Siniawan Travel Guide: Attractions and Things To See & Do In The Cowboy Town Of Borneo

When it comes to travel these days, ‘hidden gems’ don’t stay hidden for very long. All it takes is one viral photo, and suddenly the hordes are descending upon the place like a swarm of camera-toting, Instagram-obsessed zombies. 

Siniawan in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, however, has largely remained ‘off the beaten path’ – although its popularity has also been on the rise. Having never heard of the place prior to my trip, I did not know what to expect. By the end of it I was absolutely taken by its rustic charm, the warmth of its people and the town’s extraordinary story of resilience and perseverance. This is, truly, a gem that needs to be seen and experienced – so I recommend visiting before it gets too commercialised.

With that, here is a list of things to see and do in Siniawan. I hope you’ll find it useful!

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Tucked by the banks of the Sarawak River, Siniawan is about 30 minutes away from Kuching and was once a thriving trade town, thanks to the region’s gold mining activities.  At its peak in the 1870s – early 1900s, it even had opium dens, theatres, hotels and brothels.

After Sarawak became part of Malaysia, improved infrastructure meant shorter travelling times – but roads had been built bypassing Siniawan, and the town lay forgotten. Refusing to give up, the townsfolk (some of whom have lived here for over FIVE generations!) decided on a revival plan – a night market. Started in 2010, the pasar malam became a success, and is now a must-visit for many travellers to Kuching, who come to dine and bask in its unique old-world atmosphere.

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Siniawan during the day. The difference is, pardon the pun, like night and day. lol. 

The main street is comprised of two rows of wooden shoplots. The buildings were constructed during the height of the town’s glory days in the 1910s. Unlike Sino-Portuguese buildings in West Malaysia, which typically sport colourful facades and elaborate decorations, the architecture here is Javanese, since it was easier to get carpenters from there via Singapore). The double-storey shops look rustic, with vertical wooden panels and unpainted fronts, earning the town it’s nickname “cowboy town”. (Doesn’t it look like the perfect place for a showdown at high noon? All it needs is a couple of tumbleweeds rolling in the wind).

1. HAVE A KOLO MEE BREAKFAST AT YONG TAI CAFE 

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Start the day with breakfast at Yong Tai Cafe, one of the few kopitiams in town that are open during the day. The shop has been in operation since 1971, and specialises in a well-loved Sarawakian Chinese dish – kolo mee (literally dry noodles). With deft movements, the shop owner expertly cooks and tosses the bouncy egg noodles dry, before placing into a bowl and topping it off with fragrant fried onions in oil and lard, a serving of minced meat and charsiew (sweet barbecued pork).

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Dine ‘al fresco’ on the walkway. Most patrons are locals and have been eating here for generations.

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There are two types of kolo mee, the original (plain) and the one in red sauce which is actually a sweet charsiew sauce. Personally, I prefer the red as I found it more flavourful. The version at Yong Tai came topped with a few pork balls, veggies and charsiew slices. The noodles were bouncy and al dente, and everything just came together really well.

Can I just say that the PORTIONS HERE ARE HUMONGOUS ? And it only costs RM3 (USD 0.72!?) per bowl what in the actual eff. I know it’s a small town and everything but you can’t even get nasi lemak for RM3 in Kuala Lumpur these days (average bowl of noodle in KL = RM6.50 – RM10, depending on area).

2. VISIT SHUI YUE GONG TEMPLE

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Walk a few hundred metres down the road and you’ll come to the town’s Chinese temple, Shui Yue Gong (Water Moon Temple) which is dedicated to the Goddess Guanyin. The temple is almost as old as the town itself, with a Qing dynasty sign hanging from one of the doors that dates back to 1886. While parts of the temple such as the compound are new and modern, the interior of the main shrine looks pretty old. The Guanyin statue on the altar was brought over from China over a century ago.

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While small, the temple is well maintained. A fresh coat of pink paint hides the temple’s age, while the beautiful gold dragons coiled around the pillars look like they were carved just yesterday.

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One of the town’s major festivals happens during Chap Goh Mei, the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, where a grand parade takes place. Departing from the temple to the town centre, the deity is taken on a procession accompanied by lion dances, music, firecrackers and performances.

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I was fortunate enough to be in town close to Gawai (Harvest Festival / Thanksgiving for the Dayak people of Sarawak), and there was a small activity going on nearby – a blowpipe contest! These weapons were used for hunting game in forests, such as squirrels, birds and wild boar, for hundreds of years. While less used today, communities in the area still practice the art, with blowpipe associations and blowpipe competitions.

The ones they used for the competition were extremely long – around 7 or 8 feet. I was amazed at how accurately they could hit the balloon targets which were about 30 metres away. Some of our group tried at the line where the asphalt ended (like what, 5 metres?) and still failed miserably lol.

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Traditional beads for sale. It was hard for me to tell them apart, but they were sorted according to colour and style – eg beads from the Bidayuh ethnic group would have a certain colour, while beads from the Iban typically featured red, black, yellow and white.

4. TAKE A STROLL AT THE SINIAWAN BUDDHIST VILLAGE (AKA KBS BUDDHIST VILLAGE) 

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The Siniawan Buddhist Village surprised me, because I had not expected to find such a beautiful place so far away from the city. The place was abuzz several months ago when Hollywood star Steven Seagal (is he a star anymore though? lol) came to visit, but otherwise, visitors can take their time wandering the massive, tranquil grounds – home to a crematorium / columbarium, function halls, rooms where you can book a night’s stay (for meditation activities, talks, etc.) and a nine-storey pagoda, easily the tallest building for miles around.

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Surrounded by greenery, the grounds feature several Chinese-style gazebos and gardens peppered with stone statues of Buddhist deities; it even has a small pond stocked with fish.

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Thankfully, we did not have to climb nine storeys to the top of the pagoda, as it had a lift (whew!). At the top, there was a beautiful statue of a thousand-hand guanyin facing four directions, while the roof was painted to look like the sky.

5. DROP BY LIU SHAN BANG SHRINE 

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There’s not much to see at Liu Shan Bang’s shrine, but it’s worth a visit for the sheer history.

So who was Liu Shan Bang? 

Liu Shan Bang was a gold miner from nearby Bau who founded the 12 kongsi (companies) that would operate the Bau gold mine, effectively making it a self-governing entity. Unhappy about taxation laws imposed by the ruling British ‘White Rajah’ James Brooke, Liu led 600 miners to attack Brooke’s mansion in the capital. Brooke escaped and his nephew Charles led an Iban force to quell the rebellion. Liu was killed. Many years later, a mining company came to the area looking to establish their operations, but the story goes that staff had horrible dreams about Liu’s restless spirit. Eventually they built a shrine over his grave, and the nightmares stopped. Today, Liu is worshipped as a local deity and has been recognised as a Sarawakian freedom fighter.

6. INDULGE IN STREET EATS AT THE SINIAWAN NIGHT MARKET

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Head back to town as the sun sets to see it literally coming to life. Stalls are setup, shutters are opened, and traders bustle about preparing for the night. The decorative red lanterns hanging from one end of the street to the other are lit, providing a picturesque backdrop for photos. With the rustic buildings flanking both sides of the street, one might almost think that they’ve taken a step back in time, if not for the plastic tables and chairs.

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Here, visitors will find all sorts of delicious and mouthwatering street food, be it Chinese, Bidayuh or Malay – the three major ethnic groups in the area. You’ll also find typical street food stuff like fried chicken, grilled seafood, grilled meats, satay, and more.

One of the must-tries here is the pitcher plant stuffed with glutinous rice – a Bidayuh specialty – but after walking up and down the street I couldn’t seem to locate it. 😦

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I did get to try the kompiah, a Fuzhou specialty which came highly recommended by the locals. It’s basically like a fluffy Chinese-style burger stuffed with tender pork and various fillings, overflowing with juices. You can easily polish off half a dozen in one go!

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A ‘stage’ where you can choose a song to karaoke to for just RM1. Cue aunties and uncles belting out power ballads at the top of their voices out of tune.

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The Chinese vibe is pretty apparent in town, seeing as how 99% of the shops are owned and run by Hakka Chinese.

7. GRAB A DRINK AT THE BIKALAN

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The only non-Chinese shop in town is The Bikalan, or ‘The Jetty’ in the Bidayuh language, which is run by a husband and wife team, Andy and Grace Newland (super nice people – I stayed at their place during my visit). Quaint and cosy, the bar-cum-bistro serves a good selection of traditional Bidayuh food, a few Hakka dishes, Western fare as well as alcoholic drinks.

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PS: RIDE A SAMPAN ACROSS THE RIVER 

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While Siniawan can be reached by car from Kuching, villagers from the surrounding areas who live across the river commute to town by sampan, a traditional boat. It was quite the experience for a city girl like me! The fare is just 0.50 cents per ride.

GETTING TO SINIAWAN 

The best way to get to Siniawan from Kuching is by car, as public transport only services town during the day, with the last bus leaving Bau at 3.20PM. Grab is the only other choice if you intend to visit the night market, costing around RM30+ one way.

Bus schedule (Bau Transport Company. Tel : 082 – 763160) :

Departure from Kch – Bau : 7:00am, 8:20am, 10:20am, 12:20pm, 1:40pm, 4:00pm, 5:10pm
Return from Bau – Kch : 5:45am, 6:40am, 8:40am, 10:20am, 12:00pm, 2:20pm, 3:20pm

ACCOMMODATION 

There is a homestay in town called Tian Xia Homestay, which is affordable but very basic. Rooms start from RM65.

 

 

 

Travelogue Borneo: Leaving Bario + Best Kolo Mee/Goreng Pisang in Miri, Sarawak !

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.

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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.

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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?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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! 🙂

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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!

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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. 

**Halal 

 

 

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: Hardcore Hiking in Bario – 11 Hours In A Sarawak Jungle

I’ve never been hiking. 

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. 

Batu Lawi. Credit: Bruno Manser Foundation

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.

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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.

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Cutting through a muddy paddy field.

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And getting stuck.

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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.

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Cute auntie about to head out to the fields.

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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.

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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.

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Nature’s drink! Bamboo plants have lots of water stored within.

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Tree with striking bark coloration.

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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.

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After several hours, we reached a small waterfall where we stopped for a quick packed lunch.

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Water was cold and crystal clear!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

 

 

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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. 🙂

Bario, Sarawak

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. 

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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.

Bario, Sarawak

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 🙂

 

Sneak Peek: Bario Trip!

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.

Credits to @AstroAwani and Dishen Kumar 

Will post more about the trip soon! 🙂

 

 

Back from Bario!

Hey guys!

I’m back from my trip to beautiful Bario in Sarawak ! 

One word: Memorable. 

In which I mean that I broke down in the middle of the jungle after an 11-hour hike, and the local tribesmen had to organise a search and rescue team because we were 6 hours late and they thought someone had gotten injured. Also, a leech nearly crawled up my hoo-hah, my toes are now infected and I will never look at regular life (complaining about being stuck in traffic pales in comparison to a near-death experience of losing your foothold in the middle of a tropical jungle with a 100-foot drop to the side) the same way again.

On another note, I am so touched by the kindness and hospitality of the local Kelabit people, who took us in as not just guests, but as part of their family. Also, longhouses are cool – you get to sit around a tetel (kitchen), and listen to the elderly uncles and aunties tell stories while warming your hands over the fire. Can’t wait to share the stories with you guys!

That’ll have to wait though: lots of things to do now that I’m back.