“… a far upland plain [which] can only be reached by foot,… There are just one or two places on the map of Borneo — and, more widely, on the map of the world — where you can get farther away from a known place… from what most people call “the world.” There are fewer places where you (or I) are likely to feel more remote, more “cut off” from the great outside.”
Those are the descriptions by Tom Harrison, the anthropologist and Australian military agent who parachuted into Bario after chancing upon it during the World War II. He stayed in Bario in 1945 and 1946, even got married to a local Kelabit girl. Honestly speaking, Bario is the remotest area I have been in Borneo. Bario, the Valley of the Wind lies at 3,500 feet above sea level in the north-eastern Sarawak, Malaysia.
Apart from being remote, I only knew Bario for its premium rice grains, the annual food festival and the starting or ending point for Mt. Murud hike. I learned so much more than that from recent trip to Bario.
Once we arrived at Bario Airport, the homestay’s owner’s son, Jeremy Labang fetched us using his four-wheel drive vehicle. It goes without saying that the road condition is bumpy dirt road. It takes less than 5 minutes to reach Labang Longhouse Homestay from the airport. We passed by the government clinic and a newly built museum on the way to the homestay, a village in the highland in Borneo unfolds.
Labang Longhouse Homestay is a two-storey wooden long house with a fishing pond and vegetable garden. A typical Kelabit longhouse is a long, multi-compartmental structure consisting of anywhere between 6 an 40 households. Each compartment belongs to one household, usually with closely related families next door.
As soon as we reached Labang Longhouse Homestay, Jeremy asked us to go straight to the verandah on the first floor of the house to meet his mother, Lucy. Lucy is a former headmistress who runs the household and our tour program. As we sat at the open area verandah absorbing the serenity of Bario, Lucy invited us to help ourselves to the DIY drinks and breakfast food. Lucy filled us with the surprising temperature drop from the night before to almost below 10 degree celcius.
Then, there was also Auntie Lucy’s husband, whom we fondly called Uncle David. He loved to tell jokes and offered his self-made “Ada Lagi?” drinks? As we could not drink the pineapple wine, we settled for a plate of Bario pineapples. I finished them until the last piece! Apart from the Bario rice and mountain salt, Bario pineapple is said to be at its sweetest when grown in the highlands and not elsewhere. Hence the frenzy over Bario pineapple.
Not long after, Auntie Lucy’s other son, Lian, walked in shouldering a rattan bag full of river fishes. He told me the name of the fishes in local dialect, which were all alien to me – semah, lulud geraga, luang pelian, biung, keled and ayah.
Auntie Lucy then brought us to our room. A basic room with two single beds. She even offered us some of her sweatshirts because the kind of clothes we packed could see us through the cold night. For your info, there was no toilet attached and we had to walk to the other end of the long house to go to the toilet. It could be a little spooky at night when the paraphernalia of the Kelabits comprises of ancient skulls.
We settled in just fine when we heard the knock on the door. Smiling Auntie Lucy stood before the door and invited us for a walk along the hall of fame for the Kelabits. I regarded the walk as brief introduction to Kelabit. The hallway was decorated with hats and caps of all types. Huge size frames of the Labang and Bulan family hung on the wall.
1973 Revival Fire marked the change for the Kelabits when they believed they received visitation from the God and sudden urge to pray, repent. Before the revival, the Kelabits were animistic. The female wore long skirt and appeared naked from waist up while the men wore loincloth. However, the modern day’s Kelabits dress conservatively and are religious.
The revival changed the way of thinking of the Kelabits. After the revival, the Kelabits showed their keen interest in schooling. Auntie Lucy was clearly proud when she told us despite coming from the most isolated area to be found in Sarawak, the Kelabits are the most educated of all the native tribes in Sarawak. Once, Auntie Lucy’s parents received an award for having their four out of six children graduating from university, with two having masters degree.
I was equally impressed because Bario is really isolated a place yet still managed to produce endless prominent figures from different industries. At that juncture, only name that came up to mind was Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, a former MAS CEO and currently PEMANDU CEO. After coming back to the comfort of my home with high speed broadband to work, I came across Pemanca Ngimat Ayu (Kelabit’s first qualified hospital assistant), Penghulu Henry Jala (veteran teacher), Inspector Kuda Ditta (first Sarawakian to compete in Tokyo’s Olympics, Dr Roland Dom Matu (a gynaecologist), Dr Philip Raja (a paediatric cardiologist), Supang (judge) and many others. Surely the most successful indegenious people in the whole country.
Soon, it was time for lunch. Auntie Lucy was very particular about us being Muslims that she actually prepared a different set of kitchenware to prepare and serve the food. Brownies points for Auntie Lucy for being so understanding on our special needs!
“You must eat like a king. This is Sultan fish. It is one of the best fishes in Sarawak rivers, used to be served only to King”, explained Auntie Lucy. It is actually a different species of Jelawat with many bones. It tasted sweet and yummy. Unfortunately, the rice served was a normal grade of rice. Not the famous Bario rice.
Because of the remoteness of Bario, the Kelabits harvested the products of the jungle. One of the common herbaceous plant thought to be only available in the Kelabit Highlands is durey. The tender leaves are boiled and simmered with a sprinkled of salt, producing a thick pureed soup. During the trip, we were served with a similar pureed soup made of a plant known to the Kelabit as Tengayen, which was equally thick. But, I cannot tell the difference between durey and tengayen.
Palm shoot cooked with torch ginger flower.
Stir fried egg with torch ginger flower.
Prior to this trip, I only knew limited way to cook torch ginger flower (bunga kantan), ie. laksa and asam pedas. But the Kelabits cooked almost everything with bunga kantan. The stir fried egg with bunga kantan is the best and my favourite. So simple yet delicious. You have to see how healthy the bunga kantan of Bario is:-
Very big, right? Unlike the super expensive ones sold in Kuala Lumpur.
Hover and click your mouse on the title to read the earlier entries on Bario:-
1. 5D4N Bario – Day 1 : Stranded in Miri
2. 5D4N Bario, the Kelabit Highlands Trip – Flying with Twin Otter