A Journey to the Bario Highlands in Sarawak

Travelling to Bario Highlands

Among one of the least visited places in Sarawak, the Bario Highlands are on top of the list of must-visit places on the island of Borneo. Where is this strange place located? What highlands is this?

Many may think Sarawak offers countless hectares of rainforest but bordering Kalimantan Indonesia in the north is the unique and intriguing Bario Highlands and this is my story. 

I have heard so much about Bario over the years, especially from fellow Sarawakian friends telling me that I should visit this place and finally in late 2014, I was fortunate to make that trip there.

A Journey to the Bario Highlands

Before I go on, you should know that the Bario Highlands is home to the Kelabit people and Bario or “Bariew” means “the valley of the wind” in the Kelabit language.

The place has pleasant temperatures of 16-25 degrees Celsius throughout the year too.

MASwings plane arriving at Bario Highlands
MASwings plane arriving at Bario Highlands

Where is the Bario Highlands? 

The Kelabit Highlands is elevated to about 1000 meters above sea level and is home to about 6,000 Kelabits, Lun Bawang, Kayan and Kenyah people, all which make up the Orang Ulu people, which means, people from the interior.

The Kelabit Highlands is a highland plateau of over 1,000 meters and it lies between the Tama Abu Range and Apo Duat Range on the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

Bario shares the highlands with another popular village called Ba'Kelalan and two smaller villages called Long Lellang and Long Seridan.

There are many other smaller villages where in total, there are about 10 villages here. However, it is Bario that is claimed as the capital village here. 

People would say that Bario is one of the most beautiful places to visit and for anyone interested, you should know that there are only three flights daily from Lawas and Miri but they are on a 16-seater turboprop MASwings plane which is one unique experience for anyone who has never flown in a small plane.

The takeoffs and landings are the ones to look out for while on board, it is only you, the local villagers, pilot and co-pilot in the plane. There are no stewardesses or toilets like how a local commercial jet has to offer.

Bario plane landing MASwings DCH Twin Otter Plane
Landing in Bario with the MASwings DCH Twin Otter Plane

Flying to Bario

Flying over the vast rainforest at a very low altitude kept me looking out the turboprop plane window as rarely I see things from the air so low.

Primary and secondary rainforest stretch for as far as your eye can see with logging roads and winding rivers breaking the green tones of the forest canopy.

One thing to note is that if the weather is bad, flights would most likely be cancelled or if you're on a flight, the plane could turn back to the airport.

I know this simply because I had a chat with both pilots as I was sitting right behind them on the flight.

Airport Staff in Bario Highlands
Bario airport staff waiting

The noise of the turboprop plane would silence any loud-speaking tourist immediately therefore for once, it was a pleasant one hour flight minus the laughing or gossip.

Looking around in the plane saw most of the local and international journalists in their own zone, some excited, some afraid while the local Kelabit passengers were seen snoozing comfortably.

Nearing Bario, I asked the pilots and they pointed the village from the plane cockpit before making a turn in the air to come in for a landing.

As it was quite a good and clear day, I managed to take a video of the plane landing in Bario. Check it out below as the video says more than me typing in words. 

Plane landing in Bario Highlands Video

Arriving at the Bario Highlands

Upon arrival, the media entourage was greeted by our host - Scott Ngimat, one of the local guides and homestay owner whose father was one of the important village heads back in the day.

Looking casual and with a friendly and warm smile, Scott got his pickup truck over for us to load our luggage onto it.

We then requested if we could have a cup of coffee by the local airport cafe as the weather was quite cooling. I am estimating that it was about 18 degrees Celsius that day we arrived.

Bario town centre
Bario town centre, that is it. No other shops.
A barrage of questions was handed down by each of the guests here as it was the first time everyone had been here.

Questions like are there shops, cafes, hotels and so on while Scott calmly replied, "there are nothing here but villages. We are hundreds of miles away from civilization and you are in the Bario Highlands."

Finishing our coffee and tea, we headed to Ngimat Ayu, the homestay that Scott and his family ran here in Bario.

The journey from the airport took a mere 10 minutes passing all sorts of farmlands and scattered Kelabit homes in the valley.

Ngimat Ayu Homestay run by Scott Apoi

Homestay in Bario

As we approached Ngimat Ayu, it put a memory of a decades ago television series called 'Little House on the Prairie' in my mind.

Traditional half brick and wooden house up on a small hill overlooking the vast Bario farmlands. This was the homestay and I was quite excited to see the interiors of this place. A long and very cosy hallway dotted with remnants of the past was too obvious as I walked in. 

Photographs of Scott's highly respected family were decorated throughout the hallway while Kelabit artefacts tucked in one corner and an extremely cosy corner complete with a sofa and books stood at the end of the hallway.

Scott's late father was Gerawat Aren @ Ngimat Ayu @ BelaanTauh who was the paramount chief of the Kelabits from 1998 to 2005.

Bario Home Stay Ngimat Ayu
The common area of Ngimat Ayu homestay. Rooms are on the right side while the outdoor balcony on the left.

The homestay rooms were just next to each other divided only by wooden doors and the hallway also led to a common area outside which was a very large balcony overlooking the paddy fields and the serene beauty of the highlands.

Here guests would gather to have meals or just to sit around and absorb the amazing highland air.

Plus, I must acknowledge the free flow of Nescafe Coffee, Milo Chocolate and Instant Tea put at the patio of the homestay is a great bonus especially when you hang out with friends and family there.

Dome of the media actually brought a book and at times, saw them sitting in the quiet and deep in the enjoyment of reading with the highland wind blowing.

Hiking in Bario
Meeting other visitors in Bario while trekking here

Activities in Bario 

Due to the fact this was a media trip, we only had two full days in Bario and a simple itinerary was created for us where we visited the main attractions here in the highlands.

However, as this place is totally in the middle of the highlands, you would be expecting natural attractions.

For me, it was perfectly fine as I have heard and read so much about this place, I just wanted to experience it in real-time.

Salt Factory in Bario
The local salt factory where Bario Salt is processed

Bario Salt Factory Visit

One of the popular homegrown products and places to visit in Bario is their highland salt production which is located at Kampung Pa’Umor, located 1,100 meters above sea level.

This unique site sees local Kelabit families taking turns to produce the well known Bario Salt and each family spends about two weeks at the salt factory located near some natural salt springs.

The salt is processed by cooking the natural saltwater over a high wood fire and then putting them into cut bamboo containers to dry out.

Being here and observing them was no easy task as the heat inside the hut must have been about 40-50 degrees Celsius and I was perspiring non-stop.

Processing Bario Salt
The Bario Salt being processed

After drying them, they are again put near the fire for a complete dry before opening it and packaging it in local llad jungle leaves and securing it with fine Rotan string before loading them on a local buffalo which will transport it out of the salt spring to the main road.

Later, the product will be used for own consumption, sold to the community or the traders who then take them to the main towns and cities for resale. The price then increases by about 30 to 40 per cent too.

Bario Salt Photo
Packing the salt in leaves

Bario Salt is well known for its naturally high mineral content making it one of the desirable cooking ingredients for locals.

The salt contains natural iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium and the local salt has been traditionally used for treating thyroid problems.

A tube of Bario Salt will cost you about RM20 to RM30 or (US$5.70 to $8.50). It is openly sold around Miri, you can find them in the airports, souvenir shops, and even the normal grocers or markets.

Bario Hiking and Trekking
Trekking in the highlands here

Hiking and Trekking in Bario

Those who prefer outdoor activities will be pleased to find that Bario offers some interesting and exciting trekking and hiking opportunities.

However, these need to be done with a local guide as the trails and paths are not your regular ones. Some of them lead to other villages while the others lead you into the pristine highland rainforest.

Lucky for me, I opted to explore the standard walking paths which took me past local homes, paddy fields, churches, and schools.

Walking the tails, some small orchards were seen while locals went about their daily chores as if I was invisible.

Bird Watching in Bario

Chestnut Hooded Laughingthrush in Bario
A Chestnut Hooded Laughing thrush was seen while trekking

As I am an amateur bird watcher, I managed to talk to Scott in arranging a morning of bird watching in Bario. I was told by avid birders that two rare and endemic species of birds could only be found in Bario.

However, after checking with Scott, he knew where to find those birds and it was a minimum of 5-8 hours of trekking to look for these birds.

Eventually, Scott took me up one of the local hillsides through the old logging roads for some bird watching. There, I was overwhelmed by the number of birds spotted.

Overall, I managed to spot at least 20 birds in that one trip and the majority of them were 'lifers' for me. So anyone into bird watching, Bario offers proper birding guides and Scott is one of them.

Bario River Kayaking
The Dhapur River in Bario

Kayaking in Bario

I never did get a chance to try this but on my arrival here, I noticed a poster on the airport community board and a company here does kayaking along the main Daphur River here in Bario.

I would easily say that this would be a very interesting experience and the next time around, I am quite sure that I would like to try some kayaking up in the highlands. Something totally different if you ask me.

Kelabit Longhouse Photo
Inside a Kelabit Longhouse - See the depth?

Visiting a Kelabit Longhouse

There are many longhouses in Bario, some old while some are more modern. If you have been to an Iban longhouse, the ones here are a little different compared to them.

While it was my first time walking into a Kelabit longhouse, I pretty much expected a ruai (Iban) or corridor which is quite standard in the Orang Ulu community.

However, here the Kelabit longhouse 'Tawa' or corridor presents itself more as a function area during celebrations hence it looks pretty empty compared to the Iban longhouse.

Each room has the family portraits displayed outside rather than in the room.

Kelabit Longhouse Kitchen
The 'Dapur' or kitchen in the longhouse

However, as we visited one of the oldest Kelabit Longhouses here called 'Bario Asal Longhouse' I was surprised that we made our entrance from the back of the kitchen area.

Our guide Scott had informed us that this was normal practice for guests to come in from the kitchen area as this place is the heart of the longhouse where families and friends gather or are hosted here.

Between each 'bilik' or room, a narrow pathway connects the 'Tawa' and the 'dapur' which is the main kitchen area. A fireplace called 'tetal' is where everyone gathers daily.

Some of the kitchens here are nicely renovated which is quite obvious where else the standard kitchens are where the main fireplace is.

Inside a Kelabit Longhouse 'Bario Asal Longhouse'

Kelabit Food

Among some of the most unique foods I have tried on my travels, I have to say the Kelabit Food is one of them.

Made mainly from natural resources and herbs, the local delicacies here are absolutely different and very interesting for any food lover.

Among them, a popular dish is called Labo Belatuh (Smoked Meat) which is particularly wild boar or venison, salted and smoked over an open fire.

The meat is then boiled down and pounded into small strips, and eaten with Bario rice.

Kelabit Food in Bario
Traditional Kelabit Food

Vegetables that I tried during my stay here include various species of jungle vegetables like meedin, tepus, and lanau, Bario Ajinomoto leaves, Bunga kantan, Daun Ubi, and terong burung pipit.

All these are cooked in many different methods here too. Again, the Kelabit food is so unique it sometimes is an acquired taste for some.

Ngimat Ayu Homestay Bario
Our media group at Ngimat Ayu Homestay during lunch

On my last night here, the entire group was invited to one of the popular longhouses called Ulung Palang where a traditional Kelabit dinner was prepared followed by a Kelabit cultural performance.

Upon entering the longhouse, all of us were greeted with the locals dressed in full costume and serving us the Bario Pineapple drink, in a nicely cut pineapple.

For dinner, it was a sit-down-on-the-floor dinner where a selection of the local cuisines was prepared for us. Laid out on a mat on the floor was my favourite, a type of river fern, some Kelabit sambal,

Steamed chicken in ginger leaves, wild Kelabit spinach or 'Lingayen' and local asparagus with dried fish called 'Lanau'.

Kelabit Longhouse Dinner
The media group enjoying a traditional Kelabit dinner in a longhouse

Kelabit Porridge Kikid
Kelabit Porridge

The highlight was a special Kelabit porridge called 'kikid' and the 'Nuba laya' which is Bario rice wrapped in palm leaves.

After dinner, the incredibly delicious Bario pineapple was served. Called 'Bua Kabar', this was probably the best pineapple I have ever had in my life. You have to try it!

Kelabit Traditional Dance

When you visit Bario, you are most likely introduced to a traditional Kelabit dance performance at one of the local longhouses.

Not to worry as this comes with a full-on traditional Kelabit dinner followed by the dance.

I won't get into details but you can see from the video below on how it is performed here which is absolutely mesmerizing.

Kelabit Traditional Dance Video

Homestays in Bario Highlands

There are currently 12 professionally managed homestays in Bario Highlands and Ngimat Ayu is one of them. You may find others who run the homestays on an ad-hoc basis.

However, one should not expect any city hotel standards as these are all run by the local people here who offer you their traditional way of living.

There is no air condition and no hot water therefore, everything is back to basics. For those fearing the cold highland water, you can do it the old way by boiling some water over the fire then taking it into the bathroom.

Food is prepared in each individual homestay and it is all their local food. There are no modern convenient shops (7-11), cafes or supermarkets.

The only family-run small grocery stalls and a tea stall in the main town area of Bario village.

Photo of Bario
Bario landscape

Laman padi Bario
The highland paddy fields here

Bario Megalith

Trekking around Bario, our guide brought us to a unique megalith site, one of more than 300 cultural sites in the area.

It is called 'Batu Narit' and it is actually a large rock in the middle of a field with an interesting carving of a human figure with arms stretching outwards.

Who carved it? Why carve it? Those were the common questions that were asked by all of us here.

Megalith at Bario
A Megalith at Bario

Without hesitation, I had to climb up the rock to get a better view and also to photograph it.

The mystery is somehow explained through the tale of 'Upai Semaring', a legendary warrior who left carvings and marks on several rocks in different areas of the highlands, but then again, why those carvings?

No one seems to know why and I believe that it is best left as a mystery here in Bario.

Kelabit Highlands Overview

Once again, Bario is actually situated near the border of Sarawak and Kalimantan, at the foot of the Kelabit Highlands at the northern part of the Apo Duat Range near Mount Murud.

There are a total of 15 longhouses in the Kelabit Highlands and the Bario district has 7 longhouses.

The oldest longhouse is Bario Asal followed by Lung Palang, Arur Dalam, Pa’ Ramapoh Atas, Pa’ Ramapoh Bawah, Pa’ Derung, Padang Pasir and Kampung Baru.

All of these longhouses were gathered here in the 1960s according to records.

Bario Asal Longhouse
Bario Asal Longhouse

Bario Pa' Ramupuh Longhouse
Pa' Ramupuh Longhouse
Church in Bario
The local church in Bario

In total, there are about 6000 to 7000 Kelabits in Sarawak where the present population living at the Kelabit Highlands is numbered about 800 to 1000 people.

It is also noted that many have left their homes for work and education while some have moved overseas.

For those still remaining here, farming and cultivation are the main jobs. Mainly for the famed Bario Rice and Bario Salt.

There are some other smaller crops planted but when I was here, all I saw were paddy fields scattered all over the valley.

Kids in Bario
Kelabit kids playing freely

The most practical way to get to Bario is via flight from Miri which takes anywhere from 50 to 60 minutes one way. In the olden days, villagers used to trek for days and weeks to get to another town.

With the logging roads nowadays and if you choose to travel overland, it is a 13-hour journey from Miri to Bario and some locals still do it. Especially to move large items here.

For me, I once took a 6-hour drive overland to Bakelalan, the sister village of Bario and that was one amazing journey where I sat at the back of a 4WD all the way using the old logging roads.

Bario Women
Kelabit women welcoming guests

The Bario Food Festival

This is probably one of the most unique festivals celebrated in Sarawak Borneo. Called Pesta Nukenen Bario or the Bario Food Festival, it takes place here at the end of July and early August.

Arrangements have to be made in advance if you want to witness this festival as transportation and lodging is one of the hardest to book for this amazing event.

Pesta Nukenen 2015
A sampling of the Pesta Nukenen Food Festival

At the Bario Food Festival, you can be assured of some pretty amazing local dishes, traditional and cultural performances.

You also get to see the entire highland community getting together for this festival which takes place in the centre of Bario and the participating longhouses here. This is, in fact, is one of the best ways to explore this unique culture.


To me, Bario showcases an amazing unique lifestyle and culture which is hardly seen in today's travels for most people.

The locals here still practice centuries-old traditions and live simple lives unlike the fast-moving life that most of us face in the cities of towns.

I am very glad to have visited this highland community as it made me think again about how simple life is without modernization.

If given the chance, I would go back to Bario again, probably for a week or two just to have my head cleared minus the smartphones, laptops, malls, honking cars packaged with massive traffic jams and that horrible haze and other pollution that I am pretty much used too in Kuala Lumpur.

I would also highly recommend that anyone reading this, will one day make that incredible journey to the Bario Highlands in Sarawak before it gets succumbed by modernization.

Malaysia Asia

Blogging since 2007, but writing online since 1997. I belong to the 1st generation of worldwide bloggers, which is of course old-school. Since 2008, I created Malaysia Asia and this travel, flood, gadget and lifestyle blog has won numerous physical awards from tourism boards around Malaysia. (Not those online awards). After 12 years of blogging, I have semi-retired and now blog about things I like, do product reviews and enjoy life. My work has been featured in Lonely Planet, CNN Travel, Yahoo Travel, Wall Street Journal, and many other international publications. Find out more about me and thank you.


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