Malaysia is divided into two distinct parts: Peninsular Malaysia and the East Malaysian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in North Borneo. The two regions are 650km (403mi) apart, separated by the South China Sea. Peninsular Malaysia shares borders with Thailand and Singapore. Sabah and Sarawak border Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo), and Sarawak surrounds the tiny enclave of Brunei. The Andaman Sea is on the west coast of the peninsula. The east coast of the peninsula, Sabah, and Sarawak all adjoin the South China Sea.
Peninsular Malaysia accounts for 40 percent of the country's land mass. Several mountain ranges run north-south along the spine of the peninsula. There is a wide, fertile plain on the west coast, and a narrow coastal plain on the east. Sabah and Sarawak are covered by dense jungles and have large river systems. Mt Kinabalu (4101m/13,450ft) in Sabah is one of the highest peaks in South-East Asia.
More than 60 per cent of the country is still rainforest, but a government plan to build a huge hydroelectric dam in Sarawak is expected to decimate 27,600ha (69,000ac) of forest, which does not augur well for the future. There are 8000 species of flowering plants in Peninsular Malaysia alone, including 2000 tree species, 800 different orchids and 200 types of palm. Fauna includes elephants, rhinos, tigers, leopards, tapirs, sun bears, orangutans and gibbons. East Malaysia has one of the most abundant and varied bird populations in the world.
Malaysia is hot and humid all year. Temperatures are usually between 20-30°C (68-86°F); humidity is usually 90 per cent. The region has a monsoonal climate, but only the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia has a real rainy season. The wettest season on the west coast of the peninsula is between September and December; on the east coast and in Sabah and Sarawak it's between October and February. Rain, when it comes, generally interrupts the sunshine only briefly; most of it falls in short, strong bursts.
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www.nst.com The rock bears an uncanny resemblance to the side profile of a former US President Abraham Lincoln and projects a striking image against the blue sky and thick green forest.
As we set foot at a strategic angle in the Deer Cave's mouth, the picture was not really what we had imagined, it was even better.
That afternoon, Abe blew billowing foggy black smoke as thousands of hungry fruit- and insect-eating bats swarmed out of the entrance of the largest cave passage on Earth.
"It has been raining for the past three days and the bats just have to have an early night out," says Gunung Mulu National Park park ranger Greg.
The bats prefer to fast rather than brave the rain which may force them down to the ground and make them easy prey for carnivorous enemies.
The through-going Deer Cave is home to a huge bat colony – the biggest in the world – with 28 species for a total of two to six million bats, carpeting the cave floor with guano.
The heavy rainfall also granted us a magnificent view of at least four thin-line waterfalls cascading through openings in the roof. Mixed with water, the guano makes movement slippery and a little risky while the stench is quite unbearable in the damp cave air.
Deer Cave is a roomy tunnel through one of the hills of the national park, so roomy it can accommodate London's St Paul Cathedral five times over!
While the famous Lincoln profile welcomed us, we were told the other opening has a Garden of Eden waiting with lush greenery just outside the entrance.
Further on, Sarawak Chamber – the largest Mulu cave which requires special permit to enter – lay claim to fame on sheer size, able to fit eight Boeing 747 jets nose-to-tail. However, due to time constraint, we had to give these two a miss.
A short walk from the Deer Cave is Lang Cave, the second of four show caves in the park. The smallest, Lang has the most intricate carvings like works of art from the most creative minds imaginable.
Bright spotlights are placed at strategic places, turning the low-ceiling cavern into a unique gallery, showing off beautiful exhibits at all angles.
Upstream the Melinau River from the park headquarters are the other two caves – Wind and Clearwater – separated by just a five-minute walk.
The narrow boardwalk into Wind starts with a wide square stage-like meeting point under which lays an ancient tribal man. The skeleton is carefully laid under a zinc roof.
Wind Cave lives up its name; unlike the others it is rather breezy almost throughout the entire passage while in certain areas the wind is rather strong.
At the end of the passage is the famous King's Chamber. Again, lights are used, displaying the grand chandelier and candlestick-like stalactites and stalagmites.
At Clearwater's, the unique feature is an underground river running for 70 km across it. It is the longest cave system in Southeast Asia while the stream is said to be the one of the finest in the world.
The river emerges in a sun-dappled pool by the lower entrance, making it a perfect picnic spot. There are a few benches and huts, toilets and changing rooms.
But caves are not the only attractions at Gunung Mulu. The vast park – as big as Singapore – is also home to the famous Pinnacles.
Located some 900m up the side of Gunung Api and Benarat, the pointed and sharp-edged limestone formations are the only remnants of previously continuous limestone beds, all dissected and dissolved by endless chemical weathering.
Some say a visit to the park is an unforgettable adventure to nature's beginnings, of virgin rainforests and eerie world of caves. But the Mulu experience is not complete without a stop to Niah, 109km from Miri.
If Mulu is best reached by air – flying above the vast greenery of Lambir Hills National Park and Loagan Bunut National Park – Niah is within easy road access.
The journey to the cave from the park headquarters, however, is more difficult and tricky that in Mulu, especially the three-km slippery boardwalk and steep stairways in the cave. This was made tougher as rain accompanied us throughout the excursion.
Along the way, we were told it is normal to bump into guano collectors carrying a 70-kg sack by a head strap while spotting nest collectors at work is actually a bonus.
Still Niah is not short of charms. The cave system includes the Great Cave, Painted Cave and Traders' Cave and was declared a National Historic Monument in 1958. It is now under the management of the Sarawak Museum and Forestry Department.
The park has two claims to fame – the Great Niah Man (a 35,000-year-old human fossil) took the Great Cave as his home and the tiny swiftlet which produces nests in demand as a Chinese haute cuisine.
Like Deer Cave, Niah is home to a bat colony and swiftlets. We were told as the night falls, two black clouds will intermingle in the sky above the cave as swiftlets return to their nests while the bats fly out to forage.
Though we stretched our "walking" limit for the two-day excursion in the Gunung Mulu and Niah, we went home with a different outlook at caves altogether!
Sarawak's third largest town, Miri, is the gateway to the northeast region. It is the jump-off to Gunung Mulu National Park, Kelabit Highlands longhouses up Sungai Baram, Lambir Hills National Park and the world famous Niah Caves. Connecting flights from Kuala Lumpur as well major Sarawak towns of Kuching, Bintulu and Sibu. Miri International Airport only 15 minutes from town centre. Flight from KLIA takes two hours, AirAsia flies daily with fares starting from RM89.99 (for more info, call 03-78096888). Also accessible by express coaches from the three Sarawak towns. Those coming from the north can either fly or take a bus from neighbouring Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei or fly directly from Kota Kinabalu or Labuan. By the old way, Gunung Mulu requires whole day journey by bus and several boat rides. Flying is highly recommended, taking just 20 minutes with spectacular aerial view. Niah, on the other hand, is accessible by road. Public transportation available from Miri. Chartered taxi recommended to save time.