Travelogue Borneo: Day 3 In Bario – Of Maggi, Museums, and Kelabit Culture

*Apologies for the lack of updates – been away for the Lunar New Year holidays and been swamped with work (as usual) upon returning. I really can’t say that I have no time for blogging – gotta MAKE time. Here’s part 3 of Bario! 🙂 

After returning from our harrowing 11-hour hike along the Bario ancestral trail, my body was so full of adrenaline I couldn’t sleep the entire night lol. When the church bells rang, heralding the arrival of dawn, I got up and decided to go for a sojourn around the long house. Turns out I wasn’t the only one; the rest of the media group were having a hard time sleeping as well.


The rest of the team from Volvo was set to arrive in the afternoon, and the long house was abuzz with a flurry of activity. The womenfolk set about preparing a big meal, while the men busied themselves setting up the tents outside.


We ‘borrowed’ some stuff for an impromptu photoshoot. Here are some of the local ingredients that the Kelabit commonly use in their cooking. Aside from the famous Bario pineapples, a large part of their cuisine also incorporates wild-picked ferns, shoots, wild ginger and other forest produce.


Had some time to kill before the VIPs arrived, so we hopped onto the back of two trucks and headed to town. Legs were still sore from the hike yesterday and couldn’t be lifted beyond a certain level lol but managed to clamber on to the back nonetheless. It’s easier to soak in the sights from the back of the pickup! 🙂


Stopping by next to a paddy field where there are remains of a plane that crashed into Bario. The old structure now houses a chicken coop. There is another one further afield, but visitors will have to pass through the paddy field in order to get a closer look.


Bario’s town center is home to a small museum. Sarawakian motifs abound throughout the building, from its nicely carved pillars to the hornbill-topped roof.


Exhibits detail the history, art, culture and way of life of the local Kelabit (and Penan) communities living in Bario.



Walked over to the row of shops just next to the museum. They were mostly eateries, but there were a few utility shops as well.


Although we already had breakfast at the long house, we stopped by one of the shops for Round 2 😛


Limited space, so seats are on the corridor.


Laksa Bario – Creamy and chock full of ingredients, including chicken meat, veggies and fishballs. In line with the Sarawak Laksa version, the noodles are bihun rather than the usual fat yellow ones.


There’s something special about the Maggi here and I can confirm: it’s tastier and more flavourful, somehow. People say it’s the water which gives it that oomph!



After the meal, we headed out to Bario’s small airport to welcome representatives from Volvo, as well as the Swedish ambassador to Malaysia. A group of the long house ladies were already there, all dressed up in traditional garb and practicing their welcome performance, which involved wooden instruments that produced hollow, melodic tunes when rattled.

The Kelabit dress for women has a black fabric base, decorated with intricate floral-like motifs on the bottom, and further complemented by a bead sash, bead necklaces and a distinctive bead skull cap.


(In Brown) Swedish ambassador to Malaysia and (in black) Volvo Malaysia MD Mats Nilsson.


Back at the long house, tables had been put together for lunch. It was a full house as the whole team from Volvo, as well as the rest of the media from Kuching, had just arrived.


A delicious wild game curry of sorts. Possibly deer (?)


Had some time to kill before the launch event took place. At our request, Auntie Sina Rang took out her collection of Kelabit beads for us to photograph. Some of these are for sale, while others are heritage pieces and heirlooms handed down through the generations.

Beading is a big part of Kelabit art and culture. Since Bario is a landlocked area up in the highlands, beads could only be obtained through trade, and their forefathers would have to travel outside the region in order to secure materials, making them precious commodities. Some of the older pieces which Auntie showed us were hundreds of years old, and may cost up to five figures! Despite the passage of time, the beads retained their luster and looked as if they had just been made yesterday.


The process of beading is not an easy one. Patterns are painstakingly put together and may take months to complete. Some are made to order and specific dimensions, like the skullcaps. We tried some on and they didn’t fit because the caps are made to exact measurements. There were beads for special occasions and weddings.


Tribal designs in black and yellow, the colours of Sarawak.


(Left) Auntie Sina Rang and some of the beads she had on display. The male version of the skull cap can be seen on the left, featuring tailfeathers from the hornbill.


It was time for the main event: Volvo’s launch of a firefighting system at the Bario Asal Lembaa long house. 

Although Bario has its own police station and health clinic, it lacks a fire station. Being so deep in the interior,it would be impossible for help to arrive on time in case of a fire – which was the case for several fires that destroyed wooden long houses in the area, as well as the local primary school last year. Naturally, the residents of Bario Asal, being the oldest long house in the area that dates back to the 1950s, lived in constant worry of their home going up in flames.

As part of Volvo’s seasonal gift programme, Bario was chosen to receive RM500,000 in funding to implement their own firefighting system. As a result, eight strategically placed hose reels were installed around the long house, along with a high capacity water tank. Another portion of the funds were used to build five EcoShelters along the Bario ancestral trail as a place of rest for locals and travelers.


We urbanites living in the city tend to take things like accessibility and convenience for granted – it’s only when we’re faced with the challenges that rural folk have to go through every day that we’re hit by the gravity of it.


After dinner, we were invited to enjoy some cultural performances at the tawa (community hall) ! Accompanied by the soothing tunes from the sape (traditional guitar-like string instrument), the ladies of the house kicked off with a hornbill dance, complete with ‘feather’ props shaped like flowers. Auntie Jenette (front) was particularly skilled, her every move light and graceful. We were invited to join in afterwards, and my lumbering klutziness was hilarious to behold next to her lithe movements lol.


The Kelabit men of old had clouded leopard fangs hooped through the ears. It was considered the ultimate macho statement, since men of the tribe had to hunt three elusive animals in order to qualify as a real man: the gibbon, the hornbill, and the clouded leopard, considered the most difficult to hunt and catch. The men no longer practice this coz the clouded leopards are endangered, but some of the women, like Auntie Jenette (above) still keep their elongated earlobes, a sign of beauty among the Kelabit tribe. The lobes are weighed down by heavy brass/copper earrings.


Credit: Zaharis Khuzaimah 

The men put on a hornbill dance as well, which was markedly different from the female version: more powerful and energetic, with lots of stomping and preening. The concept behind the dances was clear: the men going out to hunt, strong and full of vigour, the women welcoming them home, demure and graceful.


Just before the end of the performances, they poured us some sweet pineapple juice which we toasted by exclaiming ‘wiwiwiwiwi’. Then everyone formed a choo-choo train line, hands on the shoulders in front, danced and sang from one end of the tawa to the other, circling around several times. Festivities lasted late into the night, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore after 1.30AM so I retired early. Some of the others stayed up drinking/eating til 5 in the morning lol. I can’t anymore, am old.







4 thoughts on “Travelogue Borneo: Day 3 In Bario – Of Maggi, Museums, and Kelabit Culture

  1. Oh, those wooden instruments are called angklung! 🙂 You hold the thin support rod at the top, and the other hand holds the bamboo shaking part below; the lower portion is shaken in a rapid manner to make the angklung sound.

    Haha, I remember an event where me and my boss from a previous job participated in. It was held at a school, and the students there had a special number for the guests: a rendition of “Let It Be” by The Beatles – using only angklungs tuned to the 7-note musical scale.

    Everyone was singing and swaying along to the tune, and the students got a standing ovation after.


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