A Jewel in Rural Borneo
Blue skies stretched out as far as our eyes could see, decorated by clusters of clouds floating around nonchalantly. The extremely bumpy ride at the back of a pickup was giving us sore bottoms but for the nature around us and the refreshingly cool breezes, it was worth it.
It was Labour’s Day afternoon in the gateway to Kelabit Highlands – Bario. Sitting at around 3,500 feet above sea level in Northern Sarawak near Kalimantan, the Kelabit Highlands consist of quite some rural villages, all well-preserved and isolated from modern day civilisation. The best way to get to Bario is by plane, either from Miri or Marudi. Not on a Boeing, mind you, but a Twin Otter so tiny you can’t stand straight in the plane.
The flight to Bario from Miri proved amazing as the little plane propelled over changing landscape below – from the seaside city to the oil palm plantations to the tropical rainforests and rugged mountains including Mulu National Park. If you’re sitting on the left side of the plane and the weather is clear, you might catch a lucky glimpse of the Pinnacles. Keep a lookout for Batu Lawi as the plane approaches Bario – a set of twin peaks with cultural myths in the ancient days.
Tourists are picked up by their respective homestay owners from the airport. Homestay is the only accommodation option in this village, normally with full meal provision during your stay. As most of my colleagues in our travel party are Muslims, we settled for the only homestay with halal food – Pak Mus’. The rooms are much nicer than I thought and we even had the living room to ourselves as no one else was there. We spent the afternoon touring the village on a Proton-converted pickup, walking around a bit in search of viewpoints.
Dinner, like lunch, was served with the infamous Bario rice, fish, curry, plenty of vege and delicious sambal. Sometimes, you never know how hungry you are until you start digging in. That night we turned in to bed early as we needed energy the next day…
…and the next morning I realized seems like I was the only one who slept peacefully XD. Praise God for my super sleeping-ability! After breakfast, we hopped on the pickup again – heypresto! Guide Halim made us benches out of planks and bricks..so touched! A 15 mins drive took us near to Pa’Ukat where it was time to get on our feet and start our trek to Pa’Lungan, a small village roughly 4 hrs away on foot.
That was how our beginning of the trek looks like. MUDDY. Which kind of summarizes most parts of the trail, used also for buffalos to transport sacks of rice. We passed through the village of Pa’Ukat shortly with our flight companions from yesterday hot on our heels. The group of uncles were headed for Gunung Murud (tallest peak in Sarawak), something too ambitious for us as it involves a couple days’ trek and sleeping in the jungle literally.
The trail took us through the highlands rainforest, open fields and hilly terrains. Not far from Pa’Ukat is Batuh Narit – a big stone engraved with figures and short lines representing the number of heads the headhunters captured. Over 200! D:
Balancing skills Tree-branch-tongkats helped me so much whenever mud’s involved. In muddy patches, bamboo stems are used as makeshift bridges. The tall lalang made things harder with its sharp edges – we received messy cuts all over our arms – tip: wear long-sleeves! Excitement gradually turned into exhaustion and we made short rests to drink water or eat sweets.
3 hours into the trek, we came upon a wide area of wild bushes – what used to be the old British military airstrip during WWII. Just east of it is the Kalimantan moutains which trekkers going to Ba’Kelalan will enter en route.
It was drizzling when we arrived in Pa’Lungan another hour later after crossing an idylic green and a dingy suspension bridge. Our homestay for the night was Batu Ritung Lodge, whose entrance is flaunted by a lovely wooden walkway lined with hanging wild orchids in pots. We took a rest and picked our rooms upstairs before heading out for a short trek into the jungle behind, wearing the waterproof boots from the lodge.
Our trek turned into a history class in the jungle with our homestay owner Uncle Chew who spewed stories of Tom Harrison as we sat next to the Batu Ritung megalith stone. We went on to spot the most miniature wild orchid we have ever seen, listen to more archeology excavations at a burial site, even picking cute red mushrooms which Uncle Chew claimed to be edible (yup they were on our dinner table a few hours later, delicious!). Towards the end of our circular route, there were a lot of pitcher plants to see.
An icy cold shower in the wooden bathroom was magically refreshing. To top it off, dinner was excellent complete with the fragrant Pa’Lungan rice (better than Bario rice :O) and sweet pineapples. After dinner, lady homeowner Subang rang a bell to invite other villagers over for a gathering. We had the privilege to enjoy a traditional Kelabit dance performance by an elderly Kelabit woman in her full costume, half-forced to learn as well awkwardly. Still, it was lovely to sit around on the rattan mat and relax as the laidback night deepens.
I was awakened by the sound of a ‘gong’ early morning, greeted by heavy fogs outside painting a dreamy picture. The cool air beckoned us to stroll around outside and make some jump shot attempts in the misty setting. A hearty breakfast of pancakes, raisin fritters (addictive stuff I’m telling you :D), perfect half-boiled eggs, local rice puluts etc was waiting for us when we ambled back into the lodge. I could use this breakfast every weekend!
Before departing, Subang was so kind to gift us with a beautiful handmade keychain each and packed lunch for us to bring back. We also decided to buy some Pa’Lungan rice although it meant extra weight on our backpacks. Fortunately enough, a boatman was available to take us back to Pa’Umor. We just had to trek for an hour to reach the river where our boat was waiting.
Thank God we arrived safely despite some bumps against drifting wood (no life jackets and most of us can’t swim XD). Halim told us it is just a ‘short walk’ back to our car so we walked happily for 10 minutes when a passing Hilux offered us a ride. The best choice we made during our trip was to hop on. After all, a local’s definition of ‘short walk’ is far from ours.
Our last afternoon was spent on an unsuccessful trial of getting to a salt spring. The muddiness was overwhelming in the dense jungle…felt like I was walking with two mud blocks in place of my feet. When it got too bad, we had no choice but to make a U-turn. *Disappointment* In the end, we went to see grazing sheeps instead…
Back in Bario, we loitered around the marketplace – just a row of sundry + souvenir shops – and chatted with this fashionable old-age Kelabit lady who still retains her long ears. We then continued to saunter on in the village, greeted by friendly locals everywhere including the dogs. In the evening we reached one of the hilltop viewpoints atop the local primary school grounds, a good spot to take in the serenity that envelopes the community below.
That night, the most unexpected incident happened right in our homestay. After returning from dinner, we were all chilling in the living room eating snacks/watching TV. When Farah and I went in to our room to get money for paying Cheewei, we realized we each had RM400 missing from our purse. Even my phone which I only started charging after dinner was gone. Everyone turned into Sherlock Holmes mode instantly, trying to figure out when and how the theft happened. I locked the door when we came back but the helper staying with us went out for a little while and left it unlocked. So the best assumption was the thief sneaked in so luckily in that short period of time without anyone realizing at all. We reported to our homestay owners who were shocked to hear about it. Nevertheless, they were quick to help and contact the police though the guys found the police station empty. One of them did notice a teenager wandering behind the house earlier on suspiciously. An hour later, we were informed that the boy has been brought to the police station so we went over in an entourage lol. Right away I saw my phone lying on the desk when I entered the station, sitting next to our little pile of cash. *RELIEF* We got our stuff back safely but it is saddening to see a young man below 20’s became desperate enough to steal in this quaint settlement. Surely, his life would have been different should he had the chance to receive better education. Hope he won’t repeat this act again. :(
We bought more Bario rice at the airport the next morning…Sadly there were only a few ‘tubes’ left and I failed to grab one cause my colleagues were too quick lol. Our return flight made a brief stop at Marudi for more passengers to embark. Very soon, we were back in Miri safely with freshly etched precious memories and freshly tanned skin.
See you again, Bario. I shall be back for golden paddy fields another day.