The tranquil Kuala Baram wetlands.
It might be known as an oil city, but Miri has plenty of green surprises.
My first glimpse of Miri many years ago was of a seahorse standing in a roundabout at a busy intersection. It seemed comical to me then to see the seahorse being endlessly circled by cars heading off in four directions to different corners of the city.
We had arrived in Miri by road from Kuching, an exhausting and exhilarating journey that is almost equal in distance to the entire length of Peninsular Malaysia. The trip gave me a visceral insight into the immense size of Sarawak, its diversity and beauty.
The seahorse tells of Miri’s location by the sea, which made its fortune, thanks to the oil fields located off its shores. Thus, the city is rich in oil-related and oil-funded attractions. One of the more unusual oil-related sights is the former Piasau camp, which had been housing wealthy oil expatriates in bucolic surroundings since the 1950s. It was closed as a housing area in 2013, and the land was handed over to the government.
After a lot of worry about this site becoming another condo-by-the-sea project, it was instead turned into the Piasau Nature Reserve in 2014 – all 88.5ha of it. There is a (sort-of) lovely story as to how this site became a haven open to all nature lovers, instead of being fenced off for the wealthy.
Jimmy, the male Oriental Pied hornbill, brings food for Juliet, his mate, and the chick in the nest at the Piasau Nature Reserve.
The area has a rich diversity of wildlife, with more than 150 species of birds and small mammals living in its jungles. This includes famed hornbills like the Oriental Pied hornbill and iconic Rhinoceros hornbill.
Not long after the last resident had moved out, a poacher entered the area and shot one of the more beloved hornbills which had been breeding there for years. Subsequent community pressure prompted the state government to declare it a nature reserve, preserving it as a protected park for the wildlife.
“It’s a great place for visitors who like to be out in natural surroundings,” says Musa Musbah, president of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) of Miri, who was instrumental in pushing for the protection of this piece of land as a green lung in the city.
The MNS had previously assisted in conservation work in Piasau when it was still a posh housing estate but has since handed over those duties to the Sarawak Forestry Department. Work is in progress to demolish the houses, replant the trees and build a park building.
Kuala Baram wetlands’ rich birdlife attracts many photographers.
It is a unique place. It is the only urban park in Malaysia where the protected hornbills are still thriving. Musa says 21 hornbills there have been identified and given names, with the most famous ones being a breeding pair, Jimmy and Juliet. Being just 5km from the city, the park is easily accessible for visitors hoping to exchange the concrete buildings of the city for trees, if only for a while.
An avid photographer and birder, Musa also has another tip for nature-lovers: the lesserknown Kuala Baram wetlands. This 600ha marshland is located near the mouth of the Baram River, the second longest river in Sarawak, and it takes about 30 minutes to get there by car.
Easy road access makes it convenient for visitors to get to the wetlands to view the 120 and more bird species spotted there, including migratory birds. On occasion, even very rare birds like the highly endangered Chinese Tern have been seen there.
“There are plenty of ducks and migratory birds there, and it’s a very peaceful place,” Musa says. According to him, MNS is now working to document the birdlife there since the wetlands will soon be turned into a nature sanctuary and become yet another green reserve within the outer boundaries of Miri.
But if birds aren’t your thing, for those with a little more time, Miri has naturebased offerings further afield that are just as tantalising. About an hour away is the magnificent Niah caves which, although less famous than Mulu, are no less historic and atmospheric.
The Niah caves are a splendid geographical feature as well as an important historical archaeological site. The huge dark caves have been used by humans since prehistoric times, with a human skull found there dating back 40,000 years.
A team from University Sarawak Malaysia (Unimas) visits to survey thePiasau Nature Park.
Rock paintings can still be seen on the walls of the Painted Cave, depicting the boat journey of the dead into the next world. “Death ships”, or boat-shaped coffins, have also been found in the cave.
The excavated site is easily visited via a sturdy boardwalk from the park headquarters which takes visitors right to the gaping mouth of the Great Cave. It is so huge that no matter how many people are there, it’s still easy to feel all alone.
The effort to preserve these sights, especially the nature reserves within the city itself, is an indication that in many ways, Miri has got things right. It is not the most exciting or glittering city in Malaysia, but it has not wiped out all traces of green as so many cities have done.
And for those with even more time, Miri is also the jump-off point for Sarawak’s most stunning natural sights, like the worldfamous caves of Mulu and the highland paradises of Ba’ Kelalan and Bario.
There’s so much more to Miri than a seahorse roundabout!
Carolyn Hong lives in Ba Kelalan sometimes, in KL sometimes. A former journalist who once chased the big stories for a regional newspaper, she now hunts for the small stories in Malaysia’s smallest places.