Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mulu Park and Barking Frogs

Flights are cheap in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Really cheap. And that's good, because there are plenty of places in Borneo that you can't get to by road.

One of these places is Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is full of caves and cool plants and animals. You can get there by a multi-day combination of boating and hiking, or you can take a puddle-jumper out of the city of Miri in Sarawak.

When I was trying to figure out where to go in Borneo, I didn't think about flying anywhere at first. That seemed silly and cost-prohibitive. But then I started reading about the caves at Mulu—which seemed like a must-see once I'd read enough—and flying was back on my radar.

Of course, there is a catch. Accommodation is limited and not at all cheap in comparison to transportation. Or rather, it is, if you're willing to sleep in a basic dorm in the back of someone's house, but the online information wasn't clear on this point, and I couldn't really visualize how Mulu worked based on the bits and pieces I read.

So here's how it works. You fly from Miri to Mulu on MASWings first. (You benefit greatly by booking ahead since some planes do sell out). In my case, I took a connecting flight from Kuching to Miri, had an Ice Blended at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, then headed on to Mulu.

You have three choices about where to stay. You can stay at the "resort," which is a seventies-era hotel a few kilometers from the park, and you'd need to book this ahead via a travel site or agent or by calling. I sent a few emails to the resort and got nothing back, so I crossed them off the list. It's just as well—the people I met who were staying there had a good time making fun of the place. They said it was functional, reasonable enough as far as a place to stay, but looked like it had been pulled straight out of the backdrop of Rockford Files. Okay, the people I spoke to were Italian and didn't describe it quite that way, but that's my interpretation in American English.

The cheapest option is to stay in the guesthouses outside the gate of the national park. These you don't book ahead—you just get off the plane, and there are people waiting outside of baggage claim with signs that advertise their homestays. These people also sell taxi coupons, so you can get from the airport to your accommodation or to the park. Taxis are all the same price (5 ringgit) for the short journey. This town is all about the national park and the people with signs meet every flight. There is no danger of you getting off the plane and not getting a homestay, if that is your preference.

It wasn't mine—I was worried the accommodation would be TOO basic and I didn't realize how easy it would be to find a place. I heard mixed reports on the homestays from other travelers. One man I met was staying in a small room with a huge family, and they were all eating their dinner in the room, which was stinky and attracted bugs. Another was in a different homestay, which he reported as being just fine, though simple.

Lesson: Look at a few and then choose.

Rather than risk not finding a place when I got off the plane, I'd booked within the national park itself. I'd tried to get one of the "garden bungalow rooms," because these sounded fantastic, but there are only a few of them, and they were sold out.

The national park staff responded to my email inquiry (enquiries at mulupark dot com ) rapidly, and they suggested I stay in a "Longhouse Room." (They have dorms next to the Longhouse and these looked nice enough too, but this also fills up so book ahead.) I went ahead and booked it—and it was really nice and pleasant. I didn't regret this expenditure at all, and the free breakfast was decent. The park restaurant offered pretty good food for lunch and dinner too, though the homestays outside the gate also have small cafes that sell similar dishes, mostly rice and chicken based. Plenty of bottled water, soft drinks, and snacks are on offer though you'd save a bit of money by bringing your own from Miri. The gift shop had a single computer devoted to Internet access, but I didn't give it a try. I was just using Twitter via one-way SMS from my OneSimCard.

The Mulu staff also gave me an itinerary, suggesting I book onto the "Night Shift" my first night there, then go to see some caves and bats the next day, then go on the canopy walk before heading to the airport the next morning. (The same people who meet you at the airport with signs wait right outside the park entrance offering taxis before out-bound flights.)

I caught an early flight out of Kuching, had a layover in Miri long enough to get my coffee, some lunch, and some snacks, then took a 20-minute flight to Mulu. Sure enough, I could have walked out of the airport and into a taxi to a homestay, but my taxi instead dropped me at the national park, since I'd booked the Longhouse Room.

First stop was park headquarters. That's where you pay your 10 ringgit entry fee, go over your itinerary—I hadn't printed out the confirmation email but I had it all on my phone, which was good as the check-in process seemed a bit haphazard, but they got me onto all the excursions I'd booked after a few minutes of digging through binders full of paper—and get your room keys.

My Gunung Mulu lodging was lovely. Really, I don't know what the people who were complaining about it on TripAdvisor were talking about. The room was cool, had a hot shower (two of them, strangely), and was large.

Those nearby garden bungalows looked really swank, though. That would be the way to go for a couple or family not on a super-tight budget.

I headed over to the park cafe to get dinner before my Night Shift walk, and that's when I heard a barking thing.

A frog? I peered into the bushes but couldn't see it.

After dinner, I doused myself in DEET—which wasn't really necessary. There are so many bats at Mulu that the insect population is kept down. I went to the meeting spot for the night walk.

Which was crowded but spectacular. Our guide led us along the wooden walkway through the park, looking at frogs, bugs, snails, bats, stick insects, snakes, sleeping birds, and even glowing fungus.

Borneo jungle at night is like Avatar, I thought. Or rather, the reverse. Avatar is Borneo. Without the killer wolf things and blue people, I mean.

And finally, the guide used her light to find what I'd been looking for. Here it is, the frog that barks.

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