Forty minutes after leaving Miri Airport on MASWings DHC-6 Twin Otter, we approach Kelabit Highlands. Still sleepy from the Kuala Lumpur-to-Miri morning flight earlier, I peek from the aircraft window and witness the great aerial view of Batang Baram (Baram River), Malaysia’s second-longest river that originates from Kelabit Highlands and home to many Orang Ulu tribes, including Kayan, Kenyah, Berawan, and the shy and semi-nomadic Penan. Along this fascinating river is the world’s second-largest cave passage listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site: Gunung Mulu National Park, and the lesser-known Loagan Bunut National Park.
But we are not heading to Mulu. Our intended destination is actually Bario, famous for its rice, pineapple and – as we discover during this trip – the best instant curry noodle in Malaysia.
This familiarization trip to Bario is organised by Volvo Trucks Malaysia in conjunction with the official handing-over event at Bario Asal Lembaa longhouse settlement to mark the completion of Volvo Trucks-funded longhouse fire-fighting system and eco-shelters along the 25-kilometre Bario ancestral jungle trail.
Volvo Trucks, one of the world’s largest commercial vehicle manufacturers, continues to drive progress for a safer and more sustainable future with a corporate social responsibility contribution via the Volvo Group Seasonal Gift programme to the Kelabit community of Bario in Sarawak.
These two gifts from Volvo Trucks are part of The Seasonal Gift programme, Volvo Group’s corporate social responsibility efforts that are carried out globally to help support the host country’s social causes. The objective is to help create prosperity for the communities where Volvo Trucks operates. Malaysia is one of the countries that are selected, with Bario chosen as the recipient of the Volvo Trucks-funded RM500,000 Season Gift contribution to improve the lives of the Kelabit community. The Bario project commenced in mid-2017 and completed in December 2017.
Bario is made up of a vast highland plateau that lies 1,000 metres above sea-level in the north-eastern corner of Sarawak and is home to a number of small indigenous villages. Surrounded by mountains, cultural sites, agricultural landscape and tropical rainforest, Bario is undeniably one of the most beautiful rural locations in Malaysia that deserves conservation and protection.
Read also: Bario, Sarawak
The indigenous community that has been living in Bario for over 4,000 years is called Kelabit, whose members today face challenges like rampant modernisation and deforestation. Over the years, about 65% of the younger population have migrated due to lack of facilities and jobs in Bario. Today, it is estimated that slightly more than 1,000 Kelabit people remain in Bario.
Under the Economic Transformation Programme, the Government aims to establish Bario as the world-class hub for agrobiodiversity and to obtain UNESCO World Heritage site status. The transformation programme focuses on sustainability and preservation of the rainforest and the indigenous community.
Kelabit tribes, like others in Borneo, are close-knit. Each Kelabit tribe dwells in a traditional longhouse. These days, the longhouse has been modernised yet still retains its cultural functions and aspects. Many such longhouses have to be rebuilt several times due to disasters, especially fire. Since the longhouse is in a remote location in the highlands and inaccessible for the fire brigade to reach it, Volvo Trucks considers it imperative that the fire-fighting system should be part of the Seasonal Gift Programme.
The Kelabit longhouse impressively stands on many strong pillars, raised four metres above ground and walled by rough wooden planks or bamboo that are joined together using rattan seams. The roof of the longhouse is high and made of thick thatch. In my observation, many parts of the longhouse these days have been replaced with zinc, plywood and cement. Traditionally, the stairs were made from chopped logs but nowadays the staircases are made of thick wooden planks or bricks and cement.
The Kelabit longhouse is distinctive in characteristics compared to the longhouses belonging to the other indigenous communities in Sarawak. The differences can be seen in the layout of the building, which comprises a shared long hall as the tribe’s main public space called tawa; rooms for each family to stay; and another long hall at the back of the rooms called dalim; a family area; and a kitchen. Dalim is usually smoky because there is a hearth at the back of each room. For Kelabit people, the hearth is very important as the family’s gathering place, thus dominating the layout of the building due to its significance.
We stay at a longhouse called Bario Asal Lembaa. This is a very important settlement in Bario as it has been recognised as the oldest longhouse since the Kelabits settled in the area. Although touches of modernisation can be seen, this longhouse maintains most of its traditional characteristics. Most of the nights in Bario, my fellow media travelling companions and I gather around the hearth to enjoy Bario coffee and local delicacies such as the dried buffalo meat strips and delicious fresh fruits like pineapples and mangoes!
On the second day of our stay in Bario, we hike up to one of the five eco-shelters along the Kelabit ancestral trail to check out how an eco-shelter sponsored by Volvo Trucks looks like. The eco-shelters are built not only for tourists but also for the Penans and Kelabits who commute along this 25-kilometre ancestral trail that leads deeper into the thick rainforest along hilly terrain to a place called Batu Lawi, a twin-peaked mountain in the Kelabit Highlands. Batu Lawi is sacred to both Penans and Kelabits; these tribes have been commuting on foot along the trail for over two thousand years. The trail and Batu Lawi, therefore, are steep in legends and myths.
The trail, however, is not for beginners. Even skilled and experienced hikers would find it challenging having to hike along hilly terrains, cross rivers, get stuck in muddy pathways and climb steep mountain slopes. Some parts of the trail are merely soft soil and can be unsuspectingly dangerous.
When the locals say that the 25-kilometre trail is a three-day hike for them, it actually means six to seven days of a hike for the rest of us. Before we begin hiking to the eco-shelter, the locals say that it takes four hours to get there, but we end up doing seven hours one way!
We start off in high spirits but falter along the way as the trail becomes more and more challenging. It first passes by village houses, farms and paddy fields but then it gets harder when we enter the forest. We arrive at the eco-shelter number 2 (the closest shelter to the village) after seven exhausting hours.
The eco-shelters, although funded by Volvo Trucks, were actually built by the Kelabits and Penans. All building materials were brought in on foot. No trees were cut down to build the shelters and most of the logs used were bought from outside Bario and carried into the jungle on foot.
These shelters are basic. Each of them is erected four metres above ground with basic toilet and basic shower room. Most of them are also equipped with a simple rainwater harvesting system – those without the system use water from a nearby source. There are literally zero amenities being placed inside the shelters but enough to protect hikers who stay the night from wild animals. We are told that there is a plan to bring in more amenities to facilitate hikers who need to rest there.
If travellers plan to hike the trail and stay the night, bring along a sleeping bag and enough amenities to stay clean and comfortable.
Personally, I find the trail challenging. However, if a traveller can plan the hike properly, it would be a great experience to hike into the thick rainforest jungle of the Kelabit Highlands. I totally recommend Mr Julian from Bario Asal Lembaa to guide through the jungle because he is one of the most experienced, knowledgeable and remarkably patient men to get anyone through the challenging ancestral trail. Perhaps, we push ourselves too hard to get to the eco-shelter as we do not have much time and have to complete the hike in a day. Travellers with more time should stay a night at one of the shelters before heading back to Bario village.
Bario is not just about hiking along the ancestral trail. Other activities that can be done here are village sightseeing, hiking to the waterfall, freshwater fishing trips, watching wildlife and nature, mountain biking, kayaking and boat riding, camping, farming and experiencing working in the paddy field. Please check each activity’s level of difficulty first before doing. For event goers, there are two main events in Bario that make the destination worth visiting: Bario Trail Run (in September 2018) and Bario Food & Cultural Festival called Nukenan Festival (typically in July or August).
There is no ATM machine in Bario. Internet connection and telecommunication are poor. The Internet can be accessed at the community hall and internet centre only. Neither Grab or e-hailing services nor taxis or buses are available. Travellers need to arrange their own transportation. To move around, bicycles can be rented from any of the community service providers. Take note that Waze too does not work in Bario. Travellers should download offline maps via Google Map before flying to Bario.
Last but not least: do not go into the jungle alone.
Getting to Bario
Unless you prefer driving on a four-wheel drive (4WD) through the rainforest that would typically take 10 to 14 hours to reach Bario, the only other way to get to there is to fly on a small Twin Otter plane from Miri, operated by MASWings, Malaysia Airlines’ rural flight service. A direct flight from Miri to Bario takes about 40 to 50 minutes, depending on weather, which might be unpredictable in the highlands, causing delays and cancellations. Travellers are advised to prepare for last-minute changes and eventualities.
The maximum capacity for an 18-seater Twin Otter plane is 10KG for check-in baggage and 5kg for hand carry. A fee of RM1 per kg is chargeable for each extra kilogram; please travel light to avoid unnecessary charges.
Travellers can fly to Miri from Kuala Lumpur or other domestic destinations in Malaysia using Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia or Firefly.
For ground arrangement enquiries, contact Mr Julian at +6 011 2508 1114 or browse Visit Bario Instagram page or Bario Reality Tourism Facebook page. You can also get in touch with Bario Highlands Guide Council via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out barioexperience.com too for more information.
Credit for feature photo: Dishen Kumar.
This article is included in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue 13.3. Read the magazine for free HERE.