Kuching is one of those interesting destinations where you can easily spend the mornings in the jungle, afternoons by the beach and evenings back in the city, all within under 50-minute drive. Also helps that there is a treasure trove of jungles and national parks if one or another bores you. That, and this site is known either as a waterfall picnic site or a weekend warrior’s mountain challenge.
Rainforest to Sea
The national park is one of the more accessible national parks in the city, and the looming Mt Santubong looms in the background as a backdrop for Kuching. As you drive up along the road towards the seaside resort enclave of Damai and the quaint village of Santubong, the sheer expanse of jungle hugs the mountainside, as it plunges to the sea on your left.
The entrance to the national park may be a little hard to miss as you drive towards the seaside resort enclave, but once you see the giant billboards that spell out D-A-M-A-I, it is right on your right.
Facilities are basic, but in a place like this, basic is good. The Park Ranger’s Office is at the entrance, and there is nary a shop in the compound. The trails start right after the Office, and are very well marked. Just be aware that there are Red and Blue trails: Red goes to the Summit, while Blue goes to the Waterfall.
Trails to Falls
Despite the name of the trails, both trails will lead you to stunning waterfalls: it just depends if you want to go to a popular picnic spot or mock-rappel down a slope. Personally, both are worth the hike.
Both trails lead out from the common trail from the Park Office, and depending on the season, you will either be scrambling up and down boulders along a trickle of a stream, or semi-braving the occasional torrent while balancing on rope.
The initial trail is pretty easy for novice hikers, with gentle slopes and well-marked paths. The path is extremely shady: you are in the jungle of course. Throughout the trail, keep a watchful eye: the area has an abundance of wildlife, especially birds and tree snakes.
The Trail Splits
About 15 minutes in to the hike, the trails split, and this is easily spotted by a large concrete sign. Turn left and you will be ¼ left on the Blue Trail to get to the Santubong Waterfall. Go straight on the Red Trail and you’ll be on your way to the summit of Mt Santubong.
This trip, I decided to do both trails. These trails are fairly new, considering they moved the entrance of the National Park to this new, current site. In a way, this was my first time exploring this neck of the woods, and boy was I not disappointed.
Some sections on the Red Trail can get steep, on both the ascent and descent. You are, after all, climbing a mountain. At this point, the trail is very straight forward, just go straight, and there is little deviation. Distance markers mark every kilometre you go.
On occasion, you would hear that tantalizing sound of water gushing down from somewhere: that endless and peaceful sounds of clear mountain springs. Be ever cautious though, as though the trail is pretty straightforward and mildly challenging, you may encounter a few steep slopes and falls along the edges.
Always remember to look for the clearly marked trails! If there are no way markers or sticks that are painted with a red band planted in the trail, look up at the trees for those exact same red bands.
The falls are in a very nice location, maybe ¼ of the way along the Red Trail heading towards the summit. It can get a bit steep heading down at the last 20m or so to where the falls are, and there are ropes for support as you somewhat rappel down.
Now, the falls are a bit tight along this path, but stunning to look at. You will be at quite a height as the waters plunge down the numerous steps and natural terraces as it flows out to sea.
The views of the falls is surreal, especially when it is quiet. It will just be you and nature, at one, in peace. The dense jungle canopy providing shade from the sun, the gushing falls providing ambient sounds and the cool, mountain water a welcome respite after a round of hiking. Took me just under 50 minutes to get to this spot.
The Main Event
The more popular of the waterfalls also happens to be the most accessible, and the larger of the two. The site is roughly 25 minutes walk from the Park Ranger’s Office, and apart from one ascent up a hillock, the trail is quite tame.
One of the iconic images at this waterfall however, is a suspended ‘S-shaped’ bridge above the rockpools, giving you a panoramic view of the waterfalls, jungle and sea beyond.
One thing you will notice is how large the waterfall is, relative to the smaller Red Trail falls. Also, you may notice the readily available barbeque pits and gazebos dotted around, just slightly hidden in plain sight.
The water is cool, as expected from mountain springs, and very clear. Some rockpools can have sudden deep ends, but the number of rocks and boulders around the main pool make for a nice spot to laze around if not taking a refreshing dip.
There is always the full Red Trail to attempt: I did successfully reach the summit a few years ago, so my previous reportage on it may be a bit outdated. I do have every intention to go up again and attempt to match my personal best.
The beaches in the resort enclave of Damai is always pleasant: the seafront at Damai Craftsworld in front of the Sarawak Cultural Village has a few restaurants and bars, perfect spot to chill over the sunset.
If you do really want a beach, then head over to Permai Rainforest Resort and pay RM8 for entry an access to their beach: they have kayaks and stand-up paddle boards if you want to cool off yet still have excess energy to burn.
Transport?: Either rent a car and drive to Santubong National Park or take a Grab car. The road is very straightforward from Kuching City: follow the signs to Sanubong and Damai. The Park Entrance is on your right when you see the D-A-M-A-I sign.
If you are doing Malaysia as independently as possible, I recommend getting the Grab app, as Uber is not as popular as Grab in Kuching. There is limited public transport in this area.
Bring?: Water. It can get hot. Good hiking shoes and a towel. You may be tempted to go for a dip. A few snacks too, since it is a good picnic spot.
Fitness?: Suitable for all fitness types. However, when attempting the Red Trail, please be of reasonable fitness, as it can get challenging. If attempting the summit, be prepared to cry.
Cost?: National Park Fee is RM 5
It is not often that a major hotel chain, particularly a renowned luxury business-standard hotel, would advertise its lack of connectivity. That is, however, how the Mulu Marriott promotes itself, with its ‘Unplug at the Mulu Marriott’ tagline.
Sounds a little ludicrous, shocking maybe? Well, it has its fans, me being one of them. How often can you go away to a fancy resort and legitimately say ‘I did not open any work-related communications’? Plus, it is the perfect base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mulu.
Unplug and Unwind
You will be constantly reminded that you are in a secluded place while at the Mulu Marriott. A secluded, private, quiet place. The only place you can ‘plug in’ if you really need the internet is in the public areas around the lobby.
Connectivity, both cellular and internet, is temperamental, and subject to the weather. Due to Mulu’s remote, mountainous and densely jungled location, only certain spots get decent connections, and the Mulu Marriott just happens to be one of them.
But look at the bright side: little to no distractions from those pesky emails, social media is kept to a minimu and a lot of time can be devoted to inward reflections and actual, physical socializing…with real people! Time spent by the pool reading a book, without needing to check your phone, is severely underrated in our constantly connected world.
Basecamp for Adventure
With a private jetty just outside the lobby, you really do not need to head out to the Gunong Mulu National Park HQ to catch any of the day trips to the caves and treks beyond the Park HQ main compound. That is what my agency took full advantage of when I did my trek to the Pinnacles: my guide and boat picked me up after breakfast, and we headed straight to the start of the Camp 5 Trek without me needing to go to the Park HQ to get to the main jetty.
If you like adventure, but still need your creature comforts, this property would be a good staging post for your little treks out. The Resort Car provides complimentary shuttle services between the Gunong Mulu National Park HQ and the property, so after a sweaty day of caving, hiking and spelunking, always be rest assured that a super comfy daybed by the River Terrace is ready for you to lounge on.
If one looks through my Instagram account, one would notice I have a thing for places to lounge in. Granted, it usually includes sky-high views, or an iconic vantage point, of which the Mulu Marriott has, at least at the latter point.
With the Melinau Paku river meandering by the ‘beach’ and landscaped gardens fronting the riverfront, the Terrace is an absolutely perfect spot to lounge, especially with the sheer abundance of day beds, sofas and, if you are so inclined, proper seating. The daybeds are extremely comfortable, so do not be surprised if you end up sleeping with a book while enjoying your tipple.
The pool is small, but after a day hiking and trekking, the daybeds by the pool will just beckon you to chill. The River Terrace, as I mentioned above, will just encourage you to do absolutely nothing. The spa? Well, they do call it the Mulu Marriott Resort and Spa for a reason: it’s nice, it’s bright, and it’s open to nature outside.
So, after a long hike, or caving adventure, or for the more adventurous, 1 night at Camp 5 after reaching the Pinnacles, the creature comforts at the Mulu Marriott will make you want to do just absolutely nothing. After all, you are meant to unwind!
Lounge and Dine
This may be the third time I talked about the River Terrace but….RIVER TERRACE! The All-Day Dining is pretty decent at the Marriott Cafe, but if you want something other than hotel food, there is a small restaurant just outside the hotel, at the end of the iron bridge which serves decent food. For something more local, there is a small restaurant called ‘Good Day’ suspended above the river just outside the National Park HQ entrance.
For nightlife? Well, there is ‘Good Day’, which seems to be popular with guests from the National Park HQ who just want to chill and enjoy cheap beer. Otherwise, chill at the River Terrace. Yes, all guests will congregate here for WiFi and drinks. Ask Bibi for suggestions on wine. She always gives me a nice carafe of Merlot to end my evening.
To be honest, the main reason people come to the Mulu Marriott is to both enjoy the quiet solitude amidst creature comforts while exploring the unique sights and sounds that is the Mulu UNESCO World Heritage Site.
(Posts on the caves are here and here, the Pinnacles here and a 24 hour trip here.)
The resort itself is at the edge of the Gunong Mulu National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the endless sights, from the Deer Cave and Lang’s Cave close to the Park HQ to the Clearwater Cave and Wind Cave a boat ride away, to the majestic Pinnacles close to the summit of Mt Api are all stunning sites within easy reach of the Mulu Marriott.
And the Rooms?
Somehow I managed to talk about the Mulu Marriott and not touch about the rooms. Personally, go for the Riverside Rooms: those rooms are really nice, and front the Melinau River. The jungle view rooms are basically the same as the river view rooms, no difference there but you only see trees.
The rooms are in ‘blocks’ and are raised on stilts, all of which are connected to a walkway that links the entire resort together. The construction and layout is made in such a way to minimise environmental impact and avoid any untoward incidences in the event the Melinau River decides to burst its banks.
Agency: I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking as my agency. They provide bespoke services and can easily pick you up from the Resort Jetty.
For hotel bookings, I went direct to Marriott.com
Peak Season?: Ah yes. June until September, and December until January can be peak season for Mulu. While it would not be that crowded, it can get a bit…’congested.’
One of the more accessible yet logistically interesting of the national parks in Asia, the Bako National Park is a perfect distance away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet lies smack firmly within the city limits of Kuching City. A good escape for nature and wildlife, Bako National Park is also a hiker’s paradise, with numerous hikes through a variety of terrain.
A boat-ride away
Despite being in the city limits, Bako National Park, the oldest national park in Borneo, was gazetted in such a way that the only entrance is via a boat. Not only does this uncommon method of entry reduces large-scale visitor impact, it also provides for an interesting approach to the park.
Getting the boat from the Bako Jetty in Bako Village, about 50 minutes from Kuching City Centre, is pretty easy, as schedules are pretty flexible, with frequent connections provided by the local boatmen. Get your national park entrance tickets and boat tickets at the booth, and you’ll be on your way.
Watch the world go by as you whizz past the Bako fishing village and out in to the Bako Estuary, catching sights of the bamboo stilt fishing points, mangrove fringes and crocodiles. Yes, there will be crocodiles. Do not worry, the crocodiles are too lazy basking on the mudbanks to bother.
Depending on the tides, you would either disembark on the pier at one end of the Park HQ compound, or out in the shallows close to very interesting cliff-rock formations. Trust your boatman when he says it’s safe to get out: it looks deep but it’s pretty shallow, at most knee-deep.
After cleaning your feet of sand at the Park HQ, register at the counter and let loose with the options for hikes. Don’t forget to register where you are going, even if it’s multiple hikes!
Also, look out for the wildlife at the HQ’s main building: you may spot a bearded wild boar by the toilets, or close to the cafeteria. Monkeys and macaques are, well, ubiquitous.
A Diverse Ecosystem
The beauty of hiking the numerous trekking routes in Bako National Park is the variety of fauna you will encounter on your routes. The site is both a photographer’s and biologist’s wet dream: you start off with mangroves or marshes filled with nipah or sago palms, before encountering a steep rock formation. This is just where it gets started.
While the site may look like it is on a river flatlands, the area is mostly on a plateau, and for most hikes, you will be ascending up the central Bako plateau. Here, you will see everything from typical tropical evergreens to kerangas shrubland to lowland montane trees (It has been years since I did biology. I may have butchered a few of these).
Regardless of your fitness levels, the hikes here are always pleasant. Apart from the ascent up to the plateau, which can occasionally get both steep and rocky, the views and the sights from the main plateau are worthwhile.
Hidden Beaches Galore
At the end of most of the hikes in Bako National Park, you will end up in a beach or two, a good reward after an hour or so of hard hiking and climbing. The approach to the beaches are always dramatic, with my favourite, the Telok Pandan trail, bringing you past kerangas and tropical health, before stopping briefly at a cliff and iron-eroded rock formations, and proceeding all the way down to the beach.
The beaches, located in hidden coves, are somewhat secluded, though on occasion, you will encounter, as you do, other hikers. The beach is wide enough for you to enjoy a quiet spot yet not feel too isolated.
Another good plus in Bako National Parks and her numerous coves: you will always encounter a few boatmen moored in the bay. You have some hikers who hike to the beach, or others who just take the boat direct from Park HQ. These boatmen are ready to take you back to the Park HQ for RM15, but subject to their availability. Ask nicely and they may even do a panoramic tour of the rock formations along the bay.
Rock Formations, Everywhere
Bako National Park is renowned for her rock formations: you can spot everything from a cow to a turtle’s mouth to a cobra in strike pose to a dolphin ready to leap out of the water. One of these rock formations is the item you will spot when going from Telok Pandan cove to the Park HQ.
My ever friendly boatman, as we were talking about the best angles to shoot videos and take pictures of the rock formation, proved his point, when, as we circumambulated the rock formation in the sea beyond the cliffs. At various points as we circled on the boat, I saw either a dolphin, a cobra or my cat’s tail.
One of the highlights, or might I say ‘selling points’ of the Bako National Park is its abundance and high probability of observing wildlife. This I do not doubt. One which I eagerly, desperately wanted to see, was of a proboscis monkey.
I took 2 different treks, where apparently I could spot them in the wild amidst the mangroves. While the 2 treks were really interesting, with me observing everything from various types of vegetation to hikers doing an impromptu trail run, I did not spot those famed monkeys.
That was until I was back at the Park HQ: there, in the grounds of the Park HQ’s main building, amidst the trees next to the cafeteria and on the beach, an entire troop of them, lounging in the trees, teasing us, the intrepid travellers, with, initially a tail, then an orange scruff, and then a full-on view. They, for that moment, became the models of this jungle runway, with cameras snapping away at every opportunity, as the late afternoon sun provided the perfect lighting.
These cheeky little critters knew how to tease guests before these same guests took the 3pm boat back to the city. Next time, I’ll get you in the mangrove walkways, next time!
Transport?: Either rent a car and drive to the Bako National Park Jetty at Bako. The road is very straightforward from Kuching City: follow the signs to Bako town. You can also get transport from the numerous travel agencies in the Main Bazaar.
Once at the Bako National Park Jetty, hop on the numerous Park-authorized boats to get there. The last ‘official’ boat leaves from Bako National Park at 3pm, but the local boatmen cooperatives can arrange for alternative transport if you miss the last ‘official’ ride.
If you are doing Malaysia as independently as possible, I recommend getting the Grab app, as Uber is not as popular as Grab in Kuching.
Bring?: Water. It can get hot. Good hiking shoes and a towel. You may be tempted to go for a dip.
Cost?: National Park Fee is RM 20 for foreigners/RM 10 for Malaysians, round trip Boat Fee is RM40 for foreigners/RM20 for Malaysians
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.