Mulu, Sarawak: Of Cave-Hopping and Spelunking

“What you wanna do for your birthday, Jo?” I asked my BFF.

I cross my fingers and hope for “get pissed drunk”, although half a can of cider beer does it for her (true story).

Instead she says, “caving!”

And that’s how we ended up in Mulu, Sarawak.

Window seat by the prop
DAY 1- the arrival and botanical heritage trail

We voyaged over a tropical rain forest via an ATR 72 into a plane of viridescent vegetation. The earlier departure into Mulu was significantly delayed due to mist, rendering a visual approach unfeasible. So I sigh with relief when our 20 minutes flight conclude seamlessly (from the perspective of a passenger, discounting all possible undisclosed cockpit complications).

At the arrival hall, a nice girl named Diana stood patiently with an A4 paper- “CP LEE & JOANNE LIM” printed in capital letters. Walter from CBS’s Scorpion once said that “there’s an endorphin release you get from seeing your name on a sign at the airport. It’s an indication of forethought.” I concur.

Diana drives for 5 minutes before we arrive at our home base for the next 3 days- Mulu National Park.

We check in at the park’s office where we’re tagged, then presented a map and room keys.


I’m amused by this T-shirt and it’s accompanying note that says “adhere to the park’s regulation… to safeguard you from keeping 120 professional Sarawakian Search & Rescue members busy for days AND you don’t have to print a silly T-shirt!”

Point taken: a T-shirt is a very unflattering place to have your face plastered.

A++ for witt
Our temporary residence- the Palm bungalow.

After dumping our baggage, we pull on sensible shoes and venture out for an evening stroll. The sky hints at a chance of rain, and sun sets at 6pm in East Malaysia. Therefore, of the unguided tours, we picked the Botanical Heritage Trail for it’s length (only 1.5km) and proximity- being stuck under the pouring rain in the dark is not on our bucket list.

The wooden pavement

The entire trail is covered with a wooden pavement. Trees line each side of the track, with limited sunlight exposure. The walk is easy and relaxed, the perfect setting for a poet’s soul; or 2 gossiping 20s girls.

We make a couple of new friends along the way:

Mr. shoe-shopping-bankrupts-me
Mr. I-am-an-allergen
Ms. my-tail-is-longer-than-yours
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Trees, unidentified insects, nasi lemak, and canopy walks- these are the staples of a Malaysian national park.

We set course on the same wooden pavement we sauntered along on Day 1. Here, we encounter a huge tree, probably older than Noah and his ark. Oh, if trees could talk!

After 2.5 km of leisure trekking, we arrive at canopy walk.

I’ve experience numerous canopy walks, the last documented one being this at Taman Negara, Pahang. Yet, the thrill never gets old- suspended from multiple tree trunks, caressing the treetops, like a passageway into a hanging Eden.


Giant tree enroute to the canopy walk = photo opportunity
Every national park needs a canopy walk.
Being suspended 50feet above the ground by wooden planks and flimsy ropes never gets old.

Alas, the highly anticipated moment has arrived- tummies full from lunch, we board the little speedboat that will journey us to Racer Cave for our spelunking adventure.

Wind in my face, the occasional murky water in my mouth, ahhh… I love boats!
Far away, the misty mountains call… Spot the Gwaihir

After 20 minutes, we arrive at Racer Cave. Here, we slap on yellow safety helmets, headlamps and strap into safety harnesses. Attached to the harness is a rope, each end equipped with a carabiner.

After a short safety brief, our group advance into the stony unknown with caution. But first, we squeeze through a tight and narrow opening between the rocks. I suck my tummy in, and curse every cheese cake I’ve ever indulged.

Thank goodness, I wedge through uneventfully.

I turn around, and darkness nods. Our headlamps and peeping light through the rock fissures act as sole light sources. In fact, later during the tour, the guide prompts us to switch our headlamps off. As a result, patent blackness envelopes. I couldn’t see an inch ahead of me, and all I could think of was, “is this how David hid from King Saul??”

We climb rocks, sometimes with a rope’s help, mostly freehand. As a lukewarm rock climber, I rate these ascends 5a- doable by any abled body person with basic locomotive functions. The advertised “intermediate level” sounds about right.

At one point, we repel down one and half storey of rocks. A rope permanently looped around a sturdy rock act as anchor while the guide belay us down. As each person reaches the base of the rocks, he/she throws the carabiner back up, and the act is repeated till everybody is safely lowered.

We even get a stingy view of the cave’s namesake- the racer snake. This belt-like reptile binges on bats and birds, we learn. No rats, the guide assures us.

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On top of that, we also get a healthy look at the “Mulu Cappuccino”. The guide grabs a handful of what resembles black soil and parades it to our little group. Jo whips out her camera and is about to snap when the guide says with a wink, “it’s bat poop.” HAHA!

We continue to traverse rocks and scale others. I thank God for that yellow miner’s helmet that saved me from concussion at least half a dozen times.

Yup, that helmet!

The cave has only one way in and out, which is unfortunate. A route loses its charm once you’ve conquered it. But becoming cavewomen is not the plan, so we backtrack where we entered. This, however, given its declining gradient, proved to be an onerous feat.  Indeed, that was exactly what I spat, grip working overtime.”This is an onerous feat!” I declared. “Yes! I did just say that while hanging from a rock for dear life!” I continue loudly to aware the bats of my anguish.

But I didn’t die… which was a relief… phew! What did happen though, was a comical tumble that followed my attempt of leap off the rock like cat woman. Our guide managed the jump effortless, making it look easy.

Mimicking him, I ready myself, knees bent, and sprung off a rock with burning confidence… landing flat in a pile of unidentified brown “fluff”.

And that was the end of my humiliation… not.

Our 2 hours expedition approached the finishing line. Having slip right back through the initial crack, sunlight is beaming on our faces.

After living 2 hours without a ray of sunshine, I’m ecstatic. I quicken my pace down the rocky terrain, arms raised in victory. “We survived!” I proclaim.

I smell the sun… freedom… I feel the wind… I feel…

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… the lack of solid ground under my feet?

I’m tripping! I’m falling! I’m rolling…

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… Yep, just imagine me in place of that cute cartoon log…

… Once again, the yellow miner’s helmet is my saving grace.

DAY 3: SHOW CAVES- wind cave, LADY CAVE, and clearwater cave.

After 2 hours of navigating through bat poo, and making ladders out of rocks, we still insist on spending Day 3 in more caves. This time, however, we stick to show caves- those with solid, beautifully paved routes and man made lights to lit our paths.

The first show cave on our agenda is the wind cave. It’s name is derived from a spot in the cave where wind blows in at varying velocities.

Mid cave, a crack of sunlight spills into the cave from a hole above:

“Where did the hole come from?” The tour guide asked. “Why, this asteroid, of course!” Then he gestures at this rock:

The “asteroid”

No, not really, he rights the story. It’s some science-y stuff about rain water. But I prefer the asteroid tale.

Lady Cave is named such due to a stalagmite that cast a womanly shaped shadow. In my honest opinion, though, that conclusion requires quite a lucid imagination.

The stalagmite and its shadow that gave Lady Cave its name.
I have a sudden urge to play “chopsticks” on the piano.
A random phallus
The king’s chamber
One of these stalactites could impale a person. Just saying.

The Clearwater cave, as its name suggest, has crystal clear water. This cave also have a hefty flight of stairs that overly satisfies my daily cardio requirement. But that climbing wasn’t for nothing, thanks to this rewarding view:

Clearwater Cave
Clearwater Cave again
Clearwater Cave on repeat

Advance spelunking starts here, we learn. Cavers swim considerable distances in the freezing water:

And then it’s time to ascend more stairs:

Uhuh, climb them steps.
“It’s holy water!” says the guide.
We might not have peaked the Mulu Pinnacles, but here’s a mini version of those glorious limestone formations.

After all those dark, dingy caves, it’s time to photosynthesise. So we take a dip in a pond of Clearwater’s chilly water.

(Okay, full disclosure- we city kids sat on the steps leading into the pond for eternity. I said “Jo, we need to stop being the embodiment of city kids”, after which, I took a step down, then spent another 5 minutes shivering from the cold water. We then tried to visually gauge the depth of the water. Jo even attempts a step of faith, then quickly retraces when her feet couldn’t meet the bottom. Only after a couple of Sabahans boldly plunge into the water, do we leave the city on the wooden steps and soak in mother nature.)

Random reference:

P.S.: Photo credits to Joanne Lim Ee Wei @ Elephant.

Taman Negara: 24 Hours Amongst the Lush, Leafy Paradise


After 3 hours of endless kampung roads in a shock absorber-less van, we set foot in Jerantut, Pahang. Frankly, Jerantut surprised me. I expected a tiny cluster of wooden houses without plumbing system while Moana sings I’ve been starring at the edge of the water, ‘long as I can remember, never really knowing why. Instead, a small town looms; rows and rows of shop lots, a hospital, sizeable concrete buildings… But the city kid in me notes: no mall.

We embarked on our boat ride from the Jerantut Jeti to Taman Negara. Fees paid and permits in place, we began our jaunt “over the edge of the water”.

Spot our boat
Walking the plank to our boat

row, row, row your boat

Every floating log freaks me out. After I nudged my husband’s arm for the 38th time, he finally says, “baby, that is NOT a crocodile”. But I’m not convinced. Can you blame me? My pandora bracket will sooo slip out over a hook.

Captain Hook lost his hand to a crocodile!

My husband has two great passions: lego and Malaysian rivers. “Sungaiku, haiku”, cites the campaign slogan. Naturally, the water’s brownish shade caused him significant discomfort; but did nothing to me as we cruised along the windy river, wind in our (nose) hair, eyelashes flapping in the breeze.

In the jungle, the Malaysian jungle, giant trees, they touch the sky… (anybody who don’t know this song had no childhood)

mutiara taman negara

After 3 hours of a surprisingly pleasant downstream voyage, we are met with solid ground.

Mutiara Taman Negara is the nicer of the accommodations available in the national park. Since we were in the mood for a little splurge (that explains our rapidly decreasing bank account figure), we booked an aircond chalet for 2 with with an attached bathroom and private toilet bowl.

Where’s the monkey?
Animals everywhere. It is, after all, a jungle.
Check out the booty on this hottie.

Bookings here also include buffet treats 3 meals a day, from the moment you check in till the second you punch out (or return your key).

The lamb was particularly mouth watering. Or maybe I just like lamb.

The dining hall
The buffet lineup
Scrump-ti-ousss! I-kid-you-not!

a pitch black jungle

The night jungle walk was, with respect to its name, at night, in a jungle, with no street lamps. Without the shine of our mighty torch lights, a blackness swallowed us like the fog in Sherlock’s Hounds of the Baskervilles. I stick my hand out like a traffic police but the darkness cheats the sight of my fingers.

The guide inform us that the “concert” we hear is a chorus of crickets, frogs and grasshoppers. He points out insects and creepy-crawlies, 2 snakes (1 poisonous, the other looks like a belt), too many crickets, and a big fat spider that sends tingles up my spine.

Spider: “Bet you can’t find me.”

Pak Cik guide points out a pair of mating stick insects and delivers a mind blowing fact: our friends can “bang” for up to 15-20 days! I did a fact check on the internet (marvel of the modern world), and discovered that their norm is FIFTY-NINE-FREAKING-DAYS! Speak of endurance.

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But the climax is yet to come. Scorpions lurk under leaves and in self-made holes. The slightest movement, the softest whisper, sends them clambering back into the shadows. To coax one out, the guide caress it with a stick, gently baiting it into the open. The guide shines a UV light at the scorpion to reveal a glowing silhouette of fluorescence glamour.

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We trek on to Tahan Hide, a wooden structure that functions as an observation tower. From here, in plain view is the spot where park rangers lay out salt. That, coupled with the presence of a water source, aims to lure animals into plain sight. Unfortunately, we luck out today. No animals, just a couple of moths in our hair.

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Bukit Terisek and the canopy walk, in that sequence

Day 2, we flex our quads up the man made wooden steps. Every 5 minutes, the guide takes a break to relay jungle survival tips. Where to source for water? How to start a fire? How to tend to wounds? Never sleep in the open, he advise.

The hike was relatively easy and our efforts land us on top of Bukit Terisek and a breath taking view. Pictures are in order of course, or it didn’t happen.

Pics or it didn’t happen.
The view

The canopy walk, which is essentially a hanging bridge draped betwixt the towering tropical rainforest. Rules dictate a minimum distance of 10 meters between each person, precautions despite the sturdy ties to the solid trees.

A healthy portion of the walk was closed for maintenance, and I can’t say I’m not disappointed. However, I make the most of the opportunity, drinking in the lush, leafy paradise from the front row seats of the hanging bridge.

Me on the canopy walk with the hubby in the distance.

hanging with the batek tribe

Speaking of hanging, the visit to a village of the Batek Tribe was an eye opener. These orang asli (aboriginals) are scarce in numbers. In the year 2000, there were only 1800 of them. Fortunately, their population today is nearly double.

20 families live in this village, where they drink from the river and hunt for food. The tiny huts house whole families, many of which have 7 or 8 children. Women walk around in sarongs, and the guide playfully told us that they don’t wear underwear. That sparked the question of sanitary pads, one I wish we brought up at the time.

And I thought my apartment is tiny.

A young Orang Asli man entertained us with his carving skills and fashioned wood into an arrow. Then, he demonstrated the fire starting technique the batek people use to spark “red flowers“.

An orang asli man demonstrates the fire starting technique.
A deadly arrow.
Real men build fire with bare hands (and wood). #myhusbandisarealman

We even had the chance to build fire hands on, with nothing but cane and wood. Because, real men build fire with bare hands (and wood and cane).

the 7 rapids

A.k.a. rocking the boat in baby pools of whirling water. Which is what the boat skipper did. Waves of water splash my face, drenching my t-shirt and running shorts.

Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Dopey, Bashful, Sneezy… Oh wait, those are the 7 dwarfs.

Nevertheless, 7 “rapids” and 7 showers later, I was soaking wet from head to toe with bubbles in my butt crack… And then it was over. WHY IS IT OVER ALREADY??

only 3% of malaysians have visited taman negara

Says a park ranger.

What??! That’s lower than the national diabetes statistics!

I say, let’s up the data.

We owe ourselves that much.

useful links (random links from google)