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.

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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.

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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.

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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! 🙂

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Limited space, so seats are on the corridor.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelogue Borneo: Inside A Kelabit Longhouse in Bario, Sarawak

The concept of communal living may be alien to many of us who live in the city. Our apartments are like tiny cages, our gated and guarded homes a substitute for cells.

For some indigenous peoples in Sabah and Sarawak, however, communal living is the only way of life they have ever known. Long houses have afforded its residents protection, safety and convenience since ancient times, and allows a unique bond to form between family, neighbours and friends.

Bario, Sarawak

I had the privilege of staying at one of these long houses recently, on a trip to Bario, Sarawak, where the Kelabit people live. We stayed at the Bario Asal Lembaa Long House, the largest longhouse in the area and home to 23 families.

During our visit, it was like a big party, as not only were the people from Volvo Trucks  there for the official launching ceremony of their CSR projects, so were some research students as well as NGO volunteers. The atmosphere was festive, and reminded me of days when I was younger and everyone would congregate back in our hometown during the holiday season (not anymore since the grandparents died. Sigh

Bario, Sarawak

Dating back to 1958, the Bario Asal Lembaa long house is a living piece of history, where generations of families have lived and died. Elevated on wooden stilts, the building is mostly made from wood and has numerous entry and exit points.

Bario, Sarawak

The longhouse is divided into three ‘sections’, the first being the tawa – a long covered hallway that stretches from one end to the other. Used for ceremonies, gatherings and official functions, the space is lined with portraits of the families who live here, as well as historical figures and important community leaders within the Kelabit community. It felt a bit like a family museum, and I was touched to be welcomed into something so precious and intimate.

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

From the hallway are narrow corridors that pass through private living quarters, usually a space with a living room and several bedrooms. These lead to the kitchen area, which is the real heart and soul of the community, and where most of the residents hangout while in the long house. I shared a room with two others at Sinah Rang Lemulun’s Homestay. It was a spacious unit with several rooms and a living area. The kitchen, which was interconnected with the other units, had a simple dining table and a pantry.

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Real cosy! Photos of the family decorated one side of the wall, and there was also a bookshelf filled with books on the other. Various knick knacks added to the homely vibe. Loved the pouffy sofa chairs. Used to have those at home and my bro and I would built forts out of them 😀

The day starts early in the longhouse. The loud ringing of the church bell nearby announces the arrival of dawn. From there on, it’s a flurry of activity, and unless you’re the kind that is dead to the world while you sleep, you’ll hear every creak of the floorboard, footsteps making their way through the kitchen as the longhouse ‘aunties’ prepare breakfast, and conversations cutting through the early morning air.

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Exiting the room, we come to the ‘tetal’ (sounds like ‘turtle’), aka the kitchen area. This is the heart of the longhouse, and where residents spend most of their time, either cooking, socialising or going about their daily lives. The hearth is a simple square-shaped fireplace in the center of each space, stocked with a special type of wood that we were told will not ‘spread’ when burned – you have to keep pushing it into the fireplace. They use these because the long house is made of wood and a fire would be disastrous.

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For guests, meals at the longhouse are prepared by your respective hosts. Although I was staying at Auntie Sina Rang‘s homestay, my food was prepared by Auntie Rita coz I swapped rooms earlier. Yes, they call everyone Auntie and Uncle here, it feels very homely!

Breakfast for me and the guys was simple but tasty – bread, Bario’s famous pineapple jam, eggs, and fried, battered slices of something that resembled yam. She also prepped halal and non-halal fried bihun to accommodate our Muslim friends. 🙂

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As some homes are not equipped with water heaters, people tend to take showers in the afternoon or evening. At night, temperatures dip to the teens, hovering around 15-16 degrees, so a sweater is recommended.

Some of the villagers like to sit around the fireplace for a chat after a long day, where they’ll put a kettle to boil and enjoy mugs of warm tea and some food. We joined the elders for awhile, and when they retired to bed, we moved on to the next ‘tetal’, and so on and so forth, from one end to the other!  Maklumlah, orang bandar… we don’t sleep so early. 😀

At another hearth, we sat down on low stools that our guide Julian jokingly called ‘Ogawa Bario’, and listened to stories – about their lives, developments in Bario, things happening around the world, etc. By the way, if you’re worried about communicating with the locals, fret not – the Kelabit speak very good English and Malay, in addition to their mother tongue. Although the school in Bario only offers classes up to Form 3, many youngsters venture out to  big towns to complete their tertiary education and go on to get professional jobs, before returning to the village. Auntie Rita, for example, was a nurse in Miri for many years before she retired, and Julian was an engineer in KL.

My experience staying at the Kelabit long house was an awesome one. I was extremely touched by their warmth and hospitality, as never have I felt so at home or so welcomed by people I barely knew – something that’s rare to find in cities.

If you’re looking for a homestay while in Bario, I highly suggest staying at the Bario Asal Lembaa Longhouse. Prices start from RM90 for a night’s accommodation. For more information, visit: facebook.com/SinahRangHomestayAndHandicraft/

*^ Auntie Sina Rang’s homestay – she also sells handicrafts! 

More of Bario to come! 🙂

Travelogue Borneo: The Kelabit Highlands of Bario, Sarawak – Day 1

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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. 😀

Bario, Sarawak

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. 

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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.

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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.

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

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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.

Bario, Sarawak

It even has its own salon/beauty parlour! 😀 Here you can get haircuts or your nails done.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

The food was delicious – but the portions were wayyyy too much for the four of us lol. There was crispy fried chicken and salad.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

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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.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

Rooms, each with two single beds. On par with a resort-style homestay!

Bario, Sarawak

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. 

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

Villagers in the fields finishing up a hard day’s work under the soft light of dusk.

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

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. 

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

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!

Bario, Sarawak

The village church. The Kelabit practiced animism and the worship of ancestors in the past, before they converted to Christianity.

Bario, Sarawak

Church Society building.

Bario, Sarawak

It gets dark quicker up in the highlands. We hurried up to a nearby hill for a good view of the town below.

Bario, Sarawak

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, 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.

More to come 🙂