sign in a cave in Laos

27 September 2009

Madai Caves - Brunei Times

Local tribesfolk nestling among the Madai Caves

Brunei Times 27 Sept 2009

A river runs through it: The Madai Cave is one of very few in the region to have a river running through it.

The Madai Caves are not as well known as the nearby Gomantong Caves in Sabah, or the caves in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak.

However, Madai has long been an important area for birds' nest collectors and is now becoming better known among tourists looking for adventure.

Situated between Lahad Datu and Tawau, the hill containing Madai Cave itself rises steeply from the forest floor. There are more than 25 caves in this area, but Madai is the biggest and best known. The caves were first visited 60 years ago by scientists who noted how the phosphate deposits from the bat and swiftlet guano were collected and used as a fertiliser.
Madai village

A much older industry is that of birds' nest collection. The local Idahan people have had the rights for collecting birds' nests in the area for generations.

Harvesting birds' nests is a well known industry throughout Borneo, which features many limestone caves that are home to the swiftlets that build the edible nests.

Swiftlet farming is becoming big business. Existing buildings are being converted to bird "hotels", and in some places new purpose-built structures are being constructed. The demand for birds' nests has continued to soar over recent years, especially for the culinary and medicinal markets.

In Madai, the collection of birds' nests is controlled by the villagers who own the rights. As you walk to the cave you pass through Madai village. The locals are the guardians of the birds' nests, and during the collecting season they can offer a place for the nest collectors to stay. There is even a small mosque in the village.

A staircase leads up to one of the entrances. First, you walk through a dark tunnel where there is a grave of an unknown person. This passage leads to the cave entrance, where there are a few houses, used by the men who guard and collect the nests.
house used by nest collectors

There is also another grave. This one supposedly belongs to "Nenek Apui", who was one of the earliest inhabitants here.
Walking into the cave, I was struck by how impressive it is. The ceiling is about 130 metres above, and the chambers are large. There are several openings high in the roof that allow a small amount of daylight to enter.

The floor is covered in guano and it was actually quite slippery walking across the sticky, wet droppings.

There were also lots of small cockroaches running around in the guano, feeding on smaller invertebrates. All around I could hear the clicking of the swiftlets and chirping of insects.

There were a few swiftlets on the floor, and although they presented a good photo opportunity it was sad to know they would not survive.

I was quite surprised at the number of men inside the cave, considering it was not yet collecting season.

The collection is controlled and restricted to twice a year, so as not to deplete the swiftlet population.

There were few ladders hanging in the cave, but more will be installed when the collection begins.

From this part of the cave we went down to the lower river passage, where the river comes pouring out of the hill. This was quite a spectacular sight as there are not many river caves in Malaysia.

We were able to explore inside for a short distance.

Madai Cave was even used in one of the stages of one of the world's toughest endurance race, the Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000, when participants had to climb the rattan ladders.

If you want to visit Madai Cave, it is best to get permission from the District Office in Lahad Datu town, otherwise you have to make arrangements with the Idahan elders.

The cave is certainly worth a visit if you are in that part of Sabah.
The Brunei Times

© Liz Price
No reproduction without permission

See more photos on Madai album.

20 September 2009

Caving in Myanmar - (Wild Asia)

Since going caving in the southern part of Myanmar, or Burma, in Jan 2009, I've written various articles for caving and other magazines.
Here is one short piece that I prepared for WildAsia..

Barefoot In Burma 

After years of closed-door policy to travellers, a rare opportunity to explore Myanmar's sacred cave temples had LIZ PRICE taking off her shoes to experience the dry and muddy 5-day caving expedition.

Written by Liz Price on 18 Aug 2009

In January 2009, I joined two German cavers for a five day caving expedition in the southern part of Myanmar. Some of the caves had been turned into temples so we had to remove our shoes and do our surveying barefoot.
Many caves in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, were visited and documented during colonial days at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of these visitors went to the Shan state northeast of Rangoon, and to the Moulmein area in the south. Particularly famous are the Pindaya Caves in the Shan area, and Kaw Gon and Farm Caves near Moulmein. Since then very little work has been done on the caves, and when Myanmar effectively closed its doors to travellers, it was not easy to travel to the limestone areas.
2009 Trip
Our trip was planned to the Hpa An - Moulmein area in southern Myanmar. Permission was obtained from the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board in Yangon. As required by law, we had an official tourist guide and hired a van and driver for the duration of our stay.
We were met upon arrival at Yangon airport, and immediately drove to the first cave in Hpa An, six hours away. . Hpa An is the capital of the Kayin state in southern Myanmar and although it is possible for tourists to travel there, few do. It is a reasonably quiet town, with no high rise buildings and not much traffic. It lies on the banks of the Thanlwin River.
We spent four days caving in the Hpa An area, then drove south to Mawlamyine, formerly, Moulmein. Mawlamyine is Myanmar's third largest city and capital of the Mon state.
The Limestone Hills
Most of the hills we visited were isolated tower karsts, although we did see some ridge karsts. Mt. Zwegabin is one of the most famous hills at 722m high. It is considered a sacred hill, and has many chedis and shrines and a pathway up to the top.
The Caves
Most of the caves we visited were temple caves, already well known from historical documents. Some of the most famous are the Farm Caves at Moulmein, Saddan Cave, and the Kaw Gon archaeological site in Hpa An.
Many of the caves had impressively large passages, around 20-30 m wide and chambers as large as 60m x 60m. The longest cave was Saddan Cave in Hpa An at 800m.
Each day, we would decide on an area to visit and drive to the biggest cave temple. Then we would ask the monks and locals for information on other caves in the area. We found that the people were friendly and more than willing to help. They didn't question the sanity of three Westerners trekking through all parts of each cave!
Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country, although there are quite a number of Muslims in the Hpa An area. Almost all the caves we visited had been converted into a Buddhist temple. In some, just the entrance was used. In others the whole cave had been developed. Some of them had electric lighting, walkways and statues throughout the cave.
Nobody questioned us whilst we were surveying, even though some caves were quite busy with visitors and pilgrims. Footwear had to be removed at the entrance of the temple compound, even if it meant walking on muddy ground before reaching the temple. This is different from countries such as Thailand where you only remove shoes at the inner temple.
The Myanmar caves were quite dirty with rubbish strewn everywhere even though they are sacred sites. People just drop litter, mostly wrappers from candles and incense sticks. All the caves we visited were dry.
Cave fauna
Some of the caves are home to a wide range of bats and invertebrates. We collected samples of cave fauna for identification. The Heteropoda spiders were particularly interesting, and are amongst the largest in the world. Currently, the world's largest spider is Heteropoda maxima from caves in Laos, but the Myanmar specimens may prove to be just as exciting and are currently being identified.
A total of 14 caves were visited and 3.3 km surveyed in five days. It was a good introduction to the area. We succeeded in establishing contacts for further cave expeditions in Myanmar. However, we were warned that Myanmar will be having elections in 2010 and it is unclear if permission will be granted during that time.

© Liz Price
No reproduction without permission