The Kelabit Highlands, Borneo: Where Tradition and Globalization Meet

Strapped in a tiny seat, in a tiny Twin Otter with 15 other passengers, the wind is pushing and pulling us along manically; there are dips and surges and mini-turbulences. Never before have I been so aware of the power of the elements. The man sitting next to me gives me a nudge. “Not nervous, are you?” But as my gaze falls, almost hypnotized, through the clear blue skies to scan the endless miles of Sarawak Borneo’s dense tropical jungle, I’m thinking that if ever there was a time to leave the world, then I think I might be ok with this. It’s quite the paradox, isn’t it? That it’s when you feel the most alive that you’re least afraid of death?

I was travelling from Miri, the second largest city in the state of Sarawak, to Bario, in the Kelabit Highlands, at the very far northeast of the state, near the border of Kalimantan, Indonesia; 3,280 feet above sea level. There was another way of arriving, but it involved up to 16 hours in a 4-wheel truck from Miri via logging road. On paper, this sounds fairly hardcore, but it was a journey I’d tried my utmost to make just the week before, which would have got me there in time for the Pesta Nukemen Food Festival. A three day celebration of local and traditional foods, interwoven with the Kelabit culture, community and identity, it sounded captivating, and I’d been determined to be a part of it. But the planes had all been full – and so, it soon transpired, were the trucks. What, all of them?

As a Westerner used to event organisers laying on extra transport to crowd in as many tourists as possible, I’d found this almost impossible to comprehend. Hey, but I’m a journalist? … No score. But the spellbinding images of the remote Kelabit Highlands had already captured me far beyond the point of shrugging my shoulders and going someplace else. This isolated region in Borneo was insistent in drawing me in, regardless of the fact that even if I took the first plane I could, I’d still be missing that festival. I got on it anyway.

One silly statement still worth observing: You don’t ‘end up’ in Bario. There’s no ‘finding yourself here’. You’ll only come if that was your intention in the first place. Not only is it hard to get to, it’s not even on the way anywhere else. Ok, you can do numerous multi-day trekking forays through virgin rainforest from village to village, staying in the jungle, homestays or traditional longhouses en route. If you’re feeling very adventurous, you can even plump for a trek that can take up to nine days to complete, leading you all around the Highlands, and finishing up in a village in the northern tip, Ba Kelalan.

From there, you can take a flight in another Twin Otter to Lawas (just 200 km from Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Malaysian Borneo’s other state, Sabah). But the point is, the only way out of the Kelabit Highlands is pretty much the way you come in. Once you’re here, you’re here. But, where the hell is ‘here’? Quoting one of the friends I meet on my ride from the airport – an infectious free spirit called Debbie from New York (she is driving around with Reddish, the owner of the homestay I’ve booked with)  – ‘where… am I?!’ Because, how do you describe Bario? The main entry point to the Highlands? The ‘central’ village?  The ‘hub’? In any case, the word ‘capital’ can only be applied as a joke.

As Reddish, Debbie and I drive the short distance to the homestay, I am silenced by the landscape. Mountain ranges, rolling hills, sun setting on the rice paddies. Reddish points me in the direction of the central marketplace. I’m told this is where the villagers congregate: to eat, to socialize. It’s the only place you can get internet connection, and just on the far side, on the corner, I’ll find the local Bario radio station. Which of course I do. (Eventually.)

It’s so tiny I walk past it three times, only realizing my mistake when, whichever direction I take beyond it leads me to a never-ending path, its tarmac almost melting in the blazing sun; curtained by greenery and shrouded by mountains. No end in sight. The middle of nowhere. Within 24 hours, I am on first-name terms with virtually all the locals. These include John Tarawes, the village councillor, and Lucy, an ex-schoolteacher and owner of a beautiful old longhouse that is being refurbished as a homestay. I am also on first-name terms with the other travellers here – which is none too difficult, as there are only a handful of us around.

There’s Debbie; there’s Owen, a guy in his early twenties who’s come to study the Kelabit language as a possible topic for his PHD; there’s Rob, who is travelling the world on his massive motorbike and has been here for weeks on end since there appears to be a problem with it that neither he nor anyone else appear to know how to sort out – or even seem particularly inclined to in the first place… I can see how you might get stuck here.

Life is effortless, and the Kelabit people are all so warm. Their hospitality is a far cry from the fearsome reputation they yielded less than a century ago. Along with the majority of other indigenous tribes in Sarawak, the Kelabit were headhunters. They took the heads of their rivals after killing them, and preserved them – and some say, just for the sake of prestige, although other reports suggest that this was more of a custom attributed to the beliefs of animism. And of these customs, of course, there were many more, including those linked to aesthetics, and style. Earlobes that stretched, weighed down by huge brass earrings till they reached one’s shoulders; those incredibly intricate tattoos on women’s forearms and lower legs that signified beauty and, more practically, that they had come of age to marry.

I don’t know what I’m expecting in 2012, but I’ll admit I’m surprised at just how little of these customs seem to remain. Still, the Bario Asal longhouse enchants me: the way you can just walk in freely, first through the long hallway, its walls covered by official family photographs, then round the corner to the other side, where, again, you can walk the length of it, watching families prepare their food in their little kitchens, separated by a thin piece of wood, maybe, or perhaps just a piece of furniture. Leading off from each individual section are the private quarters, to which of course we are not granted entry. But the flickering fires burning from each family’s kitchen and the clinking of pots and pans all pique my imagination, even if the place seems emptier than I think it should be.

As I pass some members of the older generations, I notice the blunt snip where their long earlobes have been cut. Nothing stays the same forever, Reddish tells Debbie and me as we make our way outside. Richard, a local in his twenties, agrees when we catch up with him later; he being a point in case. Apparently, most of the young people born and raised in the Highlands don’t want to stay and live in longhouses with their parents anymore. They don’t want to learn about the old forest traditions, how to farm, or the secrets of self-sufficiency. They leave when they are old enough; they go away to study and, in most cases, forge great careers for themselves.

Barrio: A desolate hub in the central Kelabit Highlands. 

The Kelabit, arguably, are the most successful people of Sarawak. According to Wikipedia, they ‘include lawyers, doctors, politicians and professionals. Kelabits are high achievers, highly educated and extremely bright. In the mid-1990s, the heads of the legal departments of all the major oil companies operating in Malaysia were Kelabit… In 2001 the Bario community was named as one of the Top Seven Intelligent Communities by World Teleport Association.’

The Kelabit are also the smallest ethnic group in Sarawak, numbering less than 7000. It’s currently estimated that just 1200 are still living in the Highlands. One day, I walk to one of the closest villages, Pa Ukat, and the next day, to Pa Umor. On my way back in the scorching heat from Pa Umor, Debbie thunders by on the top of a big 4-wheel truck with Richard, and the three of us wave to each other. I pass the market, where I see Owen taking Kelabit lessons with the local Bario radio presenter. Rob is quite convincingly pretending to tinker with his bike back at the homestay, and talking about the big boar that he killed along with some of the other locals the night before; this is currently being shared amongst everyone in the village.

Later that night, Reddish invited me to the Pesta Nukenen festival debrief at John Tarawe’s house, where I tasted some of that boar, and also met one of the festival founders, Jason, from Suffolk. On my way back ‘home’, I spot what looks impossibly like a cat sitting on a thin wire about eight feet from the ground. It’s a hornbill! Less than a week ago, I was at Tanjung Datu National Park on a media tour; where, at one point, almost the full dozen of us were all scrambling around in the forest with our long lenses trying in vain to get a distant shot of one. Turning back and throwing my head back, I stop in my tracks and gawp for almost half an hour. Two kids pass me and stand alongside me, in turn gawping at the awe-struck look on my face and laughing helplessly at it.

The hornbill flies down, its wingspan bigger than I thought, and I jump as it swoops past me and lands on the 4-wheel car a mere foot or two away behind me. It calmly begins to preen its feathers. I swivel the requisite 180 and continue to stand there gawping, only breaking out of my trance when Reddish appears on his own way back from the party. He stands and laughs at me too. Old customs and ancient folklore are always replaced by the new, eventually.

The effects of globalization seep into the cracks of even the remotest of places, to alter traditions and belief systems forever, and replace them with other messages. Here’s just how isolated the Kelabit people were from the rest of the world: it wasn’t until World War II that this self-sufficient mountain range was actually discovered, by Australian Tom Harrison, leader of the British and Australian commandos, who parachuted down into it by accident one day. After that, various Kelabit settlements were used as bases during a guerrilla war against the occupying Japanese.

Shortly after this, the Kelabit people were introduced to perhaps one of the strongest, most enduring messages the world has ever known. Christianity. I have a cup of tea with Lucy one afternoon and ask her about the arrival of the missionaries in the ‘40s. Conversion hadn’t taken long. The Kelabit people are all – almost without exception – devoutly Christian. But, I wanted to know – what about the old ways? What about the traditions? What about all the ancient wisdom that’s being lost? Hasn’t Christianity taken all that away? To me, animism has always been symbolic of ancient truths that are slowly being crushed: of the wisdom of knowing when to sow your harvest, and when it’s time to reap. But – “Christianity freed us,” Lucy tells me, firmly. “Animism was filled with superstitions and suspicions. In many cases, these led to awful brutalities.”

I’m told how twin babies were seen as a bad omen and were routinely killed at birth. And, less severe, but just as destructive all the same, were all the other little omens. A bird flying in the wrong direction, for example, meant you couldn’t harvest that day, it was just too risky. It would mean bad luck, you’d just have to turn back and go home. And if that happened too many days in a row – well, then you’d miss your chance to sow what you needed for that year. And then, what?

Then there was every chance your family would starve to death, that’s what. “Back then, we believed in the power of everything around us; that everything had a spirit, and that it could affect us – either positively or negatively,” Lucy continues. “But with the message of Christianity came the understanding that we didn’t need to fear anything, not even the elements. God controls everything – the birds, the direction of the wind. All we had to do was trust in Him, and keep our faith. It made our lives easier. In many cases, it saved them.”

Lucy’s mother, now almost 94 years old, passes the table in her wheelchair. Up close, I see the incredibly intricate, decorous pattern tattooed on her arms and legs so finely, that from a distance it looks like she’s wearing stockings. She was one of the first women to create a group for all the women of the Orang Ulu people (another name for the Kelabit people – meaning ‘river tribe’). The sense of community is the one glue that has kept the connection strong amongst all the Kelabit people, despite a walking distance of up to one day from one village to the next. I’m transfixed by her tattoos, and have to apologise for staring. They must have taken ages. “Did they hurt?” I ask, via Lucy. Yes. Her earlobes have been cut too.

I’m told that most Kelabit people turned their backs on the old ways with the advent of Christianity. They were taught such customs were unclean. In fact, the notion of cleanliness was a huge gift the religion gave them. Along with those others that freed them from limiting superstitions, I’m assured such teachings would have absolutely saved lives. Countless lives. “We’ve never stopped being thankful for those missionaries,” Lucy says.

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Change: in the form of tradition and recreation.

As a traveller, it’s always so easy to want things to stay as they are. In the Kelabit Highlands, you can feel the old traditions fade, as slowly and methodically as the sun sinks behind the mountain ranges, leaving the sky a vast painting of pastel pinks and reds, and turning the entire landscape into a vision so captivatingly beautiful that it barely seems real. But, as Jason, founder of the Pesta Nukenen festival points out to me, the real, solid traditions are going nowhere.

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Jason grew up on a farm in Suffolk, and came back to Malaysia again in the 80s, leading tour groups around Sarawak and Sabah, and working in Brunei as a zoologist on research expeditions. In 2005, he came back to Bario to begin a combinatory food/art project in collaboration with Councillor John Tarawes that would soon become known as Pesta (meaning ‘festival’ in both Kelabit and Malay) Nukenen (Kelabit for ‘food’).

“The one tradition we need to conserve is how deeply the food we eat is rooted in place. When we start to lose touch with our local and traditional foods, we also begin to lose touch with our roots and identity, culture and language, community, sense of togetherness. It’s all about ‘conviviality.’”


A global movement that is integral to life force, this idea of ‘conviviality’ is linked to the slow food movement in Italy. Jason points out the Italian translation of ‘conviviality’: ‘con’ – with; viva – life. It also explains why it had been impossible for me to actually get here whilst the festival had been on the other week.

First and foremost, Pesta Nukenen is a celebration for all the villagers of the Kelabit Highlands; for their relatives living elsewhere – and then, finally, for all other guests who manage to find a seat on that tiny plane, or catch a long-haul ride on a dirt road. It’s not a promotional festival; it is one created simply for the benefit and enjoyment of those who participate.

“For three days, Bario becomes a festival site; there are stalls from each of the villages, the Penan community (the last semi-nomadic ethnic group in Borneo) have a stall; there are workshops, highland games – including one where we test the strength of young men by getting them to bend a piece of hardwood…”

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Highland games at the finest: boulder throwing.

And the link between food and art? “This became apparent to me back in Suffolk, in our farm café. We can celebrate food in the same way as we can celebrate the arts; by celebrating the root of the creation as a real identity, as a providence. In food, this comes from the seasonal, fresh wild foods produced from one’s homeland. “The celebration of Pesta Nukenen is also one of self-agency (lyuk), and knowledge, and of the core values of sense and goodness.” When I ask Jason about the professional success rate (and the subsequent migration) of the Kelabit people, Jason remarks that, perhaps because of its isolation, there has always been a strong tradition of building oneself up within the community, usually in one of two ways. Some advance educationally or professionally – which has resulted in a vast network of global connections.

“The person you pass in the shops is more than likely to have a son who is the CEO of a national company, for example.” And the second way? “By doing community work and helping one’s neighbours. Do you know that Bario’s 25 kilowatt hydroelectric power station was built by the community itself? Quite humbling.”

It’s a beautiful idea – this global – and local – connectedness in such a very remote part of the world – and I pause to fully take it in before asking my next question. But that question has to come, of course. What if everyone’s son wants to become the CEO of a national company? Says Jason, “the last two generations started to leave – that is certain. However, now we are starting to see the rekindling of a connection. Those people who left a generation or two ago – or even more recently – are starting to see the highlands as a place of opportunity and learning. They’re starting to come back.” Well, I tell him, I can understand why.

This place is beautiful… They say the only certain thing about change is that it’s constant. And, maybe like nature, could it be true to say it’s almost always cyclical? Jason is smiling. “We’re starting to see the beginnings of a homecoming,” he nods, quietly.

Karen Farini Bio Pic
Karen Farini

Karen Farini went from owning a Burlesque nightclub in London (Volupté) to running the most popular backpacker hostel on Koh Phangan! Former deputy editor at SEA Backpacker Magazine, Karen has been adventure caving in Malaysia, attended music festivals in Borneo, and interviewed tantric gurus in Thailand – all in the name of journalism!

2 thoughts on “The Kelabit Highlands, Borneo: Where Tradition and Globalization Meet”

  1. Gugkang Raja

    I am a kelabit former teacher, currently a school Inspector, from Pa Mada, another village located south of Bario. I wish to ask for your permission to publish this article in our Annual Education Excellence Award Souvenir program book this year 2014.
    Thank you very much.



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