The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday Destination 1

The Kelabit Highlands – Sarawak Holiday Destination

The Kelabit Highlands – Sarawak Holiday Destination

KK Ong shares with SmartDory his adventures to the Kelabit Highlands – Sarawak Holiday Destination.

The Kelabit Highlands of Bario is one of the most isolated villages on earth. Bario is often described as Sarawak’s Shangri-La; this beautiful gateway of the Kelabit Highlands lies over 1,000m above sea level.

Spread over a beautiful valley, you can fly over a series of mountain valleys with breath-taking views of misty mountains via a propeller plane.

You will see an endless expanse of green jungle treetops that look like broccoli sprouts, hills, mountains, and vast plantations. Your eyes pick out Sarawak’s second-longest river, the winding Baram River, snaking over the land.

The moment you disembark, you will notice the fresh quality of the cool mountain air. We then realized the sharp contrast between city living and the poor quality of the air we have gotten accustomed to.

Where is the Kelabit Highlands?

The mountains and rainforests of the Kelabit (keh-lah-bit) Highlands are a mountain range located in Sarawak’s remote Northeastern corner.

The Kelabit Highlands is sandwiched between Gunung Mulu National Park and the Indonesian state of East Kalimantan.

Sarawak and Sabah are the largest states in Malaysia, located on the island of Borneo.

How high are mountains?

The highest mountains in this range are Mount Murud at 2,423 meters, Bukit Batu Buli at 2,082 meters, and Bukit Batu Lawi at 2,046 meters.

Where does the Kelabit tribe live?

Bario is the main settlement for the indigenous Kelabit tribe located on the Kelabit Highlands in Miri Division, Sarawak, Malaysia. It lies at an altitude of 1000 m above sea level.

The location is close to the Sarawak-Kalimantan border, about 178 km to the east of Miri.

The settlement has about 13 to 16 villages.

Kelabit Highlands is the home of the Kelabits

The Kelabit tribe population number less than two thousand.

Traditionally rice and sheep farmers, hunters, and fishermen, the Kelabits now serve as guides or homestay hosts for the local eco-tourism industry.

The highlands are home to the Kelabits, a small Orang Ulu group whose number only about 6500. The area is also home to the Penan people, a semi-nomadic group.

The Kelabit Uplands home is in Bario in the northern region of Sarawak, the most remote and last frontier bordering Kalimantan in Indonesia.  The area hosts fourteen villages.

As traditional forest lands have been cleared away, access to the highlands is via logging routes on a 4WD

You can take a flight in on a 16 seater twin otter planes.

The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday Destination

The Kelabit Tribe is the Smallest Ethnic Group

A hundred years can change many things.

For one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak, the Kelabit tribe was once feared head-hunters out to prove their manliness, valour, bravery, courage or to get even with their enemy.

After their conversion to Christianity during the 1940s, they have left their old ways behind and are now a changed people.

The Kelabit community is known for being educated and intelligent, and members who’ve held high positions in the government are a source of pride.

Smiles are everywhere.

When you start to meet the locals and find out how friendly the place is, the Kelabit tribe is now well known for their friendliness and hospitality.
Travelling to the interiors and remote places is humbling.

You will almost always find some of the nicest people you could meet anywhere, living here.

Getting to Bario via MAS Wings

Bario is the main gateway to the region. The only real way to get to the Kelabit Highlands is to fly in on a small Twin Otter turboprop plane from Miri airport for a 50-minute ride to the rural village of Bario.

Due to the limited cargo space in the aircraft type operated by MAS Wings, baggage on board is limited to 10Kg each passenger.

Please check if you intend to bring bulky items such as a fully collapsible baby pushchair or stroller,

MAS Wings flies daily from the coastal town of Miri in Malaysia.

The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday Destination

The temperature in the Highlands

Spread over a beautiful valley. The Kelabit Highlands has an altitude of 1500m above sea level, making the weather always pleasantly cool and almost temperate, despite being in the tropics.

In the day, the mean average temperature hovers between 16 to mid-twenty Celsius and gets cool come nightfall, and goes as low as 11C on some nights.

What does Bario look like?

Bario is an unlikely highland paradise, a secluded picturesque flat plateau with miles of paddy fields.

The first thing you will notice is the peacefulness of where you are.

The Kelabit people’s easy-going hospitality is apt to win you over to extend your stay by days, weeks or even year in splendid isolation from the rest of the world.

Not really.

It is good in infrastructures such as an airport, internet access, and computer services, schools, churches, clinics, police stations, and shops despite its remoteness.

According to the Faculty of Social Sciences Universiti Malaysia Sarawak –UNIMAS, the highland community has approximately 5000 people that inhabit the Kelabit Highlands.

Picturesque Paddy Field of Bario Rice

The Kelabit community’s main agricultural economic activity is growing Bario rice or “Adan rice, ” rich in minerals and vitamins. This variety of rice has an exceptionally rich starchy content. The taste is sweeter compared to other rice varieties.

Fruit Cultivation in the cool climate

The people in the Kelabit Highlands eat fruits, and wild foods gathered from the surrounding jungles.

The cool climate at an average of 20°C enables the community to cultivate citrus fruits, passion fruit, and pineapples besides rice.

There is sweetly fragrant and refreshing passion fruit. These fruits make up a large portion of food eaten by the locals.

Steamed rice, pineapple, and passion fruit are normally served for breakfast at the homestays in Bario.

Passion Fruit

The people in the Kelabit Highlands eat fruits, and wild foods gathered from the surrounding jungles. There is sweetly fragrant and refreshing passion fruit. These fruits make up a large portion of food eaten by the locals.

Steamed rice, pineapple, and passion fruit are normally served for breakfast at the homestays in Bario.

The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday Destination

Kelabit Long House Lifestyle

Asal Longhouse, Bario’s oldest longhouse, is popular with tourists.

Traditionally, several generations of each family live together under one roof in a sprawling wooden longhouse. 21 families have rooms in Asal Longhouse.

The occupants start with the elder’s home at the centre, his siblings’ to his left and right, and their extended families.

The longhouse is subdivided into separate living quarters for each family.

In the Kelabit Longhouse, the ‘tawa’ or corridor is utilized as a common area for social gatherings such as weddings and family meetings.

Each room has the family portraits displayed outside rather than in the room. There are many homestays available in the village where the board and meals are included in the price.

The wooden house had simple but comfortable amenities. There are bedrooms, common toilets and baths, a dining room/kitchen, and a verandah.

The accommodation is spotless and tidy.  You get your room and enjoy a feeling for longhouse living.

You are free to walk from one end of the longhouse to the other through the kitchen and living area with a fireplace for each family (200 steps) or the public hall (150 steps).
The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday Destination



Mealtimes are Feast times

The Kelabit always have a supply of fresh meat and vegetable from the jungle or garden. They collect wild vegetables from the jungle and hunt or fish for their protein. Besides that, each family has farms or grows their rice, not only for domestic consumption but also for sale. Poultry like chicken and ducks are reared for domestic consumption.

Traditionally the Kelabit used clay pots, made locally by women, to cook or prepare their food. However, today most of their kitchen utensils are obtained from urban areas, for instance, spoons, forks, plates, and metal cooking pots.

A typical home-cooked Kelabit meal is prepared and cooked in an open kitchen. There were no fences or barriers, and this was evident in the longhouse’s structure.

You get breakfast, lunch, and dinner with vegetables and fruits from the garden or the local market, all freshly prepared in Kelabit style. The dishes are tasty and have a great flavour. Meals are served with the famous Bario rice.

A typical meal consists of a variety of vegetable and meat dishes.

Labo Belatuh is a traditional Kelabit dish.

You can get a traditional Kelabit dish like Labo Belatuh (Smoked Meat) made with wild game like boar or deer. The meat is salted and smoked over an open fire. It is later boiled and pounded into small strips and eaten with rice.

There are chicken and river fish that are fried, curried, and cooked with soy sauce.

The vegetable dishes include taro, string beans, chayote, and bottle gourd. Dessert is normally freshly picked, sweet pineapple.

When you live in a longhouse, all the neighbours are invited ‘tepu’ to join in and eat together. Mealtime in Bario is an epitome of a close-knit community rich with raw hospitality.

Tube Zither

The Kelabit also plays the pagang (tube zither). This is made from the bamboo tube’s length closed at both ends by its natural bamboo nodes.

The strings are finely cut strips from the tube’s surface, which is still attached at either end.

The Kelabit men and women love to dress in colourful, traditional attire rich in beadwork, danced to sape music, made using a wood instrument.

Everyone, including friends and family, dances their graceful yet energetic movements. The elders showed their dancing styles while the sape player.

A Hiking Adventure Holiday

A trip to the temperate highlands is to enjoy the clean, cool mountain air. Some of the best jungle trekking in Borneo is found here, where you can hike from longhouse to longhouse through dense rainforest and across rice paddies.

A trek can last from a few hours to a few days in duration and vary from a gentle stroll to a tough jungle hike.

During one of our treks, we came across a Penan settlement, a small, nomadic tribe that often lives in the heart of the forest.

You get to traverse a variety of primary and secondary forest.

Most old trails start from the Bario range, where you hike through farming villages, rugged peaks and even to the supremely remote Kenyah, Penan and Kelabit settlements.

Adventurous Treks and Overnight Excursions

For the adventurous, the treks range from day hikes to easy overnight excursions to nearby longhouses. This is the best way to witness and experience traditional lifestyles.

If you are fit, you can even engage a local experienced guide to take you on a week-long excursion over the border into the wilds of Kalimantan.

Even with the relatively cooler temperatures of the highlands, trekking and hiking is hard work. It would be best if you were in fairly good shape to consider a multiday trek.

The best way is to plan and train before you arrive.

When you go for an adventure holiday, remember to plan your hike (with a guide) and hike plan.

One of the Kelabit Highlands activities is trekking from longhouse to longhouse through dense rainforest and across rice paddies.

A trek can last from a few hours to a few days in duration and vary from a gentle stroll to a tough jungle hike.

The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday Destination

What to prepare for?

There are many trails in the area. You must always engage a local guide to take you in and out of the rainforest.

Your guide will be able to plan and customize the best routes for you.

However, be prepared to prepare to encounter leeches.

Remember to bring extra cell-phone and camera batteries, as charging is not possible.

Hiring a Guide

The only way to explore the Kelabit Highlands is with a local guide.

The locals running the guesthouses in Bario can organize a wide variety of short walks. For longer treks, you need to hire an experienced local guide who knows the area well.

The peak tourism season is during July and August. So it is worthwhile to make arrangements with your guesthouse or guide well in advance by email or phone.

As there is a growing shortage of guides, generally, there’s no problem when it is not peak season. However, you may need to hang out and chill for a day or two in Bario if you did not book ahead.

Sometimes, the guides go on a multi-day trek and may not return for a couple of days.

What is the going rate for a guide?

For a Bario-based day trip or a longer trek, this is the going rate.

Daily rate for a guide: RM150 per day
Daily rate for a porter: RM120 a day

Some river trips or travel by 4WD will be significantly costlier.

A porter is a mandatory inclusion in case a lead guide gets injured or sick.

If you want to share a guide’s cost, you can link up with other travellers in Bario.

Staying in Long Houses

A night’s sleep plus three meals: RM90 per person per day

The tribes who live in the longhouses are generally poor. Although gifts are not obligatory, these are welcomed.

If they serve you tea or coffee, generally offer RM15 to cover the costs.

Camping in the Rainforest

You will need to bring along gear f for jungle camping. These are not available for purchase in Bario so remember to bring your own.

You can check with Bario Asal Longhouse to rent the equipment if it is available.

For camping equipment, you will need either

  • a sleeping bag
  • hammock with mosquito net
  • bedroll

For camping, it is approximately RM120 per night.

You will be asked to supply food prepared and cooked for both you and your guide when you stay in a longhouse.

Trekking in One Direction Only

If you’re trekking in one direction only (either Bario to Ba Kelalan or Ba Kelalan to Bario), you will need to hire a guide and a porter.

It is a two-day trek to and fro, so you will need to hire a porter so that the guide does not have to spend a night alone in the forest.

Travel Tips: For hikes that go deep into the jungle, guides are often recommended. You must not do it by yourself and wander off into the rainforest.

Bario Salt Springs

One of the fascinating jungle industries of the Kelabit people is extracting salt from the salt springs. The Sarawak Highland spring salt produced here is well known for its high mineral content.

We went with a local, certified nature guide, who took us along the Bario logging road to enter the forest for a trek to a natural salt spring.

Lubang Garam Pa Umor

Lubang Garam Pa Umor is one of the best-known Bario salt springs, which produce the highly sought natural mineral content salt.

Salt extraction is simple. The drawn spring water is boiled in a big pot over firewood. After the water evaporates, the residue salt is then inserted into bamboo pipes. These are burned over a fire for 24 hours to harden the salt.
The hardened salt cylinders are wrapped with big leaves. It is secured with rattan strips to keep it dry for transportation.

Kelabit or Bario Salt Production

The Kelabit also produced their salt called the Kelabit or Bario salt. This salt is obtained by evaporating salty water from salt springs, which are found in the highlands.

The salty water is boiled until all the water is evaporated, leaving the salt at the bottom of the “kawang” (big cooking utensil). The remaining water is completely dripped from the salt before it was put in bamboo pipes to be burnt in the fire.

This is to harden the salt, which is later wrapped in big leaves to be kept in dry and safe places. The salt is used in cooking and also to preserve meat.

The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday Destination

Megaliths near Bario

The mysterious Kelabit megalith markers hidden deep in the jungle around Bario are viewed as spiritually significant. This is one of more than 300 cultural sites.

The Lun Bawang community refers to these megaliths associated with the legendary giant called Upai Semaring, a legendary warrior who left carvings and marks on several rocks in different areas.

Batu Narit in Pa’ Umor

Batu Narit in Pa’ Umor is a large rock in the middle of a field with a human figure’s carving with arms stretching outwards.

The Cultured Rainforest Project, a series of major research projects to investigate how the area’s people interact with the rainforest, began on 1 April 2007.

The Cultured Rainforest Project

Bario to Ba Kelalan Trek

For a good overview of the Kelabit Highlands, take the three- to four-day trek from Bario to Ba Kelalan covers various terrains.

The first day is an easy walk from Bario to Pa’ Lungan. The path follows an open trail for an hour and then continues through the jungle along what used to be the only route between the two villages.

If you don’t want to hike, other options for linking Bario to Pa’ Lungan are

  • a boat ride combined with a one-hour hike
  • a bumpy 90 mins 4WD journey

Gunung Murud

Sarawak’s highest mountain (2423m) is part of 598-sq-km Pulong Tau National Park and is linked by trails with Ba Kelalan and Bario.

This is a difficult trail and is an adventure for the test of the fittest.

Since 1985, evangelical Christians in the area have made annual pilgrimages up the mountain for prayer meetings.

Other Activities

  • Bario tour by 4 x 4 wheel drive around all the Longhouses like Bario, Pa’rampur upper and lower, Pa’ukat longhouses.
  • Visit the Bario Adan rice fields, which are rated as the world best and finest rice.
  • Visit Bario museum
  • Learn Kelabit bukus rice, cook organic dishes, sanapeh kueh, etc.

The Kelabit Highlands - Sarawak Holiday DestinationOn our last night in Bario, we had a traditional dinner at the Ulung Palang Longhouse. Once the bowls of local asparagus with dried fish, river fern, chives, tapioca leaf, sambal, chicken steamed in ginger leaves, and porridge with dried mustard.

The Kelabit of the Kelabit Highlands 

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