The Kelabit Highlands form an utterly spellbinding mountain range in the northernmost part of Sarawak, here you will find miles upon miles of rolling hills and virgin jungle that’s home to 14 villages, and remote longhouses.
Bario is the central ‘town’ and hub for the Highlands, and you can do a number of both daytime and multi-day treks from here, including the very popular overnight homestay at Pa’Lungan (visiting the villages of Pa’Umor and Pa’Ukat en route).
The Highlands are home to just under 7000 Kelabit people – all incredibly friendly and who all appear to know each other – no matter how far away the next village. If you stick around, you’ll be on first-name terms with virtually all of the locals within days.
The village councillor, the broadcaster for the town radio station, teachers, grandmothers, children…everyone whiles away at least a portion of their daily life at the central market (which is a lot smaller than it sounds – I walked past it twice whilst trying to locate it!)
Before long, you’ll have had at least one invite to dinner – perhaps even after you’ve caught it together after a day’s fishing, or even a night’s wild-boar hunting – and at any rate, you’ll almost certainly be asked to attend the Church service on Sundays (the Kelabit are for the most part all devout Christians).
Read our article: Where tradition and globalisation meet – The Kelabit Highlands, Borneo.
There are no roads around the Highlands. If you want to visit a village, you need to do as the locals do…and walk. There is also a logging road which 4WDs can use – but beware! The roads are long…and the journey is very bumpy.
A great time to visit is July when the annual Bario Food Festival takes place. Founded initially as partly a good excuse for all the villages to come together, it has since become a full three-day celebration of food, farming and forest heritage.
Where to Stay in The Kelabit Highlands
You can choose from a number of home-stays in Bario, all of which are clean, comfortable, very homely, and with the price (generally) including full board (breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Virtually wherever you stay, you will be able to get information on treks, tours, guides, and homestays in other villages, and you can expect a warm welcome everywhere. We particularly recommend:
Bariew Backpacker Lodge: One of the pillars of the community, lodge owner Reddish is a quirky fellow who makes it his mission to ensure you get the most out of your stay here, and whose knowledge on the Highlands and the jungle is pretty much second-to-none.
A short walk from the central market of Bario (where you will also be able to get internet access), Bariew Backpacker Lodge has a number of very large dorms, some private rooms, a large, comfortable communal area and an adjoining dining room.
Most interestingly, the house next door has a tame Hornbill that can frequently be found hanging out on the electricity cable or hopping about along the pavement!
Things to do in The Kelabit Highlands
Hike up Prayer Mountain in Bario: It takes an hour to walk to the base, and another hour to reach the summit. Ropes are in place at the particularly steep parts. This is particularly recommended for either sunrise or sunset!
Visit Bario Asal Longhouse: The most interesting thing about longhouses is that you can actually just…well…walk through – past dwellers cooking on their fires and peeking their heads around the adjoining walls to gossip with their neighbours. Fascinating.
The overnight trek to Pa’Lungan via Pa’ Umor and Pa’ Ukat.
Do the Bario Loop: Depending on your time/fitness levels/penchant for jungle trekking, you can stretch this out for up to 9 days (and probably more), staying in various longhouses and homestays en route at Pa’ Delih and Pa’ Mada.
If you want to do a multi-day trek but don’t want to loop back into Bario, you might also consider the 3-day trip to Pa’ Kelalan via Pa’ Lungan, where you can fly out of the Highlands with MASwings.
A visit to the Penan settlement: One of the last existing nomadic people in the world), the settlement here is an hour or so walk from Bario right into the forest.
You can also do a day-trip to the Salt Springs, visit waterfalls (in a bid to spot gibbons and monkeys), and the twin peaks of Batu Lawi. These rise majestically over the surrounding jungle and are said to be home to the Sumatran Rhinoceros as well as the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.
MASwings operates a service in an exciting 16-seat otter plan from Miri. The seats book up fast, so don’t hesitate if you really want to get here. There’s also a logging road from Miri, but the 300km journey can take up to 16 hours!
By Karen Farini