|MASwings plane arriving at Bario Highlands|
Bario shares the highlands with another popular village called Ba'Kelalan and two more 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.
|Landing in Bario with the MASwings DCH Twin Otter Plane|
|Bario airport staff waiting|
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, that is it. No other shops.|
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|
As we approached Ngimat Ayu, it put a memory of a decades ago television series called 'Little House on the Prairie' in my mind. A 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 artifacts tucked in one corner and an extremely cosy corner complete with a sofa and books stood at the end of the hall way. Scott's late father was Gerawat Aren @ Ngimat Ayu @ BelaanTauh who was the paramount chief of the Kelabits from 1998 to 2005.
|Common area of Ngimat Ayu homestay. Rooms are on the right side while outdoor balcony on the left.|
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 hangout 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 enjoyment of reading with the highland wind blowing.
|Meeting other visitors in Bario while trekking here|
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 real-time.
|The local salt factory where Bario Salt is processed|
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 metres 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 salt water over 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.
|The Bario Salt being processed|
|Packing the salt in leaves|
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 30-40 percent too.
Bario Salt is well known for their natural 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.
|Trekking in the highlands here|
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
|A Chestnut Hooded Laughing thrush seen while trekking|
Eventually, Scott took me up one of the local hillsides through the old logging roads for some bird watching. There, I was overwhelmed with the number of birds spotted. Overall, I managed to spot at least 20 birds in that one trip and majority of them were 'lifers' for me. So anyone into bird watching, Bario offers proper birding guides and Scott is one of them.
|The Dhapur River 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.
|Inside a Kelabit Longhouse - See the depth?|
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.
|The 'Dapur' or kitchen in the longhouse|
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 on a daily basis. Some of the kitchens here are nicely renovated which is quite obvious where else the standard kitchens are where the main fire place is .
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.
|Traditional Kelabit Food|
|Our media group at Ngimat Ayu Homestay during lunch|
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 'tengayen' and local asparagus with dried fish called 'Lanau'.
|The media group enjoying a traditional Kelabit dinner in a longhouse|
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 mesmerising.
Homestays in Bario Highlands
There are currently 12 professionally managed homestays in Bario Highlands and Nigmat Ayu is one of them. You may find others who run the homestays at 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 basic. 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. Only family run small grocery stalls and a tea stall in the main town area.
|The highland paddy fields here|
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 which was asked by all of us here.
|A Megalith at 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 1960's according to records.
|Bario Asal Longhouse|
|Pa' Ramupuh Longhouse|
|Local church in Bario|
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.
|Kelabit kids playing freely|
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.
|Kelabit women welcoming guests|
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. This is also the 10th year that the festival is taking place in Bario. Arrangements have to be made way in advance if you want to witness this festival as transportation and lodging is one of the most hardest to book for this amazing event.
|Sampling of the Pesta Nukenen Food Festival|
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 smart phones, 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 for anyone reading this, will one day make that incredible journey to the Bario Highlands in Sarawak before it gets succumbed by modernization.