Bario – the land of a hundred handshakes

A little-known remote inland region that “ticks-off all the boxes”

Penghulu Robertson, village chief of Bario (pronounced Bariew), holds out his hand to strangers at the tiny aerodrome as the passengers prepare to board a MAS Wings Twin Otter back to the coast – one of two flights a day. The airport is the main entry point for all travellers, unless they are keen on taking a 12-14 hour slipping-and-sliding bone-shaking 4-wheel drive epic from Miri on the coast.

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Sunset over the Bario countryside

“How have you enjoyed this place?”, the chief inquires, with a warm, genuine smile. And of course, the handshake. If Bario is described by those who have visited as the “land of a hundred handshakes”, it is not without reason. In a day, the visitor will shake dozens of hands, be greeted with an equal number of smiles, and will be treated to a broad range of local “bush caught and grown” dishes. This place thus singularly “ticks off all the boxes” of Sarawak Tourism Board’s promotional themes of culture, adventure, nature, food and festivals.

In past years, a large number of research projects around the world have pointed to the fact that savvy travellers more and more are looking for what could be termed“immersive” experiences, where they meld into a local community, becoming as one with its people, rather than just being observers. Bario, through its remoteness, and the fact there are no hotels – just longhouses – puts one fairly and squarely in the picture as part of the local experience. Added to this is the fact that the “official” welcome ceremony for visitors by the Kelabit people involves the visitor participating, albeit awkwardly, with an occasional giggle, in dance and games with the locals. It means one is not an observer, but is accepted as a friend or “part of the family”.

Lying at an altitude of over 1,100m, in the north-eastern corner of Sarawak, Bario, once known as the “most remote village in the British Empire”, is home to the Kelabit people, one of the minority Orang Ulu tribes of Sarawak (formerly fierce head- hunters), and its name means “wind” in their language.

It is the starting point for a number of treks throughout the area (for virtually all fitness levels). One can also go kayaking or be immersed in the mystical tales of the megaliths that dot the area. For the really adventurous, Bario is either the starting or the ending point of the arduous 5 day /4 night Bario-Ba’kelalan jungle trekking adventure.

“What would you say makes Bario different?”, I asked the chief.

“Of course, there is the Bario rice, then there is the pineapple. It grows all over Borneo, but it’s not as sweet as in Bario. Maybe it’s because of the climate, or maybe the altitude. Another thing that is different here is the weather, which is much cooler than on the coast,” he replies.

It’s hard to pin down a single “selling point” for this place. Perhaps the key differentiator is the fact that there are so many points – all important.

The homestays provide lodging and full board, with meals quite often consisting of organic Bario highland rice, wild boar or venison, and jungle plants, topped off with local pineapple. All organic of course.

Photo: Penghulu Robertson, village chief of Bario

The Megaliths of the Bario highlands

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Batu Ritang Megalith

The region is dotted with massive man-made stone structures known as megaliths. Perhaps the best known is the Ritong stone, or Batu Ritong, at Pa Lungan, a little under an hour by 4-wheel-drive from Bario town. It is thought to be a burial ground for a Kelabit nobleman named Ritong dating from hundreds of years ago. The site was excavated in 1962 by British soldier Tom Harrison, and originally, the structure was standing straight upright. However, over the years, Batu Ritong has tilted, and is now at a 45° angle.

 

Pesta Nukenen an ethnic “slow food” festival unlike any other

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Preparing “Nubag Layag” during Pesta Nukenen

Founded in 2005, the Bario Food and Cultural Festival, or “Pesta Nukenen” is one of the most exceptional ethnic food festivals in Malaysia.

The three-day annual Nukenen Festival, generally held in the month of July, celebrates the unique food, farming, forest and cultural heritage of the Bario Highlands, with visitors enjoying delicious organic food cooked by the various longhouse communities of the Kelabit Highlands.

Local dishes include “Nubag Layag” – sticky Bario rice wrapped in a leaf called an “Isit”. Even up until today, this is the standard food local farmers carry with them as snacks when working in the fields. Another “must have” is the “Pucuk Ubek”, a fine concoction of pounded tapioca leaves. And don’t miss the “Urum Ubek”, or glutinous rice fritters.

As space is very limited on flights to Bario, it is recommended to organise visits to Bario well ahead of time via local DMCs who are able to coordinate transport and accommodation.