Bario and Kelabit Highlands

Seeking something way off the beaten track?  Bario and Kelabit Highlands are located on a remote plateau in Sarawak which boasts exotic wild flora and fauna and a rich local culture.

Highlights

  • Experience traditional Kalabit hospitality at the homestay
  • Fly on a light airplane across the highlands with an impressive landing on Bario airstrip
  • Trek from longhouse to longhouse through dense rainforest and across rice paddies
  • Learn about Kelabit’s culture and traditions and experience the daily life of the local people

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, Pa’ Lunggan and Pa’Ukat.

HOW TO GET THERE

The only practical 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 Malaysia Airlines.

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.

These light airplanes 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.

It’s possible to reach Bario by car passing through a rugged logging road from Miri to the Highlands. The journey is about 10-15 hours (depending on the weather and road conditions).

BEST TIME TO TRAVEL

The best time to visit Bario and Kelabit Highlands is during the dry season between March and September.

ACCOMMODATION

Homestay

The Ngimat Ayu’s Homestay is owned by Scott and his friendly wife; it is a peaceful place to recharge yourself after the trek to Pa Lungan.

This cozy homestay is located on a hill within the central of Bario overlooking paddy field and mountain range.

From the moment you arrive in Bario you will be warmly welcomed by the native people and you will be amazed by the tranquil landscapes and laid back lifestyle.

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