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.
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.