Mulu National Park: Sarawak, Malaysia – Borneo
HOLY bats! And caves. And jungle. A short flight from Kota Kinabalu, Mulu feels like a world away. Only reachable by boat or plane, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is an absolute must when in Borneo. And while there was literally only one other family there when we were, it’s totally doable with young kids. You’ll have to set aside aspirations of adventure caving and canopy tours, but you’ll get to experience the largest cave system in the world WITH YOUR KIDS. And, they’ll like it. Sure, you might feel like your body is going to fail if you cram all four cave tours into one day like we did (because you’ll have covered over 11 miles of steps and stairs, most likely with a child on your back), but you’ll survive. And so will the kids.
We arrived into Mulu on the afternoon flight and very easily hopped into a shuttle (a run down Toyota Landcruiser) for a whole 1.8 km ride to Mulu National Park Headquarters, where there are AWESOME accommodations. You can also stay at the Royal Mulu Resort (which has been recently purchased by Marriott and is quite expensive), or a couple of cheaper home stay (basically B&B) options. I would HANDS DOWN recommend foregoing both and booking a room at the national park. We booked late and ended up in a room in one of the two “Long House”(es), but if you can plan early, there are both bungalows and chalets that looked FANTASTIC. They are only marginally more expensive and much more modern (and the chalets are right on the river). With that said, even our room was great. It did, at times, feel more like a tent cabin, but had air conditioning and mostly sealed windows, which kept the bugs out almost entirely.
Speaking of bugs, I am a MAGNET when it comes to anything that likes the taste of human blood (of the insect varietal). As such, I’ve had far too many miserable tropical traveling experiences at the hands of a few nasty mosquitoes and few more nasty no-see-um’s. What’s worse is that they too like my little gal as much as they seem to like me. What this boils down to is a paranoid me when bringing the kids to a tropical jungle. I have historically been adamantly opposed to anything DEET, but have loosened my standards over the years, out of shear necessity. SO, we used a mixture of natural and chemical insect repellants, not even religiously so, and the bugs stayed away for the most part. My choice for “natural” is Herbal Armor and for the serious stuff is Ben’s. I also had with me a mixture of California Baby Insect Repellant and REI’s Jungle Juice (100% DEET), just in case… paranoid of bites, I wasn’t kidding. I’d almost suffice to say that, no thanks to my preparation, the biting bugs weren’t altogether an issue though, despite the fact that we were only 4 degrees north of the equator, in a dense rainforest. Score another point for Mulu.
After being waylaid by a tropical downpour that evening, we were STARVING and had little expectation for the park restaurant. However, after looking the menu over, we decided to give it a try. And hot damn, it was delish. I can’t say that it settled so peacefully in my large intestine that night (let me be clear though, that didn’t stop me from eating there again, twice), but it sure felt good going down. It’s located directly by the river, has great vegetarian options, is open and airy, and you are serenaded by the cooing of geckos while you eat. All of this AND it’s very well priced (aside from the beer, which will put you back almost 4USD per can).
We booked two tours that would bring us to four caves, starting the following morning. The first (Wind and Clearwater Caves) included an oh-so-lovely boat ride down the Mulu River, a visit to the local Penan Village, two billion stairs, INCREDIBLE scenery (which you should just google because my amateur photography does it NO justice), and a refreshing splash in the river when we were finished. Our guide was great, our kids loved it. After a quick power nap that afternoon, we headed out on our second tour (Deer and Long Caves) which included a 4km walk there and back (which was, truthfully, a bit arduous after the morning tour), the not-so-fragrant smells of guano, and literally, MILLIONS of bats. After touring the caves, we waited to watch the 3 million bat residents exit Deer Cave for their nightly buffet, which was definitely worth the wait. Deer Cave is the largest volume cave in the world and is vast… and smelly (bat guano pretty much covers the entirety of its floor).
The kids fell asleep mimicing jungle noises, we ate delicious Malay food, were immersed in great Malay culture, and mesmorized by absolutely amazing geological phenomena. They may or may not remember it into their adulthood, but I trust that these experiences are imparting bits and pieces of themselves into our children’s lives. The little one is still talking about Borneo-eo.