After over a year going around, I felt like I needed a break. (Yes I work as a tour guide here in Sarawak, but no I’m not on holiday). So I randomly called two of my childhood friends, Anthony, from Johor, the southern part of west Malaysia and James, from Penang, an Island located on the north west of Malaysia. Location, Bario, The Kelabit Highlands. And they both said yes.
Ever heard of it? Not many people have. It’s one of those places where you go to escape the world. Situated in the highland mountains far into the interior of Borneo, this is as far away from the fast pace of the modern world as you could get. It is a place where time slows down.
Bario is a remote town in the Kelabit Highlands at an altitude of 4666ft above sea level. The region has a population of around 1200 people, while daily fogs drift amidst them; setting the lovely town against an eternally magical backdrop. It is surrounded by virgin tropical rainforest with just one road connecting the town to Miri. Within Bario town however, the area is relatively well connected with either concrete, dirt or gravel roads, and projects are underway to build roads extending to some of the other villages in the surrounding area- some of these are around 9 hours walking distance away.
Due to its altitude, the region hosts a slightly cooler climate than the rest of Malaysia and this is especially noticeable at night. It is usually cold enough to require one to wear a sweater or light jacket. The weather is usually around 30°C during the day, but at night, temperatures average around 20°C. Somehow rather when we were there, it was 20°C – 26°C during the day and at night it was between 16°C all the way down to 5°C. Yes!!! That is cold for Malaysians.
There are two schools in the town; a primary school and a junior secondary school, because of this, kids often leave Bario to pursue a higher education in other cities. The area also has a medical clinic which is run by the government and a Telecentre run by eBario. The region now even has a radio station ‘Radio Bario’ which began broadcasting in October 2011. The radio station broadcasts public announcements early in the morning and plays music enjoyed by the locals such as slow rock and blues and also gospel.
Internet and phone connection are both very limited in Bario. Wifi is available at the eBario office at the marketplace of Bario but is often inconsistent. For phone connection, only Celcom and Tune Talk are available in Bario but there is no 3G connectivity, only EDGE which is also inconsistent.
The town is home to the indigenous Kelabit tribe. Nowadays, the Kelabit people are better known for their friendliness and extreme hospitality. Being bright and high achievers, many Kelabits speak excellent English and are highly educated. A large number of them move on to become top professionals in their field.
We went on a 5 days 4 night trip to Bario in February 2017 to experience the beauty of nature. Also to slow down the phase of life and enjoy the moment, reboot and find ourselves and to look back and appreciate things on a daily basis. I strongly recommend any future visitors to spend at least 4-5 days in Bario to truly appreciate and experience its wonders.
To be honest there were many things to be done, but somehow rather, I decided to make a trip to release my mind. And told myself I’ll come back this year for the adventure trip, meaning will be outdoor most of the time.
The area is only accessible by air on a small propellor plane called twin otter by MasWings. Only a few flights a day leave from the coastal town of Miri in and Sabah, and carry around 15 people at a time or by a tough 10-14 hour drive from Miri along an old logging road which requires a skilled and experienced driver.
The first hint of an impending adventure is when the airline staff request passengers to individually take their weight (with their hand-carry luggage) via a large weighing machine while checking-in. This is apparently done to get the takeoff weight of the tiny aircraft correct.
There was no flight steward/stewardess on board; there was no need for it. The short 45minutes flight does not provide any services. In case you’re wondering about the lavatory, there’s none on a plane this small; take this as a warning to get your business done before boarding. The only crews are the two pilots sitting in the cockpit, which is in full view of the entire cabin. There’s essentially no one to check on you the moment you’ve boarded the plane; precisely what we wanted.
The flights are done at relatively low altitude. Depending on weather, the flight can be “bumpy” at times. It is possible to have a great view of the highlands on a clear day. We’ve even managed to catch sight of Mulu’s airport and national park HQ.
Places to stay
There were a few places where we could have stayed but we chose Labang Longhouse Homestay, and David Labang Jr. greeted us at the airport. We went straight to the longhouse where we spend 4 nights.
Things we did
As we arrived, we were served lunch. When the food was served, 1st thing caught my attention was the fish!!! Ikan Sultan is one of my favorite fish to eat. Later after lunch we went on a short drive and hike up to the Salt Spring where they produce highland salt.
The Salt Spring
Was it not for its saltiness, the Bario Spring would be indistinguishable from any other, so local knowledge is key. To extract the salt from the spring water, the Salt Hunters simply boil a big pot, called a Kawang, dry and collect the salt from the bottom. The salt is then dried completely and inserted into bamboo pipes, which are burned over a fire for 24 hours to harden the salt. The final step is wrapping the salt in big leaves before storing in order to keep it dry and safe for the long journey home. The wrapped salt is sold in cylinders of varying sizes for between RM20 and RM40.Naturally browish grey, Bario Salt’s colour is intentionally preserved. It’s less salty than commercially available alternatives, but is highly sought after due to its high, natural mineral content.
On the way back, we stop at their, we stop at their pineapple farm and had a chance to have fresh pineapple. Damn! it was sweet, juicy and…. SLLRRRRRPPP!!!!!
Later that evening, we went to Bario Asal longhouse to enjoy the night with the locals and had a chance to participate with them doing their cultural dance. Jame and Anthony sure did enjoyed themselves! Currently, only Bario Asal Lembaa’ Longhouse Homestay (completed since 1963) applies an entrance fee; RM2/entry/person for in-house guest(s), RM5/entry/person for walk-in guest(s) and free for children below 13 years of age. For those who wish to take an 1-hour tour around the longhouse, there is a RM25 charge for the first guest of the same walk-in group, followed by RM5 for the subsequent guest(s). If you would like to include more cultural experience in your stay at this longhouse with cultural performances by the hosts/ladies, you may make a prior request with the host at a certain fee.
The next morning, Prayer Mountain. It was an exciting hike up early in the morning at 5am just to see the sunrise and to have a time of prayer. with our tour guide taking us up, each hike gets steeper and tiring. After hiking for 30mins we reach the mid point where there is a chapel to rest. We continued up for a 20mins and reached the peak of Bario Prayer mountain. It was glorious. we waited for the sun to rise while having hot hard boiled eggs made by our tour guide. the breeze was very cold till we see the glimpse of light from the horizon. We took our cameras out to take that breath taking scene. It was all worth it. Such a beautiful sunrise with the cross at the top. One of the best experience in Bario.
FOOD AND DRINKS If you are hungry, you may choose to eat at one of the restaurants in Bario. For those looking for Halal options, tourists may choose to eat at either Abah Cafe, Iskandar Shop or Joe’s Cafe. Otherwise, you may choose to eat at Ah Lap Cafe, Uding Cafe, Aunty Terawe’s Cafe, Uncle Rahman Cafe, Martin Cafe among others. Kelabit cuisine is unique and unlike any other in Malaysia, utilizing a variety of fresh ingredients from the jungle. There are also several shops at the marketplace of Bario which sell drinks and food. Locals will often refer to the market place as eBario. There are several convenience stores in town which include Y2K, Keludai enterprises, Iskandar Shop (government subsidized) and others, Y2K and Keludai also double up as bars at night where you can go to enjoy a drink and a game of pool, they even serve Maggi Mee Noodles!
LOCALLY PRODUCED GOODS For trinkets and local crafts such as beads or rattan bags, there are several shops at the marketplace of Bario. Every Saturday, the locals host a market day at the marketplace where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables and a variety of other local produce. Kelabits still practice traditional agriculture and are famed for their rice, salt, and pineapples. There are countless paddy fields spread across the region and small pineapple farms are not uncommon. (Make sure to try the local produce!)
Now Bario has their own local tour guides and as far as I know, they are working real hard to preserve the place with the help of local community and also maintain the Eco tourism and culture that they have. Kudos to them and if any of you haven’t been there, please plan a trip there. You can contact me of more information too.
Anyways… Hope you enjoy the photo gallery…
Bario… I’ll be back soon!