Bako is your best chance at seeing some of Sarawak’s amazing animals in the wild, plus a variety of pitcher plants, and most of Sarawak’s forest types. Bako offers easy short boardwalks through to tough overnight hikes, all from an idyllic beach base near Kuching. The boat ride there is half the fun.
We retraced our course, and passing Tanjung Po, coasted along the headlands to Tullok Limow, where the dayaks were encountered before. These headlands are bold with rocks and moderately elevated cliffs, and white sandy beaches, fringed with intervening trees. The crags have a weatherbeaten aspect, the vegetation on them showing the effects of high winds in the north-east monsoon.
The scenery is striking and the mountains of Santubong form a beautiful contrast with the sandy beach. No place could surpass it for the purposes of exercise and enjoyment. Fish is to be found in abundance, and deer and hogs are plentiful; the latter I might have shot, but could not come within reach of the former; those I saw were of a reddish colour. A huge lizard was likewise seen, but escaped; its length appeared a full five feet. It is a land crocodile, but harmless.
This is how Rajah James Brooke described what is now Bako National Park in his journal, on 1 May, 1842.
Bako is Sarawak’s oldest National Park (established in 1957) and it contains an exceptional variety of attractions. In addition to excellent wildlife spotting, Bako provides a chance to experience Borneo’s diverse vegetation types, and has stunning scenery. There is a broad range of trekking options – you can beach-comb during low tide, or opt for arduous hikes in rugged, remote scenery. You can swim in the South China Sea at beautiful beaches or bathe in cool rainforest streams.
Bako is located only 40km north-east of Kuching, making it an accessible trip lasting a day or several, depending on your schedule. However, while Bako may be geographically close to Kuching, it is not accessible by road, and requires a scenic ½ hour ride in open boat from the picturesque fishing village of Kampung Bako. The boat ride will take you out the mouth of the Bako River, into the South China Sea, and along the coast to the beach at Telok Assam, where the Park HQ is situated. The boat ride is half the fun of getting there, and also adds to the (real) impression of remoteness
Many trees in Bako National Park, particularly around the headquarters and on the Lintang loop are labelled with the local and scientific species names. Many of them have fascinating uses or stories. We have produced a free >Guide to the Trees of Bako National Park (Microsoft Word).
(click on title for full trail description)
Despite its small size (about 27 sq. km), Bako has a great variety of walks, with just over 30km of established trails. All trails are well marked and most are very well maintained. Walks can range from a very flat and easy stroll around the beach at Telok Assam at low tide, to a 2-3 day trek to Telok Limau and Telok Kruin at the far end of the park. A number of these trails are outlined below (click on the title for the full trail description).
If you are only interested in doing shorter walks, you can just follow the first part of some of these longer trails (for example, the Mangrove Boardwalk and the boardwalk into the swamp forest at the opposite end of the Park HQ are both described under the Lintang Trail.)
This loop trail of moderate length and difficulty is a great introduction to Bako National Park’s wealth of animals and vegetation types.
The trail starts in the beach vegetation of Park HQ. It then leads along the mangrove boardwalk, where you may see brilliant blue kingfishers, proboscis monkeys, and monitor lizards. From the boardwalk, it ascends the steep sandstone escarpment, a transition zone between the lush wet of the mangrove, beach and swamp forest, to the dryer vegetation of the plateau.
On the plateau, the walk undulates through dry ‘fire padang’ vegetation (with numerous pitcher plants), and across expanses of bare sandstone, in which strange patterns have been carved by the slow action of rain and creeks. The trail delves in and out of kerangas heath forest with beautiful ‘crocodile tail’-, fan-, feather- and sago-palms. The brief detour up to Bukit Tambi is rewarded with good views towards Santubong and north Kuching.
The trail then loops back towards the HQ, descending through tall, moss-covered dipterocarp forest, set amidst massive undercut sandstone boulders. At the end of the trail, a boardwalk leads through swampy riverine forest, and more animal-spotting opportunities. more…
This half-day walk to Bako’s prettiest swimming beach follows the initial arm of the Lintang trail Loop, before branching off through the fire padang vegetation on the sandstone plateau. It dips in and out of tall kerangas forest, with lots of pitcher plants and fan palms, along the way.
The beautiful beach at Pandan Besar is not accessible, but can be viewed from the cliff above. The trail to Pandan Kecil descends onto a broad exposed sandstone rockface overlooking the beach – there are great views out to Santubong and to the sea-eroded sandstone formations across the beach below. A steep trail down through cool forest leads to the delightful shallow, sandy beach. It’s a lovely picnic spot… read more
So you’ve got romantic notions about jungle trekking the interior of Borneo, but you don’t have 6 months. Well, this full day trek into the interior of Bako may be just what you’re looking for, to give you a taste of adventure.
Branching off the Lintang trail, this walk takes you past Tajor Waterfall, a tannin-tinged oasis where you can have a refreshing swim. The trail drops into and out of creek beds before climbing steeply through mixed dipterocarp forest near Bukit Keruing. The trail skirts around this peak, and rapidly descends into lush freshwater swamp, where you have the option of climbing Bukit Gondol (a small peak but the tallest in the park at 260m) or bypassing it on the easier Paya Jelutong trail.
The small loop trail up to Bukit Gondol summit is a challenging walk, in what feels like the very interior of Borneo – it’s wild, hot, sweaty and muddy. You’ll feel dwarfed by towering trees and clingy rattans will hook into clothes and skin. If you persevere you’ll ascend into drier, open vegetation on the summit where there are views to the east of the park and a broad expanse of coastline north of Kuching. The walk downhill to where the Paya Jelutong trail intersects at a tributary of Sungai Serait, is much easier going.
From the Sungai Serait, you follow the Ulu Serait trail, which undulates through kerangas forest and over more tributaries, before meets back up with the Lintang trail. It’s another 1-1.5 hours back to park HQ. If you’re lucky, the proboscis monkeys may be munching in the mangroves by the time you reach the boardwalk at Telok Assam. read more…
This is one of the longest and toughest walks within Bako National Park (8 hours one way), leading to Telok Limau on the far end of the Park from the HQ.
Telok Limau is a pretty golden sandy beach, in a bay walled by low sandstone. There’s a pleasant bush-camping site just back from the beach (but no other facilities). The cove faces Pulau Lakei, a small, forested island that’s part of the National Park, and beyond that, out to the South China Sea. There’s a ranger station on Pulau Lakei, and the channel in between is frequented by traditional Chinese fishing boats. (Arranging a boat is a good option for getting either to or from Telok Limau, and walking in the other direction.) The sea here is usually clearer here than at park HQ, which is surrounded by mangroves.
The Telok Limau trail is tough, and parts of the trail are very remote. It can be very hot (unless its raining), there’s lots of up and down, as well as some scrambling, and it is a long day of walking. You don’t see a lot of animals once you leave the Park HQ area, but the remoter parts of this trail have some amazing pitcher plants (the best in Bako), and wonderful stands of the rare crocodile-tail palm. If you’re not a serious hiker, these plants and pretty beach at the end of a long day may not justify the slog to get there. We strongly recommend you read the trail description in full before trying this one – to ensure you get the most out of it, and don’t get into difficulties. read more…
There are many other trails in Bako, leading to and through beautiful locations. Some of the shorter trails near the Park HQ provide excellent wildlife-spotting opportunities; others lead to secluded beaches.
We provide some brief introductions to a number of these trails, but leave you to explore them yourselves. read more…
Bako is your best chance for seeing some of Sarawak’s exotic animals in the wild, especially the rare proboscis monkey, a species unique to Borneo. Approximately 150 of these shy, large monkeys live in the park, and seeing them leaping from treetop to treetop is a highlight of visiting Bako. Low, nasal grunting, and the crashing of branches as they eat leaves and jump between trees, alerts you to their presence. Male proboscis monkeys have enormous fleshy, pendulous noses (hence the name). They also have large protruding bellies (which enable fermentative digestion of otherwise inedible leaves), and a tendency to lounge around in tree tops. Even those without anthropomorphic minds will realise why the local name for these animals is orang belanda (“Dutchmen” in Malay – after the first Europeans to visit the area).
Other animals which can usually be seen around the Park HQ include the rare silver leaf-monkeys, long-tailed macaques, Bornean bearded pigs (the “hogs” described by Rajah Brooke in the quote at the top of this page), flying lemurs, large water monitor lizards (Brooke’s “land crocodiles”), and several species of squirrels. The mangrove coastline of Bako National Park is also an important breeding ground for many bird and fish species. September to November is the best time to visit the park if birds are your primary interest, because it becomes a haven for migratory birds during these months.
In terms of plant life, Bako showcases a lot of what the rest of Borneo has to offer – seven different vegetation types can be found in the National park, and most are very accessible from the Park HQ. These include mangroves, river and swamp forest, majestic lowland mixed dipterocarp rainforest, beach vegetation, cliff vegetation and dry tropical heath. Probably the most striking of the plant life in Bako is the Nepenthes or pitcher-plants, which grow in the nutrient poor tropical heath. These plants have special pitcher-shaped leaves, which are designed to trap and digest unwary insects, to make up for the poor soil nutrients. There are several species of nepenthes in Bako, at least four of which can be seen in relatively short walks from the Park HQ – including the spectacular Nepenthes rafflesiana (one form of which is pictured here). Information about these nepenthes and most of the labelled trees in Bako is in our Guide to the Trees of Bako National Park.
Bako also offers some outstanding scenery and many photographic opportunities even if you somehow manage to miss the animals (which is unlikely if you stay overnight).
The rugged coastline of Bako, eroded by wind and water has resulted in the formation of beautiful cliffs of exposed white sandstone, coloured with fluid sweeps of orange and red iron oxides. These pigments have dissolved and dispersed through the porous sandstone as though it was blotting paper. The bright green canopies of the contorted vegetation clinging to these cliffs emphasises these striking colours, which are best captured in early morning and evening light. And as the sun sets behind Gunung Santubong across the bay, the sky fills with stunningly rich colours.
Surprisingly, there do not seem to be many legends about the interior of Bako National Park – perhaps because it does not have any very prominent mountains or rivers; or perhaps just because it has been a national park for so long that the old stories have faded from memory.
There are several chunks of the unique weathered sandstone along Bako’s shoreline which are revered (mainly by the local Chinese fishermen) for their resemblance to animals. Probably the most famous of these is the “sea-stack” just of Telok Pandan Kecil, which resembles a cobra’s head. Another rock on Pulau Lakei (a small island at the northern part of the park) resembles a lion, and joss-sticks are sometimes burned at its base.
One legend which is well known relates to this island. Located on Pulau Lakei is the grave of an ascetic Muslim hermit, Haji Ibrahim. It is uncertain as to when this dates from, but it is thought to be at least several hundred years old (although it has now been modernised and concreted). According to the legend, there were seven springs on the island, which had magical healing properties. Haji Ibrahim was the caretaker of these. When he died, knowledge of six of them disappeared, leaving just one, near his grave. The rock by this spring has been carved, presumably by Haji Ibrahim, but seems to be a kind of script which is unknown anywhere else. Haji Ibrahim’s grave also miraculously appeared after he died, as there was no-one around to bury him.
Because of its age and proximity to Kuching, Bako has a long history of research activities, and is probably the best studied of Sarawak’s national parks.
Bako was trialled as a site for orang-utan rehabilitation in the 1960’s, but the lack of sufficiently fruiting trees in its poor soils limited the success of the project, and it was abandoned.
Bako continues to have an active place in scientific research, including tree plots assessing plant growth, and a timber ‘graveyard’, where wood samples are buried in swamp and then unearthed and compared to assess decomposition rates.
There is in fact a lot of information available about Bako National Park, largely because it has been around for so long, but also because of its proximity to Kuching. Quite a lot of this information is quite specific scientific research. If you are interested in a detailed bibliography of papers on Bako, have a look at the UNEP Protected Areas Programme page on Bako.
For general background information on Bako, check out these books (full reference in Further Information):
- National Parks of Sarawak, by Hans Hazebroek and Abang Kashim bin Abang Morshidi.
- Parks of Malaysia by John Briggs
- Bako National Park, leaflet produced by Sarawak Forests Department (available at Visitors’ Information Centres in Kuching and Miri, and at Bako HQ)
- Quote from James Brooke’s diary taken from Earl of Cranbrook (ed) Wonders of Nature in South East Asia 1997, Oxford in Asia.
In addition, Hans Hazebroek and Abang Kashim bin Abang Morshidi. will soon be releasing a small book specifically dedicated to Bako, which promises to be excellent (and full of stunning photos), if it’s anything like their previous books. Keep an eye out for it in on the bookshelves, or visit Natural History Publications (Borneo).