Mulu National Park is home to some of the world’s most stunning geological formations. Named after Mt. Mulu, the park is situated between the city of Miri in Malaysia’s Sarawak Province and the country of Brunei. Yet, regardless of its location on the map, the place is so remote that it can only be reached by plane.
The park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and was even featured in the Planet Earth documentary series. But with so many other national parks throughout Borneo, the question remains: is Mulu National Park worth going to? That’s a question you’re going to have to answer for yourself. But over the course of two articles, we’ll go over the park’s main attractions to help you make your decision. And if you do decide to visit, be sure to go over the important practical information provided down below.
There’s no question that Mulu National Park’s main attractions are its caves. But as I spent about 4 days in the park, I did and saw too much to fit into a single article. For now, let’s go over what there is to do and see outside the caves. This includes things like the basic trails, Canopy Walk, the Night Walk and the spectacular Bat Exodus. Some, but not all, of these activities can only be done with a licensed guide, and therefore require an advanced booking (more below).
NOTE: One of Mulu’s main attractions is ‘the Pinnacles,’ the stunning limestone formations jutting out from the top of Mt. Api. I did not end up seeing them, and therefore won’t be covering them in the following articles. Seeing the Pinnacles requires its own 3-day guided excursion. Trekkers stay in special camp areas far away from the main headquarters until they finally reach the summit, which is said to be a very tough climb. Trekkers also have to bring their own food for the duration of the trip. If you’re interested, you should be able to find plenty of specific articles about the Pinnacles trek online.
The Botanical Heritage Trail
The Botanical Heritage trail is one of the free walking trails within easy reach from park headquarters. It stretches to about 1.5km in total, and you can combine it with a climb of the ‘Treetop Tower’ observatory (more below). As you don’t need to make a booking, you can simply try it whenever you have a free morning or afternoon.
Before visiting Mulu, understand that you’re unlikely to see much wildlife, especially compared to places like Bako National Park. Most of the creatures you’ll encounter while out on Mulu’s trails are small, and require a keen eye to spot. While it’s fun to encounter lizards and exotic-looking insects, it’s hard to compare the experience with seeing proboscis monkeys or orangutans, even if those environments are comparatively ‘artificial.’
One positive about Mulu’s trails are the informative signs full of interesting facts for visitors (like myself) who aren’t all that familiar with the inner workings of the rainforest. While you can find them all over the park, the Botanical Heritage Trail seems to have the most. Some of the topics include vines, parasitic plants, different layers of tree growth, and Mulu’s diverse topography.
The Treetop Tower
The Botanical Heritage Trail will take you to the Treetop Tower. Just be sure to let the security office at headquarters know you’re going, as they’ll have to lend you the key. Standing at 30 meters high, this tower is ideal for bird watchers. But as is always the case with nature, nothing is guaranteed.
Birds may or may not appear, but you should at least be able to spot some squirrels hopping from branch to branch. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a hornbill, but I didn’t see any. Ironically, despite not seeing any birds from up top, I finally saw one upon my return to the Botanic Heritage Trail.
The Treetop Tower is free, so, while not essential (unless you’re an avid bird watcher), it’s worth a quick stopover if you have the time.
The Canopy Walk
The Canopy Walk is considered one of Mulu’s main non-cave attractions. The walkway is suspended at 25 meters above the ground, making it just about as high as the Treetop Tower! What’s more is that it spreads out to around 480 meters long, meaning you get to see a pretty sizable portion of the rainforest from way up above. In fact, this is the longest canopy skywalk in the world!
Each bridge is separated by a platform surrounding a tree. As only two people are allowed on a single bridge at any given moment, you need to wait for the others to finish up before you can go ahead. My group only had three people (plus the guide) but apparently they’ll take as many as 8.
Again, I didn’t have much luck with wildlife here, except for some squirrels and insects. Nevertheless, the Canopy Walk was one of the highlights of my Mulu experience overall. Yet I did feel like it was rushed and that our guide had us constantly on the move. I would’ve liked more time to pause and take some pictures.
The Canopy Walk costs 78 ringgit and advanced booking is generally recommended, as it’s one of the more popular tours at Mulu. The walk doesn’t require you to be especially fit, though you should definitely stay away if you have an issue with heights.
The Night Walk
The Night Walk, which costs an extra RM22, is another popular excursion at Mulu. Having had a good nighttime experience at Bako National Park, I thought I’d give the Mulu one a shot as well. Unfortunately, the walk was cut short, as it started pouring down rain about 15 minutes in. We continued the walk for awhile but it showed no signs of letting up, and we finally returned back to headquarters.
We did, at least, get to see a few things while it lasted.
One of the most bizarre things I witnessed on any of the trails at Mulu was this giant phasmid stick insect. In fact, there were two of them, who appeared to be mating while also walking along the railing of the walking path. It’s hard to tell from the photos alone just how huge these things were, but they were easily the biggest insects I’ve ever laid eyes on in person.
The Paku Waterfall
Mulu National Park is also home to a couple of waterfalls. And the most easily accessible one from headquarters is called Paku. Several kilometers each way from camp, this was the only trail I encountered that actually involved walking on the dirt instead of the wooden planks.
Finally arriving at the waterfall was a bit anticlimactic. The ‘waterfall’ is pretty much some water gently flowing over a rock. Nevertheless, the area in general is gorgeous, and you can also take a dip in the water if you feel so inclined. For those with a little bit of time to kill, there’s also a wooden shelter/viewing platform from which to look out at the water, so you may want to take a book with you.
All in all, Paku Waterfall fits into the ‘nice walk’ category rather than the ‘must do’ one. It is, at least, free. I saved it for my last day at Mulu before my flight left in the afternoon. As the trail is pretty much entirely flat, the way there and back should take you the same amount of time.
Trails Around Camp
There are still more trails to explore around Mulu, including the one on the way to the Bat Exodus platform (and Deer Cave) pictured below. Another walk that I didn’t have time for was the Garden of Eden and Valley Walk, which also ends at a waterfall.
But as you could probably tell, Mulu National Park’s trails aren’t exactly going to blow you away. While it is nice to simply be out in nature and focus on the sounds of the jungle, you can do that in many other parts of Sarawak. If you’re into outdoor hiking and wildlife, Bako National Park, within easy reach of Kuching, is where you want to go. But, as we’ll cover in the next article, Mulu’s spectacular caves are what really makes the park shine.
But even aside from the caves, there is one spectacle in particular that could, maybe even on its own, justify the whole trip out there: the Bat Exodus.
The Bat Exodus
Every evening, up to three million bats exit out of Deer Cave, which also happens to be the largest cave passage in the world. Well, not quite every evening. If the weather isn’t perfect, the bats may decide to stay in for the night. Not wanting to miss the show, I walked over to the viewing platform outside the cave on my first evening in the park. Luckily, no advanced booking is required.
From camp, the trail (pictured above) to the bat viewing area takes about 45 minutes. Hearing that the bats typically come out around 5 or 6pm, I got there a little early. In fact, I was the first one there. I waited patiently with my eyes on the sky. But no bats. Shortly before 6, a small group had gathered at the platform, but still nothing.
It was lightly drizzling, and some people had already given up and gone back. I almost did too, until I saw what looked like a small black cloud floating up into the sky. After a brief pause, another group of bats emerged, and then another. And then, they started coming out in a near constant stream.
The most amazing things about the bat exodus isn’t just the sheer number of bats, but the pattern in which they fly. The bats form a helix, as if there was some kind of magnetic force determining their flight paths. When looking up at the enigmatic black spiral in the sky above, one can easily forget for a moment that it’s entirely comprised of individual animals.
But why do they make such a grand exit nearly every night? Despite the dramatic fashion in which they leave the cave, all they’re really doing is heading out for dinner. Experts estimate that each individual bat eats somewhere from around 5 – 10 grams of insects per night. Multiply that by millions of bats, and, well, it’s easy to understand why the inside of Deer Cave has such a pungent smell.
With so many bats, the entire exodus takes quite awhile. I stayed for at least half an hour or so, and they were still coming out strong as I made my way back to headquarters. It was an unforgettable sight which I felt made the whole plane ride worth it. As we’ll cover in the next article, you can also see the bat exodus (a second time, in my case) right after a visit to Deer Cave itself.
Mulu National Park is so remote that it can only be reached by plane.* Direct flights leave from Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu via Malaysia Airlines. My round trip flight from Kuching cost me 333 ringgit (roughly $88) in total, but prices will likely vary depending on time of year.
This added fee is something you need to consider when deciding how badly you want to visit the park. Also understand that delays are common due to weather issues, so don’t schedule too many guided tours on your days of arrival and departure.
The airport, at least, is so close to the park, that in many cases you’ll be able to walk right to your accommodation!
*Technically, there is another way to enter and exit the park. It’s called the Headhunter’s Trail. But it’s a grueling multi-day trek that should only be thought of as an activity in and of itself, and not as an alternative to plane travel. To do it, you’d need to book a tour that may end up costing more than the plane ticket.
There are a number of accommodation options in and around Mulu. The official web site only mentions their own accommodation within camp, but there are plenty more options in between the airport and park entrance.
If you have the cash to spend, Mulu even has its own Mariott! While it’s some distance from the park compared to other options, that doesn’t matter because guests have the luxury of going back and forth via free shuttle.
When searching for my accommodation, I was well aware that there were other options outside the park (aside from Mariott) that were technically a better value. Ultimately, though, I decided to go with ‘official’ accommodation. Reading reviews of some of the other hotels and guest houses, guests complained about having to walk back from camp for up to 20 minutes in the pitch darkness, which doesn’t sound like much fun after a tiring day.
Being on a budget, I opted for the hostel. At RM58 per night, it’s a fraction of the private rooms available within the park. Normally, I hate staying in dorm rooms because of cramped space and (in all likelihood) inconsiderate roommates stumbling home drunk at 3am.
But national parks are different, as everyone is just so tired by the end of the day. Everything was fine with the hostel at Mulu. It certainly wasn’t luxurious, but I slept well each night and I don’t recall ever having to wait too long to hop in the shower. One thing I enjoyed about the experience was how there were a number of visitors from Sarawak or Sabah Provinces coming to enjoy the park as well. So in addition to meeting people from around the world, it was a good opportunity to make some local friends.
I later met someone who was staying at some type of homestay just outside the park entrance – just as ideal a location as the hostel. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name, but you may want to look out for it when doing your research.
BOOKING TOURS: Entry to the park itself costs RM30 for adults. But to participate in many of the activities around the park, individual bookings are required for each. The reason is that certain things can only be done with a licensed guide, which also means that these activities incur their own individual fees.
When it comes to booking tours of the ‘show caves’ or something like the Canopy Walk, it’s best to do it in advance. Even if you’re traveling in a low touristy season, when there’s not a particularly high chance of a tour getting booked up, it’s best to just do it for the peace of mind. It would be a waste to travel so far, only to not end up getting to do the things you hoped for.
While these articles are intended to help you decide what you may or may not be interested in, one of the best ways to figure things out is to simply send park headquarters an email. The staff is pretty helpful when it comes to planning out an itinerary for you if you tell them how many people you are and how many nights you want to spend.
With all that said, I did change my itinerary slightly on the fly after hearing some recommendations by people who’d already been there for a few days. Luckily, I was able to book one new tour and reschedule another with no issues.
FOOD: Park headquarters features its own restaurant. The food is quite good, but as you would expect, very pricey by Malaysian standards. Note that if you’re staying at Park accommodation, you get a free breakfast voucher every morning, though you’ll still need to pay for lunch and dinner on your own.
If you’re on a budget, there is a much cheaper restaurant just outside the park. Just walk across the walking bridge over the river connecting the park with the outside world, and you will immediately find it on your left. On some nights it does get pretty crowded, however.
- Before your flight, withdraw all the cash you think you’ll need for the duration of your trip. If you need to book a last-minute tour, you should be able to use a credit card at the park office.
- There’s no cellphone reception at Mulu, even if you have a local SIM card. For WIFI access, you must pay RM5 for a single day of use, and even then there’s no guarantee it will work. I saw my trip to Mulu as a rare chance to go completely internet free for several days. If you plan to do this as well, be sure to let your close friends and family know you’ll be out of touch!
- Don’t forget your own torch, preferably a headlamp type.
- You will also need a poncho, one that you can fold up and take with you in your bag, as a downpour could occur at any moment.
- If you’re staying at the park hostel, bring your own lock. While lockers are provided, locks aren’t.
- You will also want to bring what you’d typically bring for any outdoor and nature activities, like a hat, sunscreen and bug spray. Personally, I didn’t feel like mosquitos were a problem and was fine without insect repellent.
When visiting Sarawak’s nature reserves and national parks, you’ll most definitely want some shots of the exotic wildlife, caves and unique plants you came all the way to see. But considering the distance of the animals along with jungle lighting conditions, your smartphone or basic digital camera is not going to cut it.
Wildlife photography is one case where you’ll absolutely need a zoom lens. Personally, I’d recommend looking for something at least 200mm, though 300mm or higher is ideal. If high-end lenses like the Canon L series (or whatever brand you use) are out of your budget, consider an alternative by a brand like Tamron.
The Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC USD XLD (intended for full-frame cameras) is what I used for many of the shots above, and you can find both Canon and Nikon versions of it. While not incredibly cheap, it’s only a fraction of what the elite lenses cost.
If you don’t have a DSLR, you might want to consider investing in a cheap one with a cheap zoom lens just for this trip. Even that would be better than relying on your phone. During my time in Borneo, I came across a lot of people with smartphones or point-and-shoots who were very disappointed that none of their shots of the animals were coming out.
When bringing a camera and gear to such a humid and rainy place like Borneo, there are a few other accessories you’ll want to bring along. One is a large packet of silica gel, which you can keep in your camera bag to prevent your lens from getting too fogged up in the humidity.
You also want to get some kind of dry bag in case you get caught in a downpour. And if you still want to snap some photos in the rain, definitely get a plastic sleeve covering to place over the camera for protection.