MIRI: Visitors to the world renowned Niah National Park visiting its caves would normally be greeted by housewives from a nearby longhouse selling Sarawak memorabilia.
Their charms and jokes are free but the refreshments, handmade souvenirs such as trinkets, necklaces, traditional herbs and even aphrodisiacs are sold at competitive rates.
Sunta Jok, 49, said in the olden days, people who live around the park were farmers, bat guano collectors or bird’s nest harvesters but progress has brought about better connectivity and paying visitors, foreign and local.
Over the years the Barisan Nasional government has put much emphasis on rural development. Slowly, but surely the people are reaping its benefits.
Niah comes under the Bekenu state constituency, where Barisan Nasional direct incumbent Datuk Rosey Yunus will be defending her seat in a four cornered fight with Bill Kayong of PKR and independents Jou @ Peter Jelin and Austin Sigi Melu.
“Now our people either work with the government or corporate companies in town areas, in other parts of Malaysia while those who stayed on work on their lands or like us here serving the needs of tourists,” she said of the row of stalls outside the mark about 500m from the main attraction, the Great Cave.
“Not many people collect nests anymore and guano would only be collected by those who want to use it on their own farms,” she said.
They still sell bird’s nests though, which are priced anywhere from RM30 per piece to RM1,900 per kilogramme, said Laman Kalong as she showed her assorted merchandise.
Juwarno Taroyono, 37, who still collects nests, said the price was not as attractive these days but it provided a steady income.
“I would come to the cave twice a week and spend the night during each visit,” he said adding he would harvest lots belonging to his wife’s family using ropes and poles, peeling the swiftlet nests with his hands at a height of up to 20 metres.
“I used to be scared but now it’s like any other job for me. Being light and small also gives me an advantage when I am up there,” he said.
The park where the cave systems was discovered is an important archaeological site with evidence of human settlement from as early as 40,000 years ago, burial sites from about 1,000 years.
Its evolution to become a bird’s nest collection point occurred a few hundred years ago.
It is located about 120km from here and opens daily for visitors who would have to hike at least three kilometres to reach the main entrance to the cave along a network of boardwalk and stairs.