Mulu was like a bad summer camp; the one where you count down the days until your parents come pick you up but hope they telepathically know you're hating it and come pick you up early. Maybe that was just my experience with summer camp but Mulu was an insane test of endurance, which I defeated without grace and and many streams of mean, unrepeatable words.
Gunung Mulu is possibly Borneo's most well-recognized national park so I was excited to go. Watch the “caves” episode of Planet Earth and you'll see a lot of shots from Mulu including the black ribbon of bats leaving the world's largest cave cavern for the night in search for food. Sadly what we found at Mulu was a expensive tourist trap in a resort town. We saw some cool caves and creatures but that lasted maybe four hours out of the horrible 50-some hours we survived in Mulu. The rest of the time we spent counting down the hours until our plane left to take us back to Miri, which we also aren't fond of but is better than Mulu. At least here in Miri we have electricity and affordable water to drink.
Mulu is home to the world's largest cave chamber known to man. It's said to be able to hold 40 Boeing 747's without their wings overlapping. That sounds awesome to me! However we didn't get to visit it. To enter the chamber, called the Sarawak chamber, you need to take a caving course through the park which is roughly $60 and then pay to go on the actual caving trip plus the entrance fee to the park. Put those three together and we're not talking about a backpacker's budget.
We arrived at Mulu via prop plane. Mulu is so far into the jungle that the only reasonable way to get in is to fly on a prop plane from Miri. The other option is a 12-hour boar ride up a river that may end up costing more than flying. So we booked flights. The flight in gave us a good view of what is happening to the rain forest here in Borneo - it's getting chopped down to make room for palm plantations to make palm oil used to produce bio-diesel and food. We passed over lush first growth rain forest that quickly turned into plantations that looked like
giant grids. While we looked down at the disappearing rainforest, the flight attendant came by to inform us we were seeing palm plantations. It seemed as if she was proud of that. Then they gave us boxes of Milo, a disgusting chocolate-milk-like drink that contained palm oil. I contemplated not drinking mine. This brings me to the only reason I'm happy to have visited Mulu; to see it before it's ruined by palm plantations and all the animals get pushed out.
We landed at the Mulu airport. Our plane hopped to the end of the runway and then took a U-turn to get back to terminal.
We then went in search of accommodations. The park accommodations were full. The Royal Mulu Resort had rooms open starting at $100/night, which is the cost of rent for one person for one month in a Bangkok apartment so we weren't willing to pay that. Our only option left was a home stay, located about five minutes walk from the park. These accommodations now take the number one spot on our list of disgusting places we've slept. We found a home stay easily - a room with five beds they gave to
just the two of us. We dropped our bags and took off, wanting to head to the park HQ to get ourselves booked on some hikes for the afternoon.
Park HQ gave us some upsetting news - almost every hike in Mulu is guided - meaning you can't go alone and have to pay a fee for for the guide. OK, fine. I understand that they don't want random people either getting lost in caves or ruining them. We signed up for an afternoon hike that wold lead us to Deer and Lang's Cave and get us out of the caves in time to see the mass bat exodus at dusk. We had a few hours to kill before the hike took off so we went in search of food. First we stopped at the park's canteen, but reading the menu was shocking. You can't eat for less than $3. That will get you two chicken wings. A real meal will cost $5 or up to $8 as well as any dessert. A small bottle of water was $1, a big one was $2 and any canned drink was $1.50. In terms of US prices, this is normal or
rather low for a restaurant. In Southeast Asia those prices are repulsive. Three heaping meals plus water and snacks in Bangkok might cost $5 for the entire day. In Mulu “I want all your money” park, $5 is money for a snack. We didn't budget for this. And Mulu has no ATMs, so we were stuck with only the money we came in with. At this point we were fed up and done dealing with it. Malaysia has been the hardest country we've traveled in (not very cheap, tough to navigate, lies abound, a block of MSG in every bite of food) and now we had gotten ourselves stuck in the jungle for two days with no escape. We kept thinking for half this price we could be swimming in the warm waters of Koh Tao in Thailand eating delicious food. We prayed the hiking and beauty of Mulu itself would justify the budget we were blowing to get there, stay there and eat there.
We met our guide and group for our afternoon “hike” and set off. “Hike” is now in quotes because it wasn't a hike. Mulu is a series of plank walks. There is no hiking,
Boats for transpoting to other caves
When we asked about showers at our home stay they told us to bathe here. Hmm.
just walking on a sidewalk made of wood through the jungle. For me, this took all of the charm of being in the jungle away. It felt like a zoo. None of it seemed like I was in the rainforest. All of it felt contrived and fake and a show aimed at collecting people's money.
Our guide was awful. He barely spoke English and didn't try at all, making the information he was attempting to spit out useless. We would stop walking every few minutes and he would point out a tree or a bug. He always asked the group what we thought it was before he told us. We were asked to guess what it was which always took a good five minutes of silence broken occasionally by people randomly throwing out garbage answers to speed up the process of him just telling us what we wanted to know.
But the bugs he pointed out were amazing, and I would like like a terrarium filled with all of them. The jungle has the craziest bugs I've ever seen! We saw stick bugs, praying mantis, leaf bugs and lantern bugs. Oddly enough with every bug he pointed out
he would say, “This bug was here yesterday.” To which I thought to myself, “You're not actually looking for anything cool to show us, are you? I'm glad I'm paying you for leading me on this strenuous, non-informative “hike”.”
Once again, the anger welled up in me a bit so I tuned him out and focused on what I could spot on my own. And I found what I had been dying to see: a hammerhead worm. These worms look like they come from another planet. They look more like a strange parasite than a worm and move like a snake but with a hammer-shaped head and flat body that hugs whatever its moving along. Although I was severely unhappy, for the next 48 hours whenever I saw a hammerhead worm it made me to smile and for a minute forget that I wanted to punch everyone.
I enjoyed the end of the hike exploring the caves while the guide struggled to find words like “cave” and “bat” which as a guide you'd think he would use numerous times everyday. Deer cave is giant and the stench of bat droppings emanates throughout the whole cave. It's not a
terrible smell though. We broke off from our group and walked briskly back to the entrance of the cave to catch the bats leaving for the night, which they only do if it's not raining. Thankfully the weather held out that night and we witnessed the 3 million (give or take a million) bats flying out of the cave on their way to consume pounds of bugs. A bat can digest an entire meal in 15 minutes, hence why they can eat so much in one night. But the bat exodus felt contrived. Mulu has set up an amphitheater to watch the bats and of course included a snack and gift shop next to it. So here we are sitting in the rainforest, next to a gift shop. That takes away a lot of the charm and mystique of being in the middle of the rainforest.
We watched for a bit and then left to head back to park HQ before the masses that had gathered at the amphitheater took a sloth-like pace back, clogging the plankwalk with uselessness and fryer grease. It took us over an hour to get there with the guide and less than 30 minutes
to get back without the guide, although we did run a bit at the end to beat the impending downpour. We waited out the rain in the canteen and then walked in the dark back to our accommodations to find that we had missed out on the four hours of electricity it got everyday from around 5 pm until 9 pm ish, if they feel like it. Using our headlamps to get situated we ignored the mouse droppings that littered the room. We threw out our bar of soap since the mice in Borneo eat soap and tried to sleep through the thought of mice crawling all around. These accommodations now take the number one spot on the list of worst places we've slept, beating out the prison cell we slept in in Hong Kong with a single bed the lady assured us we'd both fit on (we're not Chinese-lady size so we didn't) and it beats out sleeping in the McDonalds at the LCCT in Kuala Lumpur.
The next morning we trekked off to a waterfall that was one of the only hikes we could take that wasn't guided, probably because it doesn't involve a cave. By accident,
we set off for our hike in flip flops. But since hikes in Mulu are on a plank, we were just fine. The hike did end in some serious mud after the path veered off of the plank but I still stand by the AK-47 of shoes, flip flops, as being a better option than giant hiking boots. We also had no leech attacks or broken ankles, or whatever else is supposed to happen if we don't carry 25 pounds boots around the world.
Back at park HQ we decided to pamper ourselves by showering. Our Ritz-Carlton home stay didn't have a shower and barely had a toilet so with little effort we found the bathrooms and shower stalls in the park's hostel and decided we deserved to borrow them.
We spent the rest of our time at Mulu in the Mulu Discovery Center, an air-conditioned museum and information center about the park where we sat on comfortable chairs reading old issues of National Geographic from the center's library.
I wouldn't go back to Mulu. For the same price there are much better ways to see the rainforest.
My advice for Mulu is this: don't go
The giant entrance to Deer Cave
Called Deer cave for the deer that come to lick the salty water that drips from the cave's ceiling. It's salty from the bat poop. Good reason to visit a cave, I suppose.
if you're on a budget. It's not worth it. A trip to Bako National Park near Kuching is cheaper and a more independent jungle experience. Mulu offered some great insect spotting but it doesn't have the awesome monkeys or boars Bako has, and I find watching monkeys for hours more entertaining than watching insects.
If you do end up at Mulu while trying to stay on a budget don't do a home stay. Call a couple weeks in advance and stay at the park hostel.
Bring your own food. The park canteen prices are shocking and the food is too, in the wrong way. Canned food is best so the mice don't get into it at night.
Don't bother with leech socks or even hiking boots. Flip flops will do just fine. Of course, this isn't the case if you're going to the Pinnacles (a multi-day trek).
Walk to the park from the airport. It's about a 20-minute walk and will save you the two dollar per person charge for a taxi. Why must they charge per person? To get to the park from the airport, take a right on the road that runs in front
of the airport and walk until you see the sign for Mulu. Take a left at the sign and you'll walk into the park from that street. You won't get lost. There are pretty much no other roads nearby.
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