Our four-day stay in Bario came to an end too soon! We spent the morning soaking in final sights, smells and sounds of the long house, which was in a lull after the previous night’s festivities. After breakfast, we hopped onto the back of a pickup truck and headed for the airport.
Bidding adieu to the cool weather, clear blue skies and beautiful mountains. 😥 Was already dreading the crazy traffic jams and stressful workload waiting back home.
We got to the airport early, where we had… guess what? Maggi! This was recommended by Captain Mendoza, the pilot who flies the MASWings service between Bario – Miri: he says he always has a bowl before flying off ! It was, if you can believe it, tastier than the one we had in town. The noodles were done perfectly with a springy, al dente texture, topped with a crisp fried egg and with just the right amount of seasoning and soup consistency. Who knew instant noodles could be so amazing?
There was a slight drizzle before take off, and during our flight back we saw multiple rainbows. It was my first time seeing rainbows from up above, formed in perfect arcs. It was amazing. The swathes of green hills were like a giant tapestry, and the floating clouds cast moving shadows over them.
A beautiful U-shaped bend that we flew by which had distinct, inky black water, in stark contrast to the milky tea-colour of the adjacent river.
After 50 minutes, we touched down at Miri airport. Once we arrived, the messages started pinging in and everyone couldn’t keep their eyes off their phones.
Had a lot of time to kill before our flight back, so we took an Uber to a restaurant called Awang Mahyan Corner, which was recommended by one of the staff at the airport for its kolo mee.
A specialty in Sarawak, kolo mee (literally ‘dry’ noodles) is characterised by its springy, al dente texture, and is served tossed in a light sauce instead of dark soy sauce which is more popular in Peninsula Malaysia. They are usually served with a side of soup, and topped with bits of meat, fried onion and spring onion for crunch. The version here did not disappoint, with the right balance of flavours. I especially liked the springiness of the noodles! 🙂
Forgot the exact name of the dish but the place is also famous for its fried chicken done ayam-penyet style, served with an assortment of vegetables. Crispy and tender!
Just outside the restaurant is a small stand selling goreng pisang (fried banana). The version here is topped with cheese and a thick, caramel-like syrup. Extremely addictive. The banana and syrup’s sweetness is balanced out by the slight saltiness of the cheese, and crispy batter goes well with the softness of the fruit on the inside. I could easily polish off two plates by myself lol.
AWANG MAHYAN CORNER
1068-1077, Jalan Bintang Jaya 1, Bintang Jaya, 98000 Miri, Sarawak.
*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.
Ever since a back injury in my teens, I’ve laid off extreme physical activity. The most I’ve ‘exerted’ myself is an hour at the gym, and that’s on a stationary exercise bike lol.
I was in Bario, Sarawak recently, and the media group I was with decided to visit one of the Eco-Shelters that Volvo Malaysia had erected for hikers and locals along the Bario Ancestral Trail, as part of a CSR project.
I was apprehensive. The only experience I had with the jungle was a school camping trip in Pahang back in Form 3, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant for this through-and-through city girl. Top that with me being a total klutz, and we have a recipe for disaster. After repeatedly asking our Kelabit guide about the trek’s difficulty (he described it as 4-5 hours, moderate) and against my better judgment, I decided to join. We were invited here to write about the CSR project, so the least I could do was go and look at one of the eco-shelters and take some pictures. (Ever the dedicated journalist? :P)
It would turn out to be an… unforgettable experience.
The Bario Ancestral Trail: So called because it was used by the Kelabit people since ancient times, the ancestral trail totals 25km, and takes hikers and locals through thick tropical jungle and hilly terrain up to Batu Lawi, a twin-peaked mountain considered sacred to the Kelabit as well as the Penan who inhabit the region.
Shrouded in legend and myth, the mountains rise up high over the landscape, acting as beacons for locals and travelers. In fact, World War II pilots flying over the region used it as a marker to locate the Bario settlement, since they would have only seen a carpet of green hills otherwise. Today, the entire hike from Bario – Batu Lawi takes 5-6 days (for the locals) to complete.
We set off from the village around 9.30AM. The initial walk was easy, since the paths were wide and flat. Along the way were paddy fields and small clusters of homes along the way. The fresh air and beautiful scenery kept us in high spirits.
Cutting through a muddy paddy field.
And getting stuck.
Shoes/pants ruined within an hour lol. I didn’t have proper hiking shoes, so our guide, Julian, suggested we wear rubber ones from the long house. It was a tight fit but I thought it would be fine. Little did I know I would sorely regret this later lol.
Cute auntie about to head out to the fields.
We then started venturing deeper, into the actual trail. Our guide Julian picked some forest fruits for us to taste. It was sour and tart.
I think if I’m ever stranded in a jungle, alone, I would just die within 24 hours lol. I wouldn’t know where to get water, or food, which way to head to, etc.
Crossing a pipe, which channeled water from the river to the fields below.
The trek started off light and easy, before it quickly became a challenge. This wasn’t a nice little forest like those you see in books or Western films, with sparse trees and gentle vegetation. This. Was. Hardcore.
Everything was wet and dewy, the air was moist and humid, and the jungle floor teemed with small life: ants, insects, centipedes. Occasionally we would hear a bird call in the distance, or catch a glimpse of squirrels.
Not only were parts of the hill extremely steep, it was also slippery/muddy so I had to rely a lot on my balance. This tired out my legs quickly. The path was not always clear of plants and Julian, who was walking in front, would hack and slash away with a machete to clear it up. Sometimes, thorny vines would latch onto us as we crashed through the brush, digging in and drawing blood. There were parts where we had to cross haphazard log bridges with a sheer 50-foot drop into a ravine below. It was narrow so everyone had to go in single file.
Nature’s drink! Bamboo plants have lots of water stored within.
Tree with striking bark coloration.
Along the way, we were beset by leeches. They seemed particularly fond of my blood, because I was bitten by no less than fifteen. Another guy in my group also suffered the same fate. There are two types of leeches – the ‘ngau kei’ aka the black ones that fall off when they’ve had their fill, and the thin, tiger leeches which are persistent little buggers Since I wasn’t wearing high socks, they climbed into my pants and up my… thigh. Like really high. More on that later though.
After several hours, we reached a small waterfall where we stopped for a quick packed lunch.
Water was cold and crystal clear!
Then it was back to the jungle again. We were making very slow progress, and debated whether to continue the trek to the Eco Shelter or to turn back. Even some of the more experienced trekkers among us said the trail was ‘difficult’, so I knew it wasn’t only me being a newbie/pansy: it really WAS tough.
I was already tired then, having trekked for seven hours. But since everyone decided to push on, we pushed on. Around 4 pm, the EcoShelter finally loomed into view.
Funded by Volvo Malaysia and built by the local Kelabit villagers with the help of the nomadic Penan tribe who live in the region, the wooden shelters are basic, with a simple toilet/shower that uses a rainwater harvesting system. There are five shelters in total, spaced 5km apart. The idea was to provide a place for ecotourists and locals heading up the ancestral trail with a place to rest, since the entire trip would take days.
We actually headed to Shelter 2 instead of 1 because we were moving very slowly and this was closer. Went inside, stripped, and asked the ladies to help me check for leeches. I was horrified to find one had crawled very close to my hoo-ha. It had fallen off, but it was so close my underwear was soaked with blood, as if I had my period. .___.”
Gave me nightmares for days
Group photo ! We didn’t rest for too long because night was approaching and we had to exit quickly. At this point, I was still feeling okay, but about an hour into the return trip, exhaustion crept in.
The way was mostly downhill, and my legs were so tired they didn’t seem to want to listen to me and started shaking. It was extremely frustrating – if you’ve ever had a body part not listen to what your brain tells it to do, you’ll know what I mean. It didn’t help that I hadn’t had any training or even experience hiking, so it was like going from 0-100. I ended up stopping, sitting down on the ground and bursting into tears. The rest of the group were very patient and encouraging: since my body was overheating, they fanned me and gave me water, while Julian, the guide, held my hands throughout the return journey.
The tight shoes were pinching my toes – it hurt every step of the way and I was wheezing like a stuck pig, but when you’re at that point, you give up caring about how you look lol. I asked Julian what would happen if I really couldn’t walk anymore and he said he’d have to carry me out. I thought about it and decided I’d just press on, mostly coz I’m as heavy as a man and he’d have a hard time carrying + guiding the others (although we did have a backup guide, Agan, walking at the back).
I did an interview with South African explorer Mike Horn a couple of months back, and he quoted something about his solo trip across the Antarctica (the first man to do so without a team): when his ship left him at the shores and he was faced with the next 5,000km to cross, he knew that the only way to get out alive would be to reach the other side. That crossed my mind as I sat bawling on the forest floor of a Sarawak jungle. Of course, I didn’t believe I was going to die, but I didn’t want to be stuck overnight in a forest and I knew there was no way out but forward, so I forced the legs to move one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
Clambering over fallen logs.
I spent most of the last three hours slipping and sliding rather than walking, because my legs simply did not want to listen to my brain anymore.
After what felt like forever, we finally arrived at a cow paddock on the edge of the jungle, where our guides radioed for a truck. What was supposed to be a five hour in-and-out trip took us a solid 11 HOURS.
While waiting, I looked up and was greeted by an amazing sight: a beautiful night sky strewn with stars, like diamond dust in an ink pool. Definitely not something you’ll see in the city! The view took my breath away (or maybe it was the exhaustion? lol) and I realised what I had accomplished. Unfit chick with no hiking experience (or much sporting experience, for that matter), conquered a hardcore trail that even experienced hikers called tough. If that’s not something to tell the grandkids, I don’t know what is.
Course, I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to do this again anytime soon (or ever?) lol.
When the truck pulled up to the long house, we were fussed over (and mildly scolded) because they were worried and had sent some of the villagers after us, fearing that someone had been injured. My advice for tourists: don’t pull an Eris and go with zero training and without the proper equipment – this is no Broga Hill. Seriously. This is some hardcore sht.
But man, was it unforgettable.
**Photos not watermarked courtesy of: Ed Junaidi, Dishen Kumar, Zaharis Khuzaimah
PS: A testament to my un-athletic-ness (is that a word?) – both my toenails got infected because of the blunt trauma/force from the shoes. The left one leaked pus, the other turned black and had a pool of blood under the nail lol. After some meds the left one seemed okay, but today the entire nail bed came out fahk. So now I have no toenail on my big toe wtf. I guess it’ll take a few months to grow it out again. I hope the right one doesn’t fall off too lol.
Here’s a joke I heard from an East Malaysian friend who was taking a cab in KL.
The cabbie asked where he was from, and he answered Sabah, to which the cabbie replied “Oh, bila datang Malaysia?” (When did you come to Malaysia?)
I can understand where Mr Cabbie was coming from. Partly due to ignorance and the ‘I don’t care what happens beyond my little bubble of a place’ attitude, many of us West Malaysians tend to forget that the other half of our country lies just across the ocean.
While I wouldn’t call myself an adventurer, I’ve been to a couple of places overseas, and it’s ironic that I haven’t fully explored my own backyard. Since I visited Sabah in 2016, it was time to tick Sarawak off the list too.
I recently joined a media fam trip by Volvo Malaysia, to see the work they have done in Bario, a small settlement up in the highlands bordering the Indonesian state of Kalimantan.
I had never heard of the place and didn’t know what to expect – only that it was hard to reach and would take 11 hours by 4 WD through muddy logging trails and swollen rivers. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go through that as there are now plane services that run twice daily from Miri Airport, serviced by MAS Wings. 😀
These are not your typical commercial flights. No cabin crew, nor toilets. Instead, you hop on board a tiny Twin Otter that seats a maximum of 14 people.
Owing to the aircraft’s small size, they are very stringent on weight. Both you and your baggage will be weighed before boarding. Bags should not exceed nine kilos.
And we have takeoff! The ride from Miri to Bario took approximately 50 minutes.
This was my second time in a small plane; the first was in a four-seater Cessna. The sound of the engine and propellers was extremely loud and we had to shout to be heard. I couldn’t hear anything from the pilot’s intercom either lol.
There wasn’t much need for conversation though – look at this gorgeous view! Large swathes of plantation were soon replaced by thick, emerald-green jungle, stretching as far as the eye could see. The view of undulating hills, untouched by man for millions of years, was occasionally interrupted by milky brown rivers, slithering through the landscape like a giant snake. It was a majestic sight that made me feel small and insignificant, and awed.
As our plane made its descent, we could see plots of paddy, homes, electric poles and buildings looming closer. This is Bario, located 1,000 meters above sea level and home to the Kelabit people, one of the smallest indigenous tribes in Sarawak. Here, they have lived for over 4,000 years. Prior to early contact with the outside world in the 1920s, they were headhunters, and skillful in the ways of the jungle. Bario means ‘wind’ in the Kelabit language, a fitting and poetic name for a beautiful land.
We were greeted by the cutest airport I’ve ever seen. It was tiny ! The airport ‘building’ was a simple structure with an outdoor terrace/dining area (they have a small eatery inside) and a souvenir shop.
Bario consists of 13-16 villages scattered across the area. Its hilly terrain is interspersed with flat lands (think of a basin) , which is used to grow rice. Bario rice is famed for its fluffiness and superior grain! Another of the region’s famous produce is pineapple, which is juicier and sweeter than regular pineapples.
Travel everywhere is by pickup truck, since the roads are mostly dirt and will turn muddy in the rainy season. We clambered onto the back of one and headed towards the main town area, a 10-15 minute drive away. Since the elevation is high, the weather here is cooling and pleasant, hovering just above the 20s in day time.
Quick stop at the town area, which has a row of wooden shops, an info hub and a small museum. Just down the road is a police station, a health clinic and an IT centre.
Sarawak is a vast state, and infrastructure is still poor. Bario, however, enjoys good facilities such as solar-panel powered electricity and running water.
It even has its own salon/beauty parlour! 😀 Here you can get haircuts or your nails done.
Just next to the salon is Joe’s Cafe, where we stopped for a meal. The laid back vibe and the open-air terrace, where we could smell the wafting aromas from the adjacent kitchen made it feel like having lunch at a friend’s place 😀 The building was mostly wood, with vintage posters lining the walls.
The food was delicious – but the portions were wayyyy too much for the four of us lol. There was crispy fried chicken and salad.
The star, though, was the fish. Surprising, seeing as how Bario is so far away from the sea. The sauce was similar to assam pedas: rich, creamy and very spicy. Polished it off with bowls of Bario rice.
Arriving at the Bario Asal Lembaa village, the largest in Bario. While there are individual homes, about 23 families live in a communal longhouse (which I’ll detail in a separate post!) Several of the families run homestays, of which we were guests for several days.
I was originally assigned to Uncle Andrew’s homestay with the rest of the media guys (coz apparently my name sounds like a dude and they couldn’t tell). The double-storey building was just adjacent to the longhouse and looked quite grand.
Impressed ! It was a well-equipped homestay with all the works: a cosy living area complete with XBox (although you can only play FIFA on it), dining area, stocked kitchenette with tea/coffee, and four bedrooms in total.
Rooms, each with two single beds. On par with a resort-style homestay!
The upstairs living area with a balcony on the outside.
PS: As cosy as it was, I eventually moved to share a room inside the longhouse, partly coz it was inconvenient to stay in a house full of guys, and also coz I wanted to experience living in the longhouse itself.
After freshening up, we headed out for a walking tour around the village. The main road, which was the only road in and out of the village, was flanked on both sides by vast paddy fields. It was harvesting season and the paddy was mostly yellow/brown.
Villagers in the fields finishing up a hard day’s work under the soft light of dusk.
Being in Bario was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of city life. The air was cleaner and fresher, there was no traffic and no distractions. No Internet meant that we had no entertainment, so we had to revert to that thing most modern urbanites have forgotten how to do: have actual, meaningful conversations.
It’s amazing how much you miss when you go through life with your heads down and eyes on the screen all the time.
Visiting the Penghulu’s house, which had a very friendly dog that was useless as guard dog lol. The gate was also thrown wide open, something that would be unheard of in places like KL.
Our guide, Julian, went to a tree in the compound and plucked some oddly shaped fruits. These are Inga beans, which the locals call ‘Ice cream fruit’. They’re sweet and fluffy with an airy texture almost like cotton candy, and a hard seed in the middle; like a cross between a rambutan and a mangosteen. Juicy and delicious!
The village church. The Kelabit practiced animism and the worship of ancestors in the past, before they converted to Christianity.
Church Society building.
It gets dark quicker up in the highlands. We hurried up to a nearby hill for a good view of the town below.
On top of the hill was a memorial for fallen soldiers. During World War II, Bario acted as a base for Operation Semut, an anti-Japanese military operation headed by the British. The Kelabit participated in sabotaging Japanese operations in Sarawak.
After soaking in the sights for a bit, we walked back to the longhouse for dinner. Bario had been good so far, and I was excited for the next day’s activity: hiking! Little did I know that it was going to be a life-changing experience.
Hey guys! I know I haven’t been posting this last couple of days been busy rushing stuff for work 😦 but here’s a video by a fellow media colleague who went on the trip. Also, my leg with the leech has officially gone on national TV, hahahaha.
First trip of the year and I’m off again (for work) to Bario, home to the Kelabit, the smallest tribe of indigenous people in Sarawak. They live high up in the mountains where farming is the main source of income. Travel by 4WD from the nearest big city, Miri, is a whopping 11 hours through logging trails and jungles, but thankfully we won’t have to be bumped and bruised coz we’ll be flying in with the rural air service by MASWings.
I’m quite excited about the trip as it’ll be my first time in Sarawak (visited Sabah last year – read about it here). Also, it sounds kind of rugged – hiking up the mountain, travelling in 4WDs on uneven roads, no water heater, cold weather, mozzies, that sort of stuff. I’m not really a backpacker – I like my creature comforts – so let’s hope I don’t fall sick after. I’m sure the experience will be worth it. 😀
There’s no cell phone reception in Bario so I can also kiss the Internet goodbye for a couple of days. In the meantime, enjoy the scheduled posts and I’ll be back soon! 🙂