June 23, 2017
The usual slick malls in between older buildings seem to make up most of Miri with new buildings under construction just about everywhere. There are pavement eateries and cafes aplenty but there is a faintly flat feel to this town. The various markets are probably the most happening in town. But they too are strictly low-key affairs, hovering at the edge of somnolence. On sale at the fish market, are fish of all stripes including baby sharks and stingrays. A bit further on is a more interesting market selling a satisfyingly odd mix of goods. From woven baskets and hats made of tree bark to baby chicks and ducklings, to a host of jungle medicine reputed to cure whatever ailments one might have. Heaps of bright red chili peppers sit next to piles of cabbages and potatoes. Dragon fruits share space with pyramids of limes and the small square-shaped packages of woven palm, called ketupats are heaped on counters.
Niah National Park
June 24, 2017
Of the several cave systems dotted around Borneo, turned into national parks, the one at Niah interested me the most. Among Pleistocene tools, pottery, beads and ceramics, the most famous find in these caves was a human skull dating from 38000 BC. Word is, there are cave paintings here that date back to several thousand years ago; I was keen to see them.
A bus ride from Miri to Batu Niah and a shorter bit to the national park brought me to the limestone ridge housing the caves. A thirty-second boat ride later, I was on the path that led to the caves. The cement path soon gave way to a planked boardwalk, a meter or so above the forest floor and continued all through the caves. This park is said to host a fair amount of wildlife, including gibbons. But clomping of my boots along the boardwalk ensured that I making enough of a racket, that I saw none barring one small snake that slithered off the boardwalk and a couple of brilliantly colored centipedes.
Three kilometers or so from the museum is first cave, often called the Traders’ cave. Time was when locals who collected and traded bat guano and swiftlet nests, lived in these caves. The swiftlet nests are prized by the Chinese and fetch good prices. The traders may not live in the caves anymore, but there are collectors still; I met a trio of them as they hauled huge loads of guano. They paused for a rest and we chatted a bit. Nowadays they are required to have licenses to harvest and timings are strictly regulated. Guano is collected year-round, but the nests only at certain times, they tell me.
The second cave a little further on, is justifiably called the Great Cave. It is immense, dwarfing the boardwalk, stairs and even the dilapidated building inside it. An excavation site to one site is fenced off but bears no signs of recent activity. There are long ropes and ladders that soar easily forty or fifty meters up to the ceiling. It is these that the nest collectors climb to collect the nests. The constant chirpings of swiftlets filled the air and I could see them dart in and out of pockets high in the pockmarked ceiling.
At the far end of the cave is the kilometer and a half long tunnel leading to the other two caves. With my usual brilliance, I had forgotten my headlamp at the guesthouse and had to rent one. The broken hinge required some maneuvering and inhaling the smell of bat guano, in the diminishing circle of light, I tried to walk without tripping in the pitch-dark. I ate my share of bugs that congregated in the light of my headlamp and chalked it up to an extra-protein-rich lunch. The only reason I was not lunch for mosquitoes was no doubt, thanks to the bat population. Occasional slick patches due to constant dripping from unseen openings, had me clutching the guano-thickened railings, trying not to cringe. The complete absence of light made it impossible to get a sense of space and the passage of time seemed far longer than it actually was. After what seemed ages, I saw a faint glow ahead. It grew, signaling the opening into the forest and after another half kilometer or so was the painted cave. Along a wall are faint smudges of ochre-colored paint. The few paintings that are fenced off, are a pale reflection of the brilliantly colored paintings seen in pictures from the time of their discovery. I can barely make out a boat and some figures. Not quite in the league of the famously old skull found here, these paintings are relatively recent. These are dated to a mere twelve hundred years ago.