The Gomantong Caves are enormous limestone caves located about a two-hour drive from the town of Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. What makes these caves unique are the edible birds’ nests which are built high in the crevices of the cave’s ceiling, more than 100 feet above the cave floor. The nests have been harvested for centuries by the locals and sold to the Chinese who consider it a delicacy. It’s said that the Chinese Emperors only ate birds nests from this cave. Today, this delicacy can fetch more than $1,000 for a single pound. I’ve tried bird’s nest soup before and to be honest, it doesn’t taste like much, except for the sugar that’s added to it. The Chinese believe that the birds’ nests contain a multitude of health benefits including raising the libido, relieving asthma and aiding digestion.
The nests are made from the saliva of swiftlets, small birds which inhabit the Gomantong Caves. Every year, the nests are harvested in the months of February, April, August and December, after the chicks have abandoned the nests.
The caves are a short ten-minute walk from the park entrance through virgin rainforest. At the entrance of the caves, guests climb onto a boardwalk which leads into a massive cathedral-like chamber. The first thing I noticed were the thousands of swiftlets that swirl around continuously near the roof of the cave. It’s an amazing show of aerial acrobatics and sound. As I continued further into the cave, I began to see their nests, built into the cave walls and the ceiling. I also began to notice the boardwalk getting more slippery, a consequence of the bird droppings – my suggestion is to wear sturdy shoes AND a hat! The pungent smell of bird poo (guano) is quite unbearable in some parts of the cave. A handful of workers constantly keep a close watch of the cave floor, just in case a bird’s nest falls to the ground! The caves are also home to a variety of bugs, like beetles and cockroaches – a couple of them ran over my shoes as I stopped to watch the swiftlets fly high above. A good shake of my feet got rid of them and I was glad none of them decided to run up my jeans!
The caves themselves are a majestic sight. The main chamber is huge and reaches a height of 130 feet. One corner of the chamber resembles a massive pipe organ, giving credence to the cave’s cathedral-like feel. The back of the chamber opens into a bright, open-air atrium with a little waterfall plunging down one side. It’s an absolutely stunning sight.
If you’re visiting Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, you can easily combine a visit to the Gomantong Caves with a jungle river safari along the magnificent Kinabatangan River. The harvest period is the best time to visit. During these months, visitors will be treated to a spectacular display of agility, strength and coordination as the workers climb up flimsy-looking bamboo poles and ropes to great heights to collect the nests.
Bio: Keith Jenkins is a thirtysomething who lives in Amsterdam and writes about his travels on his Velvet Escape travel blog. In addition to being a travel blogger, Keith offers travel writing services as well as social media consultancy and marketing services. He is also the co-founder of the Global Bloggers Network, a community that helps individual and corporate travel bloggers grow and monetize their blogs.
IMAGES VIA: Keith Jenkins