A land of sacred stones, of muddy longhouse pilgrimages, of wispy clouds thumbing thick greens like lazy fingers – the Kelabit Highlands is a faraway land indeed. Along the border with Kalimantan and 100 km southeast of Gunung Mulu National Park, the long high plateau of the Kelabit Highlands has been the homeland of the Kelabit people for hundreds of years.
The plateau’s near-impregnable ring of mountain effectively cut the Kelabit off from the outside world. Bario, a gathering of wooden cabins and quaking rice paddies is the region’s largest community and unofficial capital.
The highlands of Borneo are a world to themselves. Until the 1960s they were extremely isolated and could be reached only by a combination of boat and walking. A journey from the coast took a number of weeks. Even in the 21st century, when we have aircrafts and helicopters, many places are very difficult to reach. The rivers are gushing torrents where no boat can travel. The jungle is thick and dark. Local Kelabit have to carry their belongings in back baskets and walk, walk and walk….
The Kelabit people who live in the highlands are now rice farmers. Their skill in harnessing water has allowed them to practice wet rice cultivation rather than the more common slash-and-burn rice techniques. Fragrant Bario rice is prized in Sarawak and commands a premium in the coastal markets. The Kelabit Highlands more temperate climate also allows the cultivation of a wide range of fruit and vegetables.
With a population of approximately 5,000 people, the Kelabit comprise one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak. There, tightly knit communities live in inherited longhouses and practice a generations-old form of agriculture.
In 1960s this remote ethnic group received visits from Christian missionaries and became evangelical Christians. Prior to conversion they were animists and had a custom of erecting megaliths and digging ditches in honour of notable individuals.
Kelabit Highlands is also visited by indigenous Penan tribe, constituting the last remaining nomadic peoples living in the Borneo rain forest. The form of residence in the Kelabit Highlands remains the longhouse.
The Kelabit Highlands offer many opportunities for exploration. There are many mountain trails from longhouse to longhouse. The natural hospitality of the Kelabit people and the relatively unspoiled flora and fauna of the high jungle makes any trip to the highlands a memorable experience.
Short day trips from Bario includes fishing, birdwatching, trekking to the Prayer Mountain and visits to the nearby villages of Pa’Umur and Pa’Ukat
The Jungle Blues Dream Homestay is owned by the local artist Stephen and his friendly wife Tine; it is a peaceful place to recharge yourself after the trekking expedition.
This cozy homestay is also an art gallery where Stephen’s artworks hangs on all of the walls and guests are encouraged to leave an artistic message on a wooden plaque before departing.
Jungle Blues Dream stands out as the only combined art gallery and homestay in a longhouse in Sarawak. From the moment you arrive in Bario you will be warmly welcomed and you will be inspired by the stunning landscapes and sublime art.
The homestay has only 4 private rooms (single, double and twin bedded). All rooms are nicely decorated with local materials. The homestay is situated about 20-minute drive from Bario Airport.
The only way to get Bario – unless you want to trek for 10 days – is to fly from Miri. There are two flights daily on 18-seater planes. Because Bario lies in a plateau, landing on the small airstrip can be a tricky manoeuvre. When it is overcast, pilots need to wait for a hole in the clouds before they can descend. Bear in mind that planes may not be able to land if conditions are not suitable and it is common for planes to turn back for Miri. By the same token, return date must be flexible too.
In Search of the Last Tribe of Borneo