The Bario Highlands

Bliss is the heart of Bario. It is a secluded location just east of Miri and behind the Mulu forest, a perfect place to get away from it all and live life. You won’t find internet reception here, except for a telecenter near the airport, electricity is scarce, there’s only one convenience store that doubles as a bar and pool parlor and none of the conventions of cities will be found here such as restaurants, retail stores and ATMs. This is as far as getting cutoff from the world as you can get without smothering yourself. But on a different perspective, this may very well be your annual vacation and the most wholesome experience you can get. 


So how would you survive this ‘ordeal’ and what is there to do in a place where you’re not staring at one of four different screens? Here’s how you can make the most of one of the best places to escape the bedlam of the urban lifestyle.


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A LOFTY GETAWAY

There are plenty of homestays and guesthouse in Bario but the best one has to be the Ngimat Ayu Homestay. It is a family run homestay five bedrooms that can accommodate up to 9 people. The owner, Scott, is the man in charge of keeping the place together and getting you to wherever you need. There is a little garden in his homestay that has almost everything you’d want to cook in the kitchen.


“The weather here is fitting enough. We grow our own rosemary, dill and parsley among other things. We just started planting potatoes and they’re coming along nicely”, he said. There’s no air conditioning, no water heaters and no fans here. At night, you might need a jacket when you are out on the patio and you will be snuggled up in the comforter by the time you get to bed. The rate is RM95 per head per night, with breakfast, lunches and dinners inclusive.


There will be an additional charge for a personal guide. “Some of our guests have decided against a guide in the past but we highly recommend one. Our people know the forest well and will be able to get you to wherever you need. The last incident we heard from a neighboring manager only saw his guest a week later, they were lost in the forest,” Scott explains. There are also packaged deals for people coming in groups. Bario is an advantageous place to explore with friends and family and it is highly recommend having at least a partner when visiting. Transport options will either be on foot or on a four-wheel drive and the day starts as early as 6.15am and ends by 6.30pm by which would perceptibly be nautical twilight.



DISCOVER THE LINEAGE

The tours will take you to some of the oldest and more recent longhouses in Bario. Here you will discover how the Kelabit people go about their daily lives. In one of the longhouse you will notice portraits of people hung on the walls both old and new. One of the guideshad mentioned, “The Kelabit people are highly literate and many have accomplished many things be it academically or professionally.” You just might find a portrait of Idris Jala when he was a little chap here.


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And these longhouses are not identical. Some are build differently from others. One may have the kitchens in the front, the rooms in-between and the communal hall at the back and the other may integrate both the communal hall and kitchen and put the rooms on the other side. And here, you will discover the philosophies of each Kelabit home and how the communal life is carried out. There are stocks of firewood in each kitchen and stocks of water in containers. One of the guides had mentioned, “Food is prepared very naturally here and water pressure may be low so usage is very conservative.” Wait till you taste it, its revolutionary.


In the past, Kelabit men would get earrings or stretch their ears and women would get tattoos. There is plenty to learn about the Kelabit people while you’re here so we’ll just leave you with a teaser of what to expect. 



GO TO THE SOURCE

Bario is home to Adan rice, a superior grain that’s highly sought after by health enthusiasts and affluent members of society. The rice is the staple food and trade commodity in Bario and you will find paddy fields everywhere while you’re here. If you’re lucky you will be able to observe how it is done, either planting or harvesting.


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Another key commodity here would be Bario salt. The journey to a salt spring is part of the adventure and is well worth it if you have never gone jungle trekking before. There are multiple salt springs in the forests of Bario and there are shacks built around next springs with multiple boiling pots to process it. The trek may take between an hour and a half depending on your pace. Bario salt is not as strong as the conventional store bought ones but its mineral content is known to be highly nourishing.


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Then of course there are the pineapples. While diminutive in size, these pineapples are naturally sweet. Their acidity is not as prominent and has plenty of juice in it. Occasionally the sweetness might be overwhelming and this is easily neutralized with a splash of sweet soy sauce with a pinch of chilies. As absurd as it sounds, it is an experience worth noting. There are wild pineapples growing in some parts of the forest and if they are ripe, it’s as easy as pluck, cut and eat. Along the way you could occasionally find wild mangosteens as well.


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ADMIRE YOUR SURROUNDINGS

Bario is very laidback and as the adage goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Kick back and loosen up. Take in the sights and appreciate how nature can work wonders when you come back to basics.


The dogs and cats here are far friendlier than the ones you would find in cities. They are very approachable and often times more affectionate than they should be. You’ll find the cats here have marginally thicker fur and are fleshy but very lean. This can be attributed to the cold weather as well as the natural state of food sources. And if you go deeper into the forests, you will find even the ants are bigger. A guide had mentioned that the spiked-ants in the forests of Bario can grow beyond 30mm.


You will also find plenty of flowers here growing naturally in homes and the forests with very bright colours. Among them there is also a species of orchids. Besides flowers, with the right people, you might discover some of the staple vegetables, herbs and leaves that are eaten locally. There are plenty of plants that can be picked in the forest both for consumption and aromatic purposes. As always, practice caution as some branches can give a serious rash while others could cut you.



AUTHENTICALLY ETHNIC

If you do get the opportunity, you could visit one of the oldest longhouses with a family whom are descendents of the original Sape players and Kelabit dancers.


Guests are welcomed with a pineapple, with a straw in it, and greeted by the head of the house. Food is then placed on hemp mats and the guests are invited to dine with the Kelabit people. There is a different breed of chives, asparagus and bamboo that’s grown here and has a far more distinctive taste. Coupled with the Kelabit style of cooking, it is easily one of the more delectable culinary experiences.


You will also be graced with a performance by the local dancers both male and female. Male dancers would just wear a vest whereas female dancers will have a more elaborate outfit. Occasionally you will hear cheering; this is an encouragement between family members. Guests will also be invited to dance with them. 



HOW DO WE GET THERE?

You can’t go to Bario on a conventional flight. There’s a specific plane that will take you there called the Twin Otter. There’s very limited seating but there are three flights to Bario a day.

Our team rode with AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2) to Miri Airport in Sarawak. This took approximately two hours and a half.

We had booked a prior flight under MASwings from Miri to Bario. So, from Miri Airport, we boarded the Twin Otter heading to Bario. The trip took less than an hour. 



WHAT’S IT LIKE THERE?

The ingredients here are also very natural and fresh as it’s either grown or hunted. Only a few commodities are imported in Bario.

A staple meat here is either chicken or deer. The deer they serve in Bario is very gamy and it’s lean yet tender. The way the Kelabit serve vegetables here is easy on your teeth. Almost every kind of vegetable is minced besides the ferns.

There isn’t a specific flavor that belongs to the Kelabit people; they make everything their own in a way. They can fry chicken with ginger and bamboo shoots but they could also do deer in a more distinct and delectable version of curry.

Kelabit people have a highly evolved palate and it’s a taste it to believe it scenario. While it may be different, you’d feel right at home. 



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