being a national park with no ability to go to the next town over without a plane or a boat, Mulu had surprisingly good and decently priced food options. There was a café in the park which was leagues beyond what we had in Tarutao, the other isolated national park we visited in Thailand. There were several restaurants outside the park as well which we thought were just fine. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised on the food front. We expected much worse.
Watching the bats. Everyday (except some rainy days), bats stream out the entrance of Deer Cave in the evening. And when I say “bats”, I mean something like two million bats each night. Just long undulating streams of bats. If you are lucky, you may also see a predator bird trying to catch some dinner. This bat exodus was showcased on the BBC series Planet Earth, for those of you who are familiar. (And if you are not familiar, GET ON IT. It’s an amazing documentary series.)
- Show Caves. The show caves are the very easiest caving you can do. They all have wooden walkways through them and are pretty decently lit up. We were a little nervous signing up for the show caves, because we generally like a little bit more adventure, but we were happy with what we got. We ended up doing the Clearwater Cave and Cave of the Winds. In hindsight, we would have done the other two show caves (Deer and Lang Caves), but at the time we booked, we didn’t know that we had gotten into the Clearwater Connection advanced caving (see below). So, it was a bit redundant for us, but I thought it was still worthwhile. The caves were beautiful. In particular, Cave of the Winds has a section called Kings Chamber that just astounded me. There were so many stalagmites and columns in this one chamber. It was breathtaking.
- Intermediate Adventure. You are required to do an intermediate cave in order to do an advanced cave. We did Racer Cave. It is so aptly named because it contains many racer snakes. Racer snakes are beautiful snakes that have adapted to catch birds or bats as they fly through the cave in total darkness. Meaning the snakes hang out in areas the bats need to fly through and then try to snare them. Nature is amazing! The cave itself involved climbing up and down cave passages using fixed ropes. The guides fixed all of the ropes for us. Overall, I had mixed feelings. Doing the cave was fun, but it took quite a while for the guides to fix the ropes at each section and hook each person in and out. In my opinion, this was really more of a beginner cave. However, the actual cave was very cool. And our guides were awesome. The uncle of one of the guides was the person who discovered the cave. Also, both of the guides had worked as birds’ nest harvesters in the past. If you aren’t aware of what this is, there is another reason you should watch Planet Earth. A quick explanation is that it is an incredibly difficult and dangerous job performed in caves.
- Advanced Adventure. Through a fair amount of luck, we were able to get in on the Clearwater Connection advanced cave trip. There really is no comparison between the intermediate and the advanced cave. I found the advanced cave to be much more difficult (and much more fun). It was a six hour trip beginning in Cave of the Winds and going for 5km over rugged cave terrain. There were boulders and muddy sections and some sections with rope support (however, there was no clipping in and out on this trip, you are on your own!) and a few (really, really cool) squeeze sections. ‘Squeeze’ sections are so named because you have to squeeze through narrow cave passages in order to continue. There were various sections that Sam and I commented to each other we would have no idea where to go next without our guides. It really was like the caving version of being in utter wilderness. We were also impressed by the variety in the cave. There were sections where you couldn’t stand up all the way without hitting your head, sections of scrambling over huge boulders where I felt like I was on a mountain, and sections in enormous passages where you couldn’t see the far side. The last 1.5km of the tour is a river section. A river of crystal clear water runs through the cave, and we waded and swam through it. It was refreshing after all of our muddy scrambling. And also awesome to be frolicking in a river in a pitch black cave.
- Some in park. There are some unguided walks that you can do in the park. None of them are too strenuous or difficult, and they make good time fillers in between other activities. There isn’t a whole lot of wildlife to see in the park other than tons of insects and lizards, some birds, and those bats. The most impressive thing was the noise! We would be walking through the trees and at times couldn’t hear each other talk due to the sounds of the dense jungle.
- Little “mountain”. There is a little hill across from Mulu Village that takes about 10 minutes to walk up. From there, you have a pretty good view of Deer Cave (and you can see the bats coming out, if you’re lucky) and the surrounding area. We did this probably 3-4 times. Nice evening hike.
- Other hikes. There are other multiday hikes that you can do in the park as part of a guided tour, but we didn’t have time to squeeze these in. Tip – if you have going to do a hike in Mulu, and you would like a bigger, athletic challenge, attempt to plan it outside of the park service. The park offers packaged hiking deals which we found to be….tame. Instead of doing a 3 day/4 night hike up to Mulu Summit, you could organize the same hike through non-national park guides for 2 day/3 night or 2 day/2 night instead. And it might also save you some cash!
Sweating. It is so hot and humid in Mulu. I love air conditioning. However, I will wear my sweat with pride (see Marriott comments below).
Several short runs. Mulu basically consists of one long road with the airport at one end and the Marriott (the only super high end hotel in town) at the other end. The national park is an offshoot from the main road. There is another road that offshoots but it only goes a little way before ending in a dead end. Because our guesthouse was a bit away from the national park, we ran to the park and back to our guesthouse. We also did one run down the offshoot road that ends in a dead end. It turned out to be a pretty cool run.
First, the grass is overtaking the paved road on each side such that in some parts, the pavement is only a few feet across. Second, we did the run at night, and at one point, out of nowhere, a poisonous banded krait (we think) was right in front of us sliding across the road. Thank goodness for headlamps. It was pretty cool to see, but also a tiny bit terrifying. Third, when we got to the dead end, we turned off our headlamps to see an amazing sky full of more stars than I have ever seen accompanied by a host of fireflies all around us. It was a cool few minutes (before we began thinking that more snakes were sneaking up on us in the dark), so we turned on our headlamp and headed back. Strava data HERE and HERE and HERE.
CAVING! That’s it, enough said.
Cheap(-ish) wine. The national park had the cheapest wine that I’d yet seen on the trip (around $3 USD), so I had to get a glass (or two). It wasn’t the best wine in the world, but it sure tasted good to me!
Marriott. As I’ve alluded to above, there is a Marriott hotel at the far end of Mulu. We had mixed thoughts on it. It is similar to the facilities you would receive at any other Marriott (I think.. it’s always a nice hotel, right?). However, WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF A JUNGLE. We walked over there to check it out one day and found it to be a bit excessive. The level of luxury was unbelievable when compared with the villagers living just a little bit down the road. It reminded us of a resort we stayed in during our honeymoon to Tanzania – amazing amenities inside the wall, poverty outside. Now, it wasn’t that bad. The villagers in Mulu are not living in poverty, but they do live simply. The Marriott, on the other hand, is not simple, and, unfortunately, all of this decadence is completely powered by generators (24 hours/day).
James, the owner of the lodge we stayed in, was diplomatic in his thoughts on the hotel. He was happy that it has brought in tourists, but he was upset with the way the Marriott came into possession of the land. I wasn’t able to catch the whole story, as some of it was lost in translation, but he indicated it is being resolved in the courts. Check out the Sarawak Report (link in the ‘More’ section below) if you are really interested.
In the end, it has made us think. When your air conditioning is powered by normal electricity, you don’t really consider where that power is coming from (kind of like industrialized food). When everything is being powered by a generator, the impact of your choices are a lot more obvious (due to the constant noise). And due to the location of the park, it also takes a lot more energy to bring in that energy. I guess where we came down is that travelers (ourselves included!) should try to be conscious consumers and reduce their consumption where they can.. especially if the resources are hard to come by in the place they are in. So if you stay at the Marriott, maybe try to plant a tree (or two) when you return home
“Chicken” sandwiches on Malaysia Air flight. We were pretty stoked to be getting free food on the flight to Mulu (that was about 90 minutes long). However, the “chicken” sandwiches were not like any chicken I’ve ever seen. It was more of a “salad” consistency and it was pretty bright pink. Needless to say, I wasn’t into that and Sam was lucky enough to have two sandwiches on the flight!
Alright, Danielle has written enough. Sam is now stepping in to share some additional thoughts on our time in Mulu.
Malaysian government. Let’s play pretend for a second. Pretend the United States government wanted to encourage foreign investment in the good ole’ U S of A, so it created an agency directly responsible for this aim. Now, pretend the Wall Street Journal publishes a story alleging that President Obama pocketed $700 million of the money intended for this fund. And by ‘pocketed’ I mean, transferred into his personal bank account. This would be crazy, right? We would all demand his resignation, right? Well, this is what the Prime Minister of Malaysia allegedly did. Except he later said the $700 million (USD) transfer was a ‘donation’ from a Saudi donor. OH OK. JUST A $700 MILLION PERSONAL DONATION. THAT’S COOL.
Why am I writing about this?
1. It blew my mind. I straight up didn’t believe it at first. James, our hotel owner, told us about the story and the whole time I was thinking, “This can’t be true. He has to be embellishing the truth here…” As soon as we got internet again, I Googled it and, sure enough, he wasn’t lying. WSJ link here. Or if you are really interested check out this website – it is the brainchild of a Sarawak born journalist who has been credited with exposing this story.
2. This story does a good job, in my mind, of explaining the difficult situation the residents of Sarawak are in. They joined Malaysia at the same time as Singapore and Brunei. Singapore and Brunei ended up backing out and the citizens of these countries are in a much better position today than the citizens of Sarawak, at least when you consider income and access to services (pretty important metrics I would say). They pay their taxes but receive very little in return. No roads or electricity (at least for those near Mulu). And the government has put up road blocks against their efforts to develop solar energy (supposedly). All the while, the prime minister is STEALING THEIR TAX DOLLARS (allegedly).
Made us grateful for the government we have in the States. Is it perfect? Nope. But at least our government pretends to use our tax dollars responsibly (Not trying to get political here people. Just going for an easy laugh.).
Conspiracy Theories. 99% of the people we have met during our travels are great. Seriously, we have met some amazing people. But there are some strange ones. During our 2nd to last night in Mulu there was a new person at our guesthouse. British guy. Dude was a talker. And when I say talker I mean HE COULD TALK FOREVER. There were five of us hanging out in the outdoor dining area at our guesthouse in the evening – us two, a couple from Poland we had become friends with, and ‘the talker’. We were there for probably three hours talking and during this time, us and the Polish couple only got in MAYBE 300 words. I’ve met some talkers in my time, but this dude topped them all. He had an ‘interesting’ perspective on the world to boot. For the first hour or so I was like, ‘Yeah, most of the things you are saying are interesting and logical.” And then things got a little weird. Highlights below:
- The CIA and FBI started the conflict in Crimea in order to gain access to an archeological site with three pyramids that show ‘the truth’. We were never able to get him to tell us exactly what this ‘truth’ is, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
- The CIA and FBI contact him on Facebook. They pose as other people, but he knows it is really the CIA.
- He’s writing a book. Trust me, I cannot wait.
At the end of the night, Danielle and I were speechless. Our big takeaway – we wish we were as confident in the abilities of our government’s agencies as ‘the talker’. Also, if you work for the CIA and you are reading this, could you please send me a Facebook message with more information about ‘the truth’. Or an email. Whichever is easier for you.
Bring Cash. There are no ATMs at Mulu. You can pay for all national park related expenses with a credit card, but all lodging and eating will need to be taken care of with cold hard cash. Plan ahead. We didn’t and almost ran out. We think you can take out money through the national park for a fee, but we’re not sure how reliable that is.
Life on the River. As we mentioned a few times above, there aren’t a lot of roads in Mulu. The villagers near Mulu use the river as their main highway. As we went on our tours (some of them required boats), we saw people bathing in the river, washing their clothes in the river, gathering river water for other tasks, and just hanging out by the river. There were several groups of children swimming and playing in the river every time we boated down it. It was very interesting for us to witness their way of life.