The Madai Caves are an important place for harvesting birds’ nests. These nests are considered a delicacy and something of a medicine among the Chinese, and the export market is huge. The village at the entrance of the largest cave comes alive twice a year when the Idahan tribe comes to harvest the birds’ nests from various parts of the caves. It is a special communal event, almost like a festival. The harvesting is a dramatic event with the men risking their lives to pry precious nests from the cave roof. Nowadays, the harvesters are hired. The Idahans have held their rights to the Madai Caves for over 20 generations.
To visit the caves, permission must be obtained from the Idahan elders. Visitors may visit the District Office in Lahad Datu town to make prior arrangements for entrance permission.
The most valuable – and rarest – nests are the white ones, which can fetch RM2,000 or more per kg.
How to get there
The caves are near the Lahad Datu-Tawau Highway. The turn-off is 69km from Lahad Datu. Watch out for the signpost that says ‘Gua Madai’. From the turn-off, it is 3km to the caves.
All buses between Lahad Datu and Semporna or Tawau will pass the turn-off to the caves. From here, you’ll be able to find a minivan to take you to the caves. But you might have to walk back out to the highway to catch your ride back.
These caves are between the towns of Lahad Datu and Semporna. As such, you would be day-tripping from either place where the full range of accommodation is available.