Agrarian Bario is defined by its timeless, age-old, sustainable village tradition – a mirror image of all that is urban, industrial and modern – and their creative powers to produce energy and design good agricultural practices for sustenance.
Bario is a “long way” from anywhere, and that may explain why it receives less attention than other Sarawak hiking destinations, but it’s all part of the charm that makes the Kelabit Highlands so special.
The highland plateau is home to the Kelabit and Penan tribespeople, lush hiking trails and solitude seldom matched… the terrains and walking trails linking the various settlements are a testament to Bario’s endless stretch of beauty and not too far away from the Pesta Nukenen festival ground, paddy fields sprawl across the horizon and contrast beautifully with the plane wreck from World War II (WWII).
Will you notice the way the light of day changes the dense fog in the valley?
It could be a place of safety and refuge for the observing traveler and the inquisitive; at 3280 ft above sea level, it is indeed a very welcoming village to seek and gain perspective, get an inspired afterglow and perhaps (though hopefully no) bruises from hiking all day and exploring the culture and spiritual beliefs of the Kelabit and Penan tribespeople.
Often in an attempt to preserve culture, we fall into an inevitable danger of paradox – but even in the face of globalization and forced/influenced assimilation, the Kelabit traditions have held firm (ie. Irau Mekaa Ngadan) and many of their cultural tenets and essence are infused into modern lifestyle, and language and craft are celebrated through storytelling and practice. “Hopefully, when the elders are gone, the language will not,” said Lucy Bulan, my darling host at Pesta Nukenen (Bario Food Festival), during one of our storytelling nights ‘round the fireplace.
“Labo belatuh” – Kelabit’s traditional smoked and salted wild boar or deer meat, typically eaten with rice – and many other wonderful wild raw veggies dishes, all that is good and never stereotypically exotified. Odd as this may sound, never have I been so in love with salt as I am with Bario salt – traditionally evaporated salt from the highland spring water. The preparation process include evaporation, drip and burning (in bamboo pipes) to harden the salt. Ahh, I’m missing so much of Bario already!
It is often said that everything in excess is bad for you but the curious problem of having/taking more than you need is almost fictitious here; the highlanders hunt and harvest just enough for household consumption.The abstract concept of “alone together” as I so often experience in the city was almost nonexistent here; I felt so at home at the Pesta Nukenen (Bario Food Festival) communal dining – there is much to appreciate when a simple meal becomes a boisterous lunch/dinner party!
The language is infinitely beautiful – it’s been a wonderful experience learning a few basic sentences in the Kelabit language and connecting with their elaborate rituals and advanced philosophical discussions. Born as storytellers and spiritual teachers, the Kelabit, like many other indigenous people in the Borneo Island, do not have a written language, thus legends, myths and other folklore are passed down from preceding generations.
Will you go home inspired and miss the experience and come back for more?
Far beyond their precious and highly coveted glass beads, there are mountains to climb and wonderful people to meet… we stayed up every night till 4 a.m. and exchanged stories with our hosts, Uncle David and Aunty Lucy Bulan, and many new friends around the fireplace at our home for the week, Labang Longhouse Homestay. Bario Food Festival has been absolutely wonderful… everything from the people, the landscape and the food are so, so lovely! I was determined to make the most of my time here so I braved the ruthlessly cold mornings and nights walking to the festival ground and back, and trekked through the lush Kelabit Highlands with Kenny and Michael (the man behind Sarawak Travel) to meet the Penans, and meals and afternoon banters with the village folks and Turok the wandering hornbill.