Bakelalan Sarawak


One of the most memorable trips I made was to Bakelalan in Sarawak and this was back in 2014. While some of you may already know where this place is, others may not have a clue on what or where this place is located at. Also called Ba Kelalan or Kelabit Highlands, this beautiful place is located in the highlands of Sarawak in the north east beside the border of Kalimantan Indonesia.

The two main villages in the Kelabit Highlands are Bakelalan and Bario, both at an average 1000 meters (3300 feet) above sea level which makes the overall atmosphere here very cooling. The only way to get here is via road which can take anywhere from 4-8 hours via four wheel drive (4WD) and the other faster but costlier way would be to fly in via small plane from nearby Lawas or Miri. There are no flights out of Sarawak. 

Bakelalan was once well known for their apple farming in the 80s till late 90s and now is more of a farming community. Occupied by mostly the Lun Bawang people of Sarawak, there are various number of smaller villages and communities around here totaling around nine. Most of them with an average of 30-100 people and it is the main township of Ba'Kelalan, where the airport and homestays are located.

A MasWings Twin Otter Plane makes a landing in Bakelalan
Flights that land here are pretty much subjective to the weather, meaning if it is raining heavily in Ba'Kelalan and your flight comes in, chances are the flight might turn back and head to the original airport. Flights are also twice a day on certain days of the week and the only airline that operates here is MasWings which flies in from Miri. 

As I visited Ba'Kelalan for the first time in my life, I took an overland 4WD journey from Miri to here and departed on a flight out. The overland journey took me a total of about six entire hours - and the best part, I sat in the back of the 4WD for the ultimate experience driving through old logging roads, plantations and through the pristine rainforest and montane terrains of interior Sarawak. While you may thing this a an amazing adventure overland, let me just share with you what one of the guides told me - Now you have finally experienced the Borneo Massage, whilst sitting in a 4WD on the old logging roads.

Merarap Hot Springs

Our first stop was at a very local retreat or resort called Merarap Hot Springs which is located deep in the rainforest. A local Lun Bawang man and his wife run this beautiful place which caters mostly to locals and the only way here is again, via 4WD. Spending a night here and experiencing the natural hot spring next to a raging class four river was something out of this world. Since it was just an overnight trip, I managed to try all the different temperature hot spring pools that evening, accompanied by some cold cans of beers.

Merarap Hot Springs, a popular local spot on the way to Bakelalan
The following day, we departed after a local breakfast prepared by the hot spring owner, had a chat with him and even met his pet baby monkey who seems to be the water pump security guard. Well, it looked like that. Anyway, our journey from Merarap Hot Springs to Ba'Kelalan was another exciting one stopping at various look out points and also a village river fish farm. Here, they rare the prized Empurau Fish which can go anywhere from RM500-600 per kilo (US$130-150) in Sarawak and RM1300-1500 (US$350-400) per kilo in Peninsular Malaysia. Talk about crazy fish prices! Till today, I have never tried the exotic Empurau Fish but on the other hand, I managed to see and touch the actual fish which was rared here in the river by the locals.

Bakelalan Salt Factory

Our journey continued and a final stop at the local Bakelalan salt factory was mandatory as this was one of the homegrown products here. Yes, a salt factory! I have never been to a salt factory but this surely stirred up my curiosity on how salt was made. Walking through the open fields to a hut in the distance, I saw a huge group of people waiting there - looked more like a welcoming party. Yes, I was right, 70% of the local Ba'Kelalan people were there to greet us, from babies right till elderly folk. Even the village headman was there dressed in his best outfit. it was rarely that they received groups of people visiting them and this was special, therefore they came out in full force to welcome our group.

Salt making process being demonstrated
With the welcoming protocols done, we were invited into the wooden hut to see how the famous and prized Bakelalan Salt was made from scratch. A natural salt well nearby was pumped into the hut where they boil it overnight and let it settle. They then keep stirring it on high wood fire till the water becomes crystallised salt compound. Then it is dried out and packed as natural Bakelalan salt which is sold at about RM20 per kilogram. Well, I had to buy one to support the homegrown industry and not only that, I was told by many people that the Bakelalan Salt is one of the best salts in the region.

Bakelalan Village

From the salt factory, we headed straight into the core of Bakelalan town to the headman's home where a local and traditional Lun Bawang food spread awaited us. Just before that, a nice surprise performance by the local women where they performed a traditional Lun Bawang Dance, complete with full ethnic costumes. It was kind of unique if you ask me as having traveled all over Malaysia, this was the first time I saw a performance out in the open which was well choreographed and the best part - the dancers actually sang the tune, there was no music played at all.

Lun Bawang ladies in traditional costumes
After the Lun Bawang Dance, we had our special traditional lunch which I have no idea on how to explain the dishes. They were all home cooked by different families and had strange names. Some of the dishes were equally unique as I have never tried them before. Their main staple was rice therefore there was high quality Bakelalan rice (Adan Rice).

For the main dish, Nubu 'Laya, a rice wrapped in banana leaf and also the Lun Bawang rice cake or Kelupis as it is locally called was served. Chicken and fish dishes which were fried were also included alongside some local vegetables and ferns.

Authentic Lun Bawang Food on the Nubu Layar
After our lunch, a cooking demonstration was conducted outdoors where this totally blew my mind away and I'm not kidding. The cooking menu of the day was Bakelalan Rice Coffee. Then I thought hard..... Coffee - Check, Rice Coffee - Confused. Seriously, I have never had or seen how rice coffee was made so this was really amazing.

Rice Coffee
I paid my fullest attention to what was happening, especially on the elderly lady that was preparing this. First, they take the uncooked Adan rice and pan fry it without oil, the technique was to constantly keep the rice moving over the hot wood fire.

After about five minutes, you will see the rice browning and they continue to fry it until it becomes coffee brown or slightly burnt. Then it is removed and then a small portion is put into a cup topped up with boiling hot water.

Fine, I though it was some sort of gimmick, but smelling it, it really did smell like coffee. Next was the taste test - One sip, yes, it did taste like coffee and so my friends, this was definitely a first for me as I am a total local coffee geek and the Bakelalan Rice Coffee went straight to number one in my coffee chart!

At the end, I managed to get a few packets of the rice coffee to take away. Totally mind blowing if you ask me. In other words, you - the reader, should put this in your bucket list if you love all things coffee.

Homestay in Bakelalan

Spending a night at the Apple Lodge next to the smallest airport in Malaysia was another exciting adventure. Not only was the temperature cooling at night, there was absolutely zero to do here once the night falls except catching a good nights sleep. The nice thing about this lodge is that is it run by a former pastor named Pak Tagal and this was Ba Kelalan's first homestay which was started back in 1997 with only 10 rooms.

The triple room at Apple Lodge in Bakelalan
The Apple Lodge in Bakelalan now has 21 rooms and it cost around RM80 for a three person room while the executive suite for two persons is priced at RM120 to RM130. Note that the place is so cooling, there is no air conditioning and hot water here. You can request for boiled water if you need. Price includes breakfast and the Ba Kelalan Airport is your main view which takes about two minutes to walk there. Since the start of the Apple Lodge, there are now around 22 homestays located at the nine villages around Bakelalan.

Pa Sarui View Point Bakelalan

The following day saw our group trek up one of the hills to catch a birds eye view of Bakelalan village and having trekked many places, I have to say that this trek was pretty easy where in the beginning, you will pass through paddy fields and farm lands, exposing you to the local lifestyle and culture here.

View of Bakelalan from Pa Sarui view point
Once you reach up the Pa Sarui View Point, you will be rewarded with a beautiful and stunning view of the village in the valley, provided the weather is good on that day, so it is best to start your trek in the morning. It also took about 45 minutes to trek up on a casual pace too.

What to do in Bakelalan

One of the villages seen from a distance in Bakelalan
In general, Bakelalan is perfect for those seeking the ultimate nature, outdoors and cultural experiences all in one. Technology is at its worst here so hoping for the internet is something you should leave behind. The people who live here practise a simple life with no rush and healthy living and when you come here, you should try to emulate how the lifestyle is like here.

Trekking/Hiking in Bakelalan - For activities in Bakelalan, there are a lot of trekking and hiking to do as you can trek or hike from village to village. This is best done with a local tour guide as you would not want to be lost here. Trails come in simple to advanced ones therefore you should enquire with the tour guides about the type you want to do.

Trekking from Bakelalan to Bario - There are a number of visitors who trek from Bakelalan to Bario and this takes about two to three days which is also a popular tour activity. A number of tour agents in Miri and Kuching sell these packages.

Bakelalan Salt Factory Visit - One of two salt factories in the Kelabit Highlands, the Bakelalan Salt Factory is a must visit to see how the salt is produced with simple methods. The other salt factory is located in Bario.

Cultural Experiences in Bakelalan - Visiting the  Lun Bawang homes will introduce you to some very unique cultures where you can learn about the history of the people here. Seeing the local costumes and traditional dances are also an eye opener.

Lun Bawang Food - One of the unique highland cuisines is the local food here. The Lun Bawang cuisine is totally different from the local Sarawakian food therefore, it is highly recommended to try the food here, as you will be served during your stay here.

Nature Walks - Walking around Bakelalan will expose you to a variety of flora and fauna. From seeing the local farms, paddy fields to the many birds and even buffalo's that help plow the villagers fields.

Waiting for the flight out of Bakelalan, notice the unique baggage carrier. 
Apart from Bakelalan, I also took a journey to the Bario Highlands which is the twin village here in the Kelabit Highlands. In general, both villages have their own unique specialty and attraction where Bario is more well known because of the Pesta Nukenan Bario Festival which is held yearly and showcases the highland food and culture.

For more information, you can visit the Sarawak Tourism Board website and you can also book tours to Bakelalan from most travel agents around Sarawak, namely in the cities of Kuching and Miri. Make sure you get a licensed tour guide too.

Once again, I have to remind you that this place is not your ordinary tourist site but more of a cultural and ecotourism destination which caters to the niche markets or those looking for something different. If you want to know what a simple lifestyle is all about, then I would highly recommend you pay a visit to Bakelalan in Sarawak Borneo.


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