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.