I awoke early in my cabin in Lambir National park on Tuesday, excited to visit Bario, a small town 1040 metres above sea level in the Kelabit Highlands, deep in the remote interior of Borneo. I had heard enthusiastic tales of this place from a fellow traveler who adored the hospitality, food, climate and natural beauty of this far away world. Famed for its Bario rice and known as the land of a hundred handshakes, it was a rural change I had been longing for since my journey of coastal cities had begun.
Waiting at a bus stop is something I always try to avoid as I become helplessly restless and anxious. So waiting 90 minutes in the increasingly hot morning sun for a bus to the airport wasn’t fun. The air-conditioned bus was of little comfort, however, as the TV was showing some God-awful American wrestling channel with dolled up girls pretending to pummel the life out each other for the glory of some shiny golden belt. After that was over, the speakers continued to assault everyone on board with some more glorified violence with a dark, satanic, Hannibal Lector dungeon setting – not quite the ideal morning so far!
I had missed my flight but managed to change to the next and final one for the day with minimal waiting or fuss and only a 10RM ($3) fee – thank you MASWings, the best airline service ever. The flight from Miri to the small trading town of Marudi was a 20 minute trip on a small Twin Otter plane, flying below the clouds over endless expanses of palm plantations. After unloading and reloading of supplies and some 8 or so passengers, I was back on the otter. This time we flew for an hour, high through the clouds with breathtaking views of unspoilt rainforest on rolling hills as far as the eye could see. I think I also spotted the jagged rocks of Mulu National Park, a World Heritage listed region of virgin forest I hope to later explore.
Disembarking from our little otter, we were greeted with a refreshingly cooler climate and the smiles of a handful of locals welcoming their family back. I hitched a ride with one of them who dropped me off at one of the guesthouses. In this cosy town with a population of less than 1000, homestays are the only type of accommodation which I find far superior to hotels as you are welcomed into someone’s home with home-cooked meals and plenty of interaction with locals and fellow travellers. As it happens, when I arrived at Ngimat Homestay, no one was home except a young Australian guest Tahlia who was enjoying the views on the patio. It was such a joy to arrive, grab a home-grown banana and take in the magnificence of this piece of heaven on earth.
Soon enough I was welcomed by the matriarch of the family Tepu (grandma) and two of her children Uncle Scott and Aunty Linda who were our gracious hosts. After a lunch of home style fried rice, I began to learn about the fascinating culture and culinary heritage of the Kelabit people from a wonderful book Pesta Nukenen, which was recently published to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bario food festival held every July. Thanks to the warmth of hospitality and pride of their culture here in Bario, every meal and conversation has broadened my understanding of life in the Kelabit Highlands, and they are tasty lessons indeed!
Tahlia and I were lucky enough that evening to visit a traditional longhouse and enjoy a dance performance and dinner with some locals and other Malaysian tourists. Longhouses were the traditional dwellings for many cultures in Borneo and were huge communal buildings originally designed to safeguard against attack from rival villages. It was a real treat to see a real one still in operation. This one could house around 15 families, each with their own open plan hearth and common area with seperate sleeping quarters. All the common areas were adjoined as one long hallway, allowing plenty of interaction and sharing of meals between families. I imagined it was like one big dinner party every night. Aunty Linda told me that her late father was the patriarch of the Kelabit people. Accordingly, they had the largest longhouse which boasted 18 hearths and housing up to 150 people under one long roof. These days, most Kelabits have opted for individual houses and many longhouses lie disused contemplating their futures. In Bario, the local artists have converted part of a longhouse into a studio and exhibition hall, an innovative example of their possible uses for future generations.
After our sticky-beak into the mechanics of the longhouse and an enlightening conversation with a Malaysian couple working as researching linguists, the music began. Some 16 women garbed in ceremonial Kelabit dress performed several traditional dances for us to the tune of the Kelabit stringed instrument, the sape’. We were then asked to join in some old favourite games like the bamboo quickstep and spin the plate. All were very thankful for visiting Bario and many of the older Kelabits relished conversing with us in English, as all Malaysian schools were all taught in English from 1963 (when Malaysia was federated) until 1982 when Bahasa Malaysia became the norm.
Later that night, I contemplated the Tahlia’s offer to join her the next day on a three day trek into the jungle. It sounded wonderful, after all this is what I came to Borneo for – to see and experience these unique rainforest ecosystems up close and personal. Aunty Linda told me she avoided the jungle on account of the swarms of leeches. I had only encountered leeches once in Australia and they were definitely unsettling. It had also been raining everyday for months and everywhere the ground was saturated. I told Tahlia that I would sleep on it and decide whether to go into the jungle or not in the morning…